Here are the big lessons I have learnt from the four books that have been most influential to me in my career in business.
1. Being nice is the best approach to business.
I began my business career with a hang-up that business is a selfish game and that success has to be at the expense or failure of someone else. I believed that people who had succeeded in business had all done so by trampling on others on their way up. I don’t know where this belief came from and I feel kinda embarrassed about it now, but it wasn’t until I read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People back in 2002 that I finally got it. Being nice pays. This book spawned so many business clichés like ‘WIN/WIN‘ and ‘Synergize‘ but a cliché is only a cliché when it has been so over-used that it loses its original meaning, and this book looks deeply at what it means to be a good and principled person. It’s as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1989. Sounds quaint? Perhaps when a company like Google has a guiding principle of ‘You can make money without being evil’ then perhaps this is still a lesson that many in business still need to learn.
2. Giving power to the people is the ultimate business strategy.
In 2003 when Will left a print-out of this article from Inc magazine on my desk with the words ‘Fucking amazing – READ THIS’ emblazoned on it, I was about to discover the concept of organisational democracy – giving power and freedom to the people in a company instead of controlling them from the top-down. It wasn’t long before we both read Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick – a story about changing Semco, a medium-sized command-and-control company into a large, democratic powerhouse. We implemented many ideas from Semco as we built NixonMcInnes like having open seats for ordinary employees to attend board meetings, voting on company decisions and open book accounting so there are no secrets around anything money-related. Fast forward a decade and organisational democracy is still generally seen as quite extreme, yet more companies are finding democracy is the key to unlocking the potential of their people to drive the entire business forward.
3. The current capitalist system is fundamentally unfit for purpose and doomed. But there is a better way.
In the mid-naughties, I began following economist Umair Haque’s blog. What I will always remember from this time were his posts about the coming economic crisis. He called it the Macropalypse – the collapse of the global macroeconomic system. This was way before mainstream media and most politicians picked up on the crisis and in fact many didn’t see what was inevitable until it actually happened in late 2008. Haque still argues today that the crisis was systemic, not just cyclical and that we have not fixed the underlying causes of failure, merely propped up our failing institutions and systems through enormous debt provided by ordinary people. His thinking is laid out in his book The New Capitalist Manifesto which not only explains the causes of the problem, but sets out a wonderful and optimistic future of a better and sustainable capitalist system, using examples from large companies today like Walmart and Nike who have a very long way to go, but are starting to work towards this future in exciting new ways.
4. Employee ownership is the logical conclusion of democratic business.
When I read David Erdal’s Beyond the Corporation recently I had a sudden realisation that most democratic companies, whilst giving a lot of freedom and power to their people, are actually benevolent dictatorships. This is because the people’s freedom and power is not enshrined as enduring, inalienable rights, as they might be in a country with a democratic constitution. This means that the owners of a business still hold all of the ultimate power and can change the rules of the game on a whim, or sell out to new owners who can revoke their rights. The current situation is deeply engrained in our current economic system where there are business owners who have all of the rights and control, and then employees who are merely rented like machinery in return for a salary, with very few rights. Most of us accept this as ‘the way things are’ but there is no reason why the current system must endure forever, and with employee-owned businesses like John Lewis, Arup, Carl Zeiss and the Mondragon Network offering evidence of the power and success of employee-ownership I believe that this is the future of mainstream business. In fact I have a hunch that it could be a sweetspot between the socialist ideals of a very fair society with workers ‘controlling the means of production’ and capitalism’s promise of innovative, free trade without the need for a large clunky state.
So that’s my list. What are the books that have given you your big lessons in business?