Amazon is now such a revered behemoth that two former senior employees have been able to write a book — and set up a consultancy of the same name — offering advice on how to run business the Amazon way, or “Being Amazonian”. This guide also serves as an interesting early history of the company.
Some of the key features of Amazon’s culture are well known: PowerPoint is banned, and important meetings start with everyone spending about 20 minutes in silence reading memos that outline plans and ideas. As Jeff Bezos says: “The narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.” PowerPoint presentations, on the other hand, “somehow give permission to gloss over ideas”.
Other useful concepts include the “bar raiser” approach to hiring — in which a cohort of staff members is trained to take part in the recruitment process. Regardless of which department is hiring, bar raisers ensure all hires are made for the right reasons, that hiring managers’ biases are minimised — and that the interview process is focused on specific questions that draw out their past experience and strengths in teamwork. Bar raisers do not receive extra pay for doing this, but it is considered a prestige position.
There are candid snapshots of Jeff Bezos at work (one of the authors, Bryar, was Bezos’s chief of staff at one point). Bryar and Carr are candid about Amazon’s failures, and students of mistakes — and what we can learn from them — will be of interest. The Fire phone, in particular, was a swift flop, but the Kindle, Amazon Prime and Amazon Web Services triumphed. Rather like a potted business school case study, this book gives us the story as it developed at the time — and that is probably worth the cover price of the book in itself.
Lots of people are name-checked, and almost all of them are men: there’s probably another book to be written about how that culture has affected Amazon’s development.
One thing strikes the reader, though: why are former employees allowed to do this? Why doesn’t Amazon itself set up a consultancy and profit from distilling and disseminating its own management practices? Perhaps nobody has yet written the right six-page memo.
Joann Lublin’s third book came out of her own experiences as a high-powered mother. When her children were very young she was made second-in-command of the London bureau of the Wall Street Journal.
As her upward career trajectory continued she encountered a “persistent tug of war” between her job and family commitments and in this book she explores how in the US the female high-flyers of Generation X (those born between around 1964 and 1985) did things differently to the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).
Lublin defines “power moms” as “experienced female business executives with successful careers and children” and over the course of a year — speaking to 86 women — she discovered a cultural shift between the two.
Today’s executive women, Lublin writes, are more aggressive in pursuit of their career goals and manage work/life conflicts “with far more aplomb and dexterity than I had expected”.
The book’s approach is to really draw out the human and — at times — emotional stories, including fertility issues and miscarriages: experiences that baby-boomer high-flyers in particular would not reveal to their mostly male colleagues. Lublin adds further context by weaving into the book research, stats and other relevant commentary.
The chapters offer insights on challenges such as dual-career clashes, unequal domestic duties and expectations of being “always on”.
While things have improved, Lublin’s book shows there is still much to be done for all working parents. She is disappointed that high-powered mothers still lead stressful lives. Nor have they entirely overcome “working-mother” guilt because gender role expectations in American society today “still haven’t evolved enough”.
Entrepreneur Jan Cavelle has written a book of anecdotes and tips from fellow founders that chart the complex process of building high-growth businesses. Scale for Success is part-biography, part-guide for others eager to do it for themselves. Each of the 30 start-up stories offers insights into a different element of turning an idea into a commercial venture, from preparing the business strategy and raising the necessary funds, to developing corporate culture and protecting your digital reputation. It both inspires and exposes the challenge of making it big.
Cavelle also speaks from her own experience, and with frankly refreshing honesty, admitting that as a serial entrepreneur she had one huge success, which she nurtured into a multimillion-pound operation but was then unable to sustain that growth.
The personal accounts from other entrepreneurs come from people Cavelle has befriended through networking clubs. The interviews are helpful perhaps because Cavelle has been there herself and therefore shows an ability to draw out practical tips for specific issues that those newer to start-ups are likely to face.
Perhaps one of the most valuable pieces of advice comes at the end of this 278-page book: “Scaling a business is not for everyone . . . and never, ever do so without good reason and unless you are scale-ready.”
In a world of aggressive certitude, Adam Grant’s latest book is a refreshing mandate for humble open-mindedness.
Think Again offers a particularly powerful case for rethinking what we already know just at a moment when the US election, the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic have given us plenty of reason to do so. Some of Grant’s examples have telling topical relevance. He examines how a black musician persuades white racists to change their tune, for example, or how an expert “vaccine whisperer” gently convinces sceptics to inoculate their children.
The organisational psychologist made his name with bestsellers such as Give and Take (showing that nice guys do not in fact always finish last) and Originals. But Grant models what he recommends: a scientist’s approach to learning, in which mistakes and new evidence are used to refine and improve practice. At one point, he revisits one of his striking suggestions from Originals, that to tackle groupthink it helps to have “strong opinions, weakly held”. Grant says he has thought again and concluded from the research that it is better to show “confident humility” and communicate with uncertainty, which leads to better discussions and can enhance your credibility.
Grant is a highly rated Wharton business school professor so it makes sense that one of the aims of the book is to create communities of lifelong learners. “If you spend all of your school years being fed information and are never given the opportunity to question it, you won’t develop the tools for rethinking that you need in life,” he says. At a time when many students are locked down away from the classroom, facing uncertainty about their futures, that is not just a useful lesson; it could be a vital one.
It is a given that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Many chief executives, however, operate on a default setting of can-do optimism. Asked to revisit their failures, they naturally hesitate, unless they can depict them as way-stations on the road to inevitable glory. Hot Seat is a valuable addition, then, to a tiny sub-genre.
As Jeff Immelt, former chief executive of General Electric, puts it: “Many business books begin with a tacit promise: ‘Let me tell you how to be like me, an unmitigated success!’ Clearly, I couldn’t say that.” His 16-year tenure at the top of the storied industrial group was followed by a chaotic decline in the stock price and reputation of GE. Many accounts, including last year’s Lights Out, by two Wall Street Journal reporters, lay the blame largely at Immelt’s door.
This book tries to set the record straight. Steve Bolze, former head of GE Power, a locus for GE’s later problems, Nelson Peltz, the activist investor, and predecessor Jack Welch, who sniped publicly at Immelt’s leadership, all come in for criticism. Working with writer Amy Wallace, who also rode shotgun on Ed Catmull’s candid account of the evolution of Pixar, Creativity, Inc., Immelt also offers some frank admissions of error.
GE employees, ex-employees and investors will inevitably pick the history that best suits their narrative. But for the uncommitted, despite the excess of corporate detail and Immelt’s understandable defensiveness, Hot Seat offers much that is useful to other executives: about succession (interestingly Immelt admits that the fabled GE leadership machine did not generate a wide enough pool of internal candidates); about coping with crises; and about how to leave.
Immelt’s strong attachment to GE gives the story an affecting personal touch. His father worked there and he has a GE roundel tattooed on his left hip. In particular, his account of the final months when he was losing the confidence of the board he headed gives an illuminating insight into the twilight of a longstanding leader’s reign, when he felt, in his own words, “listless, angry, and hurt”. Plenty of chief executives who have been shown the exit before they thought their work was done will sympathise with that.
This comprehensive book is a one-stop resource for anyone wanting to understand the causes and manifestations of racism, to examine their own biases — and know what works to advance racial equity at work. It’s also a fluent, jargon-free and at times (rightly) challenging read, and has scores of footnotes. There is nothing wishy-washy here: all assertions are backed up with research and explanations, and there are many examples from Robert Livingston’s life and career. A social psychologist on the board of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he has served as a diversity consultant at many Fortune 500 companies and non-profits.
There is a lot to digest and work on, plus examples of companies getting it right over the long term — JPMorgan Chase among them. These are organisations where “diversity is not the icing on the cake — it’s the flour in the batter”.
The title of the book is just right for this moment, when many more companies are starting uncomfortable conversations around race. The chapters where Livingston gives his advice on how to go about this are invaluable in themselves (“Rule #1: Gather the Facts . . . and Make Space For The Feelings”).
You can, as a starting point, diagnose your own workplace culture on diversity by looking at everyday workplace life. “How people are treated under normal circumstances will not tell you much about the level of racial bias . . . But how quickly or severely a woman or person of colour is written off or punished for making a mistake will tell you a lot.” Livingston then gives clear step-by-step advice to make change in any organisation — and in our lives.
In the postwar years, senior civil servant Sir Ernest Gowers published Plain Words. Intended as a how-to-do-it for his civil service juniors, it became the bible for impactful writing. This book is in the same tradition.
With employees forced out of offices into spare bedrooms and garden sheds, issues can no longer be resolved with a quick question thrown across the office. Answers are demanded through bursting inboxes.
Kim Arnold, and international communication consultant and speaker, is “allergic to bad emails”. Her book is a self-help guide that anyone who has ever sent a business email might read.
Arnold takes the lowly email and reworks it, making this form of communication fit for 2021. She teaches readers how to make their messages stick, to save time and get results in the same way as Plain Words in a pre-digital age.
Like Plain Words, this book is short. Arnold guides the reader in an entertaining and memorable way. Breaking down the art of emailing into snappy chapters, she asks you to completely rethink how you churn out emails.
The problem is that we were never taught how to write emails properly. This book guides readers in overhauling stuffy techniques used to generate long-winded school essays. They do not work in a busy world in which the written word has to grip from the start.
Readers are taught how to ditch the “stiff, starchy and stuffy”, mistakenly seen as the badge of the professional. Her mission, email draughtsmanship that will get people to jump into action.
Gowers would approve.
Skip the Line is a toolbox of techniques that claims be able to change your mindset and transform how you think, work, and live, adapted to your learning pace and time available.
Altucher combines his personal story with solid — and unconventional — insights. It is a straightforward and engaging read that aims to help people to acquire the skills they need to succeed.
Chapters focus on key activities to boost your confidence, how to scale promising ideas and how to attract the attention of those around you. For example, “six-minutes networking” is an everyday exercise that will help you to be memorable to the people in your contacts list.
The book also explains the concept of building microskills. The idea is that any skill is a collection of microskills. For example, writing is not just one skill. There are various microskills you build within it: storytelling, language play and editing.
Some of the advice is just common sense, but worth repeating. This book usefully addresses how different possibilities could be developed to give us more opportunities.