‘The Activist Leader: A New Mindset for Doing Business’, by Jon Miller and Lucy Parker
Markets are not moral agents, nor are they inherently good or evil. But should business leaders aspire to a higher calling, while presumably also making a profit? This is the (age old) question posed by Jon Miller and Lucy Parker, in this polemic to virtuous leadership.
The answer comes in the form of a self-help guide for founders. “This isn’t a question of deciding whether or not the business should be involved in these issues, but about how,” the authors write.
Parker and Miller are business partners in the Brunswick Group, a London-based PR and communications adviser, with over a decade’s experience of working with business leaders. Miller also founded Open for Business, a coalition of companies promoting LGBT+ inclusion.
Across 390 pages they share inspiring stories, exploring the different kinds of activist leaders, and identify five archetypes: the fixer, the mobiliser, the campaigner, the pathfinder and the bridge-builder.
One of these is Peter Benenson, a so-called mobiliser who went from pinstriped London lawyer to founder of Amnesty International, after reading a newspaper story of two Portuguese students jailed for raising a toast to liberty. Another is Muhammad Yunus, a pathfinder, who popularised microcredit to help alleviate the poverty that surrounded him in his native Bangladesh when the banks would do nothing to help.
The activist leader is contrasted with the “corporate mindset”, which constrains innovative risk-taking in general. The authors also make clear that they are not writing about activist investors, which have become a high-profile element of the corporate landscape in recent years.
The argument that business can be a force for good is not new, although it is still debatable whether this should be the key driver for entrepreneurs. It also begs the question of who really goes into business to do bad things, even if that does end up being the case for some.
This book seeks to inspire a higher calling for business heads, whether in the early stages of their career or those seeking to be chief executives of established corporations. An entrepreneurial brain is required — as well as sound ethics.
‘Wrong Fit, Right Fit: Why How We Work Matters More Than Ever’, by Andre Martin
With companies searching for talent, workers looking for a place to thrive, and both struggling to do either, now is a challenging time in the workplace. So it is no surprise that companies are eager to find a silver bullet to the crisis of commitment they face.
In Wrong Fit, Right Fit, organisational psychologist André Martin sheds light on this subject and provides a practical guideline for greater employee satisfaction, team productivity and achieving a deep and authentic connection to how a company works day to day — the basis for his definition of “right fit”.
This is one of those books that readers can return to again and again: it is designed to speak directly to people at different stages of their careers. You might read it as you search for your first role in your first company. Later, you might pick it up again as team leader, or even CEO.
Chapters are complemented with real stories, in-depth exercises, questions and takeaways that can help employees find the right fit and companies to create it. Questions are pointed and provocative. How can employees tell when joining an organisation is akin to selling out? How can employers use transitions to re-recruit talent to the company they have now, as opposed to the one they were in the past?
Finding the right fit can be arduous. But this hands-on manual has good tips on how to increase the value of work for ourselves and our organisations — and promises a real chance to create workspaces that are happier places with more energy and harmony.
‘Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot’, by Matt Abrahams
“If you were an onion and I peeled back the first three layers, what would I find?” This was a question put to communication expert Matt Abrahams in a final interview with a CEO. He had no clue what to say.
It’s a good example of how we can be left searching for words in spontaneous situations, particularly at work — in meetings, presentations or interviews. According to Abrahams, research has found that Americans fear public speaking more than bugs, needles, and even zombies or ghosts. But he writes that impromptu speaking can terrify people even more, due to less preparation time or no script.
Abrahams says that often, people presume the ability to improvise comes down to personality, or an innate quick-wittedness. But he is adamant that this is not the case. Instead, he offers a six-point plan to help people conquer their fear of spontaneous chat.
Based on decades of experience, including as a lecturer in organisational behaviour at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, the book is split into two parts. The first goes through Abrahams’ six steps: these include managing anxiety and creating a personalised anxiety management plan; reflecting on your approach to communication; focusing on the audience, and thinking about the essence of what you’re saying.
Part two moves on to application, providing examples of situations where the techniques can be applied. These include giving feedback effectively and performing well in interviews. Abrahams also offers his strategies for entrepreneurs to confidently pitch to investors and even master making apologies.
The book offers regular practical exercises, encouraging the reader to try to hone their “spontaneous communication” prowess. However, like anything we wish to master, becoming adept at spontaneous communication takes patience, commitment and, ironically, preparation.
“All of us can become strong speakers in the moment if we put in the time, learn to break old habits, and exercise more deliberate choices”, he writes. “Paradoxically, we have to prepare in advance to do well in spontaneous situations, working hard on skills that we know will free us up to bring out our ideas.”
‘Revolting Women: Why mid-life women are walking out, and what to do about it’, by Lucy Ryan
When she approached universities with a proposal for a PhD on middle-aged professional women, leadership coach Lucy Ryan was knocked back time and again. There wasn’t, she was told, “enough of an audience”, and the idea was “unpublishable”. The research, now released as Revolting Women, only saw the light of day after Dorothy Byrne, a former broadcaster turned president of Cambridge’s all-women Murray Edwards College, “knocked down doors” to make it happen.
The story is a striking example of the problems the book examines: the disdain and dismissiveness with which older women are treated in the workforce. This, it convincingly argues, is driving them away from positions of power and influence at the time when they should be doing their most impactful work.
The book is addressed to employers who have the power to stop ageing talent draining away, and also at “revolting women” themselves — “not in decline . . . but right on the cusp of the next chapter”.
Ryan says her aim is to replace black and white narratives with nuance, and she does so with richly-reported accounts of experiences from workplace discrimination to caring for unwell parents. That field reporting is combined with enjoyable — though equally rage-inducing — sweeps through the history of mid-life femininity.
There is a personal feel to this reporting, and it is invigorating and refreshing to read about the lives of older women in a way that illuminates the turmoil, struggle and revelation of mid-life. It also serves as a reminder of how neglected these stories have been in the past.
The book ends with a positive agenda for change, urging employers to “find out, show it matters, act”, and women to challenge the system. Like the rest of the book, the sign-off is a call-to-arms for the world to recognise the creativity, energy and wisdom of middle aged women — and an optimistic signal that it is perhaps beginning to take notice already.