In 1984 I went to Cardiff University essentially to play rugby. It was fun, and I was passionate and lucky enough to captain the 1st XV in my final year. I am however ashamed to say it was possible then to get an Honours degree in Applied Psychology without reading very much at all. Once I'd graduated from Cardiff, and after a few years of meandering around in dull and poorly run businesses, I decided to go to Southampton University to do my MBA; and that effectively kick started a lifelong love of learning and of reading. I’d have a bookshelf in every room in the house if I could. My favourite authors are William Boyd and Thomas Hardy.
I used to devour business books, boringly so, though now I realise most are really badly written, often repeating themselves. They usually lack storytelling capability so now I just skim them. I call it my ‘management by magazine’ approach; if each book allows me to grab a few new ideas, or understand a different perspective or approach, then great. I try and devour 3-4 books a week, to get the basics and see if I can assimilate parts of their thinking into the business. Occasionally I find an amazing book and then I’ll read each and every word.
Here are my favourites.....
1. Small giants by Bo Burlingham
Despite 20 years of working in Silicon Valley tech business and .com start ups, I don’t always always subscribe to the current in vogue concepts of raising money on a hype, celebrating the raising of money (which is in fact just debt), failing fast, pivoting and then cashing out your unicorn ASAP. Bo Burlingham’s book provides a refreshing alternative to this approach, detailing how some entrepreneurs want to be brilliant, but still stay small and focused. It isn’t about making fast money, it is about being the best you can be with solid values underpinning all decisions. Such has been the impact on me, we have adopted this approach at Clevertouch, and one of our core values is to focus on ‘reputation over revenue’.
A corollary to this approach is 'The Monk and the Riddle: The art of creating a life while making a life' by Randy Kosimar. Ironically the author of this book is a VC himself, and whilst the story line is a little trite, the essence of the book is about ‘the journey not the destination’, doing what you love, and seeing a problem with the aim of making it better, whereas the single pursuit of profit just doesn’t work. I used to give this book to all new employees at Clevertouch, I think they just thought I was weird.
If you'd like to read these books, you can find them here: "Small Giants" - "The Monk and Riddle"
2. The Chocolate Wars by Diane Cadbury
You’ll probably recognise the eponymous name - this is a brilliant social history of the 19th century entrepreneurs, many of whom, like Cadbury, were founded by Quakers who had no option but to create their own businesses. I mean no option because they could not pursue careers in the services or police because they were pacifists, and in their time they weren’t allowed to be MPs and were barred from Oxbridge and therefore a career in teaching. These Quaker’s founded business such as Fry’s of Bristol, Bryant and May, and Barclays Bank. Their values and purposeful based businesses create a fabulous foil for today’s businesses. That good businesses with a social conscience do better than those that only pursue profit. The book is an amazing journey and the last chapter or two showcase exactly why the single minded pursuit of profits and maximising shareholder value is no longer relevant or sustainable.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: The Chocolate Wars.
3. The Joy of Work, by Bruce Daisley
Some common sense, a bit of psychology, and a lot of research. This is a really well researched book that provides strategies and ideas for the modern workplace. If you are a CEO then many of these approaches could easily be adopted to drive culture and a love of work. Equally, as an employee I’d be looking for organisations that talk Bruce Daisley’s interesting and a little quirky talk.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: The Joy of Work.
4. Legacy, by James Kerr
What the all blacks can teach us about the business of life. This was recommended to me by a fellow CEO and rugby fan. I was cynical at first - I love rugby, but being born in Australia, there is only so much hype around their success I can stomach. Having said that, it it is a really well researched book and very much based on core values, hard work and the mantra ‘that better people make better all blacks’.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: Legacy.
5. Digital Body Language, by Steve Woods
Steve was the founder and CTO of Eloqua, a marketing technology firm that pioneered the space of Marketing Automation and was subsequently acquired by Oracle for a sum north of $800m. The concept of digital body language is that the modern buyer is digitally self-educated and is looking for a knowledgeable potential provider to help them make the consideration set of just a few brands before engaging with the sales organisation. This book was so powerful that it literally reinvented the traditional sales, marketing and buyer relationship.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: Digital Body Language.
A fabulous supporting book, albeit from a slightly different perspective, is The Challenger Sale; How to take control of the customer conversation, by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson. These guys came up with the research that suggested that 2/3rd of the buying process happens digitally and at a distance before the organisation is even remotely aware. Whilst the metrics might be different from industry to industry, the business model makes sense. The days of the relationship salesperson are over, and this is again another book to turn the traditional world of sales and marketing upside down; both these books are digital transformation in action.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: The Challenger Sale.
In terms of business biographies, 4 stand out...
- Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight. I simply loved this book. As biographies go, it was so open and raw, and an amazing story. Some of the business ethics on both sides were a little questionable, but fair play to Phil Knight for being so open about it. His love of running, interest in athletes (and brand association) and ability to think really big is evident throughout.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: Shoe Dog.
- Let My People Go Surfing, by Yves Chouinard, Yves is the founder of Patagonia, a brand I greatly admire not least for their ability to balance the irony of clothing and apparel production with the environmental need for sustainability. Another example of an accidental CEO doing what he loved first and foremost, climbing. He also showed great entrepreneurial skills when an opportunity was presented directly in front of him and he seized it: When climbing in Scotland he discovered the local climbers wore rugby shirts, heavy duty and colourful, and that these were so much better than anything back in North America, and that was the start of Patagonia.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: Let My People Go Surfing.
- Winners Dream, by Bill McDermott. This is just a great and very open biography of someone who, with drive, energy and ambition, rose from running the corner store to running the corner office of a global organisation. Bill is open, humble, hard-working and extremely successful. Whilst an old school Executive, he restored and transformed SAP, the most traditional of German companies, albeit in the tech sector, back into a winning growth organisation again, and along the way he became one of the most admired and popular CEOs with his employees.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: Winners Dream.
- Hit Refresh, by Satya Nadella. Only the third CEO in the history of Microsoft, Satya sought to update the vision and purpose of the business that had already achieved ‘the Microcomputer on every desk in every household’ and had since become a culture on inward fighting and corporate turf wars. The lovely thing about Satya is his humility, his love of cricket and teamwork, his emphasis on an open mindset, as championed by Dr Carol Dweck, and the way he has developed a sense of purpose and higher calling for the people in the company he leads. Little wonder that Microsoft is now the coolest (and probably the most honourable) company in the Tech space and much has to be attributed to Satya’s leadership.
If you'd like to read this book, you can find it here: Hit Refresh.
Following his MBA, Adam’s technology career started at IBM. He has since worked in various Fortune 500 tech firms and a few VC backed start-ups too before founding Clevertouch, the UK's most respected specialist Martech Consultancy and Software provider, and a Sunday Times top 100 best company to work for.