Business Books: Wake up and smell the cheese
The Independent on Sunday 17th July 2005
Martin Lukes has hit a plateau careerwise after his skillsets were rejected for a top job at Sainsbury’s and, though a high-octane player and very can-do, he needs help. In Lucy Kellaway’s hilarious spoof Who Moved My Blackberry?, Martin turns to a life coach. Real-life Martin Lukes are more likely to turn to the huge number of business books packing the shelves of airport bookshops with advice on everything from self-esteem to networking.
If you doubt it, next time you travel by train look at what the suited-and-booted businessman or woman next to you is reading. Those not filling in a Sudoku grid will be filling in the blanks in their career with the aid of a business book. The title will probably contain a number and the word “secrets” alongside “success” or “wealth”. Between the pages, management consultants, successful entrepreneurs and life coaches reveal all about making it in business and life in a language understandable only to the initiated.
Theirs is a world of “viral leadership”, “surpetition”, “customer facing realities”, “re-engineering”, “kingdomality” and “work-life balance”. It is the world of soft business where Martin Lukes and David Brent find succour for their dreams of gaining an apprenticeship with Sir Alan Sugar (below). It is self-help in a suit for those who would not be seen dead buying a book about relationships, but are happy to read about confidence and networking by authors with macho credentials – Sir Clive Woodward, Sir Alex Ferguson and Donald Trump – or consultants whose New-Age insights are dressed up in tough-sounding psychobabble.
Is self-esteem your issue? Tell yourself you are terrific 20 times a day (Bill Cullen’s Golden Apple: Six Simple Steps to Success). No confidence at corporate drinks? Take a deep breath and give yourself a sharp talking to (Carole Stone’s Successful Networking). Feel guilty about the people you have sacked? Give yourself permission not to feel guilty (Perry Wood’s Secrets of the People Whisperer).
June saw the launch of so many soft business titles it’s a wonder none of them lists “become a business publisher” as the first secret of success. Leading the pack were Irish entrepreneur Bill Cullen’s Golden Apples; T Harv Eker’s Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, about how to get rich by thinking rich; Kate Mayfield and Malcolm Levene’s chick-lit careers’ guide, Ellie Hart Goes to Work; and Corinne Maier’s delightfully cynical riposte to corporate life, Hello Laziness.
Come autumn, commuters can improve their memories with Frank Felberbaum and Rachel Kranz’s The Business of Memory, the “first memory programme specifically geared to business success”, or their work-life balance with James O’ Toole’s Creating the Good Life – not a Tom and Barbara tie-in but an application of Aristotle’s wisdom to work and life. This is on top of myriad launches earlier this year lead by bestsellers The Mind Gym and Sir Alan Sugar’s TV tie-in, The Apprentice.
In truth, most fail to earn back their advances, but should one catch on, it stands to make a profit for a long time to come through continued sales, spin-offs and seminars. Predicting a hit is not easy. Who Moved My Cheese?, Dr Spencer Johnson’s allegory about change in the workplace, has sold more than 12-million copies worldwide, despite – or maybe because – it is a “simple parable” about four mice looking for cheese written in a style that would not tax most five-year-olds.
No wonder there is cynicism about the motives of authors and publishers in this field. Andrew Franklin, the straight-talking Managing Director of Profile, is scathing about the sector. “The truth is that most of the people who write about business are self-promoting pillocks,” says the publisher of Lynne Truss’s bestselling punctuation guide, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. “I think business books have a bad reputation in the same way that self-help does. They are cynically written and cynically sold and not much help to readers.”
Franklin has just launched what he claims will be the antidote to business books – Atlas Books, a series about businesses by well-respected authors, including Tim Parks on the Medicis (see review, p23). Franklin hopes it will elevate business books into the world of literature. “One of the problems with business is that it is not always treated as a serious subject for analysis. We are hoping that these will make people think about business in a different way,” Franklin adds.
Whatever Franklin thinks, demand for these books is growing. Blame it on change and increased job insecurity, says Kate Nowlan, clinical director at Counselling for Companies, part of the charity WPF which provides help for stressed workers. “Business is very, very tough. It is all about productivity,” she explains. Weakness is not admitted to in such a competitive atmosphere. “People are so isolated they buy books like this to give them solace on the train after these really driven days.”
But they are little more than emotional aspirins, she claims, offering only momentary relief. “Things like this act as a sticking plaster. They pull you together for a day or two, making you feel a little bit better, more in control, but they don’t get to the foundations of what is wrong and ultimately change things.” This is why, she adds, they are popular with men who have more hang-ups about accessing help when suffering from anxiety, stress and depression.
Epitomising the business book as DIY therapy is The Mind Gym, the product of the eponymous consultancy. The book raced to the top of bestseller lists with its mix of applied psychology and practical advice on everything from delivering bad news and dealing with your demons to creative visualisation, a favourite pastime on the self-help business circuit: think rich and you’ll become rich, say the gurus. Buyers of the book are given free passwords to access the Mind Gym website and take advantage of more detailed questionnaires that read like transcripts to therapy sessions. Nowlan is sceptical about the effectiveness of such “distance therapy”. “It is not the same as being listened to,” she says. “There is such value in being listened to and that is where the transformation really begins.”
But it is not therapy, according to Mind Gym MD, Octavius Black, it is a “mind workout”. The sector’s popularity is, he believes, less about personal transformation and more about shifting expectations among ambitious Baby Boomers. High-flyers no longer expect security at work, they expect fulfilment, not something catered for on the average corporate training programme, hence the boom in business start-ups, up 8 per cent last year to 1.8 million. “Most people want to be better, but most companies’ corporate training programmes talk about benefits to the organisation rather than the individual,” he explains. “People like what’s in the Mind Gym because it talks to them as individuals.” All 100,000 of them.
Phil Dourado, co-author of Seven Secrets of Inspired Leaders, which is tied to the Inspired Leaders Network, agrees with Black. “Talented people are voluntary workers now,” he claims. That is not a financial director’s wet dream, says Dourado, but workers’ ability to vote with their feet when unfulfilled by the day job. “Because there is a tradition of entrepreneurialism in the UK, there has been a boom in business books that help you out of a situation you don’t like, to become your own boss or to work for an organisation you find interesting,” he explains. Seven Secrets is aimed at two audiences: those who aspire and those who hire and need to retain talented staff.
The go-it-alone culture in business explains why self-esteem is central to many books on the market. It is at the heart of Golden Apples by Bill Cullen, an Irish self-made millionaire of the old work-hard win-hard school. The book follows It’s A Long Way From Penny Apples, a Frank McCourt-meets-Jack Welch memoir about growing up in the Dublin slums to become the richest man in Ireland. It offers Cullen’s recipe for achievement, which boils down to don’t waste time commuting, have five hours sleep a night and have a mam and gran who think you are terrific, something you should tell yourself every day before setting off to work.
Asked whether his prescription for success applies to those without his drive and confidence, Cullen brooks no doubts. “My book is about showing people that they are using only 10 per cent of their potential.” He adds, sounding curiously Old Testament: “We’re put on this earth to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. We are here to grow and give back.”
Cullen’s comment emphasises the giant gulf between consultants’ and entrepreneurs’ approach to writing: while the entrepreneurs give their hard-work recipe for success, consultants and motivational speakers appeal because they claim, with their help, anyone can succeed, whatever their personality, talent or energy, as long as they believe. It is inspiration for middle managers everywhere and is why the Martin Lukes and David Brents of this world lap them up.
But Martin and David should change their reading, according to Roger Parry, successful entrepreneur and ClearChannel chairman, whose own book, Enterprise, was published by Profile. “I doubt Phillip Green reads self-help books,” he notes wryly. Managers wishing to ascend the corporate heights should read books with more intellectual substance, he advises. “There is a general rule about business books that the shorter they are the better. Usually writers have one or two ideas worth reading, but they have a tendency to spin that out to the nth degree.”
How they do that is through jargon. This “lingua corporate” dresses the mundane and unpalatable in respectable clothing. It gives a gloss of intelligence to the most banal insights, as Corinne Maier points out in her manifesto for office slackers, Hello Laziness. Ask publishers and authors and they claim it never appears in their books. Phil Dourado, however, accepts language is a problem in the genre, but, he claims, it is used because the readers most in need of change, those steeped in the newspeak of management, take writers more seriously if they talk the same talk. “It is a problem that you are trying to get people to think in a new way, but you need to communicate your ideas within the very conventions that you are trying to break,” he says.
Another reason soft business is derided is the notion that it is a rung on the ladder of success for consultants. The story goes: you become a director, leave to be a consultant, write a book, which is then sold to clients. The close ties between business publishers and consultants were exposed in the rejection slips for Rip Off!, Neil Glass’s acclaimed exposé of the consultancy business. One of the biggest publishers in the field wrote back: “Many of our authors have consulting backgrounds and I began to have second thoughts about casting a shadow on the consulting profession.” Another responded: “While I’m sure that many individual consultants would be interested in your book as a good read, if we rub the partners at any firm up the wrong way by throwing muck at their business then it could cost us dear.” Glass was forced to self-publish under the pseudonym David Craig.
Publishers get defensive at such charges. Judy Piatkus, whose Piatkus Books is one of the biggest independents publishing in this field, snaps back: “No publisher is going to take on a book by someone that will sell 1,000 copies at their seminars. It is just not economically viable.” Besides, she adds, there are enough people submitting manuscripts to pick the most commercially viable, which means it will sell through bookshops. “Publishers have to make a profit, and they don’t make a profit by publishing books that retailers will not stock.” Behind all the touchy-feely positivity of these books, that’s what they, as much as Martin Lukes, are all about: making money.
The good, the bad, the obvious…
“Smell the cheese often so you know when it is getting old.” Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr Spencer Johnson
“By nature, by instinct, by personality, people react differently and use different techniques and ways of dealing with a situation.” Ken Blanchard’s foreword to Kingdomality by Sheldon Bowles, Richard Silvano and Susan Silvano.
“Your brain is the most powerful, versatile computer on the planet. Touch your forehead and say to yourself, ‘This is the most powerful computer on the planet!’” Cracking the Millionaire Code by Mark Victor Hansen and Robert Allen.
“Just as management is running out of steam as an improvement path, switching horses (and metaphors) to traditional leadership as an alternative growth mechanism has become a non-option, too.” Seven Secrets of Inspired Leaders by Phil Dourado & Dr Phil Blackburn
“Many managers would benefit from a course in speaking their native tongue, but unfortunately such a course is rarely among the firm’s approved training programmes. Companies prefer neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and other half-baked ideas, designed to keep everyone talking and thinking in circles.” Hello Laziness by Corinne Maier
Top five business titles in the first three months of 2005, according to Nielsen BookScan
1. The Apprentice by Sir Alan Sugar (BBC Books)
2. Rules of Management: the definitive guide to managerial success by Richard Templar (Prentice Hall)
3. Winning: the ultimate business how-to book by Jack Welch & Suzy Welch (HarperCollins)
4. The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard (HarperCollins)
5. Rules of Work: the definitive guide to personal success by Richard Templar (Prentice Hall)
The money men take their pick
Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyGroup
“I think the most valuable from a practical point of view are the ones written about specific companies or entrepreneurs. It’s equally valuable to read both the authorised and the un-authorised versions, provided you take both with a pinch of salt. I’d recommend Dirty Tricks: British Airways’ Secret War Against Virgin Atlantic by Martyn Gregory.”
Sir John Harvey-Jones, business troubleshooter and author
“For the last 40 years I have tried to keep up with every business book published and consider they are essential to keep abreast of current thinking and developments. The business environment changes so fast that you need to try and read both the fundamental books which cover the whole scene and the more specialised ones which look at one or more aspects particularly relevant today.”
Alan Giles, chief executive, HMV Group
“I think many business books are over-long, and are ideas which could and should have been expressed in an eight-page Harvard Business Review article, not padded out to 250 pages. I prefer books with some analytical rigour behind them. The book I would recommend to anyone involved in leading a business is Built To Last by James C Collins and Jerry L Porras – it’s a brilliantly researched and compellingly written work which has inspired everyone I know who has read it.”
Roger Parry, chairman of ClearChannel
“Some people don’t regard management as an art or a science, but I think that it is a learned skill and that is where good books can help. You would be ill advised to base your whole career on one book, though. You have to be very careful about reading the reviews to find the right books. Jim Collins’s Good To Great is a benchmark by which to measure other business books.”
Way to Go
Tim Whiting, editorial director at Time Warner Books, published Barbara Cassani’s Go: An Airline Adventure. So what makes a winner? “You have to make a decision based on how well known the subject is. Go was a no-brainer because the brand was strong and the marketing had been very powerful – Barbara (right) led a £25m buyout from BA, then sold to easyJet for £374m four years later. A book like that answers the question ‘how did she do it?’ which is what people want to know. These books are very aspirational. You’re looking for businesses where something phenomenal has happened and where the personality of the author comes through.”