FT business books: March edition

‘The First, The Few, The Only: How Women of Color Can Redefine Power in Corporate America’, by Deepa Purushothaman

Despite the pledges that came out of the Black Lives Matter movement nearly two years ago, many nonwhite professionals still see the corporate world as a good ol’ boys club.

This book is a poignant look into what it is like to navigate it as what the author’s ignorant law school friend calls a “twofer” — a woman who also happens to be a person of colour. The book argues that women of colour possess the multi-faceted perspective to solve any array of work conundrums, but many of their achievements are credited solely to affirmative action.

Deepa Purushothaman uses her personal experience of being one of the first Indian women to shoot up the ranks at professional services firm Deloitte and anonymised interviews with other female professionals to help readers view their own companies through this lens and understand that not fitting in has both social and career implications.

This book is not so much a diversity, equity and inclusion handbook — though it certainly provides much food for thought on the latest initiatives — as a critique of corporate America’s view of itself as a pure meritocracy.

Purushothaman uses a seemingly endless supply of vivid metaphors to make abstract and politically fraught concepts of race come alive. It is the rare book that can simultaneously make professionals of colour feel seen and give white male colleagues a comprehensive education.

‘Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams from Isolated to All In’, by Ryan Jenkins and Steven Van Cohen

After two years of pandemic-induced isolation, social distancing rules, loneliness is topical. This latest book seeks to look at its impact on work and wellbeing, as well as how to combat it.

The authors Ryan Jenkins and Steven Van Cohen, who advise companies on reducing workplace loneliness and boosting connections, argue technologies such as ATMs, Alexa and automatic checkouts are not only replacing jobs but are also disposing of vital human interactions. In doing so they follow the work of professors Noreena Hertz and Jean Twenge, who have focused on loneliness.

They are most concerned about young people — Generation Z — entering the workforce, complaining of isolation. But everyone is susceptible to bouts of loneliness, for example being the only parent of young children in a team, or someone who is thrust into a leadership role earlier than their peers. The implication for business is that the workforce is less engaged and productive.

The authors offer guidance around areas such as how to create psychological safety for employees and cultivate connections across teams (in person or remote).

Yet while the advice for creating a sense of belonging seems wise, the statistics they cite — there has been a 7 per cent increase in loneliness among Americans since 2018 — strike me as a testimony, in fact, to the endurance of human connection.

‘Take Charge of You: How Self Coaching Can Transform Your Life and Career’, by David Novak and Jason Goldsmith

Whether you work for yourself or someone else, the market is becoming increasingly competitive and dynamic. With life-long learning becoming a skill in itself, if you do not know how to develop, you could fall behind.

Here coaching can help and you can learn how to coach yourself. With decades of experience, David Novak and Jason Goldsmith present a straightforward method for readers to take personal growth and professional development into their own hands.

The book is divided into five sections: The Self-Coaching Conversation, Mindset, Plan, Journey and Habit. It offers an interactive experience with exercises, tips, questions and tools to take you from where you are now to where you want to go.

Any coaching session starts with a conversation and in the first chapter the authors guide the reader through a dialogue with themselves. The objective is to better understand how best to coach the unique individual that is you. The first question: “What’s getting in the way of my joy?”

The book contains real-life examples and suggestions for building your self-knowledge, getting into a coaching routine and turning guidance into an action plan.

Some of the strategies seem obvious but it concludes with a good takeaway: “You never know just what you are capable of until you are tested. Things are going to happen along your journey that will cause you to question some of your ideas or reassess your path. That is okay.”

‘From Breakthrough to Blockbuster: The Business of Biotechnology’, by Donald L Drakeman, Lisa Natale Drakeman and Nektarios Oraiopoulos

Medtech, pharmatech and biotech are firmly established in the start-up lexicon thanks to more than 50 years of innovation and risk-taking by pharmaceutical entrepreneurs. The most obvious example of late is BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer, the pharmaceuticals multinational, to generate a game-changing Covid vaccine. But this kind of innovative start-up behaviour was not always a foregone conclusion in the healthcare sector.

This 208-page book, written by husband-and-wife-entrepreneurs Donald and Lisa Drakeman and Nektarios Oraiopoulos, an associate professor in operations management at Cambridge Judge Business School, tells the stories of a diverse group of start-ups, some of which grew into international businesses — although others failed — and outcompeted Big Pharma in bringing innovative new drugs to market.

The authors explain why this happened, through a biotech ecosystem of academic research, venture capital groups, contract research organisations, capital markets and founding teams.

They write with authority given that two of them have built successful biotech ventures in the US and Europe, raising billions of dollars in the process and creating several new FDA-approved treatments for cancer and other diseases. Their co-author, who has spent years analysing the process of innovation, is an adviser to entrepreneurial start-ups and worked closely on research projects with numerous executives from the biopharmaceutical industry.

There is a subtext to this book: that innovative drug development is most effectively provided by a large collection of small companies, nurtured by an entrepreneurial ecosystem. The authors finish with a manifesto, proposing government policies and market structures needed to sustain and nurture medtech start-up innovation.

‘Stress-Free Productivity: A Personalised Toolkit to Become Your Most Efficient & Creative Self’, by Dr Alice Boyes

The story goes that Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the idea for his hit musical Hamilton during a much-needed holiday, when he read a book about Alexander Hamilton. We know the rest.

In Stress-Free Productivity, Alice Boyes offers a guide to rethinking productivity and achieving it in a different way, encouraging the reader to explore new strategies to be creative and produce work that is of more value. According to the author, who has a PhD in psychology, modern productivity culture preaches strict habits and efficiency. But to be our most productive, she believes we actually have to carve out time to be unfocused and let our minds wander.

However, to do this we have to trust ourselves to step away from our work. We need to get comfortable with letting our minds drift and explore other realms — whether it is just for half an hour or a holiday fortnight — as we will end up somewhere insightful.

With quizzes and other exercises, Boyes, previously a clinical psychologist, has designed a book that, through three sections, offers ways to help develop the tools to override the guilt that comes with stepping away and those little voices that tell us we’re wasting time. “There’s an art to how to let your mind wander productively, and a science,” she writes.

The first section is about being a self-scientist — becoming a better observer of yourself, which she believes is “the most important productivity tool you’re underutilising”. The second section — improving your repeatable systems — is about being effective and efficient.

The third section — how to be a more creative visionary — looks at how diverse interests can increase our creative capacity, how we can be more brave in terms of where we go when exploring our minds, and devoting mental energy to longer-term projects.

Essentially, Boyes is encouraging the reader to see that what they choose to do will influence what is achieved much more than how fast they work.

‘Going Digital: What it Takes for Smoother Transformations’, by Lyndsey Jones and Balvinder Singh Powar

This is a short quick-fire guide to achieving digital transformation. These days, we live in a world of near permanent uncertainty and change. Businesses large and small find themselves wrestling with shifting consumer habits, new technologies and nimble digital competitors getting in on their territory.

The authors write that “as a manager in this environment . . . You may need to transform one or more departments. Perhaps you have to change business operations or working practices at a legacy company. Or you may be trying to change customer behaviour to embrace digitalisation and boost revenue.”

Taking insights from a large cross section of businesses and sectors from Google to asset manager BlackRock, it seems whatever the digital transformation challenge, the problem first needs to be identified. Then when solving the problem and implementing the solution, a systematic approach to planning is key. The authors highlight how the best laid plans will help you sell your idea and such a framework will also help to track progress.

The book also addresses the resistance any “change agent” is likely to face: referred to as the “dark side” by the authors because leading change is “exhausting”. “Dealing with transformation can take up a lot of your time and mental energy, so you will have to weigh the project up carefully to make sure it is worth it,” they write.

But for all the talk of digital, the authors highlight that some of the most essential attributes to succeed in this realm are soft skills: understanding your team; building trust; being able to influence and persuade; and actually looking after yourself, too.

Overall this is the ideal introduction for those who are perhaps new managers and need to quickly get to grips with digital transformation, what it is, what to expect during the process and how to turn it into a worthwhile — and possibly even profitable — opportunity for your organisation.

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