‘Backstage Leadership: The Invisible Work of Highly Effective Leaders’, by Charles Galunic

The late organisational theorist James March, who happened to teach Charles Galunic at Stanford, used to say that leadership was a delicate combination of “poetry and plumbing”.

Galunic’s book does not neglect the poetry. He writes well about the responsibility of leaders to set compelling visions for their teams and sell them while in the glare of the public spotlight. But his emphasis is on the prosaic plumbing and electrics. The “creating, maintaining and integrating” of fundamental processes such as developing talent, crafting culture, handling contradictions — “are the key, albeit backstage, sometimes invisible, work of business leaders”.

This is not a book about how to tackle the particular challenges of managing out of a pandemic or through a recession — it was written before lockdown. There is, however, plenty here to help hard-pressed leaders in a crisis, richly illustrated with examples from business, sport and society.

For instance, Galunic suggests “scanning and sensemaking” — the process of capturing signals and interpreting them — are vital approaches to uncertainty. He also revisits another Marchian idea about managing the contradiction between “exploration” (including innovation and invention) and “exploitation” (the endless search for further efficiency in existing areas of business). The goal? An “ambidextrous” leadership style that balances “conflicting and often paradoxical forces”.

‘Winning Now, Winning Later: How Companies Can Win in the Short Term While Investing in the Long Term’, by David Cote

When David Cote became chief executive of Honeywell of the US in 2002, he took over from Larry Bossidy, a tough-nut boss, who had written a business bestseller called Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. It is a surprise, then, to discover from his excellent and detailed account of how to run an industrial business that the company Cote inherited “needed to execute better”. Behind the “facade” was “a train wreck . . . on the verge of failure”.

As for getting things done, “just get it done” was what the finance department told the business divisions when they were struggling to make demanding quarterly targets. It led to “untrammelled short-termism and a compromised strategic planning process”.

One lesson may be not to read books written by ostensibly successful chief executives, but Cote’s could be the exception that proves that rule.

It contains its share of self-congratulation and rather too many nods to former colleagues. On the other hand, Honeywell had increased in value from $20bn to $120bn by the time Cote left in 2018, so he has earned the right to boast a little. Winning Now, Winning Later is also rescued by just enough emphasis on mistakes made and lessons learnt, and a large dose of highly practical advice on leadership, including how to ride out a recession.

Above all, Cote underlines how to try to meet the central business challenge of investing for the future and yet attaining short-term results, “accomplishing two seemingly conflicting things at the same time”.

‘Future-Proof Your Business’, by Tom Cheesewright

Even before the global pandemic, businesses were functioning in a world of constant change and disruption. Tom Cheesewright writes that these disrupting trends can last over years, while there are other faster waves of change layered over these, enabled by globalisation and technology.

Here the applied futurist draws on his experience of helping organisations to respond to innovation to offer a survival manual for managing a successful business in an increasingly complex landscape.

Aimed at businesses leaders, or those who aspire to lead, Cheesewright says it is necessary to “reshape your business for an age where adaptability to tomorrow’s challenge is a better predictor of success than being perfectly optimised to today’s conditions”.

It is neatly split into three parts. First, he addresses how to structure a future-proof business, a process that starts with a change in mindset. The author believes that current short-termism focuses on “immediate success” not “sustainable success”, so it is necessary to reset the expectations of what leadership looks like so the focus is on “adaptation”, rather than “optimisation”.

The second part guides leaders on “how to see the future”. Here Cheesewright provides some simple methods for assessing the near and distant future, which will help leaders define more clearly a direction for their business and help identify potential obstacles.

The third section looks at how businesses can be best prepared for a “rapid response”. This focuses on decision making: how to make the right decisions more quickly but also understanding that the best decisions are not always the fastest. “Sometimes, slower, data-based, strategic decisions are required. Knowing when to tell the difference is key,” he writes.

Effective decision making is also about empowering people and devolving some decision-making power to those further down the line.

The book is very comprehensive, to the point — and only 150 pages. And while the author argues he cannot guarantee that your business will be the one to survive and thrive he can “help you to improve the odds dramatically”.

‘The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment and Get the Right Things Done’, by Bruce Tulgan

This book is aimed at helping us all become one of those “go-to people” that every company has — those whose wisdom, efficiency and easy way with colleagues is underpinned by firm expertise in their area of work.

It will, because of its title, especially appeal to those who already recognise themselves as “people pleasers” and whose MO at work is to gain traction through co-operation and charm. But Tulgan’s easy to digest advice (itself charmingly presented) is helpful to everyone: “Navigating collaborative relationships [at work] is not going away. And doing that job very, very well is how true go-to people, in the real world, win real influence, beat over commitment and get the right things done.”

Tulgan, who is an adviser to business leaders, is good on tips for avoiding saying yes when you need to say no — avoiding over commitment, in other words, which is a huge potential problem for the organisation’s go-to person. Because in a collaborative world, the key to influence is to work across teams, in tune with your boss but not limited to vertical decision making. Working horizontally or diagonally across other teams and projects requires technical skills — and also people management.

And the key to that? Not expecting anything back. There’s no quid pro quo for go-to people. “The true go-to person does not keep a tally sheet -real or imagined — of equivalent favours to be traded for inducing colleagues to take specific decisions or actions. If you believe in real influence, you serve others because that’s what’s right and that’s what creates the most value for everybody, in the short term and the long term.”

In tight post-crisis workplaces, being someone dependable and skilled is going to become evermore important. Tulgan’s book is timely, relevant and appealing.

‘Designing your Work Life: How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work’, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans 

We are all getting used to a new work-life balance in an era of coronavirus lockdown. For many of us working from home, advice on how to find meaning and joy is welcome when the daily commute is a walk downstairs and the movie Groundhog Day feels more like a documentary.

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans focus on the uncertainties of the modern age and the need to transition between roles, which was an issue before the coronavirus crisis. However, the economic upheaval created by the pandemic will no doubt make this book an attractive proposition for many people now considering a radical change in lifestyle or just questioning what work is all about.

The biggest struggle this book might have is being picked from among the many titles already written about work-life balance. But the authors try to help their readers in a very personable and practical way: Evans and Burnett present it as a follow up to their previous book, Designing Your Life, about finding purpose in your work. “This book is about making it real,” they write.

One of these key practical lessons is to be happy with what you have today, not what you would like to have tomorrow. If that is not a valuable lesson for life in coronavirus lockdown, what is?

‘You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake: How Biases Distort Decision-Making — and What You Can Do to Fight Them’, by Olivier Sibony

We’ve all made bad decisions, but does that make us a bad leader? Not according to Olivier Sibony, a professor and expert in business strategy, whose book uses behavioural science to explain why all people, even great leaders, are likely to do the wrong thing, often because of cognitive biases.

This is a book filled with some fascinating, and frightening, stories of decision-making failures. It makes dry scientific concepts in management theory, such as confirmation bias and heuristics, more accessible. Some of these tales are well known, such as video rental company Blockbuster’s failure to buy Netflix, but they are nevertheless useful in this context.

The book is aimed at corporate leaders with enough self-awareness to realise that they make bad decisions in part because of their own biases, but it provides reassurance and advice to all of us with choices to make. It is also an easy read with actionable advice.

It may not be good for those reading this book to gain comfort from their failure, given the high cost of bad decision making by company heads. However, insight into why we might have made wrong decisions in the past is certainly worthwhile.

Perhaps the most comforting message of this book is that success is never down to individuals — the mistaken belief that propped up the cult of Steve Jobs at iPhone maker Apple. The flip side of this is that you are not a bad leader just because you make bad decisions. And good decision makers do not act alone: they are the architects of good decision processes, followed by a team.

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