Managing Up By Reading Books

I don’t have good things to say about the self help genre. It is not that I don’t read those books. I do, I have found most of such books to be comprised of sweet syrupy advice that one can easily pick up from Business Insider or Forbes click bait articles such as 5 Things Super Successful People Do Before 8 AM. There is a whole industry of the likes of Tony Robbins, Tim Ferris, I am sure there are many more (Daniel Pink?) who churn out books and seminars of advices. The best take down of Tony Robbins I read was in Susan Cain’s amazing book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking where she goes on to attend one of Tony’s self help seminars.


I browsed through Tim Ferris’s best selling Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers while in a book store and realized that he is publishing unfiltered information as given by his guests (titans of the industry) on his radio show. What really put me off was his interview of some bodybuilding junkie who raved on about taking exotic supplements and chemicals and Tim published it in his book without verifying the science behind it, if any. I know of a few people first hand who paid a heavy price in terms of their health for these body building supplements and here is Tim pushing the same as Tools of Titans.

While I am on trashing mode, I recently borrowed When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink.  The author has a style similar to Malcolm Gladwell in that he has interesting bits of anecdotes and academic research summaries but the message of the book could be condensed into a three to four page article. Based on the hours I wasted going through the book without getting anything worth remembering in return, I may never again pick up another Daniel Pink book.

Despite the fact that I dislike the genre, I keep reading it. I do it in the hope that one of these days, I may come across a book that will have advice that will stick with me and probably help me improve or at least point out my weaknesses in my approach and even if I don’t improve on those, at least I am cognizant of my weaknesses.

right stuffWhenever I am reading a book which I find compelling and author refers to another book, I usually place a hold for them at the Toronto Public Library. This has enables me to read a lot of books without breaking the bank. This brings me to the two books The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade and The High Potential’s Advantage: Get Noticed, Impress Your Bosses, and Become a Top Leader I recently read back-to-back as the library delivered them to me together. High potential advantageI don’t recall which book led me to these two books but I found them to be deserving of the recommendation and I can truly classify them as belonging to “self improvement” genre. They had quite a few takeaways some of which I remembered. I also made a note to re-borrow the books in couple of years time to see if I can squeeze more takeaways out of them. Don’t be taken aback by their title as I believe that to be click bait to persuade you to pick up the book when browsing through a bookstore or a library and I myself have picked up many a shitty books intrigued by the front cover, blurb on the inside flap and praises on the back cover. But these two are excellent and I am contemplating purchasing these two books so that I can have ready access to them or make notes in the marginilia.

Below are the some of the key takeaways for me. Other people reading the books might home in on other points. I have a feeling that these two books will be classics and one may benefit from re-reading them at the each stage of one’s career. So without further ado, my takeaways:

Don’t Make It All About Yourself

During your usual conversations with your boss/manager, it is important to not focus on how to grow your own career (“what I need to do to get the next promotion?” etc.) but rather focus on how to grow the company. This hit close to home with me as during my 15+ years of career I don’t recall ever talking about how to grow the company. It is not that I haven’t helped my employer’s grow (I have mostly been in business development or relationship management so my career has been about helping the employer grow) but I have always approached employer growth as a means to an end for personal growth (i.e. promotion). What the books recommended that one should try to re-frame the conversations and the mindset to focus about the company’s growth.

Try To Make Your Boss’s Job Easier

Don’t ask your boss for more work or assignments for yourself but rather ask him how you can make his workload lighter or take on some of his work so that he has more time on his hands to focus on matters that he wants to focus on.

Get A Diversified Experience

This can be challenging. The books say that it behooves a well rounded executive to have a diversified experience. Most of the time it requires a lateral move into an area way out of your comfort zone. Authors did highlight that there are numerous CEOs who made it to the top despite being in the finance function throughout their life (I am in finance) however it is easier to be led astray when one’s entire perspective of the world is through the prism of Excel sheets and P&L statements.

Not Complain About Other Departments / Groups

Easier said than done. Having worked for considerable time in Corporate Banking and Investment Management business development roles, Risk department has always been a bane even if not individually but collectively. Though there is always an appreciation of the role played by Risk department but more often than not, it is always the Risk department that doesn’t understand the changing market and standing in the way of glory. Similarly, there are projects where one has to depend on other departments to provide information on timely manner but due to the other departments having different priorities, they may not be giving the project what you feel is its due importance. When the job doesn’t get done on time, the easier way would be to blame it on the other department (and rightly so). The books suggest that this is taking the easy way out and not great for personal development. One needs to learn how to get the work done from other department but more than that take personal responsibility for not getting the work done.

Always Going For Sexy Assignments

Who doesn’t want to work on “challenging”, “sexy”, “creative” and  “big bang inducing” kind of stuff.  You can wear it around as a badge and it looks great on the CV. But there is a tendency for always volunteering for the sexy stuff and looking down or being disinterested from the mundane boring stuff. Businesses manage their payroll mainly through the mundane stuff and these slog-fest, boring, going-through-the-accounts and reading-dry-legal-documents is what sets up the organization as a well oiled machine capable of taking on those big bang sexy projects.

Asking For Feedback

After every meeting, conference call or a presentation, ask your manager or colleagues for feedback on how did you perform. As per the books, initially you might get the feel good fluffy feedback but if you keep on asking, eventually people will realize that you are genuinely interested and will give you honest feedback. It also helps on how you frame the question i.e. instead of asking “How did I do?”  ask “What could I have done differently to make it better?”. The latter question gets you better insights .

As I saiImage result for HBRd earlier, I build my reading list from what the authors of the book I am reading recommend or reference in their work. The books referenced the excellent Harvard Business Review article Managing Your Boss quite a few times. It is a seven page article, it’s a classic and a recommended read. It says that one of the ways to become a better manager is to find out what are your boss’s objectives and help him realize them. Some times the way you are trying to achieve your objectives may be running counter to the boss’s objectives.


How ideas can be turned into path breaking innovation

Overcoming the forces that stand in the way of creativity

I promised a review of “Different” and “If you are in a dogfight, become a cat” in my last post. When I went to pick those books up at the Toronto library, the “discover” bookshelf (a bookshelf near the checkout kiosks where the library puts up underrated books to see if they can pique your interest) at the library was displaying “The Medici Effect” written by a Harvard Business School graduate Frans Johansson about how idea generation happens.

It had an intriguing blurb and praised by former Chairman and CEO of Apple (that should have been a red flag) and a foreword by his HBS professor Teresa Amabile. I thought this book cannot be bad. Guess what, I was wrong. I have updated the saying to “Never judge a book by its cover, its preface, its blurb, the praises or the pedigree of the author.”

Slight digression. When Nassim Taleb of “Black Swan” fame published his next book “Antifragile: that gains from disorder”, Josh Brown of Ritzholtz Wealth Management wrote a satirical post on his blog titled “Selected Passages from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Antifragile’”.

The post went viral. Taleb was so thin skinned that he complained to his publisher, Josh Brown had to take down the post and apologize to Taleb. Someone copied and pasted the post on their own website, hence it is saved for posterity (You can read the archived version here, highly recommended). Anyway, over time Taleb developed a thicker skin and some sense of humor and his latest book Skin in the Game has the following as praises. One can see that Taleb has matured between the two books (read the last one if you are short of time).

Back to “The Medici Effect”. The whole book could have been condensed into two chapters of total 30 pages. The book is full of anecdotes and meanderings to drive home the point that as we become more specialized in our subject areas/careers/fields and the world continues to become more complex, maximum creativity and breakthrough ideas will happen where people from disparate fields come together to collaborate and bounce off ideas. For someone who doesn’t have diverse pursuits or interests, the book may come across as insightful but for someone who reads widely, the book consisted of usual anecdotes and stale lessons drawn from them.

The book had two interesting suggestion to generate ideas but they were excerpted from different books. One was about “Assumption Reversal”, a method to find an out of box solution for a problem that seems intractable. Needless to mention, I have requested the book at the library. Hopefully, I will get some original ideas there.

The other idea was about “taking a thought walk.” Unfortunately, I forgot to note down the name of the book it was picked up from.

I shouldn’t have been this upset __ I mean I read a lot of books that turn out a disappointment and I left them half way or three-fourths of the way__ but I guess I am upset because I read it till the end with the expectation that there will be a payoff but as it turned out, it was all for naught.

However, if one really wants to learn about creativity, I highly recommend “Creativity Inc.” by Ed Catmull.

It can be thought of as a biography of Pixar Animation Studios but it is much more than that. It is about how creative organizations work, how they foster creativity, the challenges they face when they grow (as creativity doesn’t scale with the growth of organization) and become burdened with bureaucratic processes but more than that, it is not a prescriptive book. In addition, it is also a book about running an organization.

It also has one interesting anecdote about Steve Jobs designing new Pixar HQ. Job was deeply involved in the designing of the new Pixar HQ and he understood that creativity flourished when people from different technical or creative backgrounds come together. He designed Pixar corridors and other spaces such as cafeteria, lounges etc. so that people keep on running into each other for what he called “chance meetings”. According to Catmull, Jobs got so carried away that he wanted unisex toilets but eventually he was convinced to let it go.

If you want to read a book on creativity, I cannot recommend enough you read the one by University of Utah Comp. Sci. grad Ed Catmull i.e., “Creativity Inc.” and not get carried away by Harvard Business School marketing (written by HBS grad, foreword by HBS professor and published by HBS press) by skipping “The Medici Effect”.

Below is an excerpt from the Creativity Inc.

Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.

Later he goes on to say

And finally this

Sadly all such lessons were missing from The Medici Effect. Creativity Inc. is chock full of such insights and despite being a non-fiction reads like a page turner and lessons, if any, are sprinkled without being prescriptive.

In case anyone is wondering about the title of the book “The Medici Effect”, the author is referring to Medici family of Florence, Italy that patronized artists of all types resulting in Florence becoming a cradle of Renaissance. The “urbanist” Richard Florida promoted a similar theory in his most famous book “The Rise of Creative Class” wherein he suggested by bringing in hipsters, artists, avocado toast aficionados and Mason jar beer drinkers (ok… I made the last two up) and see the cities flourish with creative outbursts.

He was a big proponent of cities as our wealth generators and urbanization as our path to utopia. He followed it up with another book further expounding on the lessons.

After more than a decade of preaching this mantra from every platform from TED talks to international conferences on urban planning and redevelopment, and university platforms as university lends credence, he recently published a new book “The new urban crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation and failing the middle class”.

That is the lamest mea culpa if there ever was one and his consulting gig, I presume, continues to thrive but now in another direction. The arc of Mr. Florida’s education from “The Rise of Creative Class” to “The New Urban Crisis” provides a much better take down of “The Medici Effect” then my rambling review.

Tail piece: it turns out that those open plan spaces that are supposed to lead to flourishing of ideas and fostering creativity, are not that great

Many open-office designs were adopted also because they were thought by experts to produce a more collaborative atmosphere…..For one thing, workers took increased sick days…Workers also complained of an inability to focus and were generally less content with their work environment, the study said.

Thank you for reading. I promise the next review I write will definitely be about the two books I wanted to write about.