‘Humour, Seriously: Why Humour is a Superpower at Work and in Life’, by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas

As you might expect, this is a highly entertaining and easy-to-digest book based on a course the authors teach at Stanford Graduate School of Business. They start with a bold claim: “We believe that this emerging field might become one of the greatest competitive advantages in business. Seriously.” So for just £14.99, the reader immediately feels they are getting something worthwhile that future Silicon Valley titans are paying vast sums to learn at Stanford.

You don’t have to be a budding stand-up to enjoy the book. At its simplest, Aaker and Bagdonas are teaching us how to approach workplaces (and our lives) with “levity” — they take apart the false assumption that we have to be serious to be taken seriously at work. The opposite is true. We retain more information when it is presented in a humorous way, and we need more human connection, not less: doing that through levity and laughter helps enormously. Although this book must have been written pre-pandemic, its messages resonate now.

Later chapters cover the different humour types — the authors have done a lot of research to develop these “types”, which are the book’s USP. A quick test reveals which one we are, and knowing if you are a “magnet” (“unwavering good cheer”) or a “sniper” (“edgy, sarcastic and nuanced”) will help you to deploy the right sort of humour at work, in the style that’s right for you — and, crucially, won’t lead to a complaint to HR.

‘The Long Win: The Search for a Better Way to Succeed’, by Cath Bishop

The timing of this book could hardly be better. It comes in the midst of an extraordinary US presidential election campaign, featuring an incumbent for whom winning — against his political opponents, against China, against coronavirus — is all-important. But as Cath Bishop points out, this zero-sum approach to winning isn’t working. Our fixation with brute competition often fails to solve complex problems, and can lead to disillusionment, cheating and mental breakdown. Bishop draws on her experience as an Olympic oarswoman — who finished, in the words of a BBC commentator, “only” in silver medal position — a diplomat and a leadership coach, to lay out an alternative approach.

There is a “better way to succeed”, she writes, based on an alliterative “three Cs”: developing clarity about what matters; employing a “constant learning” approach, based on personal growth rather than scoreboards, metrics and gold-medal finishes; and forging connections with colleagues, partners, friends and others, in collaboration rather than competition. The lesson can be summed up in the mindset change she achieved to come out of retirement and prepare for one final Olympic appearance: to tap into the joy of her chosen pastime rather than obsess about the goal.

These are lessons for the ages but Bishop gives them a deft topical twist, asking, for instance, why it took a pandemic for big businesses to roll out online mindfulness and counselling sessions, and reminding readers of the silver lining in the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics. True, she writes, those athletes with nothing else in their lives struggled, but “for many, there was space for the first time to contemplate the wider meaning in their sporting journey”. This is a deep and rewarding exploration of human motivation in sport, politics, business and our personal lives.

‘Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace’, by David Smith and Brad Johnson

David Smith and Brad Johnson believe there is something missing from gender parity efforts — men.

So the two — Smith is a sociologist and former Navy pilot, and Johnson, a psychology professor — have drawn on years of qualitative research into gender, leadership and mentorship to provide a practical guide on how to be a male ally to women in the workplace.

Smith and Johnson first look at the obstacles as to why some males avoid engaging with gender inequality. They also point to the traditional workplace gender rules from which “almost every gender bias and norm in the workplace flows”. Male allies, they say, are the missing piece of the puzzle.

The book is organised into three sections — interpersonal allyship, public allyship and systemic allyship — which offer strategies designed to help skill development and a personalised ally action plan.

There are examples from both men and women across industries that demonstrate effective allyship and the authors also highlight the benefits to men in supporting women. Men don’t need to lose out for women to gain parity. According to one female interviewee some of the benefits of male allyship include “better physical and mental health, more rewarding and intimate relationships, not to mention the business case for making more money and being more influential leaders at work”.

Another says: “By getting better at allyship with women, you are going to be better at working with a substantial and growing slice of the workplace population. This is a competitive advantage for men that delivers real value to your organisation.”

Overall the authors advocate transparency, encouragement and flexibility at work for everybody. All that is required now, they write, “is the courage to act”.

‘New Laws of Robotics: Defending Human Expertise in the Age of AI’, by Frank Pasquale

A heap of books has been published recently on the robot revolution, the dehumanisation of the workplace and the threat of technological unemployment. This is among the more thought-provoking. Frank Pasquale, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, explores how we can best try to ensure that robots work for us, rather than against us, and proposes a new set of laws to provide a conceptual framework for our thinking on the subject. We should not just leave this field to technologists and economists. We should only use robots to make workers more valuable, not less. 

Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, ignited this debate in 1942 by proposing three laws of robotics, which are neat but vague. Pasquale comes up with four new laws of robotics, which are more clearly delineated. But it is open for debate how far they might provide a practicable blueprint for action. First, Pasquale suggests robots should only complement, not replace, professionals. Second, robots should not counterfeit humanity. Third, robots should not intensify zero-sum arms races. Fourth, robots must always indicate the identity of their creator, controller and owner. 

Pasquale enthuses about the possibilities of using AI to enhance all kinds of jobs, particularly in healthcare and education. But he insists that policymakers and regulators must help shape those good outcomes. “Retarding automation that controls, stigmatises, and cheats innocent people is a vital role for twenty-first century regulators. We do not simply need more AI; we need better AI,” he concludes.

‘Better Business: How the B Corp Movement is Remaking Capitalism’, by Christopher Marquis

The idea that capitalism needs reforming is becoming uncontroversial, but there is less agreement on what should replace the business model that puts the pursuit of profit above all else. 

If you think that angst about shareholder primacy began in reaction to the global financial crisis, it is worth remembering that it was 2006 when three Stanford graduates set out to design a different system. B Lab, the group they founded to certify companies that marry a profit motive with a social purpose, christened its first B Corp the next year. 

Christopher Marquis, a Cornell management professor, writes in Better Business that he has considered the B Corp the most impressive business innovation he has encountered for more than a decade. But that timeline points to a problem: adoption has been slow. 

There are more than 3,500 B Corps in 74 countries, including Danone North America and some Unilever subsidiaries, but most are far smaller companies. Even Marquis admits that most consumers have little idea what B Corps are “because it is difficult to properly express the complexity of the B brand”.

B Lab is now stepping up its efforts to persuade US lawmakers to make “benefit governance” mandatory across the private sector but the bipartisan support he sees seems scant. 

Marquis runs through case studies to tout the virtues of the B Corp model but doesn’t really explain why there are still few publicly traded benefit corporations. Is the B Corp movement remaking capitalism, as Marquis contends? The book doesn’t entirely convince that B Corps are on the brink of becoming the new prevailing model, but Better Business is a valuable guide to an important force in that reformation.

‘How to be strategic’, by Fred Pelard

Accountants (and investigative journalists) are like submarines, argues Fred Pelard, a French rocket scientist turned management consultant and trainer, in his guide to strategy. Given a task, they go on a deep dive, exploring to collect all the data they can find before rising to the surface just ahead of their deadline with a single answer. The approach is rigorous, but leaves little time for adaptation after coming up for air, and can leave those involved sunk by too much low quality uncertain data.

Architects and entrepreneurs, by contrast, are helicopters: they very rapidly come up with three or four different approaches to present to clients, listen to feedback and then adapt. But an early misguided preference for one “shiny” option — often the “highest paid person’s opinion” — can then divert attention and resources to seeking to develop a poor solution.

Pelard prefers a third approach for many applications in business: the “rollercoaster” culture of doctors and scientists, who use creativity, intuition and experience to develop one, or more, hypothesis, then dive to bombard it with testing using data and re-emerge from frequent failure with a successful outcome.

Like many management books, his analysis provides a framework on thinking, developing and executing strategy supported by anecdotes based on his own experience rather than more rigorous evidence, but it contains useful ideas on how to brainstorm (Post-its preferred) and communicate (different ways for different types of people).

‘Where is My Office: Reimagining the Workplace for the 21st Century’, by Chris Kane, in collaboration with Eugenia Anastassiou

About the only thing we know about the workplace of the 21st century is that we have not got there yet. Coronavirus has created the largest global experiment in homeworking. And although many people appreciate the advantages, not least the shorter commute, it has also shown how office life still has great value. The question is what sort of workplaces we would like to create when we do finally return to them.

This book offers some answers from a man who has more experience than most. Chris Kane has worked in corporate property management for more than 30 years, including a spell as vice-president of international corporate real estate at Walt Disney before being headhunted to transform the property portfolio of the BBC.

This book is a call for radical change in the way the property industry operates and treats the end users of their product, the organisations with a need for workspace. It summarises that the many problems of the commercial property sector cause new office concepts to fail and offers some solutions, notably his attempt to create spaces that bring together complementary organisations as he did with the BBC’s White City estate in west London.

Whether or not this book provides all the answers, it is timely for those considering the value of office spaces in the post-pandemic world of work.

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