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‘When More Is Not Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency’, by Roger Martin

Before the pandemic, the underlying blight of the US economy was the stagnant prosperity of ordinary Americans. This important new book blames a dangerous obsession with efficiency, long the mantra and target of chief executives and finance directors worldwide and a foundation of modern capitalism.

Martin, a former dean of the Rotman School of Management, traces the efficiency obsession back to its roots in the work of economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but analyses the 20th century’s influential management thinkers such as time-and-motion obsessive Frederick Winslow Taylor and quality guru W Edwards Deming.

“Pursuit of efficiency is definitively not a bad thing,” Martin writes. But we have treated the economy as a machine that can be fine-tuned to perfection. Instead, he contends, it is “a complex adaptive system — one that is too complex to be perfectible, one that continuously adapts in ways that will almost certainly frustrate any attempts to engineer it for perfection”.

There is plenty of hard academic theory here, but it is outweighed by the practical business implications of Martin’s analysis, based on cautionary tales from Lehman Brothers to Kraft, the food group, where “lean” budget management has been pushed to extremes.

If anything, the consequences of coronavirus have made this book’s prescriptions more pressing, though Martin does not tackle the current crisis directly. Solutions to the endemic efficiency problem include recognising that “slack is not the enemy”. That is a bitter lesson that health systems, companies and individuals learnt only when their lack of economic resilience was tested by sudden lockdown.

‘Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business’, by John Mackey, Steve McIntosh and Carter Phipps

Curb your impatience with the prospect of yet another book about corporate purpose. John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods Market, has a long pedigree in the area of conscious capitalism. He was a pioneer of the movement that bears the name and bears the scars of trying to balance profit with purpose, culminating, in 2017, with what some attacked as the ultimate contradiction of Whole Foods’ ideals: the $13.7bn sale of his creation to Amazon.

This is a first-person account, even though Mackey credits his co-authors from a think-tank. He tackles head on that “time of difficulty and soul-searching” leading up to the “marriage” of the two companies. He describes the outcome, perhaps inevitably, as a “win-win-win” for Whole Foods’ customers, suppliers, investors, communities and staff. More realistically, he explains, it was an alternative to seeing the company being broken up and the culture destroyed.

The rest of the book is structured as a manual to leadership, but one that extends, unlike more conventional guides, from innovation to meditation and beyond. Do you want to know how to grow spiritually as a leader? This is the book for you. At the same time, though, this is a book that will tell you how to fire people well (in short, it should be done “with compassion and encouragement for the future” and the news should never come as a surprise to the outgoing employee).

Coming from someone more than familiar with the pressures of front-line leadership, Conscious Leadership is a thought-provoking and surprisingly reflective account of how to navigate the contradictions of conscious capitalism.

‘The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience and Leadership in the Most Male-Dominated Organization in the World’, by Shannon Huffman Polson

Shannon Huffman Polson was one of the first women to fly the Apache attack helicopter in the US army. She led two flight platoons and served on three continents before she left to join the corporate world — including Microsoft.

Drawing on her experience both inside and outside the cockpit, she believes when a leader encounters fear, they have to “fly straight through it” — turn towards it and take it on. Such situations require quick and effective adaptability with little support, which often requires what Huffman Polson refers to as grit.

She is quick to point out that this is not something we are necessarily born with and can be built up, like a muscle. And while Huffman Polson highlights the backlash against grit, and that we should focus on changing the system that “demands exceptional tenacity of its minority members”, the truth is that a sustained effort to change workplace culture itself requires grit.

The book draws together both Huffman Polson’s experience and that of other high ranking women in the US military. Together their insights form an easy to follow structure that allows any current or aspiring female leader to understand what really drives them and build confidence and resilience.

Each chapter has step by step exercises to practice and develop the principles of grit, whether it be how to reframe a problem and change thinking patterns, or make time for active listening.

At the very least, the book will leave anybody nothing short of inspired by the heroics of Huffman Polson and her fellow military women. But the point is that everyone has the capacity to learn to face the impossible.

‘Shoemaker: The Untold Story of the British Family Firm That Became a Global Brand’, by Joe Foster

The founder of Reebok describes how he created a global sporting footwear brand after he quit his family’s struggling third generation shoemaking business in Bolton. The company was riven by fraternal bickering and lack of ambition, so Joe Foster and his brother set up a new sports shoe company down the road.

Foster admits he did not like running and was not a great shoemaker, but he had an overriding ambition to innovate, promote and expand — notably in the US.

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From modest working class beginnings in a shared flat with no heating and little furniture, he invested in networks of sales representatives and was able to ride new trends in sports, from road-running marathons to aerobics. He overcame difficulties of operating in postwar Britain and Europe to build an international sales network and shifted to low-cost production sites in Asia.

Foster admits that his obsession with business, and his breathless thrill at first class air travel and attending celebrity events, came with sacrifices: he missed out on more participation in the life of his family, and ultimately divorced.

His role as an entrepreneur is well described. But the history peters out in the late 1980s, once — as he puts it — Reebok became “a numbers company” and he effectively ceded control to his American partners before the business was ultimately acquired by his rival Adidas. 

‘After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win It Back’, by Juliet Schor

Professor Juliet Schor goes in search of an equitable way forward for the millions of “gig economy” workers around the world, the treatment of which has become an urgent debate.

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On one side, union-backed movements seek nothing less than full employment rights. On the other, gig economy giants say the old structures of employment are no longer fit for purpose. Prof Schor gives equal attention, and respect, to both points of view. But ultimately, she sees the gig companies — which in less than 10 years have flipped from “sharing” idealism to aggressive capitalism — as unsuitable custodians of the future of work.

Prof Schor’s case studies skilfully represent the full spectrum of optimism and disenchantment — those previously bullish on being their own boss, who have since been dragged into despair. “They’re going to lower the rates until we break,” says one. It’s only through these workers do you get the true picture of how these lossmaking platforms have been forced to lean more heavily on workers as Wall Street starts to ask for a return on its investment.

It’s from the lesser known platforms that Prof Schor finds some promising ideas. Using Stocksy United — a photography marketplace partially-owned by its users — as an example, she argues for shared governance of gig economy platforms as one possible method of increasing fairness.

But that won’t happen organically — not when there’s billions of dollars at stake. The takeaway from this book is that a complete reimagining of city governance is required if the sharing economy is ever going to work for the people.

‘The Power of Being Divisive: Understanding Negative Social Evaluations’, by Thomas J Roulet

This is the kind of book that sits between management and sociology, written by Thomas Roulet, a specialist in both areas who is a senior lecturer at Judge Business School in Cambridge. It is dedicated to the still-emerging area of negative social evaluations — which can be internet fuelled, via lousy reviews on TripAdvisor or Twitter pile-ons meant to stigmatise people; or simply via a terrible performance review at work. Roulet admits his personal interest in this: having been given a poor review by a student in his first teaching job, he found himself obsessed with finding out who gave the low rating and confronting them.

The book outlines how negative social evaluation works, how it can actually be beneficial for companies and individuals. Roulet is cautious — this is tricky territory. “Yes, in some situations it might be beneficial. In others it might not. One key moderating mechanism is the way we process negative evaluations — as an individual, as a group, as an organization or as an entire field.”

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From a corporate point of view, negative or polarising evaluations among customers can be bonding within a company and among some of its customers. Taking the example of Chick-fil-A, an American fast-food chain, Roulet points out that its explicitly anti-LGBT statements and funding for groups opposed to LGBT rights caused a backlash and calls for boycotts, but that negative reputation actually “helped the firm gather even stronger supporters” among those who agreed with its stance.

While not explicitly a management book, this is a fascinating study of the social-media fuelled and fast-changing landscape of public opinion, and the possible ways in which that might be beneficial: change and self-awareness, whether that’s on a personal or corporate level, can emerge from public criticism. Very public views aired on social media are also here to stay, so we all need to learn to navigate negativity in a more holistic and coherent way. “We are addicted,” as Roulet points out, “and evaluate everything.”

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