7 books for the curious CEO

Busyness is a necessary condition of leadership, but there are some things you should never be too busy for. Family is one; proper conversations with colleagues and customers are another.

For us, reading makes the list too – or listening to radio, podcasts or audiobooks, if that’s how you learn – because it’s only by keeping our minds open to new ideas that we will continue to be challenged and to grow.

When time is a scarce resource, finding the right books is important, as is sifting out the ones that frankly feel like a chore to get through. To help you out, here’s a set of books released over the last year (or very soon to be released) which we’ve found worth a read.

1. Effortless, by Greg McKeown (April 2021)

A Harvard study a couple of years ago revealed CEOs work an average of 62.5 hours a week (see above). But what if they didn’t actually need to? New York Times bestseller Greg McKeown argues that less is usually more, attacking our culture of overwork and what he calls the false dichotomy of hard-but-important and easy-but-trivial tasks. McKeown’s nuggets of advice include defining ahead of time what “done” looks like, asking what steps you can remove and “having the courage to be rubbish”. Illuminating.

2. The Heart of Business: Leadership principles for the next era of capitalism, by Hubert Joly (May 2021 – we got a sneak peek)

“You’re crazy… this place is a zoo.” That was Hubert Joly’s initial response when headhunted for the CEO position at Best Buy in 2012. Fortunately for the ailing US electronics retailer, he came around, eventually launching one of the most famous turnarounds in American corporate history, involving five straight years of growth and a quadrupling of the share price. Joly explains how he did it in this part memoir, part manifesto for a more human-centric approach to business.

3. Good Guys: How men can be better allies for women in the workplace, by David G Smith and W Brad Johnson (October 2020)

When the #MeToo movement exposed pervasive misogyny in the workplace, a lot of people believed it would begin to sweep gender inequalities aside, but progress remains sluggish. This book describes itself as being a practical guide for “good guys” – the men who want to be allies for women at work but who don’t really know where to get started – but its lessons are useful for anyone interested in inclusive leadership.

4. Rethinking Competitive Advantage: New rules for a digital age, by Ram Charan (April 2021)

Charan’s knack for making complex ideas accessible is reflected in his seven-figure book sales. Here, he argues that tech companies have changed the rules of strategic competition through innovations like platform ecosystems, and looks at how “legacy” businesses like Disney, BMW and Walmart have successfully adopted them to thrive in the digital age. Uplifting.

5. Competition is Killing Us: How big business is harming our society and planet – and what to do about it, by Michelle Meagher (September 2020)

Competition lawyer Meagher also believes big tech has changed capitalism, but not for the better. In her analysis, the success of digital platforms has created a kind of winner-takes-all shareholder model that mirrors the robber barons of the late 19th century, to everyone’s detriment. Her solution is a combination of much stricter anti-trust regulations with a vision for stakeholder capitalism, as exemplified by B Corps.

6. Shoemaker: The untold story the British family firm that became a global brand, by Joe Foster (October 2020)

Another memoir, this one tells the story of Reebok, which Foster founded in the 1950s with his brother. Despite coming from a family of respected shoemakers, the Fosters struggled at first: the author and his wife lived for a time in their dilapidated Bolton factory, and had to keep the machines in the corners of the room because they were afraid the floor would collapse under the weight. After a steady few decades Reebok exploded into super-growth in the 1980s when its shoes became linked to the women’s aerobics craze popularised by Jane Fonda.

7. How not to be wrong: The art of changing your mind, by James O’Brien (September 2020)

Sticking to your guns is a virtue – if you’re one of those people who always arrives at the correct conclusion the first time they consider anything. For the rest of us mortals, changing your mind when you’re wrong is rather important. This guide to challenging yourself serves as a refreshing, at times amusingly candid reminder that ego can be our greatest enemy.