Mixing business and pleasure

With summer here, it's time to pick up a couple of paperbacks, switch off the mobile phone and head for the beach.We look at what engineering managers might be reading on their holidays.

Skimming ghosted autobiographies of Arsenal footballers, movie actors or novels by Jilly Cooper simply isn't my idea of fun. And yet most of us agree that you must have something to read to take up the slack between the morning swim and the sundowner.

Oddly enough, holidays are a great time to catch up on a bit of reading, but you will need to do some planning before you get to the airport. As management editor of E&T magazine I get sent a lot of the latest business and technology titles to review. There is never enough space to review them all, and there's never enough time to read them all. But I've made a shortlist of the ten best to land on my desk in the past 12 months (all of these titles are available on Amazon so I'll not clog up space with the publishers' details).

One that will be around for years to come is Neville Bain's 'The Effective Director'. Bain, who is chairman of the Institute of Directors, draws on his years of experience in managing multinationals, and comes up with some interesting statements about how to perform better. It's all about people, he says. Monitor, review, appraise and train the people who work for you if you want to be more effective yourself. Get to know your customer and tailor your approach to what they want, and not what you think they should want.

If what you want is to succeed in China (or you are already there but want to optimise your presence) you need to read Jimmy Hexter and Jonathan Woetzel's 'Operation China: from Strategy to Execution'. In this book the authors contend that to compete on the world stage you have to win in China. Ninety per cent of the Fortune 500 companies are already there, and so there's nothing novel in simply having a presence. It's time to develop a strategy to maintain your market position.

All is not lost however if you find yourself still waiting to take the plunge, because Jonathan Reuvid's 'Business Insights: China' provides "practical advice on an entry strategy" as well as test cases, including that of a failed joint venture involving the export of broiler chicken. Other case studies include Rolls-Royce, Sigma Precision Components, Virgin and Sheffield United.

'How to Manage People' is the latest offering from Michael Armstrong, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. It's a practical guide giving advice to managers and team leaders on how to get the best from their staff, and dealing with problems that may arise. Once you've mastered this primer, you can move onto the advanced stuff.

By the same author, 'How to be an Even Better Manager' has sold over 120,000 copies worldwide to date. With sections on 'How to be decisive', 'How to manage conflict' and 'How to run and participate in effective meetings', it's a book that should really be on the shelves of just about every manager I've ever worked with.

You don't have to work harder, increase your travel schedule, and stay in the office until all hours in order to get your management problems under control. This is the rather welcome message from the authors of 'When Professionals Have to Lead', a book that promises to deliver "a new model for high performance". Aimed specifically at the professional services sector (legal accounting, PR, consulting and so on), authors DeLong, Gabarro and Lees describe an integrated leadership model that will hopefully take the place of the old-fashioned approach of 'work harder'. It sounds like a utopian vision of the future, but it is in fact an essay in common sense. Once you get through the, at times quite baffling, jargon, the book says: "Work out what you want to do and why, include everyone, leave nothing to chance and set a good example." Packed with case studies and practical advice on how to attain the 'new model', 'When Professionals Have to Lead' is a book that might just become a classic in the canon of management literature.

Those of you that follow the management pages in E&T magazine will already know that we take a rather dim view of fashionable and mannered 'management speak'. So it is a breath of fresh air to come across Samuel A Culbert's 'Beyond Bullsh*t'. Despite its rather coy title (either use the word or don't, we're all grown up for goodness sake), 'Beyond Bullsh*t' is decisive, clear and full of good management practice. We can all remember times when we've been taken for a ride by an initiative that we knew was illogical and ill conceived right from the start. We've gone along with evaluations and justifications that have made little sense and we've accepted organisational practices that made getting positive results almost impossible. All of this, as Culbert says, leaves us craving "straight-talk at work". Instead of the truth, transparency, and clarity we get management froth in both the way people act and talk. This provocative and creative book will enable serious professionals to find more self-respect in the workplace, avoid political battles and, above all, have a better time.

Outside of the management-specific instructional titles there have been some terrific books that have the art of leadership at their core. Matthew Parker's 'Panama Fever' is essentially a book about project management on a large-scale. And as projects go, they don't get much larger than the Panama Canal. The French messed it up in the 19th century and the Americans took over and swooped to victory early in the 20th. But it is more than simply a cautionary tale of how not to build big things - it is also a tale of human endeavour, steadfastness in the face of adversity, and the sheer will power of the tens of thousands who risked disease and deprivation in the course of the canal's construction. It's often said that it was the success in joining the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans that gave the Americans the vigour to win the space race.

One of the most interesting business books I've read in the past year is 'The Power of Paper' by Christopher Ondaatje. Although it doesn't set out to be about management, there is much to learn from the philanthropist and former financier, who started a business from nothing and ended up taking early retirement with £800m in his back pocket. Key lessons here are old-fashioned ones of limiting the amount you borrow, knowing your market and watching your cash flow like a hawk. Interestingly, Ondaatje predicted the 'credit crunch' a long time ago. We knew it was coming, he says, and yet everyone - from giant multinationals to the man in the street - kept on borrowing like a drunken duke at Ascot. 'The Power of Paper' is an extraordinary book in that it is also a warning about how economies will behave in the future. Ondaatje, who gave up hacking through the jungles of corporate finance two decades ago, now spends his time hacking through real jungles as an explorer.

But as managers what we really want to know about is leadership. And there is no better example of leading from the front than the most famous explorer of them all, Ernest Shackleton. There have been countless books written about his management skills - including 'Shackleton's Way' by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell - but the best of all is from the Boss's own pen. 'The Heart of the Antarctic' is a gripping account of his 1906 challenge for the South Pole. In this book we learn that leadership is not about technology or title, but about the qualities deep in the human psyche.

Of course, Shackleton never made it to the pole but that is somewhat beside the point: he never lost a man and he was admired for his capability everywhere he went, from the Antarctic wastes to London's fashionable dining salons. Complete with the terror of his final dash back from his aborted mission to the pole, his forced march in the extreme conditions of Antarctica is one of the true tales of leadership of the 20th century. Just the sort of book for reading in a hammock on a coral beach. 

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