January 6, 2011

Staff Picks: In the Books - Off to the Printers XI

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 7:16 PM – Filed under: The Company

After an always busy year-end of hosting our Author Pow-Wow, reading and judging books for our 800-CEO-READ Business Book Awards, producing our annual review of business books, planning our Book Awards Party in New York City, trying to keep up with our more mundane and unsung daily tasks, and working on our secret, obviously unannounced plans of world-domination, we're beginning to see the light here in the New Year. One big recent step was sending our annual review off to the printers*, and in a tradition I started last year to wrap up the project, I'd like to share with you here some of what we have written in previous issues. (I've also put links to previous entries in this series at the end of this post.)

*We are lucky to have Stauber Design Studio and CrossTech Communications in our corner on this project every year. This year's theme for the piece is "Work Better," something both organizations help us do. If you have anything you need to communicate in this world, the smartest first step you can take is to contact these wonderful Chicago companies.

First up, we have our General Manager Jon Mueller and his piece on the struggles we all faced as the economy tanked in 2008, and the books written in 2009 to help us out of it. Without further ado...


Finding Opportunities: Re-examining Personal and Organizational Strength in Challenging Times BY JON MUELLER

As 2009 dawned, instead of the kind of high hopes and fresh starts the beginning of a year typically brings, the economy was crashing harder each day. Businesses crumbled, people lost jobs, and nearly everything lost value as spending froze and budgets dried up. 800-CEO-READ was intimately affected, as the company painfully let staff go in the downsizing of an already-lean group. Around the world, reality became surprisingly bleak, and no one seemed to have any solid answers.

Despite being bombarded by negative news regarding the economy, a counter-attack seemed to be developing and people started to come out of their temporary collective daze. Instead of giving in to the pessimism, people began to address the issues, rethinking what it means to run a business, manage a group of people, and develop and apply personal skills. For many, individuals and businesses alike, this crisis became an opportunity for change, for chasing dreams, even for just waiting out the storm as they planned for something better. Which is not to say there haven’t been painful decisions made, that there haven’t been casualties, but if change is the only certain thing, then the challenge is to transform dire circumstances into dramatic successes.

In January, Martha Finney released her timely book Rebound: A Proven Plan for Starting Over After Job Loss to encourage just such a thing. The book seemed eerily prophetic in some ways, but nonetheless offered an immediate salve to the wounded. For many, finding a new job was not at all in the plan, but the advice and insight in Finney’s book was miraculous in its ability to provide current and profound advice to those that needed it unexpectedly quick.

Rebound not only plunges headfirst into tactical advice, but also addresses financial and emotional issues, like how to manage spending during unemployment, how to explain your job loss to your children, and other issues that are often overlooked in the more common discussions about beefing-up one’s resume, networking, and refining the interview process. Those critical skills are covered, too, but it’s Finney’s knack for understanding and addressing the broad scope of the situation that makes her book stand above the rest.

Finney subscribes to the idea of using the negativity a job loss to address one’s true self-interest and passion. She states:

"Figure out where you stand, how much time you have to explore possibilities, what you love, and where you really want to go next" (103).

Now, let’s be honest, most people who find themselves jobless in the current economy are likely looking for a way to get that next paycheck. But it seems true that those who take this seemingly soft advice will be the ones who rise to even greater heights when the economic crisis settles.

For those who made the decision to leave the unfriendly confines of the corporate office, either by choice or by demand, Pamela Slim’s Escape From Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur is the guide for you. Slim concurs with Finney that it is crucial to align one’s professional life with one’s personal goals:

“If you don’t consider your life as a key part of your business model, you may find yourself outwardly successful and inwardly miserable. The way to avoid this is to create a plan that outlines in great detail the kind of life that will make you happy and healthy. Over time, as your life changes you can adjust the plan. The important thing is to think about your ideal life before you make any serious decisions about your business plan” (83).
From there, Slim outlines varying types of business models, and asks the reader to consider questions like, “what is really needed? What could make this experience better? How could I improve this?” in order to establish how their business can have a positive impact and increase its chances of surviving. Slim then gets serious about how to figure out the finances needed for the business, how to develop the business, and how to strategize for growth. All in all, this is a clear, direct, and serious book for those who want to start their own business, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for those among the newly disenchanted workforce looking to try their own venture.

These are exciting times for those daredevils willing to take a risk in the face of such uncertainty, as economist Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World encourages:

“This book will start and end with the idea of the value and the creative power of the individual” (1).
While Finney and Slim’s books advise individuals on finding their next path, Cowen addresses how technology has allowed for a tremen-dous shift in power to the individual. This power is something we all have access to, but might not necessarily understand how it all works, how we work within it, and how information can be both consumed and controlled to have a profound effect on our business and lives.

Because so many new channels exist, the better we become at communicating through them will be revealed in how good we are in our business. A final quote from Cowen sums up the great opportunities that this technology, and our involvement with it, provides:

“As our inner lives become richer, the idea of creating your own economy is becoming a reality. We’re learning how to use filters to get the information we really want and we are learning how to avoid information overload. We’re learning how to cultivate intellectual patience. And every day we are getting better at using the web to connect with other human beings and improve our personal relationships” (211).
These three books are but a small sampling of the useful information that became available to help individuals through the economic downturn, but what about the companies that held on for dear life? For those that stayed in business, it might be assumed that they foresaw the coming disaster, knew how to prepare, and can continue to weather any storm. But of course, it’s not that simple. Most companies were hit hard and had to make tough choices, and there are some timely books released that address how leaders and managers within companies can find positive results in a negative situation.

Bill George’s 7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis bridges the gap between individual and organization, offering a solid resource of insight for those who want to lead as part of a team. George separates his book not by chapters, but by “lessons,” lessons that offer a tactical approach to distinct areas of leadership. He stresses those lessons are best learned by participating, and thus leaders must discover firsthand the risk and opportunity that the word crisis implies. And it is important to note that George offers an interesting translation of the word “crisis”:

“In Chinese, the character for the word crisis is made up of two symbols, danger and opportunity. That’s exactly what it represents for you as a leader. Although there is always the danger of failing, guiding people through a major problem is your best opportunity to develop your leadership” (4).
Throughout 7 Lessons, George talks candidly about the global meltdown, its roots, and how leaders can learn from it. He emphasizes the need to recognize that crises have deep roots, and addressing those roots is crucial for leaders; dealing with problems on the surface only creates a larger mess down the road. It’s profound advice that goes beyond the recent economic meltdown to many ongoing challenges that leader’s face.

Steven Little’s Duck and (Re)Cover: The Embattled Business Owner’s Guide to Survival and Growth makes no promises for instant solutions. The author is extremely forthright when he begins:

“I know you want answers. If you are embattled, you could be reading this book because you want me to tell you what to do … No embattled business owner, I can’t tell you what to do … What I can do is point you toward those areas that most need your focused attention and efforts” (28). After reading a statement like this, readers might question why they should continue. Little explains that he offers “two things most business owners don’t have: an outsider’s perspective and a long history of pattern recognition” (20).
With this approach, Little seemingly offers to be the struggling business owner’s partner during this trying time, and it’s a comfort to share the burden as Little discusses how to better manage cash flow, customer service, strategy, marketing, pricing profitably, and exploring other business models (ex., the green industry). He covers a lot of ground, but in a readable, intelligent style that gives the right amount of consideration to these serious times. Perhaps most importantly, he pushes the reader to remember the importance of purpose:
“The purpose of your organization is to identify and serve the changing needs of the marketplace. A recession doesn’t change that ultimate purpose; it simply changes the nature of the opportunities that are created. This current crisis may be unique in some ways, but it also is much the same as the previous economic storms we have weathered. Attrition and changing market needs are creating vacuums that somebody is going to fill. The question is: Which ones represent the best opportunities for you?” (131).
Questions like Little’s are what businesses need to be asking to prepare themselves for recovery. The challenge is to embrace a sense of opportunity and adventure. Focusing on the opportunities, the upside, and not wallowing in the doom is where the success lies.

Two other notable books reference this same optimism: Geoff Colvin’s The Upside of the Downturn: Ten Management Strategies to Prevail in the Recession and Thrive in the Aftermath and Donald Sull’s The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World.

Colvin’s book is an effective practicum; encouraging continued training and employee development, stressing that after (both human and budgetary) cuts have been made, focusing on the human resources that remain is paramount. He states:

“Continuing to offer training—adapted to the new environment—can help a company gain competitive advantage in the downturn. After all, in this changed world the requirements facing many of your people have probably changed also” (47).
Employees are the front line, so it is imperative that CEOs and managers keep them well-prepared for the flux.

The Upside of the Downturn goes on to suggest ways to find opportunity in a recession, from managing for value and finding solutions, to customer’s new problems and understanding risks to personal growth—the last of which aligns surprisingly with Slim and Finney’s more personal approach mentioned above. Now, more than ever, there seems to be a focus on personal development as a method to avoiding further mistakes and problems down the road.

Sull’s Upside encourages innovation by combining existing resources. He elaborates:

“A tight definition of innovation, however, consists of a novel combination of existing resources, in the spirit of the sandwich. Innovations come in many flavors—they can reconfigure a technology, process, supply chain or business model; sustain or disrupt an existing trajectory; extend existing practices; or break with the past. But all are examples of novelty from recombining existing resources” (20).
The good news here is that it might not take new ideas or investment to save a company that has survived but is not thriving; instead simply re-examining what it is they do well, and what else exists within, may lead to unexpected riches. Of course change does not come free, and Sull, like Colvin, encourages companies to invest, not freeze.
“To conserve cash in a downturn, companies retreat from attractive opportunities, leaving them open for rivals” (35).
Ideally a company should be open to doing both—pursuing new opportunities and exploring more options from within.

The Upside of Turbulence is not only a book for these times, but likely for the future as well. It infuses historical stories with current case studies and reveals patterns. Sull claims that being both aware and prepared to deal with these patterns is a key component to success. Using a metaphor about comedians, he notes:

“Seasoned improvisers attempt to discover a pattern that emerges in the course of a skit, rather than imposing a preexisting idea on the action” (115).
In fact, a theme throughout Sull’s book is agility, both personal and as an organization, in structure, communication, and strategy.

There is certainly no need to detail again what a turbulent year this was, both for individuals and organizations, but what is worth repeating is the value in the collective focus on some of the deeper issues at play: the emphasis on individual talent, skill, creativity, passion, and fulfillment, as well as a similar analysis of an organization, and tapping both the known and previously unknown resources and abilities therein.

Each of the books discussed in this essay share common themes of re-examination, development, and determination, fitting terms for everyone to consider putting into play in these challenging times. In doing so, both people and organizations will discover opportunities, new directions, and the substance to take their selves, their businesses, and eventually the economy itself to higher ground.



Stay tuned to this here blog for more from In the Books, spread out over the next week.