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Are you as tired of thinking about the dire economy, war casualties, and the oil spill as I am? Do you want to read something that is somewhat related to work, but easy and fun, and you won’t feel guilty about spending the time? If so, then I recommend anything by Malcolm Gladwell. This writer has an amazing ability to find patterns out of things that others miss, and his writing is entertaining and stimulating. He’s the guy who brought us the concept of the “tipping point,” which describes the point at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable. He’s written several books, all million sellers, and I chose to read Outliers for this review.
An outlier, according to Gladwell, is something that is markedly different in value from others in a statistical sample. He primarily focuses on the stories of people who have had great success, including Bill Gates. Gladwell looks underneath the stories to find that success is partially about individual striving, but it also includes luck, taking advantage of opportunities that are denied to others, talent and smarts, and lots and lots of practice.
Paul Osterman brings his academic perspective from the MIT Sloan School of Management to the issue of what is happening with middle managers today. Basically, he finds that middle managers are insecure in their jobs, more loyal to their teams than to the larger corporation, and like the work they do. None of these conclusions will be a surprise to people who work within corporations, but the data-driven analysis gives his words some weight.
One of the most intriguing discussions in his book is the history and perceptions of middle managers in the overall culture. Early in the twentieth century, advances in technology permitted cheap production on a very large scale. Middle management was the key actor that facilitated the remarkable growth and efficiency of the American economy. Without middle management’s coordination of production and distribution, firms could not grow big enough to take advantage of the technological potential of mass production and low unit cost. In other words, middle managers were heroes at first.
Daniel Pink opens our minds and shows us new possibilities in this entertaining book about how the right brain can contribute in a world that has long been devoted to left brain thinking. He begins by reviewing how the two halves of the brain work: the left hemisphere is sequential, analytical, verbal, and detail-oriented, while the right hemisphere processes information simultaneously, specializes in context, understands metaphor and nonverbal cues, and synthesizes the big picture. Pink’s thesis is that right-brain directed thinking, so often disdained and dismissed, will increasingly determine who soars and who stumbles.
He explains the reasons behind the shift from left to right brain dominance: abundance, Asia, and automation. In our abundance, we acknowledge that our left brains have made us rich. We can buy just about anything we want at a minimal price. This puts a premium on the aesthetic. For business, it’s no longer enough to create a product that’s reasonably priced and adequately functional. Now it must be beautiful, unique, and meaningful to be competitive.
When was the last time a business book made you smile? I believe this book will put a smile on the face of even the most discouraged business person. It’s a fable about a group of penguins whose iceberg may or may not be melting. If it melts it will break apart and leave the group homeless, and many penguins would die. Only Fred can see the potential disaster, but he’s a nobody in the penguin colony. Fred finally gets an audience with Alice, one of the leaders, and he shows her the fissures and other symptoms of melting. Alice is amazed that she had managed to ignore the signs, and she takes the problem to the leadership council.
The leaders have a variety of reactions, like leaders in all organizations. Some of them debate the validity of Fred’s statistics. One falls asleep. Another nods at everything because he is uncomfortable with numbers, but doesn’t understand a thing. In desperation, Fred constructs a model of their iceberg that shows the problem, but even he cannot guarantee 100% that the iceberg is melting, only that it appears to be. The head penguins realize that they need to tell the rest of the colony about this potential disaster. They call a general meeting, with the purpose of reducing complacency and increasing urgency.
One of my favorite things about coaching people on their 360 feedback results is talking to them about their strengths. Invariably, when managers have studied their reports before talking with me, they are very clear about what they see as their weaknesses. They almost never notice or take stock of their strengths, which are just as obvious to me as their weaknesses are to them. So we spend some time identifying their strengths and talking about how these can be leveraged to manage weaker areas that might be impacting their performance and slowing their careers. People are usually grateful for these insights, which they might not have gotten on their own.
I was interested in reading this book because I hoped it would be one I could recommend to people when they receive their feedback reports or who are learning to lead and manage others. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my hopes, even though it has some useful information. Let me address the book’s strengths first.
Don’t mistake this Covey with his father, author of the “7 Habits” series. He is his own person, and has written a book that could revolutionize our view of trust in organizations. I highly recommend this book; it is deep and thorough and not to be read in a few evenings. The information and wisdom it possesses should be savored, pondered, and integrated slowly for the greatest impact. When corporate scandals, terrorist threats, and betrayal by our leaders have created low trust on nearly every front, Covey maintains that the ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders is the key leadership competency of the new global economy.
Trust is defined as having confidence. When you trust people, you have confidence in them – in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them. Covey cites a study showing that total return to shareholders in high-trust organizations is almost three times higher than the return in low-trust organizations. On a personal level, high-trust individuals are more likely to be promoted, make more money, receive the best opportunities, and have more fulfilling and joyful relationships.