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Top 10 books from 2017 and top 5 picks for 2018

2 Jan

As regular readers of this blog might know, my new year’s resolution two years ago was to read a book a week for that year (2016) – a resolution that has become a habit and a blog (http://dogearedman.wordpress.com); you can read fuller reviews of all the books I mention here on that blog. This year has been a busy one, so I’ve read a lot of relatively undemanding crime and police procedural thrillers that provide a bit of escapism and a neatness that real life cannot. In 2018, I’m hoping to up the quotient of non-fiction and literary fiction in the mix – and achieve an equal gender author split (I was a bit out this year with 28 books by men and 25 by women). Anyway, here’s my top 10 fiction and non-fiction from the year, and below that the five books I’m most looking forward to reading in the year ahead.

1) The Power by Naomi Alderman – loved this from start to finish; if you were to tell people it’s a ‘feminist’ novel, some might turn away and run for the hills, but it is thrilling, exciting, funny and challenges any number of preconceptions along the way. A must-read in post-Weinstein, #metoo times.

2) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – it won the Booker prize, so I’m not exactly unveiling any shock recommendations here, but this was great. Genuinely unlike any other book I’ve read, and inventive and creative in the way I have come to enjoy from Saunders’ books of short stories (which I would also highly recommend).

3) My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout – another book that made all the book of the year lists (last year and this year) and it’s a very quiet, unassuming, devastating story of a woman and her relationship with her mother. Insightful, troubling and moving in equal turns, it’s elegantly and sparely written but packs a real emotive punch.

4) A Beautiful Young Wife by Tommy Wieringa – a strange, evocative short novella from this Dutch author that stayed with me a lot longer than many others I read: beautifully crafted and enchanting in the way it details the breakdown and break-up of a marriage.

5) Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – just finished this, and it’s great: incredibly current, but with the force of Greek tragedy (it’s based around Sophocles’ Antigone), the novel revolves around the clashes between family and country, between loyalty and law, between the political and personal, and could only have been written in 2017. Crackles with energy to the last page.

[non-fiction now….]

6) Grit by Angela Duckworth – one for those who think hard work and commitment and persistence and resilience matter as much as disruption and (academic) intelligence and breakthrough innovation. Duckworth has taken a simple premise and dedicated a lifetime to testing out the theory in different ways, and has plenty of tips that are applicable – in everything from recruitment to schooling.

7) The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry – Perry is brilliant on male foibles, the crisis of masculinity, and on diagnosing the problems (and potential answers) to the situation we find ourselves in. I loved the TV series he made about this (and the associated series of artworks) and this is wonderful too. Read alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawale, a great series of pieces of advice to a friend on how to raise a feminist daughter, and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which is short, eloquent and rightfully angry.

8) The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich – a really unusual memoir which intermingles the author’s personal family story with the disturbing and troubling tale of a murder case she works on as a young lawyer. Fascinating detail about both families emerges, and though resolution remains distant, I found this unputdownable.

9) Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman – it’s certainly felt like a year when we’ve needed some optimism and hope and ideas about how things can get better, and Bregman’s book is full of those. Universal Basic Income remains one of his key ones, but there are many more here to set the brain running: much food for thought, and it’s an inspiring read. (If you want to be thoroughly depressed, I’d suggest All Out War which lays out all the detail and story behind Brexit).

10) Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance – heralded as giving the insight to how Trump got elected, this is a really interesting look at poor white hillbilly families in mid-America and the circumstances they are in (and how hard and difficult it is to escape them). It’s probably been a bit overhyped (I’m not sure how universal Vance’s story is), but it’s compelling stuff and paints a bleak picture of the heart of the USA.

For what it’s worth, if you’re interested, the best new crime writers I came across this year were Stav Sherez and Jane Harper; both worth your time on the commute / beach.


The five books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2018 are:

1) Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra – this doesn’t look cheery but I hope it might help me understand the trends and motivations underlying a more divided world

2) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Raceby Reni Eddo-Lodge – like Mishra’s book, this comes highly recommended by lots of different people

3) Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World by James Ball – this might already be out of date, but as the nature of communication (and communication channels) changes so quickly, the role of evidence, ‘truth’ and authenticity grows

4) Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine – I remember reading about this a while back, and it’s meant to be a great insight into the punk / music scene and the realities of life on the road.

5) Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant – all about resilience and what to do when Option A goes out of the window (in Sandberg’s case, when her husband died suddenly); I enjoyed (most of) Lean In and hopefully there will be some nuggets here

For those more interested in fiction, novels lined-up include The Party by Elizabeth Day, Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige, Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch, The Girls by Emma Cline and, for a crime fix, The Intrusions by Stav Sherez and a couple of Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffiths.

Have a great 2018 everyone.

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6 different perspectives on leadership

4 Nov

It’s been a couple of months since I last updated this blog, and that’s partly because this is always the busiest quarter of the year in the social sector, or at least at Social Enterprise UK. Added to this normal season of awards, events, tender deadlines, research reports and more has been added the fact that I’m changing jobs – in January I start at Social Investment Business, leaving SEUK after 6 years.

When I have a bit of time for thinking and reading, I have somewhat inevitably, therefore, been turning towards articles about leadership. So I thought I’d share six that I’ve found useful, challenging or enlightening in recent weeks.

1) 12 Lessons (Un)Learned from a year of philanthropy. The McConnell Foundation in Canada have long been one of the leaders in their field, and this is an interesting and insightful reminder of humility, being on-hand, thinking as a network and more.

2) 5 things digital leaders do differently – a nice, succinct post from Zoe Amar which, although something of a marketing piece for her (highly regarded) programme with the SSE, has some good content. Some of the points apply regardless of the word ‘digital’ in front of them (“Digital leaders embrace risk”; “Digital leaders have insatiable curiosity”) and there is some interesting stuff on how digital can aid customer relationships, business development and transparency.

3) Leadership in public service is too punitive and too unforgiving – this is an interesting response from a headteacher to Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference. A reminder about the importance of empathy and not pretending that leadership is heroism.

4) 4 steps to driving social change through people – while I’m not wild about the title (the article is very much about achieving things with people!), this is a candid and insightful piece from Mark Norbury at UnLtd. I think the part about a constant, continuing clarification of what not to do (or a framework for making those decisions) resonated most with me.

5) How can we build on clicktivism to harness diversity – this piece by Becca Bunce details how she became an ‘accidental’ leader and campaigner (on the Istanbul Convention combating violence against women), and is part of ACEVO’s ‘30’ series to celebrate 30 years of existence. It’s excellent and challenges the lazy thinking of people (like me) who dismiss online campaigning as ‘slacktivism’. It’s also excellent on the ability of online tools to expand diversity but also to restrict it.

6) Good Leaders are Good Learners – HBR articles have a tendency to disappear up their own fundament, but there is some useful stuff here about being in learning mode and supporting the development of that mindset in others.

Enjoy!

In search of competence…as a business strategy

27 Aug

I jokingly said during the general election earlier this year that I wasn’t so much in search of excellence (a la Tom Peters) from the parties but in search of competence. An old joke that I stole from a voluntary sector leader giving a speech: but like all the best jokes, it has a big grain of truth in it. I was reminded of this, listening to the HBR podcast the other day. The HBR podcast is a mixed bag: quite often it features management consultants who have invented some new thing about big companies in order to sell themselves to the same big companies, who largely trundle on as they did before (recent examples of this genre include “how to survive being labelled a star” (we’ve all been there) and “reduce organisational drag”, both of which are consistently moments away from disappearing up their own fundament). The title of the last episode caught my eye though: “Basic Competence Can Be A Strategy” (link is to the transcript of the podcast). 

It’s an interesting listen/read – largely about management, and how people think they are all above-average, and how many are simply missing the fundamentals. Setting an agenda for meetings, taking actions and following up on them, washing your hands before surgery, taking the time to ensure people understand or know what the plan is…and so on. It reminded me of another book on a similar topic, the Checklist Manifesto (by the wonderful American healthcare writer Atul Gawande) which, as the name would suggest, largely promotes the checklist as a way to ensure things get done: in the right order, and that nothing gets missed. This can apply everywhere – when people call Social Enterprise UK, a list can ensure we don’t miss anything key (do you want to join? Do you want to be signed up to the newsletter? Here are the organisations that can help with x and so forth).

I was also reminded of it by the nonsense that is the NFL GamePass in Europe right now. For the uninitiated, NFL is the organisation that runs American Football in the US; I’m a fan, so I enjoy watching the games. You can do this illegally via streaming, but I have paid for the GamePass app which is  (or has been) a great way of watching and moving between games every Sunday. It’s not a cheap product, but it works really well, and so I’ve been happy to pay for it. I’m also such a fan that, along with some other social enterprise types, I’ve been going to the American Football games in London for about a decade.

In their wisdom, ahead of this season, the powers that be at NFL / NFL UK have decided to licence GamePass to a new European developer / promoter (a new joint venture created by Bruin Sports Capital and WPP). Unfortunately, in their wish to, I assume, squeeze more dollars out of the game, they have managed to create a product that a) has fewer features // b) costs the same // c) doesn’t work for many on the platforms they previously used // d) can’t be paid for in instalments. Additionally, just for fun, they’ve thrown in some major errors on payments (some people want to pay and can’t; some have been charged and aren’t being refunded). And for the cherry on top, there has been no communication from the people who made the decisions.

Setting aside personal irritation, (I’m waiting to see if they can sort it out before putting down any £), this is a great example of how basic competence is key to business. None of this is complicated: if you are changing something that works, give yourself enough time to make sure the replacement works; don’t remove payment options (that actually lose you customers); don’t change key useability of things without letting customers know in advance; and don’t be silent in the face of a barrage of emails, social media and fan forum criticism. And yet, it can be missed in the search for the next big thing, or on what other stakeholders (Investors? New business partners?) think is important. We all have our own equivalents of the new app, or the change to existing systems; & our own examples of taking the eye of the ball of the basics.

The lesson isn’t ‘don’t ever change’, obviously – small improvements and big leaps of new strategy are crucial at different times to businesses growing and staying relevant. But changes bring risks: and where they affect your main customers, they are critical. The lesson for all businesses is to plan well, do the basics, tick the things of the list, and constantly communicate with your customers. They are the heart of your business, and neglecting them is, well, incompetent. 

[image by the wonderful thisisindexed.com ]