FT business books: May edition

‘What’s Your ZIP code Story? Understanding and Overcoming Class Bias in the Workplace’, by CJ Gross

Companies investing in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts already know that their employees’ different identities — race, gender, age, sexuality, etc — affect their lived experiences. Here, author CJ Gross argues for the importance of including social class in these conversations, too.

Gross, who now works as a diversity and inclusion consultant, brings a personal perspective — he was born to a single, working class mother, who raised him outside Washington, DC, in one of the wealthiest African American communities in the country, which made him aware of social divisions from a young age.

“Class migrants”, or those from a working-class background who attempt upward mobility, can suffer in their careers because they aren’t familiar with the invisible rules of middle- and upper-class professionals — and can feel alienated as a result.

“Living in different zip codes does more than separate us by region: it becomes a barrier to establishing communication and building trusting relationships. If we are unable to relate to one another, the conversation usually comes to a screeching halt,” writes Gross.

Woven through with real stories from the author, others and historical figures, Gross covers everything from what managers and class migrants need to know, to tips for businesses on incorporating social class into their DEI initiatives, and a framework for how to use mentorship to build equity. Titbits on career growth, empathetic management, and more equitable work environments make this a valuable read for anyone who is invested in the success of employees from all types of backgrounds, regardless of where they live.

‘25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs’, by Andrew Leon Hanna

25 Million Sparks opens with a joyful wedding scene: a string of white lights drawn across the night sky, lively Syrian music, and a bride and groom surrounded by a crowd at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

The bride has been dressed by Yasmina, a refugee herself who fled Syria while pregnant, and now runs a wedding shop and salon at the camp. She is one of three Syrian women whose stories of entrepreneurship form the narrative of this book by Andrew Leon Hanna, a first-generation Egyptian-American lawyer, entrepreneur and author who won the FT’s Bracken Bower prize in 2018. There is also Malak, a young artist, and Asma, who runs a storytelling initiative for children.

By taking readers into the heart of the camp and the people who live there, Hanna hopes to shine a light on how refugee entrepreneurs are uplifting the Za’atari community — and how they are thriving in other camps and cities around the world.

Za’atari has existed since 2012 as a consequence of the Syrian civil war, but as the conflict has dragged on the camp has spurred entrepreneurial spirit — or the “sparks” — and become the setting for thousands of start-ups and social initiatives.

Hanna switches between the women’s present lives in the camp and memories of the “darkness” each left behind in war-torn Syria. The narrative is interspersed with broader context of how the camp came into being in the first place, the causes of the broader refugee crisis, and raises questions of how to address it.

While the writer acknowledges that he does not have the answers, the book is a form of activism through storytelling. Or, as he puts it, a “step to catalysing more concrete action”.

In highlighting these examples of entrepreneurship, Hanna seeks to counter what he sees as unfair perceptions of refugees, perpetuated by the media’s emphasis on the economic burden of those who find themselves displaced, and the hopelessness of their situation — instead he inspires readers with examples of bravery, creativity and resilience.

‘Results: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done’, by Charlie Baker and Steve Kadish

Public and private sector organisations are often subject to comparison. Both have long and short-term goals and achieving such aims produces a demand for management. Though Results is an implementation guide for officers in the public service, it can be also used by leaders in large organisations slowed by bureaucracy and politics.

The book — written by Charlie Baker, governor of Massachusetts and Steve Kadish, former chief of staff for Baker — is a step-by-step manual that leads to sustainable outcomes, examining how to move from identifying problems to actually achieving things.

The approach is replicable and based on capacity and capability: it is about recognising people’s capacity to lead, evaluate, propose and act — as well as about an organisation’s capability to focus, operate and perform.

The authors begin exploring in detail each of the four pillars of what they call the “Results Framework”: people, facts, what to do and how to do it and measuring results. They emphasise the importance of selecting leaders and team members with knowhow, collaborative spirit and diverse backgrounds.

In part two, they illustrate how the framework operates in practice through examples such as healthcare, transportation, child welfare and Covid-19.

Chapters are complemented with a “tips, tools and tactics” section with useful suggestions. An interesting one: “Go beyond the boundaries of an organisation in order to learn — breaking the information bubble that can form around a leader”. Organisations tend to turn inwards when they need to turn outwards and it is important to build new knowledge by reaching out.

One thing is certain: building trust with the public or clients is about commitment and pursuit. People do not expect leaders to get things right every time, but that they can learn from mistakes and appreciate what is possible.

‘A New Way to Think: Your Guide to Superior Management Effectiveness’, by Roger Martin

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. So why do so many of us continue to behave in this way? Roger Martin, former dean and now professor emeritus of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, has been writing for several years about businesses that have overcome this challenge and has compiled a selection of his articles from the Harvard Business Review to create this guide.

Each of the 14 self-contained chapters compares a dominant but flawed model with an alternative that Martin believes is superior. He caveats his analysis by saying that his answers are not necessarily the best possible ones, just better than the status quo.

“One should always use the best model available, but watch closely to see whether it produces the outcomes that it promised,” he writes. “If it does, keep using it. If it doesn’t, then you should work on creating a better model — one that produces results more in keeping with your goals.”

Each chapter is a self-contained story, meaning that you do not need to read this book cover to cover, just dip into the subjects that most interest you. This is a concise management handbook from someone who has spent a career analysing business strategies.

‘The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed’, by Daniel Coyle

Culture was a hot management and leadership topic before the pandemic but as the workforce remains distributed more permanently, now it is even more so.

This book is a comprehensive guide to building the culture you want starting with what you already have, and it gets to the point immediately: where does great culture come from? How do you get it, or turn round a culture that needs fixing?

The author, who has advised organisations such as Microsoft and Google, is clear that culture “doesn’t depend on who you are but on what you do”. It’s a skill, he writes. And like any skill it can be done well or poorly. And culture isn’t easy, even for those organisations that appear to already have a strong one, they “wrestle with plenty of problems”. Basically, it takes work.

After setting out the rules for using the book — “start where you’re at”; “create conversations not mandates”; “there are no rules” — the book is split into three sections. These sections focus on three key elements: building psychological safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing a purpose.

With a broad range of tips from building “mantra maps” and holding pre-meeting warm-ups, to anxiety parties and marking the ends of projects, this book has lots of practical exercises for those serious about nurturing their company culture. A particular favourite tip: “Zero tolerance of brilliant jerks”. In other words, brilliance does not make up for bad behaviour and this should be made clear in the hiring process.

However, readers should remember that culture is “a work in progress”. And while these tips apply to everyone, Coyle says “bias and unfairness can be baked into institutions and processes in insidious ways — so it is crucial to keep diversity, equality and inclusion at the fore when implementing any of these actions”.

‘The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work’, by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, Laurie R Weingart

At my workplace, there are some very clever people who are unable to understand the photocopying machine. Is it because their minds are on the big things, like politics, or economics? Well, yes. Or is it because their learned helplessness means that someone else might be able to attend to the tedious administration of office life, allowing them to get on with the sort of tasks that will raise their profile and get them promoted? Also, yes.

Have you also noticed that some workers are less likely to take on the boring jobs around the workplace that help make it function but do nothing for anyone’s career, such as organising the office party, or steering committees? And maybe that these workers tend to be men?

That is the thesis of a new book, The No Club, written by four female academics, spurred by their own experiences of being overwhelmed by mindless jobs that did little — or nothing — to advance their careers. They call these non-promotable tasks — or NPTs.

The book is the result of their research. Their work examined the way that women and men structure their workload and the tasks they are expected to carry out. Based on this, it offers advice for women who want to fend off requests.

Further, it also offers guidance to employers so they can consider the distribution of NPTs — could some of these voluntary tasks, for example, actually be made into promotable work? Sitting on a diversity committee, for instance, is valuable experience that can help develop a broad range of transferable skills.

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