Book review: Come on baby, light my fire, by Lynda Gratton

Business theory larded with self-help truisms make for an overblown read. He may not be all aglow, but Peter York finds himself strangely warming to its author.

Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Glow: How you can radiate energy, innovation and success
Lynda Gratton
FT Prentice Hall

When I first went through Lynda Gratton's Glow - reading's not really the word for it - I felt something calling me. I felt strangely drawn back to the comedian Neil Mullarkey's Don't be Needy Be Succeedy, a spoof of the Cool Culture Change genre book, which I reviewed for MT last year.

I didn't think it was accurate or funny then, mainly because the real things, motivational management books, were pretty much beyond parody. The language, the format, everything about Glow made me wonder if this woman could possibly be a real professor (she is, of management practice at LBS), and really be on The Times and FT lists of the world's top business thinkers (she is).

I mean, the book's called Glow; Gratton has founded an onward and upward global business community, Hot Spots Movement, which 'conducts research in the field of energy and innovation', and in 2006 she became head of the Lehman Brothers Centre for Women in Business (sic).

Everything in Glow is written in the self-help Double Plus language of that great publishing hybrid genre of our time, where the American big-idea business book meets the self-help 10-point plan for success, with a liberal helping of evangelism. 'Glowing' is, of course, what you do when you've been touched by Him.

Gratton wants to get people Glowing away, because that's how they'll 'radiate positive energy', so glowy indeed that they'll excite and 'ignite' everyone for miles. I'm driven, absolutely forced, to the great glowing metaphor of Spontaneous Human Combustion - the wonderful, presumably mythical, notion of people who are altogether too vibrant and glowing for their own good and literally ignite without matches, leaving just a pile of ashes.

In other words, it's Glow's hyper-charged language that makes me so allergic to an otherwise pretty formulaic genre book. There are masses of call-and- response, gospelly repetition; homely homilies about invented people in before-and-after situations; awful warnings about what happens if you don't stay ahead of the curve (answer: 'globalisation gobbles you up'); excitable sub-heads everywhere; three big Principles of Glowing and nine Actions to make you 'Glow every day'.

This approach cuts both ways. Everyone - publishers and their publicists especially - always says authors should make the writing 'accessible' and give the readers little routines to do ('cleanse, tone, moisturise'), so these kinds of books are nothing if not familiar. You know where you are. But, like mainstream ghost-writing, that's the problem for me. I'm so distracted by the certainty that I've been here before, that I can't concentrate on whatever the book's supposed to be delivering.

It means a second, maybe a third go at something that doesn't seem to warrant it, waiting for something engaging and original to connect with. This sort of book, with its highly non-specific optimism, doesn't describe anything but the psycho-bongo, all-purpose emotional side of corporate culture. There's no feeling for sector or place, ethnicity or class as causal factors in the simple situations Gratton describes.

There never is in these books; it'd narrow the market. In other words, it sends me into an absolute tailspin of snobbiness, cynicism and all-round non-positiveness.

The fact is that this kind of formula puts off as many as it turns on, even on the literary nursery slopes of management books.

People are forever looking for the identifiable, the shock of recognition, the significant details. Not management-speak with its grim enthusiasms and its laminated word-compounds.

Which is a pity, because Gratton has two highly relevant, little big things going for her, and I'd have come round to them sooner if the format and the language hadn't got in the way. First - blow me down - she's a bit of a woman-person who thinks women have the right attitude and are good at innovation, which is worth checking out in case she's right.

The other related idea is co-operation. Businesses actually work better if people share and co-operate and merge their heuristics - a hugely 2009 perspective, set against the individualist warfare-for-dummies language of The Apprentice - which is so instantly, hideously dated by events.

Gratton's three big glowing principles are, first, Developing a Co-operative Mindset. This means getting the right skills and habits, listening and having good conversations and not staying around anywhere where you can't put the other two to good use, because it's a dog-eat-dog culture. This seems a bit hopeful in the present recession.

The second principle is all about Jumping Across Worlds. This is to work with people who aren't like you, because that's the only way to stay excited and innovative and to be downright Glowy.

The third great principle - and I can hardly bring myself to write it, even though it's about something perfectly credible - is called Igniting Latent Energy. In English, this means getting people going by seeing the big positive ideas in their products and markets, the things that give more meaning to work than grim calculations like Shareholder Value.

Even here, Gratton is off on Wings of Song, moving from 'making a real difference in our community' to 'what does this mean for world hunger?' It sounds like a touch of the Trudie Stylers, but I'm starting to like Gratton. She could be All Heart.

Peter York is CEO of brand strategy consultants SRU. He co-wrote Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The return of the Sloane Ranger (Atlantic, £19.99)

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