Like most bosses, Anna Blackburn finds it hard to take time out to read. When she’s not running Beaverbrooks, which has won best place to work for two years running at the Retail Week awards, much of her time is taken up by her two young children, a situation no doubt complicated by the coronavirus lockdown - something so many working parents will be all too familiar with.
But that doesn’t mean books haven’t been influential on her career. Blackburn joined the century-old family business as a graduate trainee in 1998 and became CEO in 2013, before being promoted to managing director in 2018. She was the first non-family member to be appointed to the role and has taken the loss-making business into profit.
Beaverbrooks, which has 71 stores across the UK, posted pre-tax profits of more than £20m in 2019. Blackburn says books have given her guidance and opportunities for self-reflection, which have helped her define her leadership style based on collaboration and role-modelling.
“When I first made the step into management, I found The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson and Who Moved My Cheese? also by Spencer Johnson very helpful. They were quick reads and gave practical, uncomplicated advice about how people respond differently to change.
“It’s a Zoo Around Here! by Nigel Risner really resonated. It categorises people as elephants, dolphins and lions and reveals their different traits. I recognised some of those things in myself. While I was very people oriented, I was also very ambitious – I don’t think I found the right balance.
“Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman has been hugely influential. Emotional intelligence is highly underrated among leaders. You can either push people away or you can work together and take colleagues on a journey. If you can find the right balance of empathy, being understanding and having a vision, while still being straight talking and able to make hard decisions in a way that is fair, you’re on to a winner.
“I really enjoyed Jack Welch’s Winning. You can get a lot out of a book when you disagree with some of what is said. There are elements that I think are pure genius and others that are just not my style. I love Welch’s points about the importance of the leader, creating an open, honest culture and candour. I’m less keen on his view of people and getting rid of the 'bottom 10 per cent'.
“I recently managed to find a few hours of downtime to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. It was compelling and moving. It really puts things into perspective. My all-time recommendation would be The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. The fact he was jailed for so long and then set about trying to make his country a better place without focusing on revenge is inspiring.
“Was Mandela the perfect leader? I’m sure he wasn’t but, for his nation, he was the inspiring leader of his generation.”
“One of my favourite books growing up was The Color Purple by Alice Walker. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is also great. They have moral fibre to them.”
“I like Simon Sinek’s Start With Why because it’s all about communication. Often the biggest reason for failure in business is a lack of communication.”
Image credit: Beaverbrooks