Books of the Year: The inspiring and the informative

Social enterprise, stress and sporting prowess - all feature in the best reads of the past 12 months, says Mind Gym boss Octavius Black.

by Octavius Black
Last Updated: 10 Dec 2010

Four books, each in different ways, have inspired and informed my leadership of The Mind Gym over the past year.

Paul Tough's Whatever it Takes tells the story of the Harlem Children's Zone, a project set up by the remarkable social entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada to transform the lives of children from one of the most deprived parts of the US. At the launch of his charter school (like one of Britain's free schools), Mr Canada an-nounces: 'We are calling our school Promise Academy because we are making a promise to all of our parents. If your child is in our school, we will guarantee that your child succeeds. There will be no excuses.' It's a promise that he delivers by giving as much attention to the power of parenting as to the force of great schooling.

My proudest achievement this year has been the launch of Parent Gym, a programme to improve parenting skills in deprived areas. The four pilots produced amazing results, enticing the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to attend the launch of the rollout in Southwark. The example of the Harlem Children's Zone proves how vital it is to educate parents in order to change the life chances of those people most in need.

Back in the world of business, one of the most frequent requests from clients has been how to motivate employees exhausted by the economic turbulence. We tend to start such projects by looking at what works and then seeing how to get more of it. What Works: Success in stressful times by Hamish McRae is based on this principle. It looks at successes from outside the corporate world (with the exception of the Ikea story) and reveals why they worked and what lessons we can draw.

The story of how Australia became a great sporting nation will give hope to the most despondent CEO. Australia sent 182 athletes to the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and failed to win a gold medal. In Athens in 2004, they were fourth in the medal table, despite having a population of just over a third of the UK's. Australians went on to host one of the most successful Olympic Games of modern times and have branded their country as a sporting nation.

The focus on finding and supporting talent from every part of the country through the Australian Institute of Sport will give succour to any HR department with a vigorous talent management programme. It also shows just how identifying, nurturing and giving opportunities to people with high potential delivers a sustainable transformation.

Talent comes in many shapes and sizes. Michael Lewis (of Liar's Poker) produced, for me, the most insightful explanation of the financial crisis in The Big Short. His story is told through the eyes and experiences of those who saw what was coming and made a mint. These people are oddballs who verge on the socially autistic. A corporation would almost certainly rule them out at interview, and even if they made it through the door, they'd fail their first appraisal against the grid of company competencies.

And yet these were the ones who spotted the hole at the heart of the system. They didn't keep it a secret, either. They kept telling people, who ignored, derided, dismissed and made fun of them. Yet still they didn't give up. They weren't interested in being popular or, for the most part, in making pots of money. They were interested in being right - or in understanding why they were wrong.

When the credit agencies and the big-shot bankers and the clients and the regulators all agreed, these were the few who saw that the Emperor had no clothes. In my opinion, they deserve every penny they made. The lesson for corporate leaders is to recognise talent in its many forms, not just the one that looks like everyone else's.

Finally, The New Machiavelli - How to wield power in the modern world by Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff. Autobiographies tend to be full of the what and the why. This is the story of how. It is packed with practical tips and amusing anecdotes from the inside of one of the most long-lasting governments of the past 100 years. It should be on all CEOs' Christmas lists if they want to be in the same job this time next year.


Whatever it Takes
Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin £9.43

What works - Success in stressful times
Hamish McRae
Harper Press £8.99

The Big Short
Michael Lewis
Allen Lane

The New Machiavelli - How to wield power in the modern world
Jonathan Powell
Bodley Head £20.00

Octavius Black is chief executive of The Mind Gym

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