Books of the Year

MT marks the turning of the year with a bibliophile's retrospective. We asked three well-read senior executives to describe their favourite volumes of 2006. First up ...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

HOWARD DAVIES: WHEN POWER OVERREACHES ITSELF

With the recent avalanche of Hitleriana, I had begun to think there was nothing more to learn about the Third Reich. But The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze proved me wrong.

Tooze is an economic historian from Cambridge, whose book sheds new light on the structure of the Nazi regime and on the reasons for the war in the East. He takes a relentlessly economic line, focusing on the availability of natural resources, industrial production and the scale of the war effort. Even though one knows the end - so to speak - it is a gripping story.

Uberpower by Josef Joffe is not a deeply researched work. It's a long, journalistic essay, but none the worse for that. Joffe focuses on a subject more often discussed in continental Europe than in the UK - the consequences of the end of the Cold War and the arrival of a single superpower. How should Europe position itself in relation to the almighty US? Is it possible to develop a European foreign policy that can act as a realistic counterweight to the American version?

Joffe is no anti-American: he is a supporter of the Iraq war. But he believes that the Bush administration has forgotten the need to build alliances and win friends.

Bush could learn from the British in the 19th century, or even Bismarck, he says. Whether Joffe's prescriptions for the US are realistic, and whether the Neocons will pay any attention, is doubtful. But his essay deserves a wider audience, both over here and over there.

One former Neocon who may empathise with Joffe is Francis Fukuyama, of End of History fame. Like Joffe, he supported the Iraq invasion; unlike him, he now thinks it was a terrible mistake. After the Neocons: America at the crossroads is a fascinating recantation by one of the philosophers of the Republican right. His basic point is that the kind of muscular foreign policy that served Reagan well with the Soviets is just not going to do the job in relation to the axis of evil.

If all this evil seems too much with the Christmas pudding, try Renewing Unilever by Geoffrey Jones. Corporate histories are not always the most gripping stuff, but this one is a cut above the rest, and won the Wadsworth Business History Prize this year. It brings the story of Unilever up to the 1980s, and is a warts-and-all account. Remember Persil Power? Unilever certainly wishes it didn't.

Finally, as cricket scores from Australia begin to trickle in, a novel that reminds us of simpler times Down Under. All of this year's Man Booker shortlist were highly readable, but as holiday relaxation I recommend The Secret River by Kate Grenville, a 1790s tale of convicts sent to Botany Bay, struggling to make a living in a hostile environment. I couldn't put it down, as the slip fielder said to the keeper.

HIS PICKS

- The Wages of Destruction: The making and breaking of the Nazi economy; Adam Tooze; Allen Lane £30

- Uberpower: The imperial temptation of America; Josef Joffe; WW Norton £15.99

- After the Neocons: America at the crossroads; Francis Fukuyama; Profile Books £12.99

- Renewing Unilever: Transformation and tradition; Geoffrey Jones; Oxford University Press £22.50

- The Secret River; Kate Grenville; Canongate Books £7.99

- Howard Davies is director of the London School of Economics. CILLA SNOWBALL: LIFE, BUSINESS AND POETRY

My six book picks all made me think. In different ways. They are very special books, all imparting wisdom - on life and on business. All well written, observed and researched. All subsequently gifted by me to others, which I guess is the ultimate 'positive referral' endorsement.

David Bolchover's The Living Dead: Switched off, zoned out - the shocking truth about office life is a pretty controversial expose on the economic cost of boredom at work - the phenomenon of 'living dead' employees, who are disengaged, unproductive and unmotivated at work. It's a brave subject matter but, thankfully, Bolchover suggests remedies - mainly the need to encourage and train middle managers to manage.

His personal experiences are very funny and his style is fast and lively. It's captivating for anyone who's ever worked in or run a large office, and a refreshing change from the glut (apart from Good to Great and The Mind Gym) of dry management textbooks.

Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth will surely turn out to be the definitive textbook on climate change. From slideshow to book, then movie - the causes and consequences of environmental change are spelled out simply, colourfully and graphically, with amazing photography and clear supporting evidence. My only gripe is the long wait to the call to action, which finally emerges on page 305.

Myself and Other More Important Matters is a misleadingly boasty title for a modest and charming semi-autobiography by the wonderful Charles Handy. He writes with such warmth, wisdom and kindness that he's able to unravel and demystify big life and work/life lessons through his own compelling story.

Lynne Truss takes a more naggy and ranty approach to life in her wonderful book on boorish behaviour, Talk to the Hand: The utter bloody rudeness of everyday life (or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door). It's a quick and hilarious read and a much-needed call-to-arms for courtesy.

Daisy Goodwin is a friend and a genius. Her anthology of Poems to Last a Lifetime has something for everyone and a poem for every human emotion and condition. A 'life textbook' and creative gem.

Well Written and Red: The continuing story of the Economist poster campaign by Alfredo Marcantonio will appeal to anyone in media, marketing and advertising. It tells the story of one of AMV's strongest campaigns and provides a wonderful compendium of advertisements from the 18-year Economist campaign, with background detail on the inspiration, nurture and conviction that makes great creative work cut through, connect and endure.

- Cilla Snowball is chairman and chief executive, AMV Group

HER PICKS

- The Living Dead: Switched off, zoned out - The shocking truth about office life; David Bolchover; Capstone Publishing £12.99

- An Inconvenient Truth: The planetary emergency of global warming and what we can do about it; Al Gore; Bloomsbury £14.99

- Myself and Other More Important Matters; Charles Handy; Arrow £8.99

- Talk to the Hand: The utter bloody rudeness of everyday life; Lynne Truss; Profile Books £6.99

- Poems to Last a Lifetime; Edited by Daisy Goodwin; HarperCollins £18.99

- Well Written and Red: The continuing story of the Economist poster campaign; Alfredo Marcantonio; Harriman House £39.99.

HENRY STEWART: INSPIRATION FROM UNEXPECTED QUARTERS

It has been a good year for inspiring books. Goal! The story of the homeless world cup by Mel Young describes how the competition, started in 2003 and held every year since, brings together street dwellers from over two dozen countries.

Mel and his colleagues realised that getting people out of homelessness is about more than providing a home. You need to change a person's self-belief. They secured £50,000 sponsorship from Nike, got Pele and Ronaldo to turn up to support it and persuaded Manchester United to let its coaches train the England homeless team.

People used to being outcasts suddenly found themselves being applauded by crowds of thousands and stopped in the street for autographs. 'Real life is easier when you have such memories,' said one.

I tracked down a copy of The Big Picture by Dennis Littky and Samantha Grabelle after reading that Bill Gates had donated $10 million to help spread their ideas of child-centred education. The book is a passionate argument for small schools and for letting children choose how they learn. The result is that 97% graduate to college, despite being recruited from the inner city of Providence, Rhode Island. I was left wondering why all schools aren't like this.

Learning from Hannah: Secrets for a life worth living by William H Thomas provides a vision of a world where old people are not marginalised. In this world, 'elders' are at the centre of the community. It is one of those rare books that makes you realise the way things are just doesn't make sense and the world could be a different place.

Most years, I would be hard pressed to find a book that had a clear impact on my business. The most influential business book I've ever read was Maverick by Ricardo Semler, which transformed the way Happy worked and enabled a culture based on trust and freedom. It is still required reading for every new member of staff.

Nothing has had that effect this year, but The Ultimate Question by Fred Reichheld has made a difference. Researching at Harvard Business School, Fred analysed the wealth of information that companies ask with the aim of finding which, if any, correlate to future success. His conclusion is that you should focus on just one question.

This is now the key question we ask in all our customer contacts and the basis of our staff bonus. The book enables global benchmarking of the results. What is the question? You will have to read the book to find out.

For fiction, my favourite read of the year was May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell. It's a satire on the paranoia of middle-class London parents, all trying to get their children into the 'best' school. One finally sends their child to the local comprehensive and discovers the joy of community. Didactic, but it's a great gift for any parent worried about which school to choose.

I am looking forward to reading Seven Stages of Authenticity by Neil Crofts. His concept of the authentic business - companies that have a purpose beyond profit - has been an inspiration and this promises to take it to a new level of personal authenticity.

- Henry Stewart is chief executive of Happy (henry@happy.co.uk)

HIS PICKS

Goal! The story of the homeless world cup; Mel Young; Birlinn, £7.99

- The Big Picture: Education is everyone's business; Dennis Littky with Samantha Grabelle; Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development $26.95

- Learning from Hannah: Secrets for a life worth living; William H Thomas; VanderWyk & Burnham £17.99

- The Ultimate Question; Fred Reichheld; Harvard Business School Press £14.99

- May Contain Nuts; John O'Farrell; Black Swan £6.99

- Seven Stages of Authenticity; Neil Crofts; Authentic Transformation £20.

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