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Top directors pick the books that inspired them in 2017

1. Frank Cooper AO FAICD, Chairman, Insurance Commission of Western Australia; Director, Woodside Petroleum Ltd

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few Robert B. Reich

This book, together with some others, was recommended to me early in 2016 by a prominent lawyer in South Africa at a time when I was seeking to better understand the underlying political and social agenda in that country. It remains one of the most influential reads for me in recent years and one I have recommended to many.


While it has a US focus it helps explain the economic and social challenges facing most western countries including Australia. It helps shine a light on what is driving the increasing inequality in many economies and gives some insight into the rising populism that is influencing our communities and our politics. While the author postulates some ways to help address those challenges, the book does not provide a neat answer. However, this should not be a surprise given the complexity of the underlying challenges.

While an interesting economic and political read it has also been an influence in my board roles in helping give me a better understanding of the perspectives of a company’s various stakeholders.

While there are similar books around this one is an easy read and very well written.


2. Tracey Horton AO FAICD, Chairman, Navitas Ltd

 Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future Ashlee Vance

“Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance is a biography of Elon Musk, the entrepreneur and inventor who is the driving force behind Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City. Musk has used the fortune that he amassed from an early internet mapping company and PayPal to create these three ventures that focus on electric vehicles, space exploration and solar energy with a goal to save humanity from what he views as certain planetary extinction.


The book is first a fascinating portrayal of an intelligent, determined man with an intense work ethic who understands his strengths - his vast intellect and his ability to navigate a path from a scientific concept to a commercial organisation – and sometimes recognises his weaknesses, which revolve around an inconsistent ability to understand how his attitude makes his employees feel and impacts their productivity.

Reading about the journey of Tesla and SpaceX – both of which have come close to insolvency on numerous occasions over the past decade, directors will take away the importance of getting the balance of technology, resourcing and culture right in order to build a sustainable organization.

For Tesla and SpaceX neither an earth shattering idea, plentiful resources or fiercely loyal and brilliant colleagues is enough to ensure success – the key is how to combine these vital ingredients.


3. Dr Michael Schaper FAICD, Deputy Chairman, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission

Winston Churchill is one of the larger than life figures whose public life spanned much of the seminal events of the twentieth century. Amongst many other things, he served as Lord of the Admiralty and advocate of the Dardanelles campaign (and hence of Gallipoli) in World War One, was a lone voice warning against the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, Prime Minister of Britain during the darkest hours of World War Two, Prime Minister again in the 1950’s, and the man who coined the phrase “the iron curtain” at the height of the Cold War. Even more remarkably, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and was no mean painter as well.

Churchill is also a model of great innovation and reform – it was he who helped create modern weapons such as the tank, was one of the first people to learn to fly an aeroplane, and also introduced a wide range of social and welfare reforms.


Despite this, he also had numerous weaknesses and limitations. He was a poor money manager, a chronic depressive, fond of a nip of alcohol or three most days, and had a tendency to micromanage.

If there’s one overarching theme in this book, it’s the need to beware of the all-conquering god-like superhero. No leader – be they a CEO, a politician, a board chairman or the like – is perfect, and we have to look at the totality of their achievements before judging whether they have been a success or not.


Whilst there have been numerous books written about Britain’s inspiring World War Two leader, few of them are as original and enthusiastic as Johnson’s recent biography. As a former journalist, Lord Mayor of London and now UK Foreign Minister, Johnson himself is no small underachiever, and he has an engaging writing style that’s easy to take in, at times funny and entertaining, and which doesn’t shy back from expressing a few pointed barbs.


All of that makes for a great summer read, and a reflection on the nature of great leaders.


4. Ann Sherry AO FAICD, Executive Chairman, Carnival Australia

Kevin Kelly is a futurist and some of his language is irritating tech futurist jargon. However, get past that and the real focus is the way people will use technology in the 24/7 “always on” world with smarter devices and connected networks.


He works through the inevitable rise of artificial intelligence, the "cognification" of our surroundings (the physical world responds and adapts to our needs and desires), the replacement of ownership by access eg Spotify and Netflix, the tendency for individuals to self-track and to be tracked.


In a world that, in large part, is mediated through screens, methods of filtering will become more important. It is a different future he paints, some of which we see already but much of which we need to think about now to be prepared for a different way of living and working.


Challenging!


5. Georgie Somerset FAICD, Manager, BMG Trust, Director, ABC

The Shepherd’s Life James Rebanks


For something completely removed from the board room, The Shepherd’s Life takes you to the fields of a modern day Lakes District shepherd. Transported to his world, we gain an understanding of the conflicted co-existence between agriculture, tourism and the environment, providing an opportunity to reflect on our role as directors to see the whole picture, understand the full impact and to ponder the long term implications of our decisions.


James Rebanks’s modern day memoir contemplates the role of philanthropy (Beatrix Potter endowed land for farmers in perpetuity), engagement and communication (a high school drop-out Oxford graduate who tweets avidly), probing whether a diversity of views are valued and questions how we balance economic and social return on investment.


It also explores the disconnect between those who love to visit the environment and those who rely on a healthy environment for their livelihood – a similar disconnect is occurring in Australia. As directors we often straddle competing pressures, and Rebanks’s contemplates how diverse views add richness to decision making.


When @herdyshepherd1’s prolific tweets land on my screen, I’m reminded of how as a director we can contribute to a lasting legacy, benefit from investing in people, contemplate competing interests in a community and communicate effectively. And his photos are often spectacular!


6. Kate Thiele FAICD, Director, Adelaide Crows Foundation

Tribe of Mentors Tim Ferriss


As Tim Ferriss himself wrote, this is a reference book, one in which writing, he states, changed his life.


There are times in our lives when we need a mentor. It might be as a result of a confronting experience, when we start to lose people around us that we care about – a time that causes us to reflect and ask questions about our own journey and career. Questions like: Were my goals my own, or simply what I thought I should want? How much of life had I missed from under-planning or over-planning? How could I be kinder to myself? How could I better say “no” to the trivial many, to better say “yes” to the critical few? How could I best reassess my priorities and my purpose in this world?


“Tribe of Mentors” is a collection of advice from people who provide answers to these questions. Mentors of all ages. People such as TED curator Chris Anderson, who thinks to “pursue your passion” is terrible advice. Or, insights into the beliefs, behaviours and habits that helped cryptocurrency icons.


What I loved about this book is you don’t have to start at the front and work your way through. I opened to page 408, and instantly connected with Chris Anderson’s billboard advice: “Live for something that’s bigger than you are. Weirdly, that’s one of the keys to a more satisfying life, albeit not necessarily an easier one.”


There are nearly 570 pages of answers from over 100 experts – practical and tactical advice from mentors who have found solutions. Whether you want to reflect, amplify performance, regroup, reinvent yourself, understand how failure has set people up for success, or simply just glean insights into someone else’s journey, something in these pages will connect.


7. Francis Wong OAM FAICD, founder, Encounter Australia

Speaking Out  Tara Moss


Gender & cultural diversity is one hot issue today, and not much of this issue has been said beyond a women’s quota and representation on board and corporations. Most of us do believe we need to advocate gender diversity on boards and need to hear the women’s and girls’s voices. I must admit, a lot could be done to support this agenda if we understand and hear the challenges they are facing.


Early this year, I met Tara Moss at a conference in Adelaide. After her panel presentation, I saw a long queue of women waiting for her to sign her books. One of her books, “Speaking Out” caught my attention (the book’s cover had the right message that attracted my attention) and I joined the long line to buy the book and got it signed. (In fact, I was the only man, and all the women were looking at me).

The book also attempts to answer some of the questions why the world has become more receptive to the voices of women in recent decades and at the same time it has become more violently opposed to women’s voices.

The Weekly Times quotes “To say this book is timely is to put it mildly. It should be mandatory reading for every teenage girls, let alone women in general.”

I would add further to the statement, “It is also mandatory reading for men to read this book to appreciate the challenges and strengths for women, and girls who will be future leaders.”

This book is a great investment for the year, it enriches me in many ways. Thank you Tara!


8. Angus Armour FAICD, Chief Executive Officer, AICD 

The End of Power Moises Naim


I missed this when it was published in 2013, or the title didn’t attract me, but in the past year it provided a timely reminder of how expectations and technology have changed how society interacts and decides, and the implications for ‘the power’ of traditional institutions in business, government and the community.


Globally, more people with greater wealth and mobility, and higher expectations, are re-setting how authority is established. That transfer of authority to individuals effectively (and ‘powerfully’) mobilising around issues and agendas translates into fragile political mandates and the decay of political power, and pressure on business to respond to a social agenda beyond share value and customer satisfaction. Chapter titles like ‘From Parties to Factions’, ‘From Capitals to Regions’, and ‘From Leaders to Laymen’ resonate with the experience of 2017. The environment he describes applies to non-profits working in the community as much as policy makers and business, and at the end he suggests some strategies to adapt to this challenging environment.


If you’re short of time, Chapters 1 and 4 capture the themes and the book could have been shorter, but the author is a former Foreign Policy editor, board member of the World Bank, and is currently a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, so his experience and passion for the subject makes the investment worthwhile.


9. Elizabeth Proust AO FAICD, Chairman, AICD; Advisory Board Chairman, Bank of Melbourne

I first met Andrew Kakabadse at the AICD Conference on the Sunshine Coast a few years ago. I was impressed by his strategic thinking about boards. I’ve had this book in a large pile for some time and only found time this year to read it.


The book covers the research Andrew and Nada conducted over 12,000 organisations over 17 countries including Australia. It is well worth reading and I wish I had read it sooner. In particular it makes the point that there is little training for people who make the transition from director to chairman and that the need to support this development is urgent.


In the absence of such training (although I do commend the AICD’s training in this area) this book is a very good place to start the journey to a Chair role, regardless of the nature of the organisation.

For those who are time poor, focus on the chapter “developing the board” which focuses on the role of the chairman in developing directors, both those just joining the board, and continuing ones.

The AICD regularly runs courses and events for directors, aspiring directors and executives, covering governance and business best practice. Click here to see our upcoming courses in Western Australia.

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