These days I never read books - I consume them. I read a bit. I highlight chunks of text. Write notes in the margins with pens, pencils - anything that lets me leave my mark on the pages.
I love physical engagement with a book. It's as if I try to convert the book into my notebook - using the ideas of the author as a prop.
By the time I've finished with a book - I can't hand it on to anyone else. I've personalised it so much, people would be reading me rather than the book.
I even bookmark pages by turning down corners, sticking post-it notes & apple pips inside.
I seldom read a whole book.
This is so different from the way I was brought up.
For me books are tools to be used. They are things I bend to my purpose. They serve me well.
It wasn't always so.
As a child in Limerick I was never a reader. Even though my father owned a bookshop, and we were surrounded by books at home.
At one stage, it looked as if I’d avoid books altogether. I was so much into active play & music. Books were too slow for me.
I was very keen on business
- especially making money (to fund me to go to North America). At home, I soaked up a passion for customer service without ever reading about it.
The book deficit (as it felt) changed with a vengeance when I left home. At university in Dublin , I lived in the library, madly catching up with books of a certain type. Philosophy, history, anthropology, politics, economics, psychology - anything but business.
At the same time, I was very keen on politics & the business of changing business.
Not a single business book crossed my mind
until years later in London. I was about 33. I knew a lot about business from family, study of Marxist economics & the Financial Times (FT).
I was working for London Transport (Buses) when the skinny One Minute Manager series based on "Situational Leadership" (Blanchard & Hersey) became a working tool. An external consultant, David Wall, used it to break through the managerial status quo. That was 1984.
Those books gave me a method for influencing people to get things done.
But method wasn't enough
The big breakthrough happened at the level of inspiration & passion. The two books that blew me away - and have stuck with me for 30 years - were by Tom Peters.
The US was losing out big time to the Japanese. Competition from Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi was destroying Ford & Chrysler. The whole culture of US business was stuck. The total quality approach of the Japanese was winning. IBM was a lumbering giant. Apple a raging infant. Tom Peters was John the Baptist.
He wrote this sort of stuff in 1985:
What are the basics of managerial success? Two of the most important are pride in one’s organisation and enthusiasm for its works. A quick check of the twenty-five leading textbooks on management finds neither in any index. Nor does one find much about such concepts as “naïve customers listening”, customer perception of service / quality, employee commitment and ownership, internal corporate entrepreneurship, championing of innovation, trust, vision or “leadership”...
Top-flight performance is not dry and deadly; it is spirited, it is emotion-filled...
Our examples penetrate deeper to capture what we now call the “smell” of a customer-(or innovation-) oriented company...
So – this is a new walk. We can’t wait to share it with you. Dig in. Sample. Cheer – weep. Pull the sheet over your head and privately examine your deepest biases. And, above all, try something – now, this afternoon...
I was leading a team of internal agitators
(customer care & management development people). We wanted to change the culture of the whole of London Transport (Buses) - make it customer-centred. Internal & external customers.
Tom Peters was our hero.
I invested budget to take our team of bus drivers, engineers, supervisors & managers to see Tom Peters speak. To be in the room with Tom (a highly expensive experience) was fabulous for us. Those books were our Bible. The stories he told motivated us to push through barriers to customer service.
We were changing mindsets & behaviours that were long established in an organisation that delivered its service militaristically. Bureaucratically. Rules everywhere.
We wanted a passion for customers to run through the whole organisation - from CEO to bus driver. We wanted everyone to treat each other as if we all had customers.
- Every internal memo a service to customers.
- Every disciplinary interview a customer service.
- Every "Safe Driving Award" an act of customer service.
We were obsessive.
We loved what we were doing. LondonTransport (Buses) was being transformed so it could be broken up into smaller bus companies - fit to compete for customers.
"In Search of Excellence" & "A Passion for Excellence" were twins. They gave us perspective, confidence & courage.
We were badly in need of those books
because it wasn't a downhill ride. The conservative culture of the organisation was entrenched: after all, London Transport was the big experienced organisation. Many felt we had all the answers. LT was the (almost) monopoly supplier of bus services to London - 19,000+ employees.
Changing the established market-leader required every bit of help we could get. What other companies were doing helped us. British Airways was an inspiration too. We felt we were pushing in the right direction.
But those books made a vital difference.
They were especially strong for me. My dad had shown me how he did customer service in his family bookshop in Limerick. The message in the books revitalised the message I'd picked up at home.
When you discover how powerful a book is for changing the culture of an organisation - why would you ever stop digging into another business book?
A version of this blogpost was first published on the blog of SmarterEgg.
My thanks to Aodan Enright for encouraging me to share it here too.