Bookshelf | March / April 2019

View a selection of reviewed books from the March/April 2019 print issue.

Who Stands Out and Why?


"We use the word gravitas as a label for people who are listened to, taken seriously, considered important regardless of their hierarchical position," writes Rebecca Newton, CEO of CoachAdviser and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. But how do people develop the attribute? First, says Newton, they must realize that gravitas is not a result of self-confidence, but a by-product of the courage that people muster as they work toward a worthy goal. Second, they must learn that gravitas is a competency that can be mastered, even if it feels unnatural at first. "Being authentic demands clarity and discipline to sometimes move away from old habits, try new things, and be true to your intention for impact," Newton writes. Furthermore, professionals with gravitas commit themselves to courage over confidence, connection over charisma, and curiosity over certainty. It's a take on leadership that can be embraced by anyone at any level in an organization. (Targer Perigree, US$26)




Six American and three Chinese companies make up the Big Nine firms that NYU professor Amy Webb places at the center of the AI revolution in her eye-opening book. She answers questions like "Can machines think?" before taking readers, step by step, through the blindingly fast learning trajectory that machines have mastered. While Webb addresses the question of whether machines will take jobs from humans, she's more worried about a particular brand of world domination created by the subset of people who have programmed the machines to begin with. She describes the "tribes" of AI geniuses-almost all white, male, and educated at tech-based U.S. programs that don't prioritize ethics or humanities courses-and questions how the unconscious bias they've built into programs will affect how AI develops on its own in the future. She considers China's ferocious dedication to building AI capability that can control everything from infrastructure to payment systems to human rights and suggests that, because China is winning the AI race, it will soon export its philosophies all over the world. While she remains hopeful about the future of AI, she does raise some unnerving questions. (PublicAffairs, US$27)




Why do up to 90 percent of new ideas fail, even when they seem to be great products launched by skilled teams? Most often because they don't have the right "it"-that is, the core premise that turns out to be something consumers actually want. But how can entrepreneurs discover that an idea won't work before they embark on a costly rollout? Alberto Savoia, a former Google exec who now lectures at Stanford, advocates gathering hard data and relentlessly testing hypotheses. Those hypotheses should use numbers and follow an XYZ format: "At least 5 percent of people without air conditioning will buy a $20 air-cooling gizmo when the average temperature gets over 100 degrees." He favors a kind of testing he calls "pretotyping"—conducting experiments that measure consumer interest in an idea before a prototype is even built. For instance, IBM gauged interest in a talk-to-text machine by having people dictate into a machine that seemed to render their words into text, though the typing was done by a hidden human. More examples abound in this lively, practical book. (HarperOne, US$25.99)




Managers at the most successful organizations seek "to optimize performance by encouraging the best out of people and their teams, rather than limiting the worst excesses through rules and regulations," writes Vlatka Hlupic of the University of Westminster. Research shows that these organizations not only have happier employees, but better financial returns-yet many leaders still cling to command-and-control management techniques that yield suboptimal results. "Generations of managers have grown up with the belief that there is always a trade-off, that being ruthless or dictatorial is the 'real' way to boost profits and that treating employees well is a luxury," Hlupic notes. She combats these notions through research and interviews conducted with 58 leaders from corporations, SMEs, nonprofits, and public agencies. She also examines how the current work environment is being reshaped by volatile business conditions, a millennia! workforce, and disruptive technology. Managers must humanize their organizations by "encouraging a fund a mental shift from a system of orders-based management to a system of empowered workforces," she believes-or their companies may not survive. (Bloomsbury Business, US$35)




Common wisdom says that innovation is the province of small, nimble startups, because large, established companies are too rigid to transform. Harvard's Gary Pisano disagrees. It's true that big corporations suffer from inertia, risk aversion, and myopic leadership, he notes, but they also have formidable assets that aid innovation, such as vast financial resources, strong brands, deep pools of talent, and global distribution. "The challenge of innovating at scale is to leverage these real strengths while figuring out ways to circumvent or eliminate the potential weaknesses," he writes. Still, he makes no attempt to minimize the challenges, such as balancing the trade-offs between upgrading proven products and experimenting with uncertain new offerings. Innovation isn't easy—but that's the point. He says, "The capability to innovate is a potent source of competitive ad vantage precisely because it is such a difficult one to foster and sustain." When leaders can define a clear strategy, he believes, even the behemoths can innovate. (Public Affairs, US$30)





Handling the finances for a startup is nothing like overseeing the finances for a corporation, note Luisa Alemany of ESADE and Job Andreoli of Nyenrode Business University. "In corporate finance, we assume that projects or investments will have a positive net present value," they write. "In entrepreneurial finance, losses are part of the game." Furthermore, corporations attract investors who make choices based on rational considerations; startups draw investors willing to make huge gambles because they feel passionate about the possibilities of a new product. This is only one of the ideas presented in this comprehensive look at the emerging field of entrepreneurial finance. Alemany and Andreoli are joined by more than 20 other contributors who address the topic from an explicitly European point of view. In addition to exploring the alternative sources of financing available to startups, the book looks at how entrepreneurs source their deals and construct business plans, how they manage growth, and how they exit their ventures. It's filled with clear explanations, short case studies, and a wealth of knowledge about this growing field. (Cambridge University Press, US$48)



The Nature of Goods and the Goods of NatureTHE NATURE OF GOODS AND THE GOODS OF NATURE

This slim, whimsical book by ESSEC professors Estefania Santacreu-Vasut and Tom Gamble is subtitled "Why anti-globalization is not the answer," and it's easy to see why the authors believe that. They have fashioned a fable about a chance encounter between an economics professor and a former student, who recall personal and classroom lessons that illuminate the many aspects of economics-as well as the ways that diverse human experiences are all interconnected. In one section, they explore how language, culture, and history affect trade. For instance, they discuss the fact that, even though technology has made distance less relevant, countries still are more likely to trade with nearby neighbors because centuries of previous trade have shaped current tastes. "When we isolate ourselves from others we increase the likelihood that we'll be isolated in the future and we'll stick to a predefined sense of identity," write Santacreu-Vasut and Gamble. "Cultural conservatives are one of the groups that lose the most." What can disrupt and update these ancient trading patterns? War-or more benignly, an influx of immigrants. Their book makes the topic of economics both accessible and human. (Imprint Academic, US$29.89)



Harvard Business Review Leader's HandbookHARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK

In the mid-1990s, with the end of the Cold War, the World Bank looked like it might have outlived its usefulness. When Jim Wolfensohn took over, "he realized that he needed to reestablish a compelling vision that would support the continuation of the Bank and reenergize the staff," write consultants Ron Ashkenas and Brook Manville. Staff members and stakeholders all contributed to the ultimate new vision-Our dream is a world free of poverty-that has guided the institution ever since. The authors list "developing a unifying mission" as one of six timeless traits ofleaders, which also include developing a strategy, getting great people on board, focusing on results, innovating the future, and leading yourself. They underpin their chapters with insights drawn from Harvard Business Review articles, as well as from their own research. The result is a tour through some of the best leadership advice of the past few decades. (Harvard Business Review Press, US$29.99)