What Ross is Reading: August 2020

By Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO of Autonomy & the Urban Mobility Company

In this monthly column, I share what I’m reading and how it influences our decisions at Autonomy & the Urban Mobility Company.  


I don’t read many business books but when I do I research extensively before buying. For this summer holiday I wanted to read a book that could help me navigate my way through working with a team online. How do you motivate, manage and evaluate staff whom you are no longer in regular contact with? Understanding that the success of any business is the people working in it, I set about looking for a book that could help me understand how to motivate and manage my team remotely. 

After reading a bunch of reviews and watching the authors Michael Buckingham and Ashley Goodall on YouTube I chose Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World. The authors, both Brits based in the US, have earned their opinions. 

Goodall, as the SVP of Leadership and Intelligence at Cisco, helped Cisco build a new HR organisation by focusing on “what we can do to create great teams, led by great leaders informed by great real time intelligence”. Marcus Buckingham spent nearly two decades as a senior researcher at Gallup Organisation before his first book Break all the Rules launched his career as writer, speaker, consultant and corporate celebrity .

In Nine Lies About Work, Buckingham and Goodall throw out the standard HR playbook and propose a management style that anticipates the digital era, handily timed to coincide with Covid. Their main points are:

  • People care more about the team they are part of as opposed to the company they work for
  • Business plans are less effective than an agile workforce
  • As a team leader, you are in the outcomes business and not the control business
  • The best people are not well-rounded, they are “spiky”, i.e. good at one thing
  • People don’t benefit from feedback, particularly negative feedback
  • Management can’t reliably rate employees
  • People don’t have potential – they have momentum
  • Work-life balance is not as important as doing some stuff at work you love 
  • Leadership can’t be taught. What makes leaders is followers – it’s that simple.

The book cites the ADP Research Institute’s 2018  The Global Study of Engagement, which evaluated the  workforce in 19 countries by measuring the relative levels  of engagement and what conditions attract and keep talent. Employees, based on their responses to eight questions, were split between “Fully Engaged” versus merely “Coming to Work”. Only 16% of the 20 000 workers interviewed qualified as “Fully Engaged”. Another study they cite, the Mayo Clinic were trying to reduce burnout of their physicians. The study found that to avoid burnout, the physicians needed to spend at least 20% “of their time on activities they loved” . 

The authors suggest a new type of manager, who acts like a coach or wise confidant, figuring out what employees love doing. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that what people love doing is what they’re likely to be good at. This combination of motivation and expertise reduces the need for external incentives and for complex management strategies. The authors suggest that wise managers will discern the “threads” of what their employees love doing and then “weave these threads into a job tapestry”. Endless studies show that the main reason good workers leave their jobs is because of bad bosses. And when you dig a little deeper into understanding what makes a bad boss, it’s usually too much bossing and not enough listening. 

While the pandemic has caused massive pain in many aspects of our lives, it seems that being forced to work from home might not be one of them. In a survey of remote workers by Morning Consult and The New York Times, 86 percent said they were satisfied working from home. This long editorial in the NY Times, ‘The office will never be the same again, argues that the pandemic is pushing us towards a happier work environment. Nine Lies About Work comes at exactly the right time, reminding us that good businesses are those that hire good people and encourage them to do what they love. 

Covid has brought our digital future into the present and this is a great time for business to embrace change by reducing management and encouraging self-motivation. If you want to know how to do this, I recommend you read Nine Lies About Work.


Check out some more reads found on Ross’ bookshelf:

What Ross is Reading: June 2020 (Upstream by Dan Heath)

What Ross is Reading: May 2020 (Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration by Danny Dorling)

What Ross is Reading: April 2020 (Frenemies by Ken Auletta)