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By 2100, we are going to eradicate disease and colonize Mars. In a time when it can be hard to tell corporate leaders from sci-fi writers, Margaret Heffernan speaks more to achieving lofty visions than announcing them. The author, speaker, and executive coach is particularly interested in how to identify and empower talented people — a key trait of effective executives, whether they are bound for Mars or not.
Heffernan, a journalist by training, has written extensively on the theme of talent. In The Naked Truth: A Working Woman’s Manifesto on Business and What Really Matters (Jossey-Bass, 2004) and Women on Top: How Women Entrepreneurs Are Rewriting the Rules of Business Success (Viking, 2007), she examined the costs of undervaluing women in the workplace. In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril (Walker & Company, 2011), Heffernan explored how having the right team can save leaders from catastrophic blind spots. In A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better than the Competition (Public Affairs, 2014), she explained why more inclusive, collaborative cultures outperform competitive ones. Most recently, Heffernan reprised her popular TED talks in Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes (Simon & Schuster/TED, 2015), a short book that describes the powerful, positive effects that result from minor alterations in how we work together.
Heffernan began her career in television production at the BBC and subsequently led IPPA, an English film and television producer trade association. When the Internet disrupted media, she turned serial entrepreneur, serving as CEO of iCast, ZineZone, and InfoMation for CMGI, one of the first Internet company incubators. Currently, in addition to writing and speaking, Heffernan serves as a Merryck & Co. mentor, teaches at several business schools, and serves on the boards of three organizations.
When I invited Heffernan to talk books, she quickly agreed. “I mentor a handful of senior and chief executives, and the ones that read a lot have so many more choices in their heads than those who don’t. So, I say read, read, read, read, and read some more,” she said, and offered up the following four titles.
Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, by Mary C. Gentile (Yale University Press, 2010). “I’ve written a lot about organizational silence, and how one of the hardest things in business is to get the smart people you’ve assembled around you to tell the truth. What Mary Gentile has done is to create a curriculum that helps people learn to be great truth-tellers.
“I don’t think you can do a job as a leader if you don’t surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth. But most people don’t really believe you when you say that that’s what you want. And even when they do believe you, they often don’t quite know how to do it. If you really, really want people around you to think for themselves and speak up, this is the textbook for them.”
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). “One of the things I worry about a lot is how do business leaders stay in touch with what we all euphemistically call the real world. I don’t think data alone gives you a good feel for it. So I read a lot, and I look hard for people who seem to be what I think of as great noticers.
“Senior and chief executives that read a lot have so many more choices in their heads than those who don’t.”
“One of the best noticers is George Packer, a journalist who won the National Book Award for this survey of the United States as it is today. The big takeaway from The Unwinding right now is that the levels of inequality in the U.S. are going to have a galvanizing effect on the global economic environment. Regardless of what we think of inequality, we’ve got to pay attention to it because it’s really is going to have a seismic impact on what happens next.”
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace (Random House, 2014). “The president of Pixar wrote one of the best business books I’ve ever read. I love that it’s by somebody who has done it and that it isn’t formulaic. Nothing about business writing drives me as crazy as the ‘three things you need to guarantee worldwide success’ recipe books, because, if it were that simple, we’d all be doing it.
“There are two things that Catmull talks about that hugely resonate with me. First, any creative problem is capable of being solved by the people in your organization, if you know how to ask them. Second, people who think only about themselves will never be great colleagues, no matter how clever they are. Creativity is always about other people — even when, and maybe especially when, they are disagreeing with you. All great ideas start life as bad ideas. But if you are lucky and you have great, generous people around you, they will help you turn your bad idea into a great idea.”
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by General Stanley McChrystal with Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell (Portfolio, 2015). “I am absolutely no fan of the business-as-war metaphor, but I have come to recognize that the military takes leadership more seriously and has thought more deeply about it than any company. General McChrystal has written a book about how he got all the different parts of the U.S. military to collaborate successfully in the Iraq War, which directly addresses one of the key questions that business leaders always ask me: How do I get all these different functions and superstars to work effectively together? This book is as close as you are going to get to a blueprint for how you bridge silos and what that requires of you as a leader and what it requires structurally.”