‘Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality is Sabotaging Democracy’, by Carl Rhodes
The workplace has become politicised as never before and companies are struggling to adjust to the demands of younger consumers and employees who are more uneasy with problems such as inequality and climate change. Capitalism is still here, but there is an acknowledgment that it has not lived up to its promise to a lot of people.
Woke Capitalism, written by a professor of organisation studies, examines the history of this phenomenon — from corporate social responsibility, through neoliberalism and the debates about the topic — as well as the political causes it has adopted and the implications for all of us.
The book begins by illustrating the meaning of the term “woke” by exploring the unresolvable irony that it manifests when corporations lay claim to public purpose and social responsibility while profiting along the way.
Moving on, the author delves into the specific corporate activities that embrace woke capitalism in practice. Political activism is a particular focus, examining how corporations are becoming representatives for social justice causes and how this integrates corporate and social power.
Chapters highlight examples from companies such as Amazon, Nike and Gillette and how they adopt woke capitalism in different ways. For example, in 2019 Gillette released a television advertisement using the slogan “The best men can be” to challenge toxic masculinity. The campaign went viral and sparked a debate on progressive visions of the more diverse possibilities of masculinity.
As Rhodes says: “Now is the time to be woke to woke capitalism.” It is time to be aware of its characteristics and political effects. It is also time to intervene to put the world on a path towards equality and justice for all.
‘Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Good’, by Joan C Williams
Corporate leaders too often turn to quick and dramatic fixes for diversity issues, particularly following Black Lives Matter protests, which saw many chief executives make speeches to their workforce about addressing inequality.
Joan C Williams has been working in this area for decades. She achieved something of a rock-star status after she wrote a popular article (which became a book) on the white working class after Donald Trump was elected US president. In it she said, “Class trumps gender, and it’s driving American politics.”
In this new book, she argues that it takes a series of smaller steps to fix diversity issues in the workforce, including class. “The basic tools of the diversity industrial complex don’t work,” she writes. “Employee resource groups and mentoring programs for women and people of colour are useful in creating a sense of community and support for those who feel isolated in organisations. But we need to stop focusing nigh exclusively on helping people navigate systems that remain fundamentally unfair. We need to change the systems.”
Organisations that recruit women or people of colour to plug a gap often find they lose them because “they can’t do their best work or advance at a fair pace”.
While older bias training can be “ineffective or even counterproductive”, she says there are ways of encouraging people to understand and correct bias without making them defensive.
What it needs is commitment. “Achieving both diversity and inclusion can be done with the tools we have forged over more than a century to achieve any business goal: data, metrics, and persistence.”
‘The Cold Start Problem: How to Start and Scale Network Effects’, by Andrew Chen
The term network effect has become a cliché for technology start-up pitches, providing a convenient answer to difficult questions from venture capitalists about the viability of new digital companies.
“What if your competition comes after you?” Answer: network effects. “Why will this keep growing as quickly as it has?” Answer: network effects. “Why fund this instead of company X?” Answer (again): network effects.
The need to drill into what people mean by these two words is what inspired this 400-page self-help book by Andrew Chen, a former product team leader at one of the world’s best-known tech start-ups, Uber, and now a partner at venture capitalist Andreessen Horowitz.
The Cold Start Problem explains how founders can harness the power of a network when they are just starting out. He punctuates his text with stories from interviews, conducted over the past three years, with founders and teams behind some A-list tech start-ups, including Slack, LinkedIn, Zoom and Airbnb. Chen also draws on his VC experience, which has involved investing over $400m in more than two dozen start-ups.
This book attempts to answer a number of questions: how do you build network effects into your product? How do you know when network effects are kicking in, and if they are strong enough to create defensibility? What product features do you build to amplify network effects? And more generally, how do you keep scaling a network that’s already working, especially in the face of saturation, competition and other negative dynamics?
One thing is certain: the need to understand network effects is not going away. Network effects are key to some of the largest technology companies on the planet, which are in turn becoming the most valuable and important companies overall.
‘Making it Happen: Lessons from the Frontline of Strategy Execution’, by Rebecca Stephens
This book is about implementing strategy in increasingly complicated organisations that operate in evermore disruptive and challenging environments.
It is written by Rebecca Stephens, an author, journalist and the first British woman to climb Everest and the Seven Summits, but it was the brainchild of Paul Heugh, whose CV includes the military, strategy at GlaxoSmithKline and now consulting.
So it is perhaps no surprise that the book has a dual focus: both on how businesses can improve strategy execution, but also on how individuals — who are simultaneously focused and committed, yet bold, open-minded and agile — can make a real difference to the people and organisations they serve.
Each chapter is a reflection from individuals operating in very different environments. For example, in chapter two, readers learn how, as commander of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sir Michael Rose found clarity in the “fog” of a “three-sided civil war” to save a peacekeeping mission from the brink of collapse.
Other examples explore the approaches Sir Tim Brighouse and Sir Anthony Seldon took to transform education in their respective public and private sectors. Designer Emma Bridgewater also contributes, sharing how her company always sat somewhere between business and family life, and the toll it has taken on her.
“It’s been gruelling,” Bridgewater says. “If you want to make things happen, there’s no two ways about it — you are going to have to work very hard.”
Bringing together the voices and experiences of those featured in the different chapters, the book concludes by drawing “common, enduring truths in the execution of strategy that transcend sector differences”. These include having a sense of purpose, finding your vision through the fog, being agile, communicating well, planning and taking the initiative.
It is an inspiring and informative read. As the book notes: “A winning mindset can look to the far horizon and choose to be instrumental in influencing and shaping the future.”
‘Dark Social: Understanding the Darker Side of Work, Personality and Social Media’, by Ian MacRae
As Ian MacRae points out, it became critical in 2020 to understand how to motivate and engage people, and monitor their performance, when they were dispersed to their bedrooms and kitchens.
So it is prescient that in Dark Social, MacRae, a work psychologist, has explored the darker sides of personality traits and how these come through at work and in the digital sphere — especially since the two have become even more enmeshed through hybrid work apps, such as Slack and Zoom.
MacRae carefully details different personality types and using business case studies — such as a chief operating officers’ extreme bullying at a tech company and the rise and fall of Carlos Ghosn — helps the reader to understand personality and personality disorders specifically in the workplace, how they can be dysfunctional (in terms of failed leadership, for example), and how this translates into online environments.
He also acknowledges that while remote working has its advantages, similarly it allows bullies to operate under the radar and have even more access to their targets.
Dark Social sometimes feels a bit too textbooky, and the author has perhaps attempted to cover too much ground — parts feel disjointed and so bogged down in detail that the wider arguments being made get a little lost, but there are still plenty of valuable insights.
One interesting point is that the challenge for organisations is translating their company culture online. “Culture as a shared understanding of acceptable behaviour,” MacRae writes, does not emerge “automatically” or “naturally”. “If people and groups are not given any guidance about what types of behaviour and communication are appropriate and encouraged, different people and groups will develop their own standards.”
He highlights that when people enter an unfamiliar environment — physical or virtual — they look at how others “are interacting, how they are dressed, listen to how they speak to each other and modify their behaviour accordingly”. Consequently, MacRae stipulates that when the office moves into new spaces, a company’s leaders need to clearly establish and reinforce the types of behaviour that are acceptable. “Good behaviour needs to be modelled in a new environment, and people need to be both trained on the new equipment and shown how they are expected to behave and conduct themselves in that environment.”