Author Archives: Gary Burt

A business book actually worth reading

Most business books are not worth reading. Fact.

If they are not trying to wrap up common sense as ‘invaluable original insights’, they are picking selectively from history to define a company narrative that bears little resemblance to reality, but conveniently shows the writer as a visionary and skilled leader.

Don’t believe the hype.

And furthermore don’t waste your money.

1) If the businessman was good, then they are already rich and don’t need the money. The book’s writer (not the businessman) will have been paid anyway. Only a foolish ghost writer would want to be paid by sales.

2) If you are ambitious, then you are better off spending your time on ‘doing’ rather than trying to replicate someone else’s route to success.

Occasionally though a good book does emerge.

The test of a good business book for me is not that it gives you the answers, or provides ‘secret tips’ that are supposedly unknown such as, ‘be nice to your customers‘ but that it sets me buzzing with ideas. A good book has sets me thinking about what I can do; not in the future, but now; THIS VERY MOMENT. A good business book has me reaching for a pencil and has me scribbling in margins and writing notes at the back.

There is a second test that even fewer books meet. Can it explain the ideas in simple pictures (or models if you went to business school). The reason that this is important is because it gives you a way to compare organisations. It helps move discussions to being objective.

So what is the new book that has met my two simple [but widely failed] tests?

It is called “Zero to One” and is written by Paypal founder, Facebook backer and billionaire Peter Thiel. For a taste of his thinking, this Wall Street Journal piece is worth a read. I’m not going to review the book, as there are lots of these already, but I will say that in passing the two tests it does join a very select group.

So why the recommendation?

When I joined Microsoft many years ago in 2001, one thing that I continually remember hearing was to ‘think big’ or ‘change the world’. This idea was later captured brilliantly by Hugh MacLeod in the famous Blue Monster cartoon. Since that time I have never come across any book that actually captured this concept.

Until now. This book from Thiel pretty much nails it.

Certainly worth £11. If you don’t like it, then give it to your local library and perhaps let it inspire the next Thiel if this is not you.


What is the BBC playing at?

Have you seen the new BBC video?

You know; the one that has been teased by every presenter on every BBC show today.

The “on every channel at 8 O’Clock tonight” one.

You know … this one.

Well, having seen it, my judgement is that it is …

Unashamedly indulgent, extravagant and decadent.

It is clearly expensive beyond comprehension at a time when we are still in ‘times of austerity’.

And for this it is …

Completely brilliant.

I cannot imagine the effort that went into planning and producing this. Simply managing the logistics of getting these musicians and performers together let alone turning this into such an engaging and visually beautiful 2minutes and 49seconds is something to be very proud of.

You could argue that the BBC is one of the few organisations that has the resources to produce a video like this, and you would be right. BUT that is exactly the point. The BBC does have significant resources. This is why it (occasionally) should do these special things.

And in doing so, the BBC not only reminds us what is possible but ever so gently pushes the bar a little higher for others. I don’t want the standard of TV advertising and video production measured only against the John Lewis annual Christmas Advert. Well done all involved.

Advertising that matters

Advertising is the name given to the technique/tool/methodology [you choose] that sees us bombarded daily with mindless messages to buy products and services we don’t need and often don’t want.

Usually with cliched messages that haven’t changed in years.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Used well, advertising is a way to share ideas and values.

It is a way to help an audience understand your view of the world.

This is one of the best examples I have seen in a long time.

Thanks to Ad Week for the original link.

A drone camera that fits on your wrist

Drone and wearable technologies are both truly transformational technologies … but what happens if you bring these together?

Called Nixie, this brilliant device is a personal photographer that combines a quadcopter with a hi-def camera that can be worn on your wrist.

The project is one of 10 awaiting a decision from Intel for funding. Given the interest in this, I don’t think that further funding will be an issue.

Real innovation comes from rethinking problems. This is just the start of things to come.



It’s all about the talent, but then it always was

Walking into a leading university library yesterday there were two stacks of books ready by the doors all ready for the incoming ‘freshers’. They weren’t text books or details on where to find the best parties. The books were titled, ‘The top 100 employers’ and ‘The top 300 employers’ or something very similar.

The purpose of the guides is to establish the names and brands of the companies into the minds of ambitious students at the start of their course. This has one purpose – to help ensure that the best talent applies to you and not to your competitor.

It couldn’t be further from the harsh reality facing job seekers a few miles away at the Job Centre, or the millions scanning online job adverts (some of which may actually be genuine) in the hope of finding fulfilling employment at something other than the minimum wage. [Good luck with securing pay above the minimum wage if you are looking in the Job Centre by the way, but  you are looking in the wrong place for that.]

If there was ever a lesson to the new students that hard work matters, then it was facing them as they walked into the building that will consume many hours of their life over the coming years as they struggle to meet deadlines, avoid charges of plagiarism and push the boundaries of how long caffeine can keep you awake in the hope of securing the grades that will unlock  interviews to those advertised careers.

It all makes sense. Pay well, offer good working conditions and know that you have the best talent that there is.

But as I walked back to my car I wondered why other companies set their sights intentionally low. Flicking through the books and looking at starting salaries there is clearly a relationship between pay, prestige and success.  It is logical that the best companies pay the best salaries, but why do second tier companies pay less (up to 30-50% less) thereby removing any realistic potential of attracting the best people. Surely it would make sense to pay more – or at least equal the best and recruit the very people that you would be competing against. You would pay more, but is the person not able to generate additional revenue or profit to cover that differential?  It could start a price war, but surely that is already there – with the second tier companies having conceded before they start.

When Google find that the difference in performance between an average employee and a exceptional employee can be as much as 300x, then why is the pay so close?

Is the issue that the second tier players have resigned themselves to that position? They pay an acceptable level, and get acceptable people?

Or that the the ‘politics of envy’ limits starting salaries as they are higher than existing employees and this would create problems?

Or that it is simply unaffordable? This could mean that the company is unable to realise the cost differential from the additional pay.

Regardless of what the reasons are, the lessons for students are clear, go for the best paying company. This is no guarantee of a happy union, but you know that your employer wants you more than the competition, and that is not a bad reason for joining. That is not the only factor in picking an employer, but joining a company that pays less than you could get would be settling for second best?

I’m searching for some companies that have intentionally disrupted the market, by hiring A list calibre from the start – you can list most technology successes here, but have any established second tier companies done this by switching to a ‘hire A list strategy’ and been successful?

Updated: 24Sept14 to correct minor typos.

Virgin let staff take as much holiday as they want

At last a large company starts to inject common sense into its HR policies by allowing staff to take as much holiday as they want*.

They aren’t the first. Netflix has offered this for a while, but fast growing internet companies are always going to be seen as ‘special cases’ and therefore ignored by CEOs in many ‘traditional’ companies. Virgin is not only an established company, but has a diverse set of businesses, so this matters a lot more. It is much harder for business leaders to argue that they are different when they are competing against Virgin companies.

The big picture shift here is not the holiday policy itself, but the evolution of work and employment practices. It is a welcome shift towards a higher trust knowledge based relationship that recognises that people are not resources to be managed, but are each valuable assets that are a key part of the business.

In a world where many knowledge workers still have to complete time-sheets, but are expected to answer phone calls out of hours and complete work in their own time then it is a welcome step forward.

A quick tip for HR managers and directors who are reading this. If you don’t understand why your department name is an anachronism and needs to change, then you won’t understand why the best candidates are not applying to your company.

Time to change.

* Of course there are caveats, but the statement and commitment is still important.

How Labour can learn from Bangladeshi poverty

In this interview Muhammad Yunus, Nobel winning founding founder of “microcredit” talks about banks, poverty and governments.

What struck me as I read the interview was how much of the problems from Bangladesh were applicable to the UK. It is good to see the Grameen Bank opening in the US, but I couldn’t help think that the principles underpinning this model were something that would help many people in the UK who continue to suffer at the hands of banks and loan sharks.

One area that I do need to correct Muhammad is where he talks about rates of 1000 and 2000 percent. In the UK of course, many people are paying rates much higher than that.

This isn’t a political rant. It is actually about strategy. Successful organisations, whether commercial, not for profit or governments seek to continually improve and to learn. They don’t argue against ideas that don’t work, but instead seek to learn from them and improve them, adapting them as required. A lesson sadly lost on political parties.