Pump up the volume!

Time-efficient alternatives for reading business books

During my years in college, one of the first rap songs that became extremely popular was ‘Paid in full’ from Eric B & Rakim in the Coldcut mix. Its signature ingredients contained the soundbite ‘Pump up the volume’. 

‘Pump up the volume’ also was the phrase that resounded in my head when I recently read a bestseller from a well-known Harvard Business School professor. The entire book was based on a single concept that could easily have been explained on one single page. Instead, the author used more than 230 pages, which cost me the better part of a Sunday to read.

Why I like reading business books

I like reading business books for four reasons:

  1. To satisfy my intellectual curiosity
  2. To help me to make sense of what I personally observe about the way organizations ‘work’ (or not!)
  3. To enhance my skills 
  4. To keep me ‘current’

Why I am often disappointed after reading them

However, more often than not, I feel reading them is not the most efficient use of my time. The reason why is that (like the example mentioned at the beginning of this post), business books often try to expand ideas and concepts that could be explained in a couple of pages to the size of a book. This almost always means they need to cross the magical border of 200 pages.

I think this phenomenon is caused by the fact that business books mean ‘business’. Although it is not easy to gain insight into the market for business books, creatively extrapolating existing statistics indicate that each year more than tens of millions of business books are sold across the world. Therefore, the market for business books might be around one billion dollar. NB: This estimate excludes the sales of textbooks for higher education.

From articles to books

It is common practice that articles in business magazines are being pitched by the authors as possible book ideas, or vice versa. 

The difficulty obviously is that not every idea published in the form of an article justifies the expansion into book size. 

Therefore authors often rely on two strategies to ‘pump up the volume’ of their articles. The first one is to increase the number of concepts or ideas they covered in their article. This might be a good reason to turn an article into a book, but is hard to do. The second strategy is much easier: simply expand the number and/or size of the examples used in the book.

Blue Ocean Strategy

Let me use an example to illustrate this point. In the October 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne published their great and groundbreaking article ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’. The central idea of their article is that the vast majority of businesses traditionally compete in the same market space. This ‘bloody’ competition leads to winners and losers. The authors, therefore, call these markets ‘Red Oceans’. The alternative they suggest is to find uncontested markets, so-called ‘Blue Oceans’.

This HBR article is indeed excellent. The authors produce compelling arguments for their central ideas and illustrate these with relevant examples. 

However, then they decided to publish a book around this idea. A very successful decision from a commercial perspective; the book sold more than 4 million copies.

After reading both, however, I did not feel the book had added any significant value. Actually I felt I wasted probably about 5-6 hours reading it.

My strategy to stay current

The question is how to stay current with new developments in the world of management, without wasting time by reading business books that prove to be a waste of time. I am not sure there is a golden formula, but I am happy to share my ‘T-shape’ strategy to keep my knowledge up to date.

  • Deep – I am a devout reader of the Harvard Business Review for two reasons. First, I always find at least three-four articles in this bi-monthly issue interesting. Secondly, rightfully or not, it is regarded as the ‘gold standard’ in the world of business publications. Ideas published in this magazine are often considered to be a ‘must know’ in the business world.
  • Width – Twitter is a very good way for me to keep track of interesting articles being published by a range of different outlets. Excellent magazines like ‘The Economist’, ‘Fast Company’ and ‘Wired’, as well as a number of consulting firms, announce interesting articles and publications on Twitter. Therefore, I find Twitter the best way to fight my personal ‘FOMO’ (Fear Of Missing Out) on noteworthy business publications.

My strategy to select the right business books

Does this mean I do not read business books anymore? Absolutely not! I have hundreds of them, and, just like Umberto Eco said: ‘I love the smell of book ink in the morning’. This year I enjoyed for instance ‘Mindf*ck’ by Christopher Wylie, ‘The four’ by Scott Galloway, ‘The art of employee engagement’ by Marijn van Faassen, ‘Foute besluiten’ by Wim van Hennekeler and ‘People Matter, People Matter’ by Gary Hays. At this moment, I take a lot of pleasure from reading ‘Facebook’ by David Levy. 

When I reflected on which business books I liked, I discovered the ones I liked most told stories. Stories either about a very interesting history of a corporation (e.g. ‘Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry’ by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff), or honest auto-biographies. Books in this category include for instance ‘Lost and Founder’ from Rand Fishkin and the ‘The hard things about hard things’ by ‘Ben Horowitz. I stress the word honest, because too many books in this category squarely belong in the ‘How I did it’ category (the HBR column with the self-gratifying ‘rags to riches’ fairy tales of senior leaders).

When I am tempted to buy a business book, I often check its reviews at www.goodreads.com. This site provides a variety of often well-grounded opinions. It also circumvents the problem that established magazines and websites in the ‘eco-system’ of business publications, only tend to publish favorable reviews.

© Dirk Verburg 2020

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author

Censorship, social media, and self-confident societies

The Power of debate in the public domain

The invention of the printing press proved to be a pivotal point in the development of our society because it enabled the dissemination of ideas and information at an unprecedented pace. It is unlikely that, without the printing press, the Reformation in the 16th century would have had such a huge impact, so quickly.

In the 20th century, radio and television increased the speed of information even more. It is likely that the public opinion about the war in Vietnam (the first television war) changed significantly as a result of the coverage of this war on television.

Social media emerges

No wonder that many governments tried to control these media, either in the form of censorship, or by creating monopolies for news dissemination (e.g in the former Soviet Union).

At the end of the 1990s, social media platforms started to emerge, disrupting the traditional media landscape of newspaper, radio, and television organizations. 

Continue reading

Freud on change management

One of my core beliefs as a management consultant is that the root cause of why change projects fail is the lack of a clear and convincing business case. In my experience, the vast majority of people are willing to change (even if this change has negative implications for them), as long as they understand the rationale behind the change and have the means (resources) to change.

However, I also have come across a number of people who did not want to change, even when there was a clear need to do so, and they had all the required capabilities and resources at their disposal.

Continue reading

Mindf*ck: Politics, Psychology and Social Media

In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal shocked the world. It became clear that Cambridge Analytica had used data from tens of million Facebook users, to influence the elections in the US, and the Brexit referendum

Continue reading

Corporate Social Responsibility starts with your own employees

A couple of days ago my bible app opened with this verse of the day: ‘To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice’ (Proverbs 21:3). 

This text reminded me of the way some companies deal with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Rather than doing the right thing, they do the wrong thing and compensate for this by deploying CSR initiatives. There is even a special term describing this phenomenon: ‘Greenwashing’. In this context, it is no wonder that two professors from IMD (a leading Swiss Business School) published an article in 2018 with the provocative title: ‘Why nobody takes corporate social responsibility seriously’.

Continue reading

Are you ready for a post Covid-19 world?

The world will fundamentally change in the next decade

Whether you are listening to McKinsey, the IMF or the Economist, all modern-day prophets of doom agree that COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on our society and the economy. This impact will be felt long after this pandemic has passed.

Although I am not an incarnation of Alvin Toffler, the famous futurist and author of ‘Megatrends’, merely by observing the news and talking to clients and colleagues, I see a couple of clear trends and tipping points, which lead me to believe that the ‘new normal’ will look different than the ‘old normal’.

Continue reading

The Negative Feedback Paradox

Let me start with a confession:I never liked receiving negative feedback, and have spent the largest part of my professional life ignoring it.

I found ignoring negative (or perhaps I should euphemistically say ‘corrective’) feedback to be quite easy. Depending on the situation, I either did not take the person who gave me feedback seriously (‘that is rich – from him?’), comforted myself that the feedback concerned only a minor issue in the grand scheme of my behavior (and that other aspects of my behavior would compensate this), or convinced myself that the person giving me feedback did not understand the context in which I acted the way I did or said the things I said.

It was not until I hit a serious roadblock in my career, that I started to see the fact that systematically ignoring feedback was not necessarily a great idea. 

Continue reading

Building an authentic personal brand starts with ‘why?

Two weeks ago, I was asked to participate in an event about personal branding. The organizer asked me to focus specifically on the link between creating a personal brand and remaining authentic.

Because I have been irritated by the majority of the publications on this topic in the last 5+ years, I was excited to speak about it. Why? Because these articles often suggest people need a partial, or even full, make-over, in order to fit the mold of the specific environment they seek employment in. If that does not feel natural to them, the second piece of advice most publications give them is: ‘Fake it until you make it’.

Continue reading

Deliver on the promise of your brand

Deliver on the promise of your brand

‘Noblesse oblige’: if you offer branded products or services, ensure your pricing model enables you to maintain the loyalty of your clients by offering a ‘hassle-free’ after-sales experience.

In both the B2C, as well as in the B2B world, there are usually three reasons why people buy branded products and services, instead of generic ones:

1.    Unique features

2.    Exclusivity

3.    Quality

The first two aspects can usually be evaluated before the purchasing process. The third one, however, is mostly experienced only after the initial purchasing process has been completed, and therein lies the problem…

Continue reading

What Nietzsche, Jung and Sinatra have in common

20190603 Cover NJS Autenticity

The importance of authenticity in the workplace

Dale Carnegie on steroids

In the 1970s and 1980s, authenticity and self-development in the workplace were considered to be important by many middle and senior managers in the Western world. Perhaps too important: organizations were sometimes seen as narcissistic vehicles for self-development, instead of entities that should serve the interests of their shareholders and/or other stakeholders.

This orientation changed dramatically in the first half of the 1990s. Two popular business books that were published during that time perfectly illustrate this change. The first one was ‘Valuation’ (1990), a book written by Copeland, Koller and Murrin (three McKinsey consultants), the second one ‘Emotional intelligence’ by David Goleman (1995).

The key notion in ‘Valuation’ was that the prime purpose of organizations was to deliver value for their investors; a completely different orientation than the personal development of the members of the organization.

David Goleman’s bestseller stressed the importance of emotional intelligence, EQ, as opposed to IQ, in career development. Since the publication of his book, a steady stream of books, articles and posts (for instance in the daily HBR alerts) is being published on how to please the different stakeholders (mainly bosses and co-workers) that are important for one’s career. Many of these publications feel like ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie (1936) on steroids.

Nowadays, many see conformity no longer as a necessary accommodation to ‘fit-in’ in the workplace, or as something ‘optional’ in addition to actual performance, to further one’s career ambitions. Instead, for a number of people it has become one of the most important, or even the only, ‘Critical Success Factor’ to determine one’s success in the workplace (‘behavior = performance’).

Inclusion is not optional

Although it is not always easy, many people in the workplace achieve a satisfactory balance between their need for individual development and expression on the one hand, and the social conformity required to cooperate successfully with others, on the other hand. If, however, the degree in which they experience the need to suppress their authentic behaviors becomes extreme, potentially dangerous situations can present themselves for the individuals, their families, co-workers and the organizations they serve.


First of all, people who feel forced to deploy extremely adaptive behavior can suffer from mental and physical issues (ranging from the inability to reach their full potential, to depression and even cardiovascular issues). Furthermore, their families sometimes suffer as well (‘spillover effect’).

One of the things philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was interested in, was the function of pain and suffering for us as human beings. In this context, he once made the famous statement ‘What does not kill you makes you stronger’. Although this statement is often abused, psychologists agree that adversities create resilience and enable individuals to deal better with traumas. This also implies that individuals who always deny themselves the opportunity to act in an authentic manner in order to avoid going against the tide, rob themselves from the opportunity to become stronger. Instead, they become weaker.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung sees collisions between the individual and his or her external environment as positive. If not too vehement, collisions as a result of making choices and taking a position lead to stronger problem-solving abilities and personal growth. On the other hand, individuals who are afraid to engage in these collisions and try to avoid them at all costs can develop a neurosis.

Embracing the shadow

In other cases, people who cannot deal with the tension between their need for individual expression and social conformity in a healthy manner, may (sometimes consciously) cynically throw away their own moral compass. Instead, they make a Faustian bargain and embrace those (opportunistic) behaviors they think are necessary to further their careers and/or ensure their corporate survival. According to Jung, they embrace their shadow. Often these people develop into corporate versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Symptoms of people displaying this behavior include, amongst others:

  • Entertaining ‘the truth’ only as an interesting point of view instead of as a moral checkpoint
  • Publicly stating convictions they do not share, and never taking a position based on their principles, if they think this can harm their career
  • Re-creating or erasing memories about their unethical behavior in the workplace
  • Implementing decisions they know are unfair to their co-workers and/or harmful to their organization, without raising their concerns about this.

Worst case, they will not even raise their voice when they become aware of unethical, unsafe, non-compliant or illegal activities in their organization. On the contrary, they may even be instrumental in facilitating them.

Paradoxically, this brings them into the same position as their narcissistic colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s. They perceive the organizations they are working for only as vehicles for their personal gain, and do not feel accountable to shareholders, stakeholders or society at large. No wonder that most organizations are battling with ever-increasing compliance costs to manage this type of behavior.

A new balance

Does this mean we need to go back to the narcissistic orientation on the workplace that was en-vogue in 1970s and 1980s? No, most people will agree with the fact that organizations primarily exist to serve the objectives of their owners. Furthermore, most people realize that a certain degree of adaptation is necessary in order to cooperate effectively with others and that having the drive to make a career is not a bad thing in itself.

However, what is needed is a healthy balance between authentic and adaptive behavior. This is especially true for senior leaders who have a big impact on the performance of their organization. Many senior leaders go through their work life as jellyfish, moved only by the current. They are only able to measure their success in terms of the number of times they survived management changes, reorganizations, and reshuffles in the aftermath of M&A’s. They have forgotten, or have become too cynical, to measure their success in terms of their contribution to, or ‘the difference’ they make for, their organizations and society at large.

How authentic can you be?

It might be interesting for you to reflect on the degree in which you can sing the following lines from the song ‘I did it my way’, immortalized by Frank Sinatra, when you contemplate about your behavior in the workplace,

‘For what is man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels

And not the words of one who kneels’

It might be helpful to ask yourself to what degree you feel you can be authentic in the workplace, how this affects you in your private life, how this impacts the performance of the organization you are working for, and, finally, on a scale of 1-10, reflect on how satisfied you are with this situation. If you give a score is 5 or less, you might want to reflect on the what and how of the changes you, and/or your workplace, would need to make in order to enable you to act more authentically. An honest discussion with your line manager, co-workers and possibly HR might be a good first step. Alternatively, you could look outside your organization for a ‘more accommodating platform’ to deploy your talents.

Always put your oxygen mask on first

Illustration Oxygen Mask (Pexels)Increase your personal effectiveness by dealing with your actions first

For many senior business people, their day in the office resembles drinking from a fire hose. Not only do they need to attend a large number of meetings (often back to back), they are also hit with a continuous stream of ad-hoc questions from their staff, peers, customers, and line managers which require their attention and action.

A couple of years ago I started to get really worried about my personal effectiveness. Despite the outrageous number of hours I spent at work, I found it increasingly difficult to complete my tasks and finish my projects.

In order to address this, I decided to analyze my workload to find out what I could do to change this.

Continue reading

Unleash the Wimpy Kid!

illustration managing the wimpy way-1

Why I consider ‘Lost and Founder’ by Rand Fishkin to be a must read

At the beginning of my career, I managed a high profile ERP project. A couple of weeks before the go-live deadline, the customer introduced completely new requirements but did not want to shift the deadline. Needless to say, this significantly compromised the amount of time available for testing, something every available textbook warns one about. However, due to a combination of intimidating behavior of the customer, my own unwarranted optimism and lack of experience, I agreed to implement these new requirements and limit the amount of time available for testing. A decision which resulted in a rather ‘volatile’ go-live scenario which was highly visible for everyone in the company…

It is common wisdom that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. If anything, success has a tendency to make us complacent, whereas mistakes force us to take a step back, reflect on why our actions and behaviors did not work out as planned, and stimulate us to make changes in the way we approach opportunities and challenges.

Continue reading

Millennials do not exist

Picture Article Millennials.jpg

By Dirk Verburg

When reading social media postings, business magazines and consulting firms reports, it is easy to get the impression that the number one problem organizations are wrestling with is incorporating millennials in the workplace. However, there is strong evidence that the orientation of millennials does not differ from previous generations at all.

Who are Millennials?

Continue reading

Corporate recruiters should stop spraying & praying

 Article Recruitment Illustration IIThe way the market for talent works is frustrating for all parties: both for corporate recruiters as well as for candidates. In order to change this, corporate recruiters should start acting as marketers that know their product and their customers.

The number one problem most corporate recruiters complain about nowadays is application overload. Thanks to LinkedIn and other Internet-based recruiting channels, candidates can ‘shoot at anything that moves’, i.e. submit their CV’s to apply for any opportunity that remotely interests them. As a result, processing applications is experienced as by corporate recruiters as ‘drinking from a fire hose’.

Continue reading

Focusing means saying no

Illustration Artiicle Focus

Leaders need to do three things in order to set clear priorities for their organisations

By Dirk Verburg

Most executives I know are extremely busy. It seems they always have more things to do than they have actually time for. This is probably the reason why articles, books, websites and software packages claiming to offer personal productivity solutions are more popular than ever.

Time Management Tools have a limited effect…

No matter how different these solutions are, they all have one thing in common: they force choices. Whether it is the Eisenhower Matrix, Frank Covey’s Time Matrix or Dave Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ philosophy, they all force choices between things that need to be done and things that could be done.

Many people try to implement some or all of these tools and techniques in order to try to balance their time with the items on their to-do list. However, most of them remain structurally overloaded. They continue to have more ‘need to do’ actions on their to-do list than they have time for.

…because most often it is an organizational issue

Continue reading

Are annual performance reviews really that bad?

Belshazzar’s feast, by Rembrandt
 ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ by Rembrandt (Based on the biblical story of King Belshazzar in Daniel 5)

In the last couple of years it is extremely fashionable to bash annual performance reviews. A number of companies are publicly apologizing for the fact that they had them in first place, wondering aloud why they could ever have been so stupid, and demonstrate their remorse by publicly joining the ranks of the enlightened ones: those companies that abolished their annual performance review process.

In this context it is important to raise two questions, namely what the purpose of the annual performance review actually is and why it should be abolished. Continue reading

Why you should not look back in anger…

HC Gage Skidmore

Critical self-reflection is difficult to acquire, but extremely important for leaders

By Dirk Verburg

For several reasons I love reading autobiographies of leaders in business and politics. The first reason is plain curiosity: the possibility to take a look behind the stage of well-known events. The second reason is because these autobiographies provide a unique opportunity to understand decision making processes from the perspective of the decision makers. Why did they take certain decisions in specific situations? Were they aware of certain developments? From whom did they obtain advice? What was the role of important stakeholders? etc. Continue reading

Three imperatives for Talent Management in a VUCA world

Talent management originates from the late 1960s. Since then the business environment has changed dramatically. However, talent management practices in a number of organizations have not been adapted to cope effectively with these changes. This makes these organizations vulnerable to disruptions in their environment. Talent managers should therefore do three things to ensure their businesses have the necessary adaptive and innovative capabilities to cope with disruptions.

Picture Article Talent Management

By Dirk Verburg

Almost 50 years ago, in 1968, Paul S. Ostrowski published an article with the title “Prerequisites for Effective Succession Planning”. This article is often seen as the starting point for Talent Management. The business environment at that time looked completely different from today:

Continue reading

The European Union should review its strategy

The importance of the EU is increasing, but its continuity is threatened by the actions and behaviours of its own leaders

Picture EU article

By Dirk Verburg

European cooperation is now more important now than ever

To state the obvious: we are living in a VUCA world, a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The world order as we know it seems to be threatened by multiple problems, including (in arbitrary order): the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, the geo-political ambitions of China, wavering loyalty of the current US president regarding NATO, Climate Change, the Refugee crisis, the rise of populism in Western Democracies and Muslim extremism, to name but a few.

Given the nature and scale of these challenges, European countries have a far better chance to achieve a successful outcome if they deal with these challenges jointly, rather than individually.

EU politicians are ignoring warning signals about the lack of support of the EU by their voters Continue reading

Book Review: Pariahs, Hubris, Reputation and Organizational crises

Tw Cover PariahsA ‘must read’ for the C-suite.

By Dirk Verburg

Ever since the industrial revolution, large corporations have played an important role in our society. Due to the globalization in the past decades, their influence is continuously increasing.

At the same time it seems that the number of scandals caused by these large organizations is growing as well. Established names, such as Barclays, Siemens, Wells Fargo, Ahold, VW, BP, Shell, Worldcomm, Tyco, Enron, Olympus, Arthur Anderson, E&Y, the BBC and many others, have all experienced scandals, and some no longer exist as a result.

What complicates this situation even is that governments and other institutions (e.g. regulators and ‘independent’ accounting firms) do not seem to be able to control, or at least monitor, the way companies in the private sector are operating. Continue reading

Why I feel sorry for Donald Trump

By Dirk Verburg

How you can prevent pursuing the wrong role and what you can do if you find yourself in one.

Trump Skidmore
Photo by George Skidmore

No – this is not the title of yet another ‘Trump-bashing’ article, but a genuine empathetic feeling I have for Donald Trump. I already suspected for a long time what Donald Trump recently admitted, namely that he finds the job of being president of the US harder than he expected. The reason I feel sorry for Donald Trump is that I think he might have made a mistake a lot of us are prone to. It is the mistake of applying for a prestigious job, without a proper vision as to what the actual content might be and without honestly reflecting whether this content plays to our strengths and will keep us engaged in the future.

Why people pursue roles that do not fit them Continue reading

How you can make engagement surveys work

Despite the importance of employee engagement, more and more organizations decide to cancel their employee engagement surveys due to a perceived lack of ROI. Leaders can make engagement surveys work however, by applying three simple principles. Continue reading

The Fear Factor

Why a sense of belonging is crucial for a healthy corporate culture

By Dirk Verburg

According to Professor of Psychology Kip Williams, the human race ows its success to the fact that we learned to collaborate in groups. We learned that through organizing ourselves in tribes, we hugely increased our chances to survive in a hostile environment. The tribe enabled us to protect ourselves from wild animals, other tribes and food shortages.

The prospect of people who were being ‘ostracized’ (forced to leave the tribe) looked bleak. In pre-historic times, ostracism did not only result in social, but also in a certain physical death. People, who were kicked out of their ‘tribe’ and left to their own devices, were doomed to die, because they could not defend themselves effectively against predators, other tribes and could no longer collect sufficient food.

Because of the latent fears of ostracism that human beings have, managing human behavior by using this threat requires surprisingly little effort. Setting an example by ostracizing just a handful of individuals in a visible manner is enough to instill a sense of fear in a complete community. Continue reading