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HR Magazine: Read any Good (Non-HR) Books Lately?

By Ann Pomeroy  9/1/2006

HR Magazine, September 2006

Vol. 51, No. 9

Business lessons can come from a surprising variety of literature.

“HR people tend to read only HR books,” laments Lin Blair, SPHR, HR project leader at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Little Rock. She thinks that’s a mistake.

By all means, read the excellent books written by highly respected experts like Dave Ulrich, Tom Peters and Jim Collins, to name just a few, Blair urges. But don’t forget to “expand your horizons” by reading outside the HR field as well, she advises.

With that in mind, we asked a number of HR professionals and consultants to recommend nonbusiness books they’ve read for pleasure that nonetheless offered valuable professional advice. Their suggestions included an eclectic assortment of volumes you may want to consider putting on your personal reading list.

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom
By Don Miguel Ruiz (Amber-Allen, 2001)

“I heard people at work discussing this book,” says Blair. It sounded intriguing, so she read it and found that “the core agreements really spoke to me.” In addition to finding it valuable for her personal growth, she recognized that the book was full of lessons for the workplace as well.

Blair designs programs and conducts feedback training for Blue Cross. She also teaches graduate-level career planning at Webster University in Little Rock. She began referencing the work in her classes and recommending it to her students.

Since reading it four or five years ago, Blair has given copies of the book to several people, and “They all said it made a difference in their lives. The book clicks with most people,” she has found.

Written by a Mexican shaman—a healer and spiritual leader—The Four Agreements is based on wisdom handed down by the ancient Toltec people, who lived in central Mexico between the 10th and 12th centuries. Blair says the four “simple truths” that form the core of the book “aren’t new—we all know them—but the author does a good job of presenting them.”

  • Be impeccable in your speech. In other words, “Do what you say you’re going to do.” This is probably the most important one of all, says Blair. “You can’t be a true leader without integrity.”

  • Don’t take anything personally. “You don’t know what burdens people are carrying on any given day,” says Blair. “It’s not all about you.” She tries to remember that “I’m just someone on their windshield. It’s about where they are on that day.”

  • Don’t make assumptions. “People hear things and process them through their own filters,” says Blair. “We don’t have the same filters, so don’t assume that the other person has thought through a situation and processed it in the same way that you have.” She keeps this principle in mind when she conducts training in giving and receiving feedback. It’s important to ask more questions and to be good at receiving as well as at giving, she says. “Listen for the intent” behind the words, Blair advises her students.

  • Always do your best. To this maxim Blair adds, “Do the best you can do that day.” Often people are under pressure to “always be 110 percent,” she says—clearly an impossible goal that raises stress levels.

 Blair remembers some advice she heard several years ago from a conference presenter, who “reminded us that it’s important to focus on being a good person first. You have to get your personal house in order before you can become a good leader.

“I fail miserably every day,” she confesses, “but I’m trying.” She says The Four Agreements has been a valuable personal and professional resource as she continues her efforts.

Life of Pi
By Yann Martel (Harcourt, 2002)

Life of Pi, the fantastic tale of a boy named Pi and his adventures while shipwrecked with a Bengal tiger and an orangutan, attracted Ron Murray’s attention when it won the 2002 Booker Prize for Fiction. Murray, SPHR, human resources manager of the Texas Legislative Council, says the roster of Booker winners is “the best reading list around.”

Murray favors fiction for his pleasure reading. He says he often finds that “Nonfiction is not as believable as fiction. A fiction writer would have made [a nonfiction story] more believable.”

In Life of Pi, Murray says, the author takes the reader by the hand and leads him into an altered reality so skillfully that he gradually wins the reader’s trust, convincing the reader of the truth of the author’s vision. The end of the book is “like a slap in the face,” he says, when the author “blows up the reader’s gullibility” and shatters the trust he built so deliberately.

Murray was struck by the business parallels in this fable. He realized that, like the author, some people are very good at promoting groupthink. It can be easy to be fooled, for example, when entering a company culture as a new employee.

“Companies don’t always do what they say they do,” he notes, “and it’s easy to be sucked into other realities.” Carried to extremes, this can lead to an insidious progression of deceit and abuse of trust.

He’s not advocating that we adopt a paranoid attitude toward senior management or toward our employees, only that we keep an open mind and get both sides of the story. If someone comes into his office with a grievance, says Murray, he reminds himself that “you tend to believe the story you hear first.”

Remember how easy it is to be fooled, he advises. When the real truth is revealed, it can seem so obvious. “ ‘Well of course! How stupid was I?’ you think.” Just as Murray did when he finished this book.

Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming to Ourselves
By C. Terry Warner (Shadow Mountain, 2001)

With an undergraduate degree in human development and a master’s degree in HR management, Aaron Rhoades, SPHR, former HR manager of the Tremonton, Utah, facility of La-Z-Boy Inc., has long had a professional as well as a personal interest in the complexities of human relationships. It’s not surprising, then, that Bonds That Make Us Free by Brig- ham Young University philosophy professor C. Terry Warner attracted his attention.

Conflicts exist in relationships of every kind, says Rhoades, both at home and in the workplace. Bonds That Make Us Free discusses two basic choices people can make in response to the perceived needs of the people around them.

“It’s the ‘baby crying in the night’ scenario,” he says. “Am I responsive or resistant?” In other words, “Am I intrinsically motivated [to respond to the baby’s needs] or do I resist, do I deceive myself by making excuses about why my spouse should get up rather than me?” The book’s theoretical approach to the problem is one of the best he has seen, Rhoades says, because it puts the onus on individuals to focus on healing their relationships, what the author calls “coming to ourselves.” The book has helped Rhoades “be more pragmatic in my responses to the stimuli around me,” he says.

One of the biggest organizational development challenges, Rhoades opines, is to “fix the interaction between people.” He likens employees in the office environment to a “little dysfunctional family.” Creating a positive work environment, Rhoades believes, can help an organization be “world-class rather than petty. My mantra is that functional relationships in a business environment will enable us to be more successful.”

Readers will get “large returns on their investment of time in reading this book,” says Rhoades. For business people who fear the book may be too “touchy-feely,” he recommends Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box, compiled by the Arbinger Institute (Berrett-Koehler, 2000). This one is “a business version” of Bonds That Make Us Free, Rhoades says, based on Warner’s ideas.

The Night Lives On
By Walter Lord (William Morrow & Co., 1986)

Rick Sawyer, director of learning and development for Fujifilm, USA, has been fascinated by the dramatic story of the RMS Titanic ever since he was a child. It’s a fascination shared by many people. In the 1950s, author Walter Lord wrote A Night To Remember, a moment-by-moment description of the sinking of the legendary ship based on interviews with dozens of survivors of the disaster. The book was made into a movie in 1955 that, in turn, strongly influenced the later 1997 movie Titanic.

Sawyer read The Night Lives On, Lord’s sequel to the earlier account, as an adult and began to “see beyond the human drama and tragedy” to some of the underlying reasons why this supposedly “unsinkable” ship went down in the waters of the Atlantic. “This book peels the onion,” says Sawyer, as it examines the dramatic competition between the Cunard and White Star lines, two of the largest businesses in the world at the time. “In 1912,” says Sawyer, “they were the equivalent of Coke and Pepsi.” The saga of two British companies that, between them, controlled the passenger shipping market in the North Atlantic in 1912 provides lessons for “any company that thinks it can do no wrong.”

The officers on the bridge of the White Star Line’s much-hyped new ship were “cavalier and arrogant” during the hours before the Titanic slammed into an iceberg, he says. “They received messages all day long about ice problems, and they ignored them.” Why? This biggest, most technologically advanced ship ever was considered invulnerable by the company and by the ship’s officers, a handpicked “all-star team” considered the best of the best.

There is a lesson here for HR, believes Sawyer: “Even if you have selected the best team, beware of complacency and arrogance.” In the end, he says, the Titanic’s all-star team—and ultimately the White Star Line—went down with the ship because they succumbed to hubris.

Bedtime Stories for Grown-ups
By Sue Gallehugh and Allen Gallehugh (HCI, 1995)

Mindy Geiser, vice president of HR at Two Degrees, a consulting and professional services firm in Seattle, enjoys reading and usually takes a look at books that are recommended to her. She read Bedtime Stories for Grown-ups at the suggestion of her nanny’s mother. “I often say I’ve read excerpts from many books,” laughs Geiser, a working mom with four kids. Because her free time is limited, this “laugh-out-loud” book was a perfect read, she says. Written by two psychologists and modeled after well-known fairy tales, each tale takes a lighthearted look at serious issues.

The stories’ morals are applicable to life in general and to life in the workplace, Geiser says, because they deal with “basic premises of how we want to live our lives and how we want to conduct ourselves.”

The book’s very first sentence alerts the reader to what lies ahead: “Hammond Deggs, the third member of the family of three little pigs, was a mason by trade who lived in the tiny hamlet of Boar’s Cove.” This tale deals with facing fears. And “Heaven Helps Those Who Help Them Elves,” based on “The Shoemaker,” addresses the issue of manipulation.

The concerns dramatized in the stories—taking responsibility, pre-judging, setting priorities, creative problem-solving—are “things I think about all the time from an HR perspective,” says Geiser. She realized after reading the book that it could be helpful in training. “If you are looking for a lighthearted way to introduce a topic, you might use something from this book.”

Geiser likes the fact that busy people can find time to read these stories because they are short—three or four pages long—and they can be read in any order. “It’s nice to read something that’s light but that doesn’t feel like a waste of my time.

“The questions people ask me every day prompt me to want to learn more about myself,” Geiser says. “How would I respond to that situation if it happened to me?” she often wonders. She advises people to read this book “not to learn something new, but to have a good laugh and be reminded of the important things.”

John Adams
By David McCullough (Simon and Schuster, 2001)

Consultant and public speaker Joe Healey of Virginia Beach, Va., says many leaders don’t know how to influence others. When he read John Adams in 2002, he says, “America was in the midst of realizing that there was a character void among our senior leaders.”

About 15 years before, Healey had begun a study of leaders, in particular America’s founding fathers, to learn more about what it takes to be a strong leader. “I was head of a new company at the time and I realized that this is not easy; this is hard. I needed help.”

Healey didn’t have time to go back to school, so reading about American presidents became “my advanced degree program.” He read about former presidents in their “time of fire, their time of testing,” to learn about their flaws as well as their strengths.

Healey was particularly impressed by John Adams, a decent man of stellar character who—as the only founding father who didn’t own slaves—was ahead of his time. “He wasn’t a cool cat,” but he knew how to lead. “He was intellectually honest, a strength that is at the core of great leaders,” Healey believes.

Another trait of great leaders such as Adams is that they “don’t rationalize as much as other people,” says Healey. And great leaders are highly creative. For example, John Adams took a creative approach to the problem of getting a loan to support American soldiers during the Revolutionary War: When France balked at Benjamin Franklin’s request for money, Adams quietly traveled to The Netherlands and arranged a $2 million loan, thereby increasing European respect for America, Healey says.

There is a desperate need for leaders today, Healey asserts, and reading about how great leaders of the past met their challenges can be instructive for today’s aspiring leaders. “I’ve found biographies to be a good balance to the more theory-oriented—but still valuable—business books,” he says. Books such as John Adams are “rich in the most challenging area of development—character lessons.”

Add to Your Repertoire

As our readers found, insight and inspiration can come from many sources. Whether you choose fiction, true-life adventures, biography or personal development advice from a variety of experts, the opportunities to learn more about yourself and your world are limitless. That’s why Sawyer advises readers looking to advance their careers to “add to their repertoire” by reading widely and including both business and nonbusiness books in the mix.

And Murray reminds us that wisdom from the distant past is still applicable today. “Read The Prince [by Renaissance author Niccolo Machiavelli] and The Art of War [a 6th century B.C. Chinese treatise written by Sun Tzu],” says Murray, and “you’ll understand how groups behave.”

Machiavelli’s pragmatic advice to his prince demonstrates that the political world of Renaissance Florence was very similar to the political climate of companies today, Murray says. And he points out that you can find such examples throughout history.

“Maybe Brutus and the senators aren’t jumping Caesar and stabbing him these days,” says Murray, but politics continue to drive modern organizations nevertheless. “It’s the way things work.”

That’s why some business leaders depart with a golden parachute, he says, while others lose their life savings—a sign that human nature really hasn’t changed much.

Ann Pomeroy is senior writer for HR Magazine .

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