The Best Books of 2021

The Best Business Books: the 2021 FT & McKinsey Book Award

recommended by Andrew Hill

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race by Nicole Perlroth

WINNER: 2021 BUSINESS BOOK OF THE YEAR

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race
by Nicole Perlroth

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Every year the Financial Times's management editor, Andrew Hill, helps organize its 'Business Book of the Year' award, which celebrates outstanding books relating to business in the broadest sense. Here, he talks us through the 2021 shortlist, six books that will draw you in and open your eyes to how events happening in the world of business affect all of us–sometimes in very profound ways.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race by Nicole Perlroth

WINNER: 2021 BUSINESS BOOK OF THE YEAR

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race
by Nicole Perlroth

Read
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Before we get to the books that made the 2021 shortlist, what’s been going on in the world of business books this year in general?

This year we’ve seen the beginning of books that people wrote during lockdown or were inspired by some of the things that are happening in business, like the future of work. I think next year there might be more books on that topic, but the issue of how we work, what we do, and where we do it, is obviously quite high on the list. Peter Cheese, who’s the head of the CIPD, the human resource management association, came out with a book that summarized all his thinking about the world of work, The New World of Work. I know that Lynda Gratton, a professor of management at London Business School, is working on a book, as is the author and entrepreneur Julia Hobsbawm, who now leads Workshift, a programme exploring the future of work. She has a book out next year called The Nowhere Office. So I think there’s a pile of future of work books that have started to come out.

The other big event of last year was the #BlackLivesMatter protests. That was a big jolt for lots of organizations in how they dealt with racial diversity and equity. So quite a few books on that have come along. The Conversation by Robert Livingston made the FT book award shortlist. I also enjoyed a book by Sheree Atcheson, who is of Sri Lankan origin and has been working for various tech companies. She’s written a book called Demanding More which takes her personal experience and applies it to the way in which companies can deal with diversity.

There was also quite a wide selection of climate books. John Doerr, the venture capitalist, has a new book out, Speed and Scale, as does Bill Gates, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Another book that crossed into this territory that was on our longlist is Net Positive by Paul Polman, the former CEO of Unilever, co-authored with Andrew Winston.

Let’s talk about the books that made the shortlist of the 2021 FT & McKinsey business book of the year award. As you’ve already mentioned it, shall we start with The Conversation? This is by a social psychologist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who works on bias and race in organizations.

Yes, Robert Livingston. We may have spoken about this in previous years, but often core management books don’t win through to the longlist of the FT book prize, let alone the shortlist. The Conversation is, in many ways, a core management book. It’s about how to have ‘the conversation’, that difficult discussion about race, but also how to turn that discussion into meaningful change at work and in society.

“It has to be a good story”

What I liked—and what our judges liked—about this book was that not only was it practical, but it also treated the reader as a grown-up. It’s saying, ‘There is research on this, here’s the research, here’s the advice, here are the pitfalls.’ It takes on some of the practical challenges that a lot of organizations and managers are facing. It’s really a book for managers, I think, probably more than some of the books out there that are more about how individuals might think about race.

It has that upbeat tone business books typically have and that you don’t often find in books about race, which tend to document painful experiences and so are uncomfortable to read. This book says, ‘here’s the problem, here’s what you can do about it.’ I found that quite empowering.

Yes, it’s saying, ‘Look, this is a conversation that we’re going to have, that we want to have, but there’s no need to come at it from a position of fear.’ The tone of it is such that it is the kind of book you can hand out easily without anyone thinking you’re trying to make some special point, other than this is a useful, practical way of thinking about an issue that is important to anyone in management.

Let’s move on to The World for Sale by Javier Blas and Jack Farchy. It opens with this brilliant scene, of a Brit flying into Libya in the middle of a civil war to supply oil to the rebels. It reads a bit like the beginning of a James Bond film. So this is a book about commodities and commodities trading. Why did it make the 2021 business book award shortlist?

One of the reasons it made the shortlist is because it absolutely fulfils that criteria of the award, going back to when we started it in 2005, that it’s compelling and enjoyable to read. The episode you just described is typical. It’s by two former FT journalists, now working for Bloomberg, who have used their knowledge of the commodity world to tell a story. It’s not only a very useful history of what has happened in commodities markets since World War II, but it also unearths some of the extraordinary stories and figures that worked at or led some of these big commodity trading houses.

Their underlying point is that there’s a reason why these big commodities houses have minted so many billionaires and multimillionaires. It’s not only that commodities were in an extraordinary boom at a critical point after the 1970s into the early 2000s, but also that these figures were extraordinary. They were massive risk-takers, amoral people prepared to do deals with baddies to turn a commodity—be it oil, gas, coal or precious metals—into cash, and adopting the most extraordinary strategies to do so.

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That includes the ones who weren’t prepared to fly into war zones. I love the story of the guy who ran Phibro Energy, who was essentially working from a screen in Connecticut, but managed to see that there was a way of stocking oil in oil tankers. He bought up extraordinary amounts of oil—waiting for what he correctly predicted: war in the Middle East in 1990 and a sudden supply squeeze when he could offload it all—and stored the oil in tankers around the world. It requires a certain risk-taking chutzpah to do that. This book paints that rollercoaster world of commodity trading rather brilliantly, I think.

It’s often in countries led by dodgy regimes, isn’t it?

Yes. There are things going on in Congo. The famous oil-for-food scandal in Iraq is touched on. It’s a question of spotting an opportunity and not actually caring much about what the politics might be or the people you might have to deal with.

Right at the beginning, the authors point out that of course nobody really wanted to talk to them. Most of these companies are privately held or were when they started their work. Nobody really wanted to talk about what goes on. It was quite a job of investigation.

Let’s go on to Empire of Pain by New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, which is about the Sackler family. I think most people associate the name Sackler with art and museum buildings, but it turns out some of the family made their money through a company called Purdue Pharma, which excelled at marketing pharmaceuticals, including the opioid Oxycontin. Tell me about this book.

It’s worth saying at the outset that one has to tread with care here because not all the Sacklers accept the allegations. I don’t think any of them would accept the full allegations, which are drawn rather well in this book. There are at least three strands of the family involved, one of which – headed by Arthur Sackler – was there at the outset, but who are no longer involved in ownership of Purdue Pharma, which belonged to his brothers Mortimer and Raymond Sackler and relatives.

One of the things that Patrick Radden Keefe has managed to do with this book is somehow weave his way through the legal jeopardy, helped by the extraordinary disgorging of documents from court cases in the United States in relation to Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy and other elements of the story. That allowed him to trace the story of how the Sacklers created this company, and also the techniques used to market the drugs, going back many decades. There were lots of internal memos and things that were unearthed by the legal process.

“It’s quite hard to find a book that brings a positive view of business that doesn’t fall over into boosterism”

In parallel, as you’ve mentioned, the Sacklers were building a reputation as these extraordinary philanthropists, with art gallery and museum extensions and other things named after them. We could probably all come up with at least one example. Few people made the link between the family name and the pharmaceutical company that, ultimately, has been held responsible for encouraging the epidemic of opioid abuse.

It’s a brilliantly told story and, again, fits into the compelling and enjoyable category very, very well. It’s also enraging for the reader. Radden Keefe has done a great job of maintaining objectivity while painting a picture of the way in which people connected to Purdue seemingly evaded responsibility for the problems it allegedly triggered.

Let’s move on to The New Climate War, which is by Michael Mann, who’s a professor of atmospheric science at UPenn. As you mentioned earlier, there have been quite a lot of climate books this year, why did this one stand out?

I think this one got through—and I think some of my colleagues were surprised that it made it onto the shortlist—because it’s a very polemical book. Michael Mann is a well-known climatologist; he has been involved in this area for years and was one of the people behind the hockey stick graph that shows the extraordinary take-off of global temperatures caused by fossil-fuel burning after the Industrial Revolution. He is firmly on the side of those warning of the dangers of climate change, and this is a book that really takes it to those who think that simply delaying action and deflecting responsibility are ways to deal with it.

He’s got quite a lot to say about the systemic measures that should be taken—like carbon pricing or an end to subsidies for fossil fuel. That’s where he thinks the real action should be taken. Personal actions can’t do any harm, but he says that focusing on individual behaviour—have you lagged your loft or stopped eating meat—is a rather devious deflection tactic. He’s unhappy with it being the major focus of attention, and actually thinks it’s a new form of climate denialism.

So it’s a strong book and I think that as well as the very pressing urgency of the problem, it gets on the shortlist because it’s written in a way that does generate some feeling. It’s probably one of the strongest polemics to make the list since we started the prize.

We’re now at a book about cybersecurity, which I often find quite a gripping genre, with spy novel-type scenarios. This one is called This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race and it’s by Nicole Perlroth who is a cybersecurity reporter for the New York Times. Tell me about it.

This is a heavy book, it’s one of the bigger ones on the list. Her take is that we have ignored what’s going on behind the scenes in the world of cybersecurity. She takes on the question of the dark web, where a lot of really devious and dark stuff is happening in an arms race between cybercriminals, hackers and spies for national governments. They’re fighting to infiltrate different essential computer systems and exploiting vulnerabilities that exist in cyberspace.

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The whole premise is that we’re on the precipice of catastrophe as far as the cyberweapons arms race is concerned. One particularly worrying part of it is that US security officials have essentially been rewarding cybercriminals for finding vulnerabilities in computer systems that they can use against their opponents. That obviously then creates a market for these vulnerabilities that could be used by unscrupulous hackers in the community to break through our defences.

It’s a frightening book. Perlroth doesn’t pull any punches, and I don’t think I’m misrepresenting the judges when I say that they were all bug-eyed with fear after reading it. It’s a big, jolting call to the world to wake up to something that might turn into disaster.

And it’s a good read?

Yes, she’s another journalist. There’s a predominance of journalists on our shortlist, going back a few years. It’s partly because journalists are trained to tell a story. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends is a pretty good one, if a gloomy one.

I was looking at discussions about the books that made the 2021 shortlist on the FT website and scrolling through some of the reader comments. One of them made me laugh, they wrote, ‘these are not business books, these are anti-business books.’

That is an occasional criticism. I tend not to worry about comments about the shortlist because, by that stage, it’s the judges who have chosen the books and our judging panel is pretty diverse. It includes people who are and have been very prominent in business and it probably includes all shades of politics. If the judges decide from the longlist that they don’t want books that paint a more positive picture of business, there’s not much I can do about that.

It’s a comment worth reflecting on, though, every year. It comes down to the fact that it’s quite hard to find a book that brings a positive view of business that doesn’t then fall over into boosterism. We’re often looking at books by CEOs, a genre that is 99% poor and less than compelling. That’s partly because chief executives rarely admit that they have failed and if they’ve succeeded, they’re usually talking up their own successes.

There are a few exceptions. Ed Catmull’s book about Pixar, Creativity, Inc., from a few years back, is still one I recommend. I think Net Positive, the longlisted book that I mentioned by Paul Polman and Andrew Winston, is one that does cast business as being in a position to lead positive change. So books like this do make it to the longlist, but sometimes they get left on the shelf at the point where the shortlist is chosen.

I suppose to be successful in business, you have to understand the world as it is, not how you’d like it to be.

Yes. The other thing is it has to be a good story. Sometimes we do have to stay our hand a little with books on scandals and make sure we’re also considering and longlisting books that explain how business is done. For example, I would say The World for Sale is not necessarily an anti-business book. It’s a book that actually tells us how quite a lot of people are doing business, albeit in the very extreme world of commodities trading.

We’re now at the last book on the shortlist of the 2021 FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year award.  This is The Aristocracy of Talent by Adrian Wooldridge. This is a book arguing in favour of meritocracy, which I was surprised was a point that needed to be made. Tell me more.

Adrian Wooldridge is an Economist journalist who has been on the shortlist before, with a book that he co-authored with Alan Greenspan, Capitalism in America. He writes the “Bagehot” column in the Economist. If you follow that, you will recognize his very keenly argued, Economist style.

His concern in this book is about what he sees as a backlash against meritocracy. It’s his pushback against those who blame meritocracy for a lack of social mobility, for highly educated, highly paid people monopolizing top positions and being the dominant class across a range of areas, from journalism to economics to politics. He’s putting forward a view that­—perhaps surprisingly—is a controversial one now: that meritocracy is the way forward. It’s going to stir the waters for those who think that meritocracy has become a way of promoting the elite and keeping them there.

As Wooldridge points out in the book, until relatively recently, meritocracy was considered the principal way to overcome elitism. He paints a beautifully written picture of the history of merit and meritocracy, the ways in which it has succeeded in bringing a wider range of people to the top and encouraged prosperity by ensuring that the best people are doing the most important jobs. The whole book is really a plea to restore meritocracy and to use that as the main tool of encouraging social mobility rather than an anti-elitist approach.

The book covers a lot of ground. You might argue that this is not as much of a business book as some of the others, but he’s so well-read, it’s such a well-written book, and it’s such a compelling argument, that it’s a worthy part of the shortlist. Also, it does shade over into discussion of how the people who run and influence the world’s economies make it to the top which is bound to be of interest to anyone in business.

In addition to the Business Book of the Year award, the FT and McKinsey also organize the Bracken Bower Prize, which encourages writers aged 35 and under to research ideas that could make the best business book of future years.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is Management Editor of the Financial Times and organiser of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. He is also the author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World. 

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Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is Management Editor of the Financial Times and organiser of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. He is also the author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World.