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The Best Business Books of 2020: the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award

recommended by Andrew Hill

No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier

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Whether you're looking for ideas on how to run a successful business or books that look at the various challenges facing capitalist society, the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award is a great place to start. Andrew Hill, who with colleagues at the Financial Times sifted through hundreds of entries to compile the award's longlist, talks us through the books that made the 2020 shortlist—as well as offering some predictions for the year ahead.

Interview by Sophie Roell

No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier

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Before we get to the books that made the 2020 shortlist, can you give me a general sense what the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award is about? We discussed this a bit last year, but in terms of the kind of books you’re looking for, it’s not just about how to run a successful business, is it?

Yes, normally you’d find business books in a specific section in the bookshop or online. They would tend to be books about management and probably some first-hand accounts of running a business and so on. Our breadth is far greater, in that it’s books which can be as broad as economics and finance, biography and history. This year, it’s as wide as the future of work and the future of technology, the state of the world economy and globalization. I like to think that we’ve stretched the genre, although some people get a bit grumpy about the fact that we’re not doing the pure business books perhaps as much as the title of the award suggests.

The prize has been running since 2005: what kind of books has this year thrown up compared to the past?

I suppose the first thing to say is that because of the timing of the prize—the eligibility is mid-November to mid-November—it was very unlikely that any book would be able to tackle head-on the pandemic and its consequences. Personally, I’m braced for 2021 to feature a lot of books on that topic.

That said, certainly in the longlist that we drew up in August—which is the list that goes to the judges, from which they select six books for the shortlist—there were a couple that didn’t make the shortlist which were, essentially, about decision-making under pressure. So there was Margaret Heffernan’s book Uncharted, which is all about preparedness, and then John Kay and Mervyn King’s book, Radical Uncertainty, about how to deal with uncertain times. Though I help organize the judging I’m not one of the judges and, slightly to my surprise, both those books were knocked out at the longlist stage.

“I like to think that we’ve stretched the genre”

This year we had a real range on the longlist—everything from gender diversity and the global economy through to the story of Mohammed bin Salman and his rise to power in Saudi Arabia. The judges have narrowed it down and for the shortlist we’ve ended up with books with quite a strong technology focus—as there has been in recent years in a lot of cases. Three of the six shortlisted books are directly about technology or technology companies and at least one of the others touches on it. All of them, if you like, allude to the fact of automation and the coming changes in the world of work, which is of course the other big theme of this year, as a consequence of the pandemic and the ways in which that has changed our working practices.

Are you the one choosing the books for the longlist?

Not me personally, I’m glad to say, although I do spend a lot of time with colleagues working out how to filter the more than 400 entries that come in. Essentially the process works in two ways. There’s the top-down, ‘What books are out there that are making a buzz?’ Those would tend to be books that have already been published by the closing date for entries, June 30th. Then there’s the far more difficult task of working out which of the books that have yet to be published and reviewed—that come out between June 30th and mid-November, the date eligibility ends for this year—should be on the longlist. That’s a job that’s done by me and colleagues, sifting through books as they come in. Without wanting to sound as though I’m complaining, that’s been much more difficult this year because a lot of books that were due to be published in April/May/June were delayed until September or later. As a result, we had many more books that hadn’t yet been published and therefore required more intense reading, if you like, because there was no third-party judgment about whether they were books worth considering or not.

Let’s go through the books that made the 2020 shortlist individually: as we’re headlining this as the best business books, I thought maybe we’d start with the one that looks most like a traditional business book. It’s called No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, and he’s teamed up with Erin Meyer, who is a professor at INSEAD business school, to write the book. Tell me about it and why it’s good. 

No Rules Rules is about Netflix and the culture of Netflix. As you say, in being a book about corporate culture, it’s squarely in the traditional business book genre. What I liked about it was, first of all, that if you’re a serving CEO or executive writing a book about your company, it’s quite a high bar to cross because there’s a very strong tendency towards self-congratulation: you tend to gloss over the errors and big-up the successes. There is a certain amount of that in this book, but by pairing up with Erin Meyer—who is an academic writing about corporate culture and differences between corporate and indeed national cultures— the book is framed as a sort of dialogue. So Hastings will say something and then Erin Meyer will write a part that either takes issue with that or expands on it or fills in some of the intellectual and academic backing for what he has observed. And I think, for the most part, that works pretty well as a way of explaining Netflix and how it has been successful.

“Once you’ve got the best team in place…then you can start to trust them with this no rules corporate culture”

It clearly is a book about success. Netflix is one of the big companies that has obviously done particularly well under pandemic conditions, with people streaming boxsets and watching seasons and seasons of things via Netflix or other streaming services. But this book is less about the content—though there is a bit of that—and more about how Netflix works.

Netflix, of course, was very famously a company that put its radical culture out there for scrutiny in the 2000s, when it published a slide deck—that you can still find online in its original and updated versions—explaining its culture of transparency, how it worked, why you had to behave in particular ways at Netflix. This became a sort of bible for Silicon Valley in particular. But few companies managed to match Netflix and that raises the question—which is partly what this book attempts to answer—of why it’s so difficult to replicate what Netflix does.

This radical culture that’s described—only keeping top performers and getting rid of everyone else, always saying what you think rather than being diplomatic—quite often in the sections by Erin Meyer she seems to be saying that they go against everything that’s taught in business school. You’re management editor of the Financial Times: what’s your take? Do these no rules rules work? Were you saying the Netflix culture can’t be replicated?

I suppose I was saying that obviously it hasn’t been replicated. There have been very few companies that have done as well as Netflix has done. There is a certain ‘don’t try this at home’ aspect to the book.

As well as having a dialogue, the book also has a progression: it shows you that you can’t do the most radical bits of the radical culture if you haven’t already done the first steps. So, critically, you have to have the right people on board in the first place. Once you’ve got the best team in place—and they talk very clearly about it being a team, not a family—then you can start to trust them with this no rules corporate culture. You can’t simply go straight to the idea that you’re going to let everybody decide their own schedule and holidays and all the radical, transparent things that they do, unless you’ve got the right people on board.

I think one of the reasons this book has got through to the shortlist is that it’s not just a glib attempt to say, ‘here are all our secrets, now just put them all in place and it’ll transform your underperforming team.’ It’s saying, ‘you’re going to have to take some tough decisions before you can get to the point where you can get the most out of this radical culture.’

Let’s move on to the next book. I don’t think there are any other books on the 2020 shortlist that fit the narrow definition of business book, are there?

That’s probably true. On the longlist we did have a few more. There was another CEO- written book: Winning Now, Winning Later: How Companies Can Succeed in the Short Term While Investing for the Long Term by David Cote, who used to be the CEO of Honeywell. I quite liked that book, but it didn’t get through to the shortlist.

Let’s talk about a big picture book next, which is Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. It’s by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who are both economists at Princeton. A couple, in fact. They’re presenting this rather shocking data of rising mortality rates among white, non-college-educated Americans. Tell me more about this book. 

This book fits in the category of ‘very important economics books’, which the FT prize has identified and brought out right from the start. Angus Deaton won the Nobel Prize in economics and Anne Case is a very respected empirical economist. They’re looking at something that’s at the very core of Trumpism, the plight of white working-class Americans in the early 21st century. They’ve done a lot of digging into the data for rising suicide rates and deaths from drugs overdoses and alcohol abuse —the ‘deaths of despair’ of the title—and how and why those have gone up. It’s essentially a book about some of the human economic pain that lay behind Trump’s success. They lay the blame very strongly on the US healthcare system, particularly the way in which opioid prescription has turned into an epidemic of addiction.

They also try to propose some answers that might be turned into policy. With the presidential election this year, this is a book that’s been taken up very strongly as one of the data points, if you like, for explaining what’s going on behind the extraordinary divisiveness and inequality in the United States.

It’s US-specific analysis, but one that has wider implications for the way in which we think about economic and cultural divisions around the world.

There’s something very stark about a rising mortality rate. I remember after the fall of the Soviet Union, when many people were still quite optimistic about Russia. Then the figures came out showing that life expectancy was going down. That was a real shock. It’s quite an effective way of rallying everyone round the fact that something is going badly wrong. 

The book very clearly and starkly illustrates the problems in the US. Ed Luce—our Washington-based commentator, who has himself written books about the state of the US—reviewed the book for us. He took issue with the idea that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities, which is what the authors say more than half of white working-class Americans believe. His view is that there is much more to the alienation of the white working class than racial envy (I’m citing Ed because I have not travelled as widely in the US as he has).

“They’re looking at something that’s at the very core of Trumpism, the plight of white working-class Americans in the early 21st century”

So there is some speculation in the book, an element of controversy. They’re not just using the empirical data. But, arguably, that’s what makes it a more interesting book. It’s not simply a list of the charts that they might have put out to their students and followers among economists. It is an attempt to shape and direct policy and insert that into the presidential campaigns.

I like the way they pin the blame firmly on the US healthcare system. It makes you feel there’s something specific to focus and work on. 

Yes, though I think there are elements in the policy part of the book that don’t look big enough, given the scale of the problems that they describe. Obviously, they’re working within a US system but, from the outside, a lot of the policy prescriptions that even candidates that are supposedly left-of-centre come up with look rather pallid. Also, I don’t think there’s much in their policy prescriptions that looks at the cultural elements that seem to me, as a non-economist, to be so important when you’re looking at the mudslinging that’s been going on between the two halves of the US political environment.

Let’s move on to A World Without Work by Daniel Susskind, who is an economist at Oxford (and has done an interview with Five Books). This book is an analysis of the future of work. It’s economic history-focused, but it’s very much written for the lay person. He’s making the economics accessible. 

Yes, and although it was written pre-pandemic it plays very well into the obsession that we all have now with the future of work and how it’s going to turn out for us. The book picks up on a number of themes that the FT book award has highlighted in previous years. We gave the award to Martin Ford’s book, The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, five years ago. That was early on in the slightly dystopian discussion about what’s coming from automation.

Daniel Susskind picks this up, still with a rather negative forecast—that work is going to be completely disrupted by automation and that we need to do something pretty dramatic in order to prepare for that. His prescriptions are curbs on big tech—which is one of the things that we’re already seeing with regulators and policymakers in Europe and now in the US. Perhaps a bit more idealistically, he talks about bringing back the big state. He looks at ways in which we can actually compensate or offset the likelihood that we’re going to have a world without work. Well, the title is hyperbole, it’s not a world without work. What he’s looking at is ways in which you can bring or sustain meaning for people who have got less work—or different types of work—in a future where everything is more automated.

So the robots are going to take our jobs?

The robots are going to take our jobs and we’re going to have to shift towards a world in which we learn how to deal with the amount of time that is going to free up for us. I’m a big believer in the fact that work is useful not only because it’s productive and brings us income, but also because we find meaning in it.

“Although it was written pre-pandemic it plays very well into the obsession that we all have now with the future of work and how it’s going to turn out for us”

Clearly that’s one of the problems with universal basic income—which is an idea that’s discussed in this book, as it has been in various other books that we’ve looked at for the prize in the past. You need to find ways to make people still feel good about themselves, even if they’re not on the hamster wheel of work—because that hamster wheel is now occupied by robot hamsters, rather than us.

The next two books on the 2020 Business Book of the Year Award shortlist home in on the history of specific companies. Let’s start with Jill Lepore’s history of the Simulmatics Corporation next, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. I have to say I’d never heard of Simulmatics, but it turns out it’s very important?

Well, it’s important as a symbol of where we are now—if it had truly changed our lives we would have heard of if it.

What Jill Lepore has done here is unearthed a company that most people had forgotten about. Simulmatics Corporation was actively looking at and developing some of the things that we now associate with big data predictive analysis: Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, all the various scandals and worries to do with harnessing technology to predict human behaviour and indeed to win elections. So it’s a history, but one with great relevance for today. She points out that this long-forgotten technology company really pioneered using data science in politics, notably in JFK’s successful presidential campaign in 1960. It essentially laid the foundations for predictive analytics that we now come across—even if we don’t realize it—whenever we use an internet platform or click on an online ad or, indeed, vote for a candidate.

I think one of the reasons why it’s a shortlisted book is that it is beautifully written. Jill Lepore is a wonderful writer. The book also has this nice relevance, bringing a historical fact into the new light of today and saying, ‘Look, here are some of the issues that this rather simple, early, pioneering version was raising in the 1960s and that are still relevant.’

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Into that, she’s woven the story of a company which actually was a bit shambolic and not very successful, because it didn’t survive. It sort of imploded. She identifies some of the slightly wacky 1950s, 1960s elements of the story. There’s quite a lot about how they set up in Saigon during the Vietnam War, running an expat bubble within a chaotic, collapsing, war-torn society. That colour is what gives it a lot of vibrancy and interest as a book, rather than just as a slightly cautionary tale for today.

It’s quite humorous, the bits of the book I read. Is she trying to be funny?

She’s got a good sardonic, wry tone. It takes the edge off, it’s not preaching to us. It’s telling us about a company culture, and in that sense it’s a bit like the Netflix book. But, in this case, it’s a company that has these extraordinary aspirations and the technology and brain power to bring them off. But, in the end, it didn’t succeed and it disappeared. Just the fact that none of us has heard of this company is interesting, given the scale of its ambition and the things that it tried to do that are now being done.

There’s a bit in the book where the chief executive, who is an academic focusing on social networks, foresees the data-mad and near-totalitarian 21st century that he was instrumental in helping to create. In the book, there is a certain amount of, ‘if only we’d gone back and been able to change history, maybe we would have been able to forestall some of the dystopia that we’re now living in.’

Let’s turn to No Filter by Sarah Frier, a book that focuses on Instagram. What’s this book about?

Sarah Frier is a journalist and she’s gone deep into what happened after Facebook bought Instagram in 2012. You’ll remember that Instagram was a funky photography app with hardly any staff and Facebook paid a billion dollars for it, which shocked everyone at the time. Of course, it turned out to be a fabulous purchase, because we were just getting into the idea of images as a way of carrying our stories, and Instagram developed into a hub for influencers. Sarah Frier has gone heavily on the side of the story that is told by Instagram’s co-founder, Kevin Systrom.

“We may be subject to a wave of rather bad Covid-19 books before we get to the good one”

What interested me about this book—and the whole Facebook Instagram story—is the tale it tells of how difficult it is to integrate two different cultures. A bit like If Then and No Rules Rules, it’s another book about corporate cultures. It’s also quite interesting on the different personalities.

So Mark Zuckerberg was worried that Instagram was going to cannibalize his own creation, Facebook, and pushed it to integrate more closely. He comes across as quite paranoid and a little bit petty. Frier implicitly suggests that Zuckerberg was jealous of Instagram’s success, even though he’d bought it. He crushed it, eventually driving out Systrom. Now, obviously he didn’t crush it completely, because Instagram is still going and we’re all using it. It’s very successful in lots of ways.

It’s a great tale to tell because woven into the Instagram story are all the Kardashians, the Taylor Swifts, the influencers and Hollywood, which is the world Systrom was moving in—as opposed to the Silicon Valley world where Zuckerberg was preeminent. It’s a tale of how these two companies were only able to integrate, in a way, by sapping some of the life out of the Instagram creation. It’s a great story of the feuds of Silicon Valley, I suppose.

We’ve started using Instagram. Do you use it as a business journalist? Or is its appeal more to people who, in the past, would have read glossy magazines, rather than more serious journalism?

I think it’s somewhere between the two. I haven’t used it much as a business journalist, but I do have a personal Instagram account. I set it up for the book that I published last year, which was nothing to do with the Financial Times. It was a good place for that because the book was about John Ruskin, the art critic. Promoting Ruskinland was often about images, so an image site was the ideal place to be doing that. Through Instagram, I found a lot of artists who were using it. So it’s got lots of uses.

But, clearly, at another end of the scale there is that glossy magazine element, which Frier actually describes very well—the way in which influencers and travel companies and others who wanted to project an image were polishing and honing their style on Instagram in a way that, in the end, was rather hollow. But this was something that Instagram spotted and was able to capitalize on. Zuckerberg obviously spotted that success and, in the classic Silicon Valley way, decided to buy the competition in order to neutralize it and this is what the book is about.

Obviously, there’s been a whole slew of books warning of the dangers of tech recently. She’s not saying Instagram is bad, is she?

She’s value neutral on it. I suppose a question mark raised when we reviewed the book was just how important all this is, whether we’ll look back and think of this as a little blip in cultural history or whether this is an important moment, where Facebook takes out Instagram and perhaps stifles something that might have developed in a different way.

I’m inclined to say, ‘Well, it may not be important and Facebook versus Instagram may just be a footnote.’ But if we’re looking at the reason why it’s on the shortlist, it’s to do with the fact that businesspeople, wherever they are, if they’re reading this book, will be able to get at least some idea of the difficulty of bringing together two diverse cultures. The fact that it happens to be Facebook and Instagram is maybe not as relevant.

Let’s finish with a book that again steps back and looks at the bigger picture. This is Reimagining Capitalism by Rebecca Henderson, who is a professor at Harvard Business School. 

This book was written before the pandemic, but its relevance has become greater since. A lot of the book is about climate change and the absolute need to respond to this emergency. In the US, the book is subtitled “in a world on fire.” The fire that she was referring to was literal there, the wildfires in Australia and California. But, in fact, that subtitle now works as a bit of a metaphor for the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. A lot of the solutions that she puts out—the cooperation and collaboration between government, business and communities—work for the crisis we’re going through now, as well as the crisis that she was mainly writing about at the time. It’s about the challenge that crises (in the plural) pose to a capitalist world.

What I like about the book is that Henderson is very clearly not an enemy of capitalism. She believes that the solutions lie in harnessing the good things about business: the entrepreneurialism, the desire and need to collaborate, the great power of consumer companies as a way of solving big problems. She looks, for example, at the way the German economy was rebuilt after the Second World War, and the forced collaboration between employers, government and trade unions. Those traditions have helped keep German factories running during the pandemic. So there are lots of lessons in here that perhaps Henderson didn’t necessarily intend. I’ve actually spoken to her since the book came out and she very clearly does see these as the sort of things that might help us in a difficult time now. But the thrust of the book is really about the far deeper crisis of the climate emergency and ways in which that can be tackled using the great power of capitalism.

Her brother, Caspar Henderson, is actually our environment editor. At the beginning of the book, she says that he’s the one who got her focusing on the climate emergency. I’m very glad he did, because there’s a bit of tendency at the moment to reflexively talk about how capitalism is bad. I find that quite vague and unhelpful. It’s nice to have a more practical response. 

Yes, and she’s got plenty of examples of purpose-driven companies that are doing the right thing. One is a company I haven’t come across, a US flour company called King Arthur Flour, which is building community through baking. There are other nice examples in there, including more familiar ones, like Unilever trying to make palm oil sustainable. I wouldn’t say she’s neutral. She’s very positive about purpose-driven capitalism, but she’s also clear-eyed enough to spot where things have gone wrong, where some of the well-meaning efforts by companies decline into cynicism and scepticism and don’t work. There are some good lessons in the book.

Yes, whenever a big oil company claims to be very environmentally friendly I get extremely suspicious. 

I think that sort of scepticism can be useful, but when it becomes cynicism you end up with what you were describing, people saying it’s all the fault of capitalism, tear the whole thing down. That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is what Henderson recognizes, I think.

Looking ahead, you mentioned at the beginning that because of the timings, the list doesn’t include anything on Covid-19. Is there a book you’ve found useful that’s more recent about everything that’s been going on this year?

As I said, I’m a fan of Margaret Heffernan’s book Uncharted, which is not about everything going on now, but is prescient. In the book, epidemic preparedness is one of the case studies that she picked. It’s deliberately not neat solutions, but it has neat lessons about the ways in which we can prepare for future crises, including pandemics.

As I’ve been reading books that are coming out in the latter part of this year—some of which weren’t entered for the prize or will now be eligible for next year—you’re beginning to see people who’ve either been adapting their ideas or using some of the early consequences of Covid-19 to shape their thoughts about what comes next. I don’t think I’ve seen anything yet that I think is original or wide-ranging enough. What I expect will happen in 2021 is that somebody will write the equivalent of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book, Too Big to Fail, which was a minute-by-minute account of the financial crisis. He produced it at incredible speed and rooted it as the definitive account of the crisis as it happened. So I’m expecting there’ll be some books of that sort. Of course, they may not be business books. They may be science books or politics books.

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As is often the case, we may have to wait a while for the book that tells us how the world of work has been affected or what is going to happen, because we’re still living through this. It’s going to be hard to work out what the future of work looks like, probably, until we’re part of the way into it. A lot of people will overshoot. I think there will be books that suggest we’re going further than we are. In a world which has vaccines or even just therapies and behavioural ways of returning to normal (or nearer to what used to be normal), we may find that the next normal or the new normal—or whatever horrible cliché one wants to apply to it—is actually closer to the old normal than we thought, because people will yearn to get back to some of the things that made business worth doing or work worth pursuing, faster than we think. It may not be as different as the futurologists think. These are books that will already be underway. Maybe it’s not quite fair to talk about waves these days, but we may be subject to a wave of rather bad Covid-19 books before we get to the good one.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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 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 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.