Do the books CEOs reads hold the key to success?

Cyrus Guzder’s LIFE is overrun with books, books and more books. Some lie in a wellthumbed pile on his desk, others have made their way under his bed from his bedside table, and still more sit fittingly on shelves. “I have books flowing out of my ears,” declares the chairman & managing director of the AFL group, with a detection of hyperbole.

It’s an indisputable rule of thumb — business leaders are voracious readers. Few are the CEOs who don’t lay claim to owning an extensive library and fewer still are those who don’t have time to read. Vikram Singh Mehta, chairman of Shell India has, not one, but three libraries, in his twin bases of Delhi and Mumbai and the biggest one in his rambling ancestral home at Udaipur. He even finds that friends prefer to be entertained in the warmth of the library of his New Friends Colony home, filled with books meticulously purchased at stores in Oxford , UK, where he studied. “My job involves incessant and tiring travel. But the good thing about so much travel is that it gives me plenty of time to do what I love most — read,” he says.

Even those who run information technology businesses seem to find romance in the printed word. Ajai Chowdhry, chairman & CEO of HCL Infosystems , necessarily spends time reading up on the latest in technology and management strategy, but he’s also a Michael Crichton buff who hates lending his books. At the Infosys campus, where the central library stocks over 25,000 titles and subscribes to over 100 journals, CEO & managing director Kris Gopalakrishnan, is currently engrossed in modern Indian history, courtesy Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods. “We believe it is possible to drill a love for reading down the organisation — and we try and lead by example,” he says.

It’s natural to have a favourite genre, but the truly well-read manage to read a bit of everything. At Bombay House, R Gopalakrishnan’s reading diet spans Will Durant and the Bhagavad Gita and his reading style involves methodical revisiting of titles. “Almost everything I read is useful to me in some sense,” he says. That would be obvious to anyone who’s ever been engaged in conversation with him, the Tata Sons’ executive director is a skilled, and entertaining communicator — he is known to liberally pepper his speeches with extracts from the books he’s read. How does he do it? Pointing to his head, he says: “Lucky for me I have a soft disk up here that gets a fix on everything I read.”

Of course, it helps that he maintains his collection of books in apple-pie order, organised by subject matter. Gopalakrishnan’s methodical cataloguing system would be the envy of every other CEO, including Arun Maira, chairman of The Boston Consulting Group in India, who says, “My wife has promised that when we move to our new 5,000 sqft home — which is twice the size of our present house — she will give me a separate space for my library , complete with a floor-to-ceiling ladder.” The caveat? He must promise to keep his books in order.

Maira uses his reading for thinking ‘out of the box’ , a fundamental attribute among the consulting tribe. In the beginning of his career with Tata Administrative Services, armed with not a management degree but one in physics, he spent his time with bellwether texts on management theory by Doug Smith and Peter Drucker. Today he prefers to read about the condition of society as seen by philosophers and anthropologists. He laments the Orwellian tactics of capitalist enterprises and believes it is high time the concepts of management are shaped by what society really needs. Robert Reich’s provocations in Supercapitalism are, naturally, a personal mantra. “I try to vary my reading diet with action hero fiction, but the current crop of characters is so outlandish,” he sighs.

People’s taste in books change with circumstance, and corporate executives are no exception. Management trainees are obliged to absorb the most current management best-sellers , but as they graduate to become CEOs, they have the privilege of setting the pace with more catholic choices. “Given a choice, I’d prefer to have only widely read people as consultants,” says Maira. “Of what use is a consultant to a CEO if all he has is narrow functional expertise?”
Reading habits also change with age and books once considered irrelevant or downright incomprehensible can become imminently readable as one’s career progresses. “Twenty five years ago, I read books that offered me functional expertise, but now I am focused on leadership and management strategy,” says Harsh Mariwala. The chairperson & managing director of Marico says that the demands of work have definitely taken a toll on reading for pleasure but he does his bit towards promoting reading among the younger set at Marico by giving away his books every time his shelves get overloaded. A big fan of Blue Ocean Strategy and Good to Great, Mariwala circulates extracts from books he’s read and ex-colleagues continue to call him for copies of extracts. “Everybody reads vicariously through me,” he says.

Like Mariwala, every CEO has one or two books that stand out as a source of abiding practical wisdom . For HCL’s Chowdhry, that one book is Beyond the Core by Bain directors Chris Zook and James Allen. “We’ve actually applied their principles to our business. We make sure that we keep the computing business — our core — intact, while we examine what we can do with that core competence in adjacent businesses,” he says.

“Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are” goes the old adage, and what the CEO reads does impact the way they run their companies . For example, Kris Gopalakrishnan’s relationship with Peter Drucker has been abiding. It isn’t surprising then, that Infosys, with its employeefriendly policies, strives to be a paradigm for Drucker’s theory that a company’s primary responsibility is to serve its customers, with responsibility to employees and society supporting that. “Drucker is an essential ,” says Gopalakrishnan. “Others have only picked up on his thoughts.”

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