Jun 122012

Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur by Richard Branson  

This is the second time I have listened to Sir Richard Branson’s book, but the first time I have reviewed it. Richard Branson is a fascinating entrepreneur. Struggling in school, he started a newspaper for students. It quickly grew in popularity to the point he received an offer to sell it. He immediately turned that money into the music business, reselling vinyl albums by mail cheaper than the corner shops. The next logical step was to create a recording studio and begin promoting bands. From there, things continued to grow and grow. The result of his willingness to strike out into areas he knew nothing about became known as the Virgin group of brands.

Business Stripped Bare is a look at Branson’s business philosophy and brand genius. He shares the story of how he built the brand and why he feels it is successful. He is brash, challenging, energetic and doesn’t subscribe to stuffiness on any scale. He believes in keeping businesses as small as possible (100 employees where possible), empowering employees to make decisions and energizing them around the brand.

The Virgin Group is one of the largest privately held companies in the world and this inside look at how they approach business is fascinating to me. Branson’s easy-going, chatty-style of writing is engaging. He provides story after story demonstrating his core beliefs on building a business. More than most business books, I found the advice useful and entertaining. While not a step-by-step manual, he covers the more intangible aspects of success, such as keeping employees engaged, dreaming big, where to never compromise, how to recognize and capitalize on opportunity and how to learn from mistakes.

There are few global business leaders I would like to meet. Branson is one whom I would. Judging from his writing style, I think I would l even be comfortable talking with him. Perhaps this book is ghost written, but the style matches what I have read about him in the news. He seems like a normal guy who made it big. He isn’t afraid to let it all hang out on the line in promotion of the company, even if it means bungee jumping from a helicopter or showing up naked to a product release. He does things on his terms and no one else’s. He believes in his people and is relentless in the pursuit of of perfection for the customer service and safety.

One thing I took away from his book is the importance of constant observation. He carries a notebook with him everywhere he goes and writes down every observation. Everything from worn carpet on a plane, salt shakers on trains to ideas for improving cell phone offerings go into the book for review and implementation. He prides on Virgin’s ability to rapidly adapt and execute change quickly to meet customer needs and expectations. I believe they are richly rewarded for this attention to detail. There is a lot to be learned from his approach.

Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur is a book every entrepreneur should read and reread. I believe his advice to be sound and immediately adaptable to any size business. I am attempting to implement as much as possible within my own company, even though it is far from entrepreneurial. Of course, I also try to apply it to the virgin brand of my own. If I have even a half a grain as much success as he has, I’ll be satisfied.

May 162012

(c)2012 Emi Watanabe Daines

I saw The Avengers over the weekend and mentioned how much I enjoyed it on Facebook. One of my friends replied, asking which Avenger I would be, if I were a superhero. It is an interesting question. I think there is a desire to be a superhero in all of us.

Where did the concept of a superhero come from? Mankind has looked for help to solve overwhelming problems since before the ancient days of Greek and Norse mythology. Now, we love a good superhero story, people who have superior strength, special powers or crazy-good skills that can protect us from the “forces of evil”, no matter what form they take. It makes for great cinema.

However, what forms do superheroes take in real life? Who do we look to in times of trial to carry the load for us? There aren’t any mythologically endowed men and women flying around in special suits or tights. We have to solve our own problems.

The heroes we look to in real life wear a policeman’s uniform or a doctor’s coat, carry a teacher’s textbook or a mother’s first aid kit. The superheroes of today are all of us, quietly doing our jobs, helping and improving wherever we go. Yesterday, I watched my wife work with a child to improve her ability to speak clearly. How does one measure the impact this will have over the coming decades? We call her a speech therapist, but to this little girl, she will be a superhero who changed her life forever.

We may trade a few paper and coins for these superhero services, but it doesn’t really represent the impact on the lives in the long term. Small acts of kindness do more to “save the world” than any mythological, heroic effort. There isn’t a Bat Signal to call in a superhero; we must watch out for each other. Every day, we need to be aware of those around us and find a way to lend a hand. When we do something for someone else, it may be a small effort for us, but because the other person can’t do it for themselves, it is a Herculean task from their perspective.

I initially answered my friend that I would like to be Tony Stark/Ironman because he has all the wonderful toys. Since then, I have been rethinking that choice. I think I would more likely be Agent Phil Coulson, the man in the dark suit who facilitates for all the others. He doesn’t have any special powers beyond a cell phone, no super abilities beyond calm, determined purpose. It is he who brings the egos together and provides the catalyst melding others into a team. Agent Coulson is my kind of superhero. He just quietly gets the job done.

Mar 192012

No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleezza Rice  

Picking up immediately where Ms. Rice’s first book, Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, left off, No Higher Honor details her tenure as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State during some of the most pivotal moments in the history of the United States. Listening to the audiobook, read by Ms. Rice, I was eager to hear her views on the events of 9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the dealings of US foreign policy during the Bush years.

There are many controversial memoirs covering this historic period of time. While I will get to them in the future, I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Rice’s rendition. Since first hearing of her, I have always respected and admired her. Her first book left me in awe of her parents. No Higher Honor left me appreciative of her experience, poise and ability to make things happen in the rough world of international politics. The juxtaposition of the two accounts helped me understand better her attitudes and actions, coming so far from the segregated Alabama South to the first female African-American Secretary of State. Now matter the political affiliation, this is an impressive journey.

What I appreciate most from the reading of this book were her explanations behind the events. I found myself marveling several times at the situations I thought I knew and realizing there was so much more at stake I had not heard. In a very approachable and understandable way, she helped me understand the complex and high stakes the world of international diplomacy. Her management style shone through. As a manager, I appreciated the different ways she worked with the different leaders, each with their own style and abilities. I could tell just how much George Bush depended on her and was able to leverage her talents in the best ways possible. She fielded some of the most complex and difficult situations in recent history.

Much has been made in the press of the conflicting relationships and interactions of the Bush cabinet and advisors. Ms. Rice politely goes into her views and interactions with the various players. She refuses to get down in the mud and wrestle, though, a trait I truly appreciate. I remember commenting to a colleague when I heard this book was forthcoming that I hoped she would not use it as a “tell-all, throw people under the bus” forum. She did not disappoint me. Where she disagreed with the strong forces of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and others, she was very cordial, explaining as best she could where she thought they were coming from and why she acted as she did. She remains, in my opinion, one of the classiest acts in Washington.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed was her letting us peek into her personal life. I was enjoyed the stories of playing with Yo Yo Ma, her continued love of football and juggling the demands of her career with family relationships. How patient they were her constant phone calls and interruptions to holiday festivities and such.  The demands of office interfered, but I could tell she worked hard to maintain as much of herself through it all. Eight years is a long time to work at that level of energy and stress. I commend and thank her for her ability to shoulder it all.

Naturally much more politically charged than her previous novel, it is no less enjoyable. Whether or not one agrees with the politics of the Bush presidency, the opportunity to understand more of Condoleezza Rice’s influence on historical events is a treat. I thank her for her service in two of the toughest jobs in Washington.