Some might suggest The Mythical Man Month the classic from Fred Brooks on software engineering; Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing The Chasm is always worth a dip into, of course; Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War is a tome many business people worship, and for giggles there’s always The Difference Between God And Larry Ellison (God Doesn’t Think He’s Larry Ellison) by Mike Wilson.
Here is another suggestion: the text that will probably bring you the most advancement is Strunk and White’s 1920s guide to good writing, The Elements Of Style.
Man of few words
The reason why is because even though English may be a distant GCSE for you – indeed the thought of knowing why a dangling modifier or a misplaced pronoun are bad fills you with, at best, nausea – you need to be a writer first and foremost these days.
Well a writer, that is to say, along with being a fine accountant (to understand the main lingua franca of business, profit and loss), an accomplished lawyer (to adequately handle all the contract management side) and a slick diplomat, as these are all facets of the job you have to do these days. An aptitude for technology may also be useful but not an absolute pre-requisite any more given the number of non-technical people being asked to lead IT in companies at the moment. That being said, excellent communication and writing ability is also a sine qua non of what it takes to play with the big boys.
The reason, if you haven’t already learnt the hard way at your last budget approval meeting, is that business people don’t want the long version. They want the short version. Actually, they want the ad break version ideally, at least to start with.
The key to effective relations with senior management is the ability to summarise. You need to be able to take a mass of abstraction, detail and absolutely rock-solid data and boil it down so there’s almost nothing left in the pan. That residue isn’t a mere précis of the material. Instead it’s the diamond hard kernel of truth, relevance and impact of all the background stuff. There’s the famous saying that someone needed to reduce all the laws of economics down to one sentence so the client could get it: hence ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’
Time saving advice
In essence the trick of board-level communication is to make the lives of the people who run the organisation at the top level as time-efficient as possible. I didn’t say ‘easy’. Don’t hide the truth or obfuscate reality. These guys need to know what the benefit to the company is and the opportunity that could be missed if it isn’t pursued. They need to know this to make informed decisions. They can’t do this if they are not equipped with the information but they can’t be expected to spend as long as you did grappling with the data.
So your job needs to have an element of effective writing as part of the necessary skill set. We’re not expecting you to be Martin Amis here or even Nick Robinson (though his BBC blog on all things political is a very nice example of how complex issues can be reduced to their telling details).
The ability to deploy a telling analogy or find an image that crystallises 1,000 words is more the issue – which ultimately helps you get your point over, win hearts and minds and establish you as a player. Or, more importantly get the budget through and win more glory. If you don’t feel up to tackling The Elements Of Style, which is a genuinely wonderful book, I at least leave you with good a guideline to effective writing from Winston Churchill: “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best and the old words best of all.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.