American View: The Shame of the Prose

Business books can be excellent tools for promoting professional growth. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert warns that books can also be hazardous to one’s professional reputation when they’re not employed properly.

Books can be excellent tools for improving a worker’s on-the job performance. The messages and examples given in a well-written book can sometimes help a reader in ways that traditional training can’t. That’s why university courses rely so heavily on books, films, white papers, case studies, abstracts and articles to supplement their lectures. Sometimes, a student has to hear a problem expressed through someone else’s personal story in order to finally ‘get’ a concept. There’s just one crucial thing to remember when using books as training tools: they only work when you read them.

Back when I was the head of IT for a large industrial concern, I decided that our company’s formal training programs for our senior managers failed to make the grade. We had people with 20 years’ experience who couldn’t motivate their people, couldn’t plan the simplest of operations, couldn’t correct employee misbehaviour and generally didn’t earn their pay packets. They were decent enough people, but their leadership skills were rubbish. I decided that our company’s formal training courses weren’t adequate for what we needed, so I created my own.

I built a program that was modelled off of graduate school coursework. I built a ‘professional development’ library out of a half-dozen core ‘textbooks’ and hundreds of supporting articles. Each month, I’d assign one chapter out of a textbook and either one or two supporting articles. My direct report leaders would have a month to read the content, then we’d spend an hour discussing it. Very straightforward… if you’d had a university experience. Most of my senior managers had only ever gotten associates’ degrees. Some of them didn’t understand what I was trying to accomplish… at first. A year into the program, one of my ‘students’ had an epiphany and threw himself headlong into the program. He helped drag the rest of the students along in his wake.

The tugboat metaphor works pretty well here; my enlightened advocate took what he’d learned from the leadership course and secured himself a brighter career elsewhere, while his recalcitrant peers’ careers metaphorically ran aground without his guidance.
The tugboat metaphor works pretty well here; my enlightened advocate took what he’d learned from the leadership course and secured himself a brighter career elsewhere, while his recalcitrant peers’ careers metaphorically ran aground without his guidance.

My methodology was simple: the day before each session, I’d re-read all of the assigned content so that it was fresh in my mind. I’d highlight specific passages or ideas to bring up, and I’d try and guess how the students would react. During the session itself, I’d have the students spend about half an hour explaining what they’d read [1] before I’d ask questions to provoke discussion and argument. This is a basic teaching technique that every first-year primary school teacher knows how to do.

There’s a reason why I’m emphasizing that seemingly obvious statement. Here’s why:

I worked at the time for a rather smarmy and abusive junior executive that we’ll call Bob. Old Bob was a sadist. There were few things in life that he enjoyed more than making the people below him suffer. [2] Bob seemed to think that his boyish good looks, natural charm and past success gave him a divine mandate to rule like a Medieval monarch. He strutted. He sneered. He condescended. Most of all, he tried to out-perform anyone that ever threatened to be better than he was in any field, ever.

I was about a year into my senior leadership seminar before Bob caught wind of it. Yes, I’d been keeping it secret from him… but only by not bothering to call his attention to it. It came up during a staff meeting because of a conflict in meeting times. I asked if one event could be moved so as to not disrupt our seminar time, and Bob demanded to know what we were up to. I explained it, and Bob sneered. Then we moved on to the next agenda item. I hoped that we were done with it.

No such luck. My initiative must have stuck in Bob’s craw. A few months after he learned of it, Bob came to one of our interdepartmental staff meetings with a stack of books. Specifically, brand-new hardback copies of Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder v2.0. Bob passed out copies to each director and told us that we had ‘homework’. Inside each book was a unique passcode for an online personality test. We were required to complete the assessment, to print out our ‘personalized’ reports, and to bring them to the next staff meeting to discuss. It was for our ‘professional development’, he said.

Bob thought of us all as easily-manipulated children, incapable of seeing through his clever schemes.
Bob thought of us all as easily-manipulated children, incapable of seeing through his clever schemes.

Me being me, I went straight back to my office, logged into the website, took the quiz, printed my report and forgot all about it. Mission accomplished, box checked, moving on! At the next month’s staff meeting, I brought my personalized personality profile… and noticed that none of the other directors had theirs. Sure enough, when I reminded Bob that he’d wanted to go over the damned things, he had to be reminded what his topic was. He’d clearly lost interest in his own project over the intervening weeks. He said we’d deal with it the following month.

The next month’s meeting unfolded the same way, as did the meeting after that, and so on. Six months passed before we finally got around to the personality typing exercise. On the day that we finally got round to it, Bob strode majestically into his private conference room bearing an armful of photocopies. He feigned appreciation for our (mandatory) participation, then passed around copies of his own StrengthsFinder assessment. He gave us all a minute to skim the contents… That turned out to be an awful miscalculation on his part.

Sitting opposite me at the directors’ table was Adam [3] the head of our newly-combined human resources and food service group. Adam was the quintessential ‘good old boy’: a country lad with plenty of experience farming and ranching. He affected a drawl so thick that it was nearly impossible for non-Texans to understand him. He was also short, thickly-built and irrepressibly cheerful. All of these qualities caused his adversaries to regularly underestimate him – Bob included. Adam always came across as a bit of a ‘country bumpkin’, but that was by design. The man had a blazing intellect and a quick wit. He was shrewd enough to keep those attributes hidden around all but his mates.

Adam was the first reader to respond to Bob’s personality profile. I admit, I was only pretending to read it; I’d given completely up on the job by then and was simply enduring Bob’s abuse. That’s why I was caught off guard when Adam laconically said: ‘Wait a minute… Look here at page one… It says that you’re ‘autocratic’ and ‘headstrong’.’

I blinked and looked down at the page. Adam was right. So was the profile, for that matter.

I thought the profiles would be all psychobabble and nonsense, but credit where it’s due: Rath and his crew absolutely nailed it where Bob was concerned.
I thought the profiles would be all psychobabble and nonsense, but credit where it’s due: Rath and his crew absolutely nailed it where Bob was concerned.

One of the other directors caught the threat and piled on. ‘Yeah, you’re right!’ he said. ‘And look here… It says in the explanation that you ignore other people’s input and do whatever you think is best.’

Adam grinned and nodded. ‘Yep… So, it doesn’t matter at all what our profiles say, does it? This says that you’re not going to take any of our traits into account because you think that you’re always right.’

Bob stammered something incoherent. He was nose-down in his own profile frantically trying to catch up. I jammed my pen into my thigh to keep my face from registering my amusement. Bob hadn’t read the book he’d assigned to us, I realized, and he hadn’t bothered reading his own bloody profile!

Adam’s eyes betrayed his glee. Fortunately, he managed to resume his normal blasé expression right as Bob looked up in horror. ‘Well, I guess all this was just a waste of time, then.’ Adam said, gesturing with his own papers. ‘Can we just skip it and move on to the next agenda item?’

A very flustered (and murderously angry) Bob glowered for a few seconds, then reset his own ‘sly little boy’ mask and declared that the personality profile exercise was over. We never came back to it, and he never mentioned it again. I’m confident that Bob retaliated against Adam for the slight, since Bob was a petty and vengeful boss. Then again, it’s not like most people would’ve noticed; Bob was always a bully, so the distinction between his retaliatory abuse and everyday abuse was incredibly fine.

The moral of the story is that Bob sabotaged himself by making an obvious and easily preventable mistake. He had an interesting and potentially useful idea, but he failed to execute it. That is to say, he never read his own bloody content and was caught completely unprepared by his students’ obvious reactions to it. One read-through would have given him more than enough warning about how the conversation would probably play out. He could (and should) have prepared a counter-narrative to steer the discussion the way that he wanted it to go. Bob, however, was too arrogant to believe that he ever needed to prepare for anything, and that bit him. Hard.

The best technique for avoiding stepping on a snake is watch where you’re walking. Books, like snakes, won’t hurt you if you simply avoid them.
The best technique for avoiding stepping on a snake is watch where you’re walking. Books, like snakes, won’t hurt you if you simply avoid them.

This Evil Bob story has always reminded me of Umberto Eco’s classic murder mystery The Name of the Rose. Eco’s debut novel features a complicated plot and a devious murder weapon [Spoilers!] When a group of curious monks start reading a forbidden heretical book, a conservative member of their order paints the corners of each page with an invisible contact poison so that anyone who violates the order’s prohibition on banned books will die for his transgressions. When a reader licks his fingers to help turn the book’s pages, he ingests the lethal poison and dies. Very clever.

In its own way, that fits Bob’s story. It’s generally accepted that books can be dangerous. Books can be wicked little things, full of controversial and disruptive ideas. Small wonder then that so many highly-conservative people across the ages have feared books for their potential to destabilise the status quo. In this case, it wasn’t the book (in and of itself) that did Bob in; it was the reading of it. Or, rather, the careless not reading of his own book that led to his suffering. It didn’t kill him, but it did damage his reputation unnecessarily. Call it a political ‘own goal’.

Specifically, it wasn’t the book per se that caused Bob’s problem; it was the associated use of it. Had we all simply discussed StrengthsFinder’s contents in the abstract, Bob probably couldn’t have been embarrassed. Had we only discussed our own profiles, Bob might have come across as a wise leader who was interested in our betterment. Instead, Bob fell victim to an insidious trap lurking within the book: that is, he unwittingly exposed himself (so to speak) as a tone-deaf buffoon before his inner circle by answering the book’s personality quiz more or less honestly. Bob never considered that the profiling engine might accurately describe his domineering and untrustworthy personality… or that we’d notice.

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In this case, I’d say that bungled imitation is the most satisfying form of flattery. Bob’s petty attempt to steal my credibility badly corroded his own. Best of all, Bob’s surrender of the pitch left my senior leadership programme as the only functional such initiative running anywhere in our group.


[1] Which allowed me to figure out who among them hadn’t done the reading.

[2] To be fair, Bob also seemed to relish making his superiors suffer as well. Bob had a reputation for being obstinate and argumentative in the boardroom, to the point where the CEO’s hatred for Bob was an open secret in the headquarters. I may come back to that story later.

[3] Not his real name, obviously.

Title Allusion: Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980 Book, 1986 Film)

POC is Keil Hubert,
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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