Self-help by the book

By Danuta Kean


Martin Lukes hit a plateau careerwise after his skill sets were rejected for a top job and, though a high-octane player and very can-do, he needed help. In Lucy Kellaway's hilarious spoof Who Moved My Blackberry?, Martin turned to a life coach.

However, real-life "Martin Lukes" are more likely to turn to the huge number of management books packing the shelves of bookshops with advice on everything from self-esteem to networking.

The title will probably contain a number, and the word "secrets" alongside "success" or "wealth". Between the pages, management consultants, successful entrepreneurs and life coaches reveal all about making it in business, careers and life in a language understandable only to the initiated.

Theirs is a world of "viral leadership", "surpetition", "customer facing realities", "re-engineering", "kingdomality" and "work-life balance".

It is self-help in a suit for those who would not be seen dead buying a book about relationships, but are happy to read about confidence and networking by authors with macho credentials - Sir Clive Woodward, Sir Alex Ferguson and Donald Trump - or consultants whose New-Age insights are dressed up in tough-sounding psychobabble.

Is self-esteem your issue? Tell yourself you are terrific 20 times a day (Bill Cullen's Golden Apple: Six Simple Steps to Success).

No confidence at corporate drinks? Take a deep breath and give yourself a sharp talking to (Carole Stone's Successful Networking). Feel guilty about the people you have sacked? Give yourself permission not to feel guilty (Perry Wood's Secrets of the People Whisperer).

In June so many soft business titles were published it's a wonder none of them lists "become a business publisher" as the first secret of success.

Leading the pack were Irish entrepreneur Cullen's Golden Apples; T. Harv Eker's Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, about how to get rich by thinking rich; Kate Mayfield and Malcolm Levene's chick-lit careers' guide, Ellie Hart Goes to Work; and Corinne Maier's delightfully cynical riposte to corporate life, Hello Laziness.

 

In truth, most fail to earn back their advances, but should one catch on, it stands to make a profit for a long time through continued sales, spin-offs and seminars.

Predicting a hit is not easy. Who Moved My Cheese?, Dr Spencer Johnson's allegory about change in the workplace, has sold more than 12-million copies worldwide, despite - or maybe because of - it being a "simple parable" about four mice looking for cheese, written in a style that would not tax most 5-year-olds.

No wonder there is cynicism about the motives of authors and publishers in this field. Andrew Franklin, the straight-talking managing director of Profile, is scathing about the sector.

"The truth is that most of the people who write about business are self-promoting pillocks," says the publisher of Lynne Truss' bestselling punctuation guide, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

"I think business books have a bad reputation in the same way that self-help does. They are cynically written and cynically sold and not much help to readers."

Franklin has launched what he claims will be the antidote to business books, Atlas Books, a series about businesses by well-respected authors, including Tim Parks on the Medicis. Franklin hopes it will elevate business books into the world of literature.

"One of the problems with business is that it is not always treated as a serious subject for analysis. We are hoping that these will make people think about business in a different way," Franklin says.

Whatever Franklin thinks, demand for these books is growing. Blame it on change and increased job insecurity, says Kate Nowlan, clinical director at Counselling for Companies, part of the charity WPF in Britain which provides help for stressed workers.

"Business is very, very tough. It is all about productivity," she explains. "Weakness is not admitted to in such a competitive atmosphere. People are so isolated they buy books like this to give them solace after these really driven days."

But she claims, they are little more than emotional aspirins offering only momentary relief. "Things like this act as a sticking plaster. They pull you together for a day or two, making you feel a little bit better, more in control, but they don't get to the foundations of what is wrong and ultimately change things."

She adds that this is why they are popular with men who have more hang-ups about accessing help when suffering from anxiety, stress and depression.

Epitomising the business book as DIY therapy is The Mind Gym, the product of the eponymous consultancy.

The book raced to the top of bestseller lists with its mix of applied psychology and advice on everything from delivering bad news and dealing with your demons to creative visualisation, a favourite pastime on the self-help business circuit. Think rich and you'll become rich, say the gurus.

Buyers of the book are given free passwords to access the Mind Gym website and take advantage of more detailed questionnaires that read like transcripts to therapy sessions.

Nowlan is sceptical about the effectiveness of such "distance therapy".

"It is not the same as being listened to," she says. "There is such value in being listened to and that is where the transformation really begins."

But it is not therapy, according to Mind Gym MD, Octavius Black, it is a "mind workout".

He believes the sector's popularity is less about personal transformation and more about shifting expectations among ambitious Baby Boomers. High-flyers no longer expect security at work, they expect fulfilment, not something catered for on the average corporate training programme.

"Most people want to be better, but most companies' corporate training programmes talk about benefits to the organisation rather than the individual," he explains.

"People like what's in the Mind Gym because it talks to them as individuals." All 100,000 of them.

Phil Dourado, co-author of Seven Secrets of Inspired Leaders, which is tied to the Inspired Leaders Network, agrees. "Talented people are voluntary workers now," he claims.

That is not a financial director's wet dream, says Dourado, but workers' ability to vote with their feet when unfulfilled by the day job.

 

"There has been a boom in business books that help you out of a situation you don't like, to become your own boss, or to work for an organisation you find interesting," he explains.

Seven Secrets is aimed at two audiences: those who aspire and those who hire and need to retain talented staff.

These recipes for success are inspiration for middle managers everywhere, and that is why the Martin Lukes and David Brents of this world lap them up.

But Martin and David should change their reading, according to Roger Parry, successful entrepreneur and ClearChannel chairman, who has written his own book, Enterprise.

Managers wishing to ascend the corporate heights should read books with more intellectual substance, he advises.

"There is a general rule about business books that the shorter they are, the better. Usually, writers have one or two ideas worth reading, but they have a tendency to spin that out to the nth degree."

How they do that is through jargon. This "lingua corporate" dresses the mundane and unpalatable in respectable clothing. It gives a gloss of intelligence to the most banal insights, as Corinne Maier points out in her manifesto for office slackers, Hello Laziness.

Publishers and authors claim it never appears in their books.

Dourado accepts language is a problem in the genre but he claims it is used because the readers most in need of change, those steeped in the new-speak of management, take writers more seriously if they talk the same talk.

"It is a problem that you are trying to get people to think in a new way, but you need to communicate your ideas within the very conventions that you are trying to break," he says.

- INDEPENDENT

* Books illustrated kindly supplied by Whitcoulls.

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