Last year's NBBA finalists covered very different topics, from creating a billion-dollar cannabis company to building diversity in leadership
Readers have been known to say they hit the books in search of information, but in truth, if there’s anything that they really love, it’s a story. Happy ending or sad conclusion, humdrum setting or fantasy world, no matter—we are the story species. Nothing else catches our attention or carries us inexorably from beginning to end the way narratives do. That goes even for business book prize jurors, as much as they may also be looking for solid, profit-generating (or at least loss-stemming) tips.
Consider the prestigious $30,000 National Business Book Award, which has a demonstrable history of preferring a rollicking rise-and-fall story, whether of business titans, business charlatans or the corporations themselves. Books like the 2016 NBBA winner Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Blackberry, or 2005’s champion Wrong Way: The Fall of Conrad Black, both co-authored by veteran business writer Jacquie McNish.
Last year, the smart money would probably have landed on the eventual winner among 2022’s three finalists. And Billion Dollar Start-up: The True Story of How a Couple of 29-Year-Olds Turned $35,000 into a $1,000,000,000 Cannabis Company by Adam Miron, Sébastien St-Louis, and Julie Beun, is one great story. Set out in diary format, it’s a collaborative memoir about the rise of HEXO, which was born in 2013 as medical marijuana company Hydropothecary Corp., before it began a wild rollercoaster ride as recreational cannabis was legalized in Canada in 2018. The book is co-authored not just by the two brother-in-law company founders (Miron and St-Louis) but HEXO’s former publicist, content strategist and senior writer (Beun).
In short, it’s the inside track personified, a beautifully written account of multiple near-disasters, overcoming regulatory hurdles (always a vital but under-reported skill in amassing wealth in Canada), navigating a black hole as far as market data was concerned, and an eye-popping cash-burn rate. Then, when the tale is supposedly over, come a few hints and some outright statements that the cannabis industry chaos was far from over, and a lasting happy ending no sure thing. Indeed, both co-founders are now departed, and HEXO is again fighting for stability and profitability. The NBBA jurors knew that and they still loved the story. Volume two, anyone?
Not that there aren’t stories—two dozen, in fact—to be found in 2022 nominee My Best Mistake: Epic Fails and Silver Linings by Terry O’Reilly. The CBC Radio host recounts errors with happy endings, from the seemingly catastrophic (NBC news anchor Brian Williams and his career-derailing claim of having been in a U.S. military helicopter fired upon in Iraq) to a simple typo. Every one of the accounts is engaging and well-told, and there can be no disputing the two themes woven through the book—don’t give up and life is uncomfortably more random than we like to think—but the stories that linger longest in readers’ minds may well be the most whimsical of them.
That typo, for one. When Joseph-Armand Bombardier saw his first five snowmobiles come off the production line in 1959, he meant his news release to call them Ski-Dogs, given that he considered them mechanical replacements for sled dogs. But a typo meant his brochure had them as Ski-Doos. Bombardier looked at the error, was reminded of a popular American slang term of his youth—“23 skidoo” meaning, “get out of here quickly”—and decided to keep what is now the iconic name of an iconic Canadian invention.
The situation is different in the third finalist. Management consultant Bobby Siu’s Opening Doors to Diversity in Leadership, is not a narrative but a book of analysis and policy. The topic as a whole is a huge one within contemporary businesses, leading to most proclaiming their commitment to diversifying themselves from top to bottom—and numerous critics more likely to discern window dressing than actual progress. Especially, Siu stresses, at companies’ highest positions.
He considers how current leaders—high-level executives and boards of directors—view their relationships with diverse groups and what goes into their recruitment choices, performance evaluations and workplace culture. Self-scrutiny and self-reflection are crucial, Siu writes, because there is no other way to eject unconscious biases from the workplace. Finding and identifying systemic biases woven into the structure of HR practice as it has evolved over decades will have to be ongoing for years to come.
The heart of Opening Doors, however, lies in the same clear fact that compels genuine diversity efforts within those companies that grasp it. But removing systemic barriers to flourishing diversity at the highest levels is not only a question of moral justice, the author convincingly argues. It’s also a matter of profound self-interest for companies, given demographic trends nationally and globally, and Siu builds a compelling business case for greater diversity in leadership, recruitment, and retention. Not a great story, perhaps, but a very good book.
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Check out our other top business picks, from diversity topics to audio books.