Two terrific books for executives

In no small way a CEO’s ability to connect with people is based on how he or she writes and behaves. The two, near-classic books recommended by this IBJ regular contributor set the standards for writing effectively and behaving appropriately.

The scarcest executive resource is often time, so when you recommend job-related reading, it had better have a good payoff. This article recommends two books that meet that criteria: On Writing Well by William Zinsser (HarperCollins, 2006) and Choosing Civility by P. M. Forni (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002).

The executive’s job is pulling together people, financial capital and hard assets to achieve goals. Success depends on many things, but few are more important than the ability to communicate effectively. If those upon whom you rely do not understand what you need, only luck will save you.

Enter On Writing Well. Read Zinsser and you will write better, which is one of the most important ways executives communicate. You will be better at the craft of putting words, sentences and paragraphs together to inform and persuade. You will think with more clarity and precision because you cannot write better without thinking better. You will also speak better. The better you write and think, the more clearly you will speak.

Most executives have probably never read a “How to” on writing by someone who really knows how to write. Zinsser does. This is a short trip to better writing skills, not a replay of grade five grammar with all the rules.

On Writing Well has stood the test of time. It is in its seventh edition since 1976 and has more than 1,000,000 copies sold. The writing in On Writing Well is itself a splendid example of how to write.

Some of Zinsser’s advice to whet the executive appetite: “Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style and how it obstructs what they are trying to say…. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon… Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigour – is the difference between life and death for a writer…. Most adverbs are unnecessary … Most adjectives are also unnecessary…. Short (words are) better than long…. Keep your paragraphs short…. Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting…. Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost…. (Executives) forget that some of the most powerful tools they possess – for good and for bad – are words.”

The last point about words being a powerful executive tool is particularly noteworthy. With shareholders, customers, employees, suppliers, bankers, government officials etc., the right or wrong word from an executive can make all the difference. Rudyard Kipling was right in 1923 when he called words “The most powerful drug used by mankind”. Try Zinsser’s pharmacy. You will not be disappointed.

George Orwell in his 1946 essay, Why I Write, made a point on writing that should also be front of mind for executives. “Looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” The political reference aside, the first step to writing well is to develop a firm fix on the purpose of the writing, knowing exactly what you want to say, why and to whom. Fuzziness here and no matter how well the executive strings the words together, trouble is coming.

On to P. M. Forni’s Choosing Civility. It is about another aspect of communication: your behaviour towards others and how it affects them. As with writing, there is a direct connection between your behaviour and getting things done through people.

Forni defines civility: “Whatever civility might be, it has to do with courtesy, politeness and good manners…. Courtesy, politeness, manners and civility are all, in essence, forms of awareness. Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness…. Through civility we develop thoughtfulness, foster effective self-expression and communication, and widen the range of our benign responses. Civility allows us to connect successfully with others…. (Civility) frees us from slavery to self absorption, impulse and mood….. Restraint is our inner designated driver … (Restraint stops us from) unthinkingly rushing into action…. This allows us to make sound decisions.”

Executives should already be hooked on Choosing Civility. Can an executive hope to do his or her job well if they cannot connect with others, if they give in to self absorption, impulse and mood or if they unthinkably rush into action and make bad decisions?

Of course, we should all choose civility all the time because it is the right thing to do. It is the proper way to treat people. That is what Forni means when he says “Civility belongs in the realm of ethics.” But there is another reason for choosing civility beyond it being the fact that it is the right thing to do: civility works. You are more likely to be a successful executive if you are civil.

Read Choosing Civility and connect better with people. Forni calls it a “handbook for the practical use of civility”.

Forni offers 25 rules of civil conduct. A few especially relevant for being a good executive:

  • Pay attention. It is not possible to connect with people if you do not pay attention to them.
  • Acknowledge others. How can you expect people to perform for you if you do not acknowledge them?
  • Listen. Good decisions are a consequence of good information, which often comes from listening to people tell you what you need to know.
  • Be inclusive. The more people feel part of your group, the greater the likelihood your group will be successful.
  • Respect others’ opinions. How can you engage others, if you do not respect their views?
  • Refrain from idle complaints. Complaining does not get things done nor does it look good on executives.
  • Accept and give constructive criticism. Criticism is an important part of the executive toolbox but it has to be done right.
  • Don’t shift responsibility and blame. Executives who get things done take responsibility when things go wrong and concentrate on finding a fix.

On Writing Well and Choosing Civility are not new books. Nor are they the kind of books that would typically be recommended to executives. Writing well and civility, after all, should be appreciated long before you become an executive.

But everyone needs refreshers from time to time and these two books are great refreshers on two things that can really help an executive. All in all not much to lose by reading On Writing Well and Choosing Civility but a few hours. And plenty to gain.

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact