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18 December 2008

On culture, Malcolm and books

Hello again. A while ago, I mentioned that I’d share a bit more about a very interesting event that I attended in central London, in which Malcolm Gladwell talked about some of the themes and premises contained within in his new book, “Outliers”. I must caveat all of this by saying that I haven’t as yet read the book myself, but hey … Christmas is coming and perhaps I’ll get lucky and receive a copy next week.

“Outliers” is subtitled “the story of success” but, interestingly enough given that he had a book to sell, Malcolm didn’t spend his 45 minute slot talking about the (male!) people featured in the book who fulfil a definition of success (Bill Gates et al) but rather focussed on culture (as in, the way that we think and behave based on our nationality, personality and external influences) and how cultural context can affect behaviours, beliefs and outcomes. He told a long and surprisingly witty, given the subject, story about a New York plane crash and how no one thing – a failed engine, a lack of fuel – had actually caused the accident but how it was rather the result of a chain of errors, primarily based around differing communication styles, which had led to a number of individually small and quite insignificant errors all welding together and becoming one disastrous error.

Which in turn led to both a plane crash but also (thankfully) to a change in approach in training pilots and co-pilots to communicate with each other and also with entities such as air traffic control.

The global cultural piece really fascinated me, as it chimes very strongly with what I’ve witnessed in my travels around the PwC world during 2008. Our women in the UK, the US, India, South Africa and so on have so much in common with respect to their “PwC-ness” - and yet have many different challenges to face outside the workplace in terms of external attitudes to work, as well as practical considerations such as childcare. My time in India last month led me to reflect that perhaps sometimes we focus our awareness a little too much on the perceived practical barriers such as childcare and flexibility and not enough on the cultural issues (attitudes towards work, the need to “please” external customers at all times, opposition from the older generation) which can impact how easy or difficult it can be to create and sustain a career.

I’m currently writing a new piece for the www.pwc.com/women website about some of the women who lead PwC in their respective countries (the profiles of the female partners in Bahrain and Turkey are already up there) and it struck me that the four women who will feature in the article are not necessarily from countries where, in cultural terms, you would “expect” a woman to be the leader. They haven’t benefitted from corporate interventions or programmes or initiatives. But they were smart, talented, determined and freely admit that, in a couple of cases, the timing was right for them. In other words, they made their cultural contexts work for them, and overcame the significant hurdles of the expectations of others and the definitions of “the norm” - to succeed.

That to me is the true “story of success”.

Back to Malcolm. This article referring to him as a “Geek Pop Star” from New York magazine provides a great overview of his career to date and the new book. And, if you, like me, believe that you can learn a lot about a person from their choice of reading material, then here are:

Malcolm Gladwell’s favourite books

  • The Blind Side – Michael Lewis
  • Should I Be Tested for Cancer?: Maybe Not and Here’s Why – HG Welch
  • Freakonomics – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  • Traffic – Tom Vanderbilt [described as: “a very clever young writer tells us all sorts of things about what driving says about us”. My husband read this book a few weeks ago and has been regaling me with nuggets from it ever since …]
  • Nixon Agonistas: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man – Gary Wills
  • The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking – Roger Martin

[Source: The Week magazine]

His own blog is also, unsurprisingly, an interesting read.

More on my personal books of 2008 next time – not quite as erudite as Malcolm’s, though.

Until then, seasons’ greetings –


PS: I’ve had a lot of blog feedback lately saying that you appreciate the links I provide to global news stories and interesting articles. All PwC people can email me and get themselves added to my mailing list of global items, so please make that a New Year’s resolution if you’re not already on the list.

And here’s an article which I found whilst on-line at New York magazine’s site, entitled ‘The “Bitch” and the ‘Ditz’ ” which sets out to examine how the participation of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the US Presidential election race “reinforced the two most pernicious sexist stereotypes and actually set women back.”


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