The bestselling author and London Business School professor explains how her books have helped establish her as a thought leader
When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe read Lynda Gratton’s book The 100 Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, he invited her to join his new advisory council on designing society for an ageing population. She was the only foreign participant.
‘I went on the Japanese Prime Minister’s council because he read the book,’ she says. ‘So the purpose that books sell is that, if you’re interested in people listening to your ideas, then books are a good way of doing that.’
Speaking at London Business School (LBS), where she is Professor of Management Practice, she adds, ‘I met somebody this morning for coffee who – the Head of Strategy for one of our biggest companies in the UK – she said, “It’s transformed the way I’ve thought.” And she said, “You need to know that there’s another company (which I won’t name) where every single person has read the book.” It’s been really influential.’
At LBS, Lynda directs Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Companies, regarded as the world’s leading program on human resources. She’s the founder of Hot Spots Movement, a consultancy designed to help organisations future-proof their people and working practices, and leads the Future of Work Research Consortium, which has brought together executives from more than 100 companies since 2008.
As a world expert on the interface between people and organisations, she’s clear about what she needs to do.
‘I’m a professor at the London Business School. So part of my role is to be a thought leader. And for me thought leadership is writing books.’
The future of work
Her books so far include Living Strategy, on the link between business and HR strategy, The Democratic Enterprise, on the new ways of working, Hot Spots and Glow, on the rise of complex collaboration, and The Shift, on the impact of a changing world on employment and work. With her co-author Andrew Scott, she’s just completed the manuscript for a new book with the working title I, Human.
Once it’s finished, Lynda moves on. Immediately.
‘I threw away all my notes… everything…. for the new book, they all got just thrown away yesterday,’ she says. ‘Nigel, my husband, was saying “Oh sweetie, why have you done that?”’
The new book is big, carrying on the theme of the future of work. ‘We actually go from the individual to the corporation to the government to the society,’ she says. ‘So we take that whole span. I can only do that because that’s the fourth in that sequence.’
The first two in the sequence, The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here and The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, flip between thinking about corporations and enterprise level and then individuals.
‘In general I’ve done books in pairs,’ she says. ‘So there’s a view that you can’t talk about the individual and the organisation at the same level because some of your readers want to hear about themselves and some of your readers want to hear about corporations and they’re not the same person.’
‘It’s a way of thinking’
Most of us would feel daunted by a wide-ranging subject such as that in Lynda’s new book. We certainly wouldn’t all enjoy tackling it. In fact, though, when Lynda started writing books, she had no idea she’d enjoy it either.
‘I love writing. And I didn’t really realise that. Well, I loved writing my PhD. And actually it was an interesting PhD and quite complicated. And I’d enjoyed that. I’d enjoyed writing my thesis from my undergraduate degree as well.
‘And so I realised that one of the things I love to do in my life is to write.’
Writing isn’t just an enjoyable task for her, however. It’s an essential part of how she works. ‘I use writing really in part as a way of thinking,’ she says.
‘It’s interesting. If I’m at a meeting or seminar I always take a lot of notes. Writing and looking at my writing is the way that I think. So it was a natural thing.’
It took her a short while to find her writing style. Her first book was co-authored, and she didn’t feel it had her voice in it. ‘Living Strategy was my first book with my own voice and I just loved writing it.’
When she finished Living Strategy, she also discovered she enjoys receiving feedback. ‘When I wrote it, Sumantra Ghoshal, [the business professor] I was working with at that moment, who was a great writer and of course has passed away, looked at the manuscript and he said to me, this is a really good book. And that was a good feeling. To know that I’ve done that.’
Readers also ask her for a second edition. ‘Actually, funnily enough, people still say to me, ‘Why don’t you rewrite Living Strategy? Why don’t you go back and write it again?”’
She’s not had time to do that so far, and she’s been interested in exploring new areas, but says she might revisit it at some stage. The chances are, though, that won’t happen, as she doesn’t like to go back to books she’s already written.
‘Once I’ve written a book, I don’t look at it again,’ she says.
‘Funnily enough, Andrew Scott and I were just talking [about this] today because we’ve just finished our new book and I have not been able to open it. I mean I worked on it flat out for two years. We sent it to the editor a week ago – it’s still going through an editorial process – I haven’t been able to open it. I’ve done everything I could not to open it again.’
While Lynda works out what she thinks by writing, she does her research by setting up consortia. ‘The Leading Edge consortium led to the basic research that was then described in Living Strategy,’ she says. ‘And then I wanted to explore that a bit more in terms of what organisations should be thinking about, and I wrote The Democratic Enterprise.’
The consortia provide a wealth of original research. ‘I think for the first two books I was really feeding off the research that had come out of the Leading Edge Consortium, because we had extraordinary insights into organizations,’ she says.
Her next big book was Hot Spots: Why Some Companies Buzz with Energy and Innovation – And Others Don’t, followed by Glow: How You Can Radiate Energy, Innovation and Success. ‘That was because I built another consortium which looked at collaboration, so Hot Spots and Glow were both about collaboration.’ Hotspots was about what organisations should do, while Glow was more about the individual.
In association with the former, Lynda set up Hot Spots Movement, which is now her consulting and research group. ‘Based in Somerset House [in London], now 10 years old. We’re always looking for interns, by the way: if anyone would like to intern, just go to our website we’d love to see you.’
The interactive way Lynda does her research is echoed in the way she and co-author Andrew Scott connect with people on the website for The 100 Year Life. There’s a wonderful little quiz where readers can share their own stories.
‘One of the things you’ve got to think about,’ she says, ‘is that if you build a website you’ve got to keep it up to date, and that’s a bit of a pain when the book is already two years old, three years old. So we still do that…
‘Tens of thousands of people have filled in that diagnostic, really interesting. We wrote an HBR [Harvard Business Review] article about what came out of it. It was never research as such, but it was good insights into what people were thinking, so yes, people really like the website.’
Building up momentum
Maintaining interest in previous books is only half of the problem. The other half is raising interest in the next book.
‘It takes long time to build up momentum,’ she says, ‘so that people anticipate that you’re writing. I have quite a good Twitter following. I have a LinkedIn following.
‘So I haven’t actually started to talk about the new book. I’m mentioning it today, but we haven’t ramped it up in any way.
‘But it’s interesting – the book’s already sold into the publisher. It sold a month ago. Japanese rights sold three months ago. But it will not hit the bookshelves for at least another year.
‘And that’s because the publishers need at least a year. And people think: well, does it take that long to print it? Of course it doesn’t, but it takes a year to position what they think is going to be a big book.
‘And the view is that I, Human – which won’t be that name – will be a big book. And it takes a year to position a big book.
‘So we’re going to start working on positioning it within the next month.’
As the early sale of Japanese rights suggests, international rights will be key for the book’s success. ‘If you look at most of my work, certainly the last three books, they’ve sold more outside of the UK than they have inside,’ she says.
‘The 100 Year Life has sold half a million copies in Japan. It has become the bestselling book in Japan. Not just the bestselling business book… the bestselling book. It’s been made into a manga, it’s just gone crazy.’
Clearly the book has inspired a lot of people around the world, including Japan’s Prime Minister. But Lynda acknowledges that writing it has also inspired her.
‘The more that you write, the more people talk to you, the more you learn. The more you grow. The better you get and I’m honestly at the top of my game right now. And it’s because of the hours I put in to getting my ideas straight. Straight in my mind.’
With that, she says she has to go to an appointment. ‘Well, it’s a Pilates class actually,’ she adds. ‘If I’m going to live till I’m 100 I’ve got to keep fit.