McKinsey list reveals the reading choices of leading executives

21 August 2019 3 min. read
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McKinsey has provided a fascinating insight into the world of high-powered business – by asking what’s on the reading list of the globe’s top executives, including their very own.

The longlist has been announced for the annual Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award – with several of the 16 titles vying for this year’s £30,000 prize having a distinctly contemporary bent, including books on data harvesting, artificial intelligence and gender income inequality. Elsewhere, there are the usual slew of books about innovation, capitalism and the economy, along with a pair of titles offering practical advice for managers.

But what of managers who have already reached the very top of their trade; do they read such books, or might they prefer a spot of escapism from the airport bookshop? As the winner of the Business Book of the Year won’t be crowned until late in the year, McKinsey has helped ease the anxious wait by asking what’s on the bookshelves – or in the suitcases – of some of the world’s leading executives, including Kevin Sneader, McKinsey’s Global Managing Partner.

And the answer is a mixed and fascinating bag, ranging from Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The End of the End of the Earth’ collection of essays on the climate change (Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, LEGO executive chairman,) to ‘People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent’ by Joseph E. Stiglitz (PayPal CEO Dan Schulman) and right on through to the ancient Sanskrit text ‘The Upanishads’ and Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’.

McKinsey list reveals the reading choices of leading executives

The last two were in fact both chosen by the single contributor, Salman Khan, the founder of online learning portal the Khan Academy. The rare other instances of fiction among the selections included Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Serotonin’ (Jesper Jos Olsson, group CEO of White Peak Real Estate), and ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by ‘Cloud Atlas’ author David Mitchell (Andrew Penn, CEO and managing director of Telstra Corporation).

The list also comes with its own meta, intertextual touch. While WPP chief people officer Jacqui Canney reads former General Electric vice chair Beth Comstock’s ‘Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change,’ Comstock meanwhile reads three books ostensibly about flora; ‘The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (Peter Wohlleben), ‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers, and Walt Whitman’s poetry collection ‘Leaves of Grass’.

As for Kevin Sneader, his four selections have no such light touch, despite the McKinsey head having had a rather challenging year. The titles clearly speak for themselves: ‘A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (Richard Haass); ‘The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (Peter Frankopan); and ‘Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East’ (James Barr).

Sneader has also been reading ‘Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster’ by Adam Higginbotham, as has Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar, selections which may or may not have been inspired by watching the recent HBO miniseries; unfortunately, the leading execs haven’t furnished us with their favourite shows for binging. It’s doubtful however that Friar would have time for television, stating that she tries to read 52 books per year.