Judging a book by its cover

The common modus operandi of business socialising remains the same: Put on an assured smile, make sure your zipper is up, nod confidently towards strangers as you sashay pass the crowd, seek out a familiar face, greet the individual and be introduced to the group.

The battery of questions have become predictable: “Which company are you with?”, Where’s your office?” (while staring at his business card with the address in plain sight), “What business are you in?” and “Who are your customers?”.

As I had just closed the pages on two notable books, which I will share with you in a moment, and slotted them back into their precise spots on the bookshelf – my obsessive-compulsive disorder with the bookshelf is not the focus here – a sudden inspiration to try something different came over me as I was walking towards the registration counter at the recent Malaysia SME Congress event.

Instead of listening to a barrage of his long list of customers or commenting on her office location’s poor variety of kopitiam outlets, I made a decision to initiate each conversation I came across throughout the event on the books that they may have read in recent times. Following prominent lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s recommendation that “If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads,” I was left pleasantly surprised by the outcome of my experiment.

Understandably the responses always entailed management and leadership books. I guess not many would like to publicly reveal their personal collection of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Twilight Saga and Harry Potter stashed under their beds.

While titles such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter) and Blue Ocean Strategy (W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne) were the expected favourites, it was near startling to hear several mention of management classics as the likes of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, Competing for the Future (Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad), and The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith).

Though I was not underestimating the literacy level of our Malaysian entrepreneurs – with the exception of the handful that stared blankly at my query, a couple that churned out their entire business profile before I can say hello, and one that believed that Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink and Outliers) was a Hollywood actor – it was heartening to know that reading and learning from books, amid the Internet era, is still favoured upon by our business owners.

Personally, I have never been one for the ‘preachy’ textbook-styled forms of management and self-help books as I have always leaned towards those with a story telling approach and with humour strewn across the pages. One of these is Michael Gates Gill’s How Starbucks Saved My Life.

As I shared with those at the event on Gill’s narration of his fall from grace from being a high-flying advertising executive to becoming unemployed before getting a job at Starbucks, many were evidently captivated by his story. The book is about one man’s struggles with his career predicament and the lessons he learns as he discovers the value of work and his preceding prejudices while working a service staff at Starbucks.

The other book that I shared with fellow entrepreneurs at the business-networking event was The Ultimate Life by Jim Stovall. Uniquely written, the story revolves around a court case involving a business tycoon who left a series of 12 lessons for his spoiled grandson to complete in order for him to successfully inherit his grandfather’s fortune.

Many of these inspiring books’ content are nothing new to most of us. Deep inside of us – admittingly, some much deeper than others – we know about respect for your colleagues, we appreciate the values of work, and we are aware of the need to help others. Nevertheless, it is always important to reiterate to ourselves these lessons through the stories and experiences of others.

An experience that a budding entrepreneur would definitely want to listen to is the inspirational tale of Sirivat Voravetvuthikun, or more fondly known as ‘The Sandwich Man’. More than listening to the University of Texas graduate’s uplifting riches-to-rags-to-riches journey, it the 61-year-old’s witty story-telling manner that has charmed his audiences over the years.

Not one to shy away on promoting himself and his business at every given opportunity, the affable Thai entrepreneur clearly has a way with the crowd wherever he speaks around the region. But then, turning up with a bright yellow sandwich box around your neck does help liven things up! Now, all he needs to achieve global recognition is for him to write a book that entrepreneurs can talk about at the next business networking session

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