In focus

Ten thought-provoking books for your summer reading

Looking for something to feed your thoughts and spark conversation with friends, family and colleagues over the summer weeks? The following books come recommended by Schroders colleagues and span a vast range of topics.

From geo-politics to climate change; spectacular business failures to an analysis of corporate leadership; cutting-edge behavioural science to practical tips on how to cope with conflict – you’ll find something here to pass a few hours and maybe even broaden your mind.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy them as much as we have.


1. The Key Man: How the Global Elite was Duped by a Capitalist Fairy Tale

By Simon Clark and Will Louch, 2021

Recommended by Andy Howard, Global Head of Sustainable Investment

What it’s about

This book tells the story of impact investment firm Abraaj which raised billions of dollars to help drive social development across emerging economies. 

What I got from it

It reminds us that impact investing is subject to the same weaknesses as the rest of the finance industry. Over-promising returns, poor investment decisions, weak controls and ultimately outright fraud led to the downfall of a firm that for a time was lauded as a leading light in impact investing.


2. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

By Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone, and Sheila Heen, 2010

Recommended by Johanna Kyrklund, Co-Head of Investment and Group CIO

What it’s about

Difficult conversations are uncomfortable and many people try to avoid them. This book sets out to provide a step-by-step guide to how to deal with emotionally-loaded discussions, whether in your professional or personal life. It’s written by three Harvard lecturers and is based on 15 years of research by the Harvard Negotiation Project, which studies issues around negotiation and conflict resolution.

What I got from it

In an increasingly divided world and – more prosaically – in every day life, it’s really important to learn how to engage in (rather than avoid) difficult conversations, with a view to increasing empathy and building better relationships.

This book was originally recommended to me by a mentor of mine. It has helped me think through some awkward situations and has changed the way I think about conflict.


3. How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything

By Mike Berners-Lee, 2020

Recommended by Anastasia Petraki, Investment Director

What it’s about

The book sets out to demonstrate which of our daily activities have a big (or sometimes surprisingly small) carbon footprint.

What I got from it

I enjoyed this not because it’s an exact and rigorous calculation of the carbon footprint of various activities – but because it helps drive a mindset where we become aware of how our everyday activities are connected (in their small, marginal way) to climate change.


4. The Great Decoupling: China, America and the Struggle for Technological Supremacy

By Nigel Inkster, 2020

Recommended by Pablo Riveroll, Fund Manager, Equities

What it’s about

The book argues that technology is the obvious battleground as US and China jostle for global dominance. China now has the world’s largest online user community and digital economy. Its main service providers Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are on the way to becoming international household names on a par with Facebook, Amazon, Google and Microsoft. But China’s rise to supremacy threatens a wider rift between east and west, embracing ideology and values.

What I got from it

Nigel Inkster formerly worked for the UK government on foreign policy and security issues and is an adviser at the Institute for Strategic Studies. We were lucky enough to get the chance to discuss this book with him.

Inkster gives historic context to China’s current successes and aspirations, and this is really important to understanding China today. For example, he describes China’s failure to participate in the 19th century industrial revolution – “a lengthy period of turmoil and search for modern identity” – as lying at the heart of modern Chinese policy and strategy. He sees it as a “key driver in the Party’s efforts to promote China as a proud, sovereign, technologically advanced civilisation”.

He also helpfully sets out China’s apparently contradictory attitude to the internet and social media. “China’s approach accepts that in the digital age people will have access to more information and more means of self-expression than would be true in a traditional authoritarian society,” he says. “Rather than fight this, the authorities seek to channel it by allowing a degree of online discourse that creates an impression of freedom and agency – whilst ensuring that behaviour causing concern can rapidly be identified and closed down.”

When looking at recent fractious relations between the US and China, Inkster also points to some of the factors motivating China’s behaviours, including its need to secure food and water for its large population, a portion of which comes from Russia.


5. Trust Factor: the Science of Creating High-Performance Companies

By Paul Zak, 2018

Recommended by Angus Bauer, Head of Sustainable Research

What it’s about

Written by a professor of economics, psychology and management, this book offers a new way of thinking about the drivers of workforce productivity and human capital.

Zak’s focus on oxytocin – the “trust hormone” – approaches the subject through a different lens.

Measuring people’s oxytocin levels in a laboratory and organisational context, Zak has identified a marker that has profound implications for sustainable investment. Compared with people at low trust companies, those in high trust organisations report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement, 13% fewer sick days, 29% more satisfaction with their lives and 40% less burnout – among other metrics.

Following ten years of testing to identify what promotes and inhibits oxytocin, the book describes how managers can cultivate trust, within a framework of eight core behaviours.

What I got from it

Teamwork, trust or purpose are often considered intangible – important for additional “soft” context for investing but hard to pinpoint quantitatively or outside of employee reviews. This book’s detailed and objective explanation suggests how effective managers create high trust teams. We can engage with companies on these topics to understand how people – a company’s greatest asset – are nurtured as human capital. It shows how employee engagement and culture can be assessed in terms of metrics that can be more readily applied through an investment lens.


6. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

By Caroline Criado-Perez, 2020

Recommended by Anastasia Petraki, Investment Director

What it’s about

Caroline Criado-Perez looks to data to highlight unseen biases underlying many of the decisions and processes driving modern life from government policy to technology, workplace structures and media.

What I got from it

It shows – with a relentless array of scientific research and findings – the ways in which we continue to design entire societal systems that are blind to cohorts of people who have historically not been part of the design. Absence of diversity of thought and experience has a real impact on productivity and the economy.


7. The Cult of We: WeWork and the Great Start-up Delusion

By Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell, 2022

Recommended by John Cox, Integration Manager

What it’s about

It’s the story of Adam Neumann and the explosive growth – and subsequent collapse – of WeWork, the business he founded in 2001. In 15 years WeWork went from nothing to being valued at almost $50 billion. Neumann’s mesmerising persona and ambitions drew backing from some of the biggest names in venture capital and banking.

What I got from it

It’s a parable for the modern age, but it’s also a story as old as Icarus. We remain so susceptible to the hype machines that we build around certain people and ideas. The result is a misallocation of capital, a perpetuation of inequality and vacuity in our public life. A few people have tried to tell the story about the rise and fall of WeWork now but this version is very readable and comprehensive.


8. Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events

By Robert Shiller, 2019

Recommended by Tom Grady, Research Analyst, UK Specialist

What it’s about

Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller argues that popular stories influence economic events and markets more than people think.

What I got from it

Shiller’s thesis is not really a new idea, but the reason I found it interesting is that in the last three years we have seen extreme changes in narrative that have not only affected financial markets, but have also changed the real economy.

It started with the global pandemic and a few people saying then that the world would never be the same again… “Sell everything, buy gold!”

Somehow, and I’m still not quite sure why this happened, the narrative then switched dramatically to ESG and the energy transition. I think in one of Robert Shiller’s previous books he talks about crisis points being a trigger for unrelated and wider social change. A global pandemic should have little to do with ESG, so why was it then that that narrative become so powerful?

We then had the “inflation: transitory vs not-transitory?” debate. My layman’s interpretation of this is that it’s actually the newsflow around higher inflation that caused inflation to be substantially higher. It allowed companies to put up prices, which in turn triggered staff to ask for bigger pay rises. Would as many people be willing to ask for bigger pay rises if they didn’t read about everyone else doing the same?


9. The Nine Types of Leader: How the Leaders of Tomorrow Can Learn From the Leaders of Today

By James Ashton, 2021

Recommended by Jean Roche, Fund Manager

What it’s about

Financial journalist James Ashton takes three aspects of leadership: purpose, authenticity and delivery, and analyses how well various leader types achieve each of these. Splitting leadership styles into nine camps via nine chapters, Ashton uncovers behavioural patterns in categories such as “Alphas” (Philip Green), “Fixers” (Moya Greene), “Sellers” (Gavin Patterson), and “Founders” (Peter Cruddas) and – the category every leader who has understood the book will want to be mentioned in – “Humans” (Clare Gilmartin, Peter Jackson).

What I got from it

I enjoyed the book as it takes in many FTSE 250 leaders, past and present, who I have met over the years. Ashton’s anecdotes make the concepts digestible and entertaining. The book highlights the qualities one might look for in a new, unknown CEO, and what to expect from them, upon successful identification of the “type” of leader they might be. Perhaps as a reflection of what was going on when I read this book last summer, I went straight to the index to look for references to ESG. I found the discussion around former Unilever CEO Paul Polman (a high-profile campaigner for “profit with purpose”) particularly illuminating.


10. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

By Michael Braungart and William McDonough, 2002

Recommended by Hannah Simons, Head of Sustainability Strategy

What it’s about

The authors – a chemist and architect – set out their vision for a profound change in manufacturing, where better-designed products can last longer and in due course become part of something new.

What I got from it

It’s actually an old book but, with the cost of living crisis, perhaps now is the time for us all to think about the micro changes we can make to our lifestyle to better manage our impact.

Promoting circularity, through repairing, reusing, and recycling is key to the system-wide rethink we need.