Episode 289 – Medium, message and meaning with Jeremy Kourdi

Jeremy Kourdi‘Why would you write 28 books? To get good at some of the stuff that you’re writing about.’

As well as writing those 28 books, Jeremy Kourdi has experience of senior leadership at The Economist, Duke University and the CMI. It’s fair to say he has an all-round perspective on the value of content in business thinking, and in this fascinating conversation he reveals his own approach to writing as well as his thoughts on the value of words more generally. As content creators, we have a responsibility to use our platforms well: what does that mean for you? 

Using words well is a core business discipline, as fundamental to effective leadership as financial management or strategic direction, and this is a masterclass for any leader wanting to go from good to great. 



Jeremy’s site: https://www.kourdi.com/

Jeremy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jkourdi

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Jeremy Kourdi who is an internationally experienced executive coach, consultant and business writer. He’s worked as a Senior Vice-President with the Economist Group, Managing Director with Duke Corporate Education and Head of Publishing and Research with the Chartered Management Institute.

He provides in-depth expertise in the fields of leadership, business development, coaching, talent development, communications, and digital working, and has a keen interest in future thinking. As a coach, Jeremy’s worked with successful leaders in organizations worldwide, as well as with high potential executives at all levels across a range of cultures and contexts.

And he’s the author, get this, of 28 books translated into 16 languages with worldwide sales in excess of a million copies. So that’s nice.

Jeremy Kourdi: Wow.

Alison Jones: Sounds really good like that. Doesn’t it?

Jeremy Kourdi: I should be richer. And by the way, I don’t mean to be pedantic, 17 languages.

Alison Jones: Oh beg pardon.

Jeremy Kourdi: You forgot Serbo-Croat, obviously.

Alison Jones: Oh, easy done, sorry, sorry, 17 languages and excess of a million copies. So it’s fantastic to have you here. What stands out, I mean, it’s obviously a grand introduction. What really stands out is the breadth of experience across so many different facets of business and the fact that you are such a prolific writer.

So let’s start there. What do you see as the value of content generally, and books specifically in business?

Jeremy Kourdi: That’s a great question. Before I answer that question, I do just have to share a secret with you, which you might appreciate. The way to write 28 books is to co-author. And so a lot of them are co-authored with just the most talented, I mean, I have a good network that it kind of impresses me all the time, and challenges and stretches me. So I’ve been blessed with that and great friends and great minds and people to work with. So I do sometimes feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.

But to answer your question, what is the role of content? Well, so what really frustrates me a little bit is that today we have and I’m going to sound like an old person now. I worry that there’s sometimes a lack of scholarship. In other words, a tweet or a headline can make you an expert. And all you need to do is maybe go a little bit deeper than that and read the whole newspaper. And then you really know everything.

And I just think, and of course, newspapers and headlines and Twitter and all of that has a really valuable point and role, and they enrich our lives, but they aren’t any substitute for this really old-fashioned word that I use which would be scholarship. And so that’s what I get from books. And I want to, I mean there are different types of books, obviously different types of business books, but in my mind, they split into two, which is classical or maybe three, perhaps, which you really do need to read. So the work of Peter Drucker, for example, would be just great seminal thinking about management and leadership, number one. Number two would be tools and techniques and a lot of the books, not all of them, but a lot of the books I’ve written have been about decision-making or strategy or marketing or leadership, and what they are, is writing for people that don’t have time to read. So they are a distillation of tools and techniques brought into a modern context so that a manager or leader can apply them and can put them to good use. But the books I like reading… So I read my own books and other people’s as well, which are tools and techniques, but the ones that really stimulate me are around this thing of scholarship.

So, you know, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, just original ideas, well researched, anything by Malcolm Gladwell would fall into that category. Matthew Syed is a fantastic writer as well. So those kinds of books are fantastic. And that’s what I think is the role of content, surely, it’s either to educate us or to help us apply something or to stretch our thinking.

And what do you think, Alison, does that make sense?

Alison Jones: I like your division of the thought pieces. I think scholarship is an interesting word because there are some really scholarly business books out there. There are business monographs out there. Always terribly accessible, often, very, very theoretical. But the big thinking books and I’d add, I mean, women also write these books, I’d add Carol Dweck in there with Mindset and Angela Duckworth with Grit, those sort of seminal books that, that they kind of name for us concepts, don’t they, they give us, like Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, they give us the sort of the language that allows us to talk about things that we had kind of intuited, but not ever had the words for before.

And I think that those, there aren’t that many of them – and you’re right, Gladwell is a brilliant one at it – when you get those books, they are so powerful. But they are relatively few. They tend to be written by active or former academics because they are the ones with the access to the research and the skills to do it. And frankly, the research teams to do it as well. Jim Collins, is another good example.

But I’m interested in your second piece, particularly as well, the practical stuff, which tends to be written, not so much academics and much more by people in the arena doing the stuff. Tell me a little bit more about the value for people like that of the writing, because of course they are in the thick of it doing it. And also what the value of those can be to the reader.

Jeremy Kourdi: I think certainly the value to the writer, so why would you write 28 books? And the answer is to get good at some of the stuff that you’re writing about. So…

Alison Jones: What a great answer. But it’s so true, isn’t it? It’s mastery.

Jeremy Kourdi: This is just between us, isn’t it? Nobody else is listening…

Alison Jones: Nobody else is listening, you’re fine.

Jeremy Kourdi: So for example I’m a qualified executive coach, so I’ve studied coaching, I’ve worked as a coach and I enjoy coaching and people pay me to be a coach. So there must be some value in it. And I’ve recently written, this might be the chance to share with you my latest book, which is Coaching Questions for Every Situation.

And that’s number 28, by the way.

And the reason I wrote that was somebody, a publisher actually, said to me I think the world needs a book of coaching questions and I thought about it and I’m a great coach, I think. And I can come up with questions for most situations, but I’ve never done it. I’ve never organized my thinking that way.

I’ve never thought what’s the difference when you’re coaching someone to change their behavior versus prepare for a new role or handle a difficult situation or make a big decision or whatever it happens to be. And these all require different questions.

And as I thought about it, I thought, you know what, if you write this book, you will become a better coach. So, that’s why I that’s, for me at least, it was a big, big part of the reason. Also I was flattered to be asked. So that was the second part of the reason. And my head was turned a little bit because the publisher and I think they were right in this said that’s going to be a market for it. We think this book would do really, really well. So, I think they’re right in that as well. I think there is a thirst for it.

So that’s why I wrote it. And why is it good for people?

Well we’ll see, we’ll see how good it is, but it’s designed to help people, I guess if there’s a thread that runs through the writing I’ve done, it is that. It’s a desire to make things practical and useful really. I think I just want to be useful.

Alison Jones: Really useful book. Yes. I love that. And your first point there about getting really good at something and becoming a better coach, having written that book. It’s such a powerful one. I think it’s often one that people, well, two things, firstly, people who do it, don’t realize that that’s going to be the biggest benefit until they’ve done it, which is interesting.

And secondly, I think it stops a lot of people in their tracks because they think they have to be better before they can write the book.

Jeremy Kourdi: You’re right. And so I often find people are reticent to write because they’re not an expert. And I think, and then I feel bad because I think I’m pretty good at certain areas, I don’t know that I’m in depth, brilliant at 28 areas. I think I’m certainly curious about all of them and I can share what I know and make it practical and help people with it.

But this point about having to be an expert, a complete authority before you start writing, I think is not right. And what I say to hesitant authors, because I believe everybody has a book in them, is throw yourself in, it’s like learning to swim, just dive in and writing is really very developmental.

And however good you are at the start, you’ll be better by the end.

Alison Jones: Which is a good enough reason to start, isn’t it? And you use the C word, of course, curious. I think that’s such a, and it’s also a really helpful reminder to yourself to fall back on when you get stuck because the imposter syndrome stuff can really creep in, but if you go in with a kind of curious, journalistic, investigative approach, you’re much less likely to get stopped in your tracks by that imposter syndrome, aren’t you?

Because you are just finding out, you are just exploring.

Jeremy Kourdi: I think that’s right, by the way, mentioning imposter syndrome reminds me of, or makes me think that a couple of those kind of areas of books, types of books I was mentioning before do overlap. And they’re in areas where I think people need to get better. Areas of management and leadership where I think people need to get better.

And also, and this is quite shocking, they just don’t know enough. So reading about it is both a revelation and mind stretching and also practical. And I’m thinking about how do we, you know, particularly being a kind of middle-aged guy, hearing how some women feel when they have, for example, imposter syndrome.

When I first heard, when imposter syndrome was first described to me, I was horrified. I thought, well, I’ve thought a few things, firstly so why aren’t we changing that? Why aren’t we addressing it? And then how would I address it, if I address it too overtly does that look patronizing or condescending?

 So there was a combination of learning about something on the one hand, which a lot of books do, and wanting to do something about it on the other hand, and do the right thing. So there is an overlap and I have another friend who’s written a book about the experience of black leaders and what it’s like being a person of colour in an organization, increasingly with these amazing, horrific, bizarre stories I’m hearing about, my friend was sharing with me. I couldn’t believe what they were telling me. And that was both mind stretching and kind of starting in me a desire to change.

So I just wonder if that’s an area of publishing that has been under cooked

Alison Jones: Oh,

Jeremy Kourdi: We need more books I think, that would help well-intentioned but ignorant people, like me, kind of change a situation, I think.

Alison Jones: Yes and it’s starting to happen, but it has been so slow and it’s fighting against such inbuilt bias in the industry. And also to be fair amongst readers, because still too many people want to read books by people like them. And, you know, it’s a whole culture change. I think it is shifting and it’s great to see shift, but my goodness, we’ve got a long way to go.

Jeremy Kourdi: Yes. Yes for sure. I think,

Alison Jones: But you’re right. That the sort of the recognition of privilege is really promising I think, a really helpful shift in business books particularly recently. And so much has been written on unconscious bias. And once again, once you see this stuff you can’t unsee it and that’s all helpful, I think.

So there’s a sort of social agenda as well as the business agenda here, isn’t it? It’s making us better people, better leaders, better business people, more successful, but also just more human. What can help make that happen because we’ve talked in a sort of fairly disconnected way I think about the benefits for the writer and the benefits for the reader.

But the key thing is what pulls those two together. Is how can you, as a writer, put your message across in a way that allows the reader to engage with it, to access it, to remember it, to put it into practice. Go on, give us your best secrets.

Jeremy Kourdi: That is a cracking question. I think… I think a few things. Give of yourself would be the first one, I mean that just makes for a better book, doesn’t it? Malcolm Gladwell, for example, does it, he shares what he thinks and feels. The best writers, the writers I like reading the most, aren’t afraid to be open.

Aren’t afraid to kind of share their own thoughts and experiences. Of course, that draws the reader in. So I think that would be one technique that’s often forgotten. And particularly with business books where it’s seen as being extrinsic, it’s seen as being about something we do, strategy, or even leadership. And leadership is entirely about people and we have our own leadership styles.

So it is actually very, very individual and personal and human, it’s leadership. But people still think of it as extrinsic. And I think what a good leadership book would do for example, is be open and draw people in and kind of even show vulnerability which can be engaging I think, when writers do that.

So a little bit of openness and kind of just, perhaps even before that, remember it’s a book. Remember people will need to want to turn the page. They’ll need to want to be interested. They will have to get something from it. Too many can be polemics, can’t they, they can just be this is my view on the world. And I think it needs to be different to that.

What else? So think really deeply about who you’re writing for. So every book I’ve ever written, I have thought this is the three or four people that I’m writing it for. I often tell them, usually when it comes out, this is your book. I had you in mind when I wrote this book.

 And plus you’re not disappointed when it sells four copies, you think, you know what, I had four people in mind in the first place.

That’s right. So that can really help, but seriously, you can then think, okay, what would Michael think of this? You know, if you get into it, how would they react to what I’ve just written there or what would help that person the most? So definitely think about the audience that you’re writing for.

One of the tougher, can I share one of the toughest questions I was ever asked at a book launch? I was really delighted about a book I’d written. The book was The Truth About Talent. And I co-authored it with Jacqueline Davis, who’s now a senior executive in the NHS.

 And there’s a lot of Jacqueline’s thought leadership in there and we produced this great book and we did some research as well. And we looked at attitudes to talent and how people develop talent. That’s what the book was about.

The Truth About Talent, by the way for those that haven’t read the book, is that we all have it, and it is the task of leaders, it’s incumbent on leaders to find that talent.

And the corollary of that is they are all things we can fail at, but we shouldn’t dwell on that necessarily. We should be looking for the strengths that’s out there, that’s all around us. So it’s a kind of optimistic positive. So, you know, I shared a little of the findings of the research at the book launch, and then the question that knocked me off my feet but is worth future writers thinking of is, ‘Jeremy, that’s great. Sounds a bit Anglo-Saxon to me, what research did you do in other parts of the world, Asia, for example, or Africa?’ That completely floored me because they were, there was some Asian perspectives in there, I have to say, but not a lot. And that wasn’t, and none of the four people I was thinking of, I mean, they were all Anglo-Saxon, and that was challenging to me.

So I think increasingly when people write business books today, you have to think of that global audience and, what will someone think if they read this in Hong Kong or San Francisco or Johannesburg, or some other part of the world that isn’t your part of the world.

And I think increasingly, certainly this century you know, last 10, 20 years that that’s become a little bit of a shift, perhaps.

Alison Jones: Yes, and it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because English is the global language. It allows you as an English speaker to be quite lazy, to be quite parochial and narrow-minded, but actually that is a luxury we don’t have, it’s a legacy of a mindset that just has no place in the modern world.

So, yes, it’s a great point. And it comes right back to your original point about writing to make ourselves better. Isn’t it?

Jeremy Kourdi: Yes.

Alison Jones: It’s that inquiry, that the things that we have to do in order to put a book worth reading out into the world, open our eyes to the things that aren’t top of our minds most of the time. So it is a really valuable process from that perspective as well.

Jeremy Kourdi: I think that’s absolutely right. And, I do have a little bit of a bugbear, I have to say as well, about communication both written and spoken, in that we’re all taught to do it as children. And we think it’s cheap. We actually think words, we sometimes forget the value, or the power, or the impact of words because, Hey, we’re speaking the whole time or we’re writing the whole time. Plus in your head, it’s only me, how powerful can it be?

So we say things that are the wrong things to say, or we miss our opportunities. So, you know, if you have an opportunity to get a message across and you just treat it casually or you fluff it or you don’t prepare, then that’s a shame.

And sometimes we do that a little too much, we’re kind of rushing a little too much. And so that’s another advantage of both writing and reading, I would suggest, is that opportunity to reflect or to pause. If you like it, that’s great. If it helps you, that’s great. Even if you don’t, then it forces you to take a viewpoint.

 I used to work at The Economist, The Economist Group. And that’s what we always said about The Economist. It has a point of view. And if you don’t agree with it, that’s actually fine, but at least it provokes your thinking. So The Economist is anti royalist, I am a royalist, but it forces me to think: why are you a royalist, Jeremy? What is it about the Royal family that you like or you value? And I like being provoked like that. I think that can be useful as well.

Alison Jones: I love that point you make, that more general point you make about the value of words as well. Because you are right, writing, speaking, words in general, we use them without thinking, literally without thinking so much at the time. And if nothing else writing for other people’s consumption forces you to treat them with more respect, treat them with more thought. And there’s something really valuable about that because actually they are one of the most powerful things we have, one of the most fundamental enablers of our civilization, of our communities, of our relationships. And they deserve a little bit more of our attention than they usually get.

Jeremy Kourdi: Yes, absolutely right. And I think, so one way I view it is to distinguish a little bit between the message and the media. So people often think there’s one message and I’ll just push it out there, but actually something that works in a tweet is different to a post, a blog post, or a LinkedIn post, or is different to a podcast or different again to an article or even a book.

So it’s about understanding who the audience is, how it’s being consumed and then writing or speaking for that media and also adjusting your message therefore so that it can be got across in 140 characters.

Alison Jones: It’s like the screen adaptation, isn’t it? You can’t just lift a novel and put it on screen. It’s got to be adapted for the medium.

Jeremy Kourdi: That’s absolutely right. And so I have it here actually, another one, it’s The 100 Greatest Speakers and Speeches of all Time. That’s the most success, currently I think one of the most successful books I’ve written, but it looks at a hundred of the great speakers and speeches of all time. And that’s what I learned from that book, because I thought these are great speeches, but actually what people are able to do, what people that really get their message across and engage are able to do, is to tailor it, tailor their words. I cheated in the book by the way. So I’m a huge fan of president Kennedy’s speech. And in the book is President Kennedy, but also President Kennedy’s speech writer, Theodore Sorenson.

 So 2% of the book is to do with one person. So that’s a bit of a cheat.

Alison Jones: A very powerful speaker.

Jeremy Kourdi: Yes, yes, absolutely.

Alison Jones: I’m going to put words shameless in your mouth now, but actually what I’m hearing you saying as well is that writing is a business discipline. Is that when we learn how to communicate effectively, that’s as much part of learning how to do business well, as financial strategy, as leadership as all those kind of core leadership disciplines that we have. That actually using words well, speaking and or writing, is just as much a part of that as any of the others.

Jeremy Kourdi: It’s crucial, isn’t it? And that’s another advantage of course, of writing is that you learn in those moments of stillness when you’re writing, to express yourself better. Well that affects you know, when you’re speaking one-on-one or to a group, to your point as well your comment you made earlier about connecting with people and building relationships, all of that absolutely crucial.

Absolutely crucial now, in that sort of third decade of the 21st century, post pandemic, when there is a shift in business. I believe business is not just what we do that matters, but how we do it.

I think there’s a need for greater kindness in business, more understanding of people. And how do you understand people more or better without communication, without words. So I think it’s more important than it’s ever been. I mean, I would say that, but I honestly believe it.

Alison Jones: You would and I’m absolutely with you. Yes, you’re preaching to the choir and I’m sure they’ll be a lot of people who will agree listening, but hopefully we’ve made a few people who haven’t seen it that way think as well.

I always ask people for their single best tip. Now I do feel it’s a bit greedy this really because you’ve actually given us loads of really good practical tips. But if there’s somebody listening, who who’s just boggling it at how many books you’ve written and how apparently easily, what would you tell them? What was your best tip?

Jeremy Kourdi: I think the best tip would be to think about that person you’re writing for, because that helps you overcome so much. If you feel you’re writing for one or two or in my case, four people, then that’s just a really great touchstone for knowing what to do.

And if I can offer one other thing, and this comes back to the first part of my career, was spent in publishing. And the thing I learned there is don’t be daunted by it. People are often intimidated, aren’t they, a little bit by writing. Don’t be intimidated, throw yourself in and it’s easier than ever of course, LinkedIn posts or articles or blogs are just great ways to kind of get that writing muscle going.

So that’s three you’ve got, practise, think of your audience and don’t be daunted.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. That’s, I couldn’t ask for more, a fourth or fifth. No, it’s fine. Thank you. Wonderful.

And also, I’m laughing because you’ve obviously waved several recommendations at us already, but if you were to recommend one business book that people should read if no other, what would you say?

Jeremy Kourdi: Well, apart from, so once you finished the collected…

Alison Jones: Yes, collected works of Jeremy Kourdi, yes.

Jeremy Kourdi: So I like books that, as I said before, that kind of stretch or actually books that surprise you. So I was lucky enough to hear Hans Rosling speak once, who’s sadly no longer with us, but his book Factfulness, actually comes back to this earlier point about needing to think deeper, just look beyond the headlines. And he did that in that book brilliantly well, and he shows actually that we are making progress. We’re not falling apart as a species. I mean, we’ve got some serious challenges and problems, I don’t mean to minimize those. But generally through history we have made progress and it shows that. I love that book.

And as I say, Matthew Syed, his book Bounce was riveting I thought, really interesting. And then this one that straddles thought leadership but also practical, Daniel Pink’s book When. So for anybody struggling with time management or prioritizing their life or their time. He shares original research, but in a very Daniel Pink accessible way around the topic that everybody thinks, oh, I can manage my time.

Well, he shows what that means in practice. So they would be a few recommendations.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. They are all extraordinarily good recommendations.

Yes, wonderful. My 13 year old, I was talking to him about When, and he’s decided it’s very unfair that he has to start school when he does. So be careful of what you share, apparently research shows that if he were allowed to start later, he’d be doing a lot better.

So yes.

Jeremy Kourdi: That’s right. I think that’s right. As I reflect on things I think, man, so I mentioned I worked for The Economist, but I got an E grade in my economics A-Level. And so now I’m confused. I worked for this great organization and I’ve written about it, but then in my past, I, anyway, so it’s all about when, it’s all about when.

Alison Jones: It’s all about when. That was not the time, now is the time.

Brilliant. Jeremy, thank you so much, such an interesting, thoughtful discussion on content, what it means today and what it means for people who write, but also for readers as well. So thank you.

If people want to find out more about you, more about all your books, more about the work that you do today, the coaching and so on, where should they go?

Jeremy Kourdi: Thank you. Well, so for the books amazon.co.uk. or amazon.com. I feel like they’re my children, but they’re all sitting there.

 I have a business that helps leaders navigate and shape the future. And you can find out more about me and about that business at www.kourdi.com

Alison Jones: Brilliant. I will put that link up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as usual, along with the transcript of this interview.

So thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Jeremy Kourdi: I’ve enjoyed it. Thanks ever so much. Thanks for having me on.

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