The Reading Habits Of Highly-Successful People

Business Leaders Share the Reading Routines That Spark Creativity and Fuel Innovation

by Beth Hester

Successful leaders leverage the power of cross-pollination. Gaining insights from diverse and seemingly unrelated disciplines can generate fresh ideas, enhance critical thinking, and broaden perspectives. For this inaugural edition of Spark, we asked Susan Pilato, Owner, and CEO of Mantra Inspired Furniture, and Principal of PC&A Business Environments, and Thomas Tingle, President of GuernseyTingle Architecture, Interiors, and Planning, to share their reading habits and the books that have influenced and inspired them.

Photo Courtesy of Susan Pilato

Photo Courtesy of Susan Pilato

Susan Pilato
Owner & CEO, Mantra Inspired Furniture

CoVa BIZ: Can you share some specific examples of books or genres that have influenced your thinking and approach to business?

Susan Pilato: At a very young age I was determined to have a business of my own one day. Fortunately my father was a great role model. He was principled and compassionate in his approach to business. Because of my insatiable curiosity about people, creativity and business, I was drawn to books that stimulated my interest in these subjects. One book that I read when I was in my early 20s that left a huge impression on me was written by Anita Roddick, who started The Body Shop in England. The book is Body and Soul: Profits With Principles. Not only was she passionate about maintaining business success, but she was determined to demonstrate that companies can positively impact social justice and environmental stewardship. She was an early pioneer in speaking out about these concepts, and as a woman in the business world, she bravely met challenges. At that time, most of the books on business operations were written by men. Roddick’s book showed me a new way of seeing myself through her achievements and it inspired me to muster the courage at a young age to dive in and start my business.

Do you actively seek out reading material from outside your industry or field? If so, why do you believe it’s important to engage with diverse areas of endeavor?

The simple answer is an absolute yes! The commonality we all have in business is people. No matter what one does in business whether it is design, building houses, manufacturing robots, or anything else imaginable, the core of any business is people. So reading books from other industries is a definite must so that one is able to think creatively and critically, and to discover new and better ways to relate their businesses to people. This includes those within the organization as well as those the business serves outside of the organization. Hearing how another industry approaches a given situation can help conjure creative solutions for one’s own organization.

Are there any particular authors, subject matter experts, or thinkers you admire for their ability to connect different domains of knowledge to jump-start creative thinking?

I have several authors that I admire for their interconnectivity of thought that inspires creativity. The one that quickly comes to mind is Brené Brown. Brown explores themes of courage, vulnerability, empathy, and leadership through her writings, all of which form a necessary base for innovative thinking in business and in life. Another author is Adam Grant, who wrote Think Again which encourages one to approach situations with an open mind and focus on what can be learned, rather than searching for reasons that we are right. A favorite quote of mine from his book is, “Thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right—and revising our views based on what we learn.”

Could you share a story or experience where ideas from an unrelated field or industry sparked a breakthrough or innovation in your own business?

This may be a bit of a surprise when I answer this one, but an experience that comes to my mind relates to Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Seabiscuit. The characters experienced much hardship in life collectively and independently, especially the main character, Seabiscuit. Life’s circumstances brought this mixed bag of characters together along with their varied life experiences. Collectively, this group beat all odds and won the hearts of the country during a difficult time in our history. The inspiration of the small but mighty horse’s determination to win with his heart has encouraged my drive to succeed during difficult times. When I look at my business partner and all my coworkers collectively, I see us all in Seabiscuit’s story, and I know that together we can meet every challenge and continue to thrive.

Do you encourage your team members to engage in cross-disciplinary reading and exploration? If so, how do you support and facilitate this?

The first Monday of every month we have a company-wide meeting to update everyone on the successes and challenges that the company is currently experiencing. Often I will share a passage from a book that I have read or am reading to encourage or inspire creative thinking among our team members. I love it when I get feedback from my coworkers that they ordered the book and want to share their perspectives. I especially love when they suggest a book to me! I learn more from my coworkers and business partner daily than I do from most books.

What books/magazines are currently in your rotation, or are on your bedside table?

For Mother’s Day my beautiful son gave me the book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by one of my all time favorite authors, Maya Angelou. As you can imagine, that book is close to my bedside table and my heart. Another book that continues to inspire is Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results, by Josh Linkner.

Photo Courtesy of Thomas Tingle

Photo Courtesy of Thomas Tingle

Thomas Tingle
President, GuernseyTingle Architecture

CoVA BIZ: Can you share some specific examples of books or periodicals that have influenced your thinking and approach to business?

Thomas Tingle: A business colleague recommended Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell and I loved it. Gladwell presents a unique perspective on successful people. I actually gave the book to a friend, and later purchased another copy to reference for storytelling.

Another is The Rise of the Creative Class, by Richard Florida. Although Florida’s theories have been questioned over the last 20 years, his concepts have influenced me in several aspects of my architectural profession, from placemaking to economic development.

Those are probably the exceptions to my reading habits. I tend to stay away from more widespread “business self-help” books. When advice in trendy business books is put into action without discernment, things can backfire. I ran into an architect acquaintance years ago who had been let go from his firm after a long tenure. When I asked why he said, ‘I was told that they didn’t have the right seat for me on the bus.’ Obviously he had never read the book Good to Great, but his boss had. As a result, the boss made an unfortunate and impulsive move. It was sad.

Do you actively seek out reading material from outside your industry or field? If so, why do you believe it’s important to engage with diverse areas of endeavor?

My outside reading is pretty diverse. I tend to cover a fair amount of banking/finance periodicals, some historic non-fiction and historic novels (e.g. James Michener), and travel magazines and books (e.g. Bill Bryson). Finance reading keeps me current on business and macroeconomic trends that can affect my business, in both positive and negative ways. Travel magazines are mostly a relaxing indulgence, but expose me to architecture, design, landscaping and hospitality trends all over the world. They also help me plan my trips for the coming years.

How do you incorporate ideas from different disciplines into your business strategies?

I’m very fortunate that, as a design professional, I get to interact with leaders in other industries and professions on a daily basis. To be an effective architect, I need to understand these leaders’ industries, their needs, and their business strategies. During any given week I could be meeting with senior living leaders, bankers, theme park operators, non-profit directors, mental health professionals, regional planners, city managers, engineers and more. I ask questions and listen. These are experts and leaders in their field, and I often find ideas and strategies that can make my business better.

What strategies or techniques does your organization use to stimulate creativity and foster innovative thinking?

We encourage all of our staff to engage fully in the profession and the community. At GuernseyTingle, we sometimes refer to the importance of the Five C’s: clients, contractors, consultants, colleagues and community. I learned many years ago that all of these entities must be successful in order for our firm to innovate and succeed. We worked diligently to break down the stereotypical friction between designers and contractors; the inherent conflicts between architects and engineers. The more we listened to the colleagues within our industry, the better we became as architects and a firm. And we delivered more creative buildings for our clients and the community.

We have also found in the post-pandemic environment that remote working does not allow us to be as innovative. As one of my senior staff members says, “We can be good if everyone is working from home, but we can’t be great.” While we allow some flexibility in working hours and remote working, we need our staff to be in the office working with each other the majority of the week. We certainly buck the trend on this issue, but we found that live interaction fosters more creativity and better results for our clients.

Could you share a story or experience where ideas from an unrelated field or industry sparked a breakthrough or innovation in your own business?

Thirty years ago, I took a several-day course by Stuart W. Rose, author of Mandeville: A Guide for the Marketing of Professional Services. Stu Rose has a PhD in management and applied behavioral science. While Stu’s book and course focused on marketing/selling certain types of professional services—attorneys, accountants, and engineers—the methods he prescribed have served me in all aspects of my business: ask open-ended questions, be a good listener, establish a relationship with your audience. For the first few years I struggled to change my communication habits, especially when meeting new clients and colleagues. Instead of telling them why they should hire my firm, it was much more effective to listen to their story, their needs, and their concerns. It is now second nature.

What books/magazines are currently in your rotation, or are on your desk or bedside table?

My desk and bedside table have evolved into my briefcase and iPad. The briefcase includes current editions of Virginia Business, 2023 Hampton Roads Real Estate Review, Market Review & Forecast (ODU Strom College of Business), 2023 Virginia Maritime Guide, and Greater Peninsula NOW: The First 35 Years: Origins to Drive the Future, authored by Amir A. Corprew.

The iPad reflects my pleasure/relaxation reading – the latest novels from my two favorite Virginian bestsellers, John Grisham and David Baldacci. I’m awaiting Grisham’s annual publication in October, a sequel to The Firm. I also just began reading Simply Lies by David Baldacci. It’s pretty amazing to be reading (along with the rest of the world) a novel set in Williamsburg, Smithfield, and other Coastal Virginia communities. Thanks for the exposure, Mr. Baldacci!

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