Desert Island Books: Lord Livingston’s page turners

Desert Island Books: Lord Livingston’s page turners

In our latest interview with Jewish people changing the world, leadership communications expert Zaki Cooper invites Lord Livingston to talk about his favourite books

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash
Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

Lord Livingston of Parkhead is a business leader, who served as chief executive of BT from 2008 to 2013. He was also the youngest FTSE 100 finance director (aged 32 at Dixons), served as Minister for Trade and Investment and now holds a number of business and charity roles.

  • This interview is also available as a podcast and sponsored by yulife, life insurance that inspires life.

The first book you’ve chosen is Winnie-the-Pooh by A A Milne. It seems an unlikely choice for a serious business leader.

I sometimes get asked what business books I can recommend. I don’t tend to read business books. But I answer it by saying I follow the business guru A A Milne. In Winnie-the-Pooh, his seminal treatise on business, he describes two business characters. There is Tigger who is positive, everything’s going to go right, like the banker in 2007, who could only see growth and success. He also describes Eeyore, the person who is overly cautious and trying to make sure you don’t go wrong.

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A business that is all Tiggers can get into big trouble. A business that is all Eeyores doesn’t move forward. In a business, you really want that combination of Tiggers and Eeyores. A great board has a mixture of the two. A great business leader is able to be Tigger and Eeyore at different times, and that’s what I tried to do as CEO. I invested £2 billion in 2008 when banks were closing left, right and centre. That description of Tigger and Eeyores really applies to the business world and I’m going to enjoy reading my new granddaughter Winnie- the-Pooh stories as well.

Listen to a clip from Zaki Cooper’s Desert Island Books podcast with Lord Livingston: 

Fast forwarding to today, you are now chairman of Dixons Carphone and outgoing chairman of Man Group. How do you spend your time?

It’s quite a peripatetic existence. People ask if that fills the week. The week is actually seven days, not five. You do a lot of work at weekends and a lot of reading and travelling. I spend two days a week on Dixons matters, two days a week on Man and half a day to a day a week on House of Lords things on average. I sit on the board of Jewish Care and have a number of other advisory positions and activities. My wife says that, for a semi-retired person, I appear to be working very hard!


Behind your amazing business achievement lies a lot of hard work. You have selected the book, Candide by Voltaire, written in the eighteenth century.  Tell us why you chose that.

I read Candide when I was very young and it left an impression on me. It’s based on these travels around the world and it’s a very satirical book, dealing with then-current affairs such as the Lisbon earthquake. The people spend their life philosophising and, pushing aside the issue of Voltaire’s somewhat questionable attitude to Jewish people (that’s always a challenge when you have artists and they may have an antisemitic streak), what I really liked was that, after all this philosophising, right at the end of the book, they basically say – “enough of this, there is work to be done in the garden”. I think that’s a pretty good attitude to life. You can spend your time philosophising or indeed in business strategising but what’s really important is execution, hard work and commitment. There are some people who say things and some people who do things. I am a much bigger fan of people who do things and achieve things. So I like the idea that there is work to be done in the garden.

Listen to a clip from Zaki Cooper’s Desert Island Books podcast with Lord Livingston: 

Talking of saying things and doing things, that’s a good segue into your experience in politics. You served as a government minister for more than 18 months starting in 2013. How did that come about?

I didn’t really have much involvement in politics and one night I was at a dinner, and sitting next to me was Jeremy Heywood, who was then head of the civil service, a wonderful man who sadly died recently. He asked me if I had thought about what I was going to do when I left BT. I said: “I am not about to leave BT. It’s going really well. We’ve got the Premiership rights, business is booming and the share price is increasing.” And he said: “Have you ever thought of working in government?”

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I said no. The next day he called me and said: “Would you come and see the prime minister?” I put my Outlook calendar on month view because the prime minister is a busy man. And he said: “4.30 pm tomorrow!”

My secretary was convinced I had done something very wrong.

So I went along the next day and David Cameron said to me: “Ian there is something I’d like you to do. I can only guarantee it up until the next election; its full-time, it’s unpaid.” So that was a great start. And then he said the worst seven words in the English language: “But it’s really important for the country.”

My great-grandfather was an immigrant and he came here penniless. This country has been really good to my family. So I took the job as Minister of Trade and Investment, and it was an absolute honour and privilege to do it.


What does being Jewish mean to you?

I’m proudly Jewish. I am a member of a shul and have been involved with youth groups. It’s a hugely defining part of my identity. Being Scottish, being British also features. There are so many positive things about our community. The role of family and community plays a very important part in my life.


Two further books you’ve chosen are Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2017, and Konin by Theo Richmond. Why did you choose those books?

Both are about refugees and the fragility of one’s existence in countries. Konin describes a town in 19th century Poland and the rise of the shtetl communities. We tend to think of these communities only in terms of their destruction, but these were the lives of our ancestors. In the case of Exit West, it’s set in some Middle Eastern country in the midst of an impending civil war and, again, this community had become refugees. It said a number of things to me, about recognising the fragility of one’s existence in a country and also how lucky we are to be in the UK and the stability we’ve had generation after generation, and hopefully that continues. And thirdly they’re about the welcoming of refugees and we should remember all refugees are really just our parents and grandparents. We are all immigrants – it just depends to which generation you go back.


Lord Livingston’s page turners

  • Winnie-the-Pooh – A A Milne 
  • Candide – Voltaire 
  • Exit West – Mohsin Hamid 
  • Konin – Theo Richmond

Listen to the FULL podcast with Lord Livingston and Zaki Cooper:

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