Without clear and unequivocal goals, businesses will never achieve either what they want or what they need.

Poetry grabs life by the throat, David Adams says near the start of Well Versed, his collection of interconnected essays on the things that modern business people should pay attention to in order to be successful. 

He borrows the phrase from Robert Frost in part explanation of his journey from accountant to stockbroker to chief executive to business coach. Unlike most business books that sell a single idea or success story, the strength of Adams’ book is its refusal to tell you what to do.

“Alice in Through the Looking Glass…reaches a crossroads and doesn’t know which way to go. Looking up she sees the Cheshire Cat grinning. ‘Please sir which way should I go?’ ‘Where do you want to get to?’ asks the cat. ‘I don’t really mind,’ says Alice. ‘Well then it doesn’t really matter which way you go.’

How many businesses and particularly business meetings are conducted with the same ethos?” Adams challenges.

Without clear and unequivocal goals, businesses will never achieve either what they want or what they need, he says.

His discussion of the qualities of accountants, poets and coaches circles round this proposition in a useful way. He defines the different roles that accountants play and pinpoints where they add value.

Accountants “have a duty to not only gather the numbers together but also to identify, explain and interpret what they are saying and use them to help plan, design and manage the business going forward.”

Thus armed the businessman needs the skills to express his ideas in words so that people can understand and follow. This helps to win the support of family, staff, colleagues, suppliers and customers.

The role of the coach is to help keep the business on track. The coach needs to challenge by asking good questions. The coach “can’t tell you what kind of business to have, what your product will be, your service, how you’ll treat your customers, but I can ask you to consider all this and more and to ensure that your plans, starting with vision, are robust.”

“It is not a good thing to set up in business and believe that one can then operate the same way forever,” writes Adams. He challenges the reader to think whether they need to be “…at the cutting edge, or can we motor on as an ‘also ran’, doing stuff that many others are doing and not making very much by way of profit?”

“Even if we have what could be called an ‘ordinary’ business, say a café or a restaurant, we will need to keep up to date with hygiene laws, with the places we obtain our supplies; and unless we are a mere ‘greasy spoon’ we will even need to be a bit different to keep abreast of the competition along the street and around the corner.”

The book’s strengths include its humour (“Sure you’ll meet people who are outright bores. Don’t do business with them”), its introduction to many of the current top business thinkers’ ideas, and its many small stories of unheralded business success.

It won’t work for you if you want your advice spelled out. It will work on a slow burn because there are so many answers here to questions you didn’t think to ask.

One thing that slows it down is Adams’ honesty. He always declares an interest. (As I have to, David is my business coach!) If you like the idea of having a well-informed conversation about today’s business best practice, this is a book for you.