What's the Best Business Book You've Read This Year?
From the Conference Board, Winter 2010 Issue
Along with the rest of the publishing industry, those who write and print business books are hurting these days. But people still look to books for inspiration and guidance, even in dark times, and they don’t necessarily gravitate toward how-to manuals. One might expect a rush for hard-nosed guides to streamlining business processes and avoiding wrongful-termination lawsuits, or even for ruminations on operating on a reduced scale.
But this year’s TCB Review panel of authors and executives went in a different direction. Many directions, actually—no two people named the same favorite book, and the themes range widely, from business biographies to pop economics, from sociological treatises to what-went-wrong postmortems, from historical novels to treatises on balancing work and life. Taken together, these entries offer an intriguing take on business reading in the midst of crisis—as well as suggestions toward what to take on your next flight. —Matthew Budman
J. Leighton Read:
How many times have you wished you could “touch or push gently” on your customers, employees, patients, or constituents? Whether you are a manager, marketer, doctor, or politician, there are great ideas for doing that effectively in Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. This extremely readable practicum on behavioral economics uses a host of familiar examples to explain in a fresh light how leaders are “choice architects,” whether they know it or not. Sunstein is now the regulator’s regulator in the Obama administration, so no matter what you think of the goals, watch for these ideas to show up in all manner of federal approaches to changing behavior.
Under pressure to “just decide” in today’s fast-moving times, we’re more likely to make decisions based on what we think we know. Yet increasingly leaders confess, “I just don’t have time to think!” Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide gives us new insight into why, when we least think we need to ask, “What don’t I know?” is when we have the most to gain from even a moment of self-reflection.
In this wildest of wild years, I found two books extremely helpful. I suppose neither is a classic “business book,” but both offer insights and guidance to anyone trying to run a business today. The first is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I found the story of how Lincoln succeeded by making best use of those around him and winning their respect and cooperation in the process both inspiring and practically applicable. My second favorite is Kurt Andersen’s Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America. Even though Kurt is my brother, which makes me not entirely objective, I found his analysis and recommendations compelling: He lays out clearly how we got here and how we can take advantage of this moment in our history to find a more productive path moving forward.
I gravitate toward business books that focus on the careers of real people, and a personal favorite is The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. Alice Schroeder’s in-depth look into the life of one of America’s most successful businessmen is a must-read not just for managers, entrepreneurs, B-school students, and young folks entering the workforce but also for individuals who are willing to work on themselves in order to rise to their full potential both professionally and personally. Buffett isn’t just a great investor—he’s a leader, something that makes him a true disciple of Dale Carnegie.
In a year when my reading list seemed to be all financial crisis, all the time, Jacques Attali’s soaring A Brief History of the Future: A Brave and Controversial Look at the Twenty-First Century was the antidote. Attali searches through the full sweep of history for patterns that he weaves into a dazzling vision of the world for the next hundred years. Brief History is so packed with ideas and information that its pages are worth returning to over and over, even though you probably won’t agree with all of its predictions. Leaders who face the challenges of nonstop innovation and global competitiveness will find the book especially valuable.
Why Women Mean Business by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland succinctly summarizes the smart business case for having more women in management and on boards: They represent half the talent and half the market, and they generate a better bottom line and better corporate governance. The authors’ “gender-bilingual” breaks the mold on “why can’t a woman be more like a man” and shows ways to achieve the advantages of balanced leadership with more women at the table as both equal and different partners with men. It’s the wave of the future.
John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity is an upbeat guide to designing everything: services, processes, even organizations. The book itself is beautifully designed, with three rules, six concepts, and a summary principle. What fun to see how to organize anything with the simple trick of SLIP: Sort-Label-Integrate-Prioritize, or make any product more useable by applying SHE: Shrink the size, Hide some features, Embody value and quality. I keep this book close to hand for the final design of every work product. It helps me reach my new design goal: to put rhythm, context, and trust into whatever I deliver to people who matter.
Andrew S. Winston:
A critical business skill in a resource-tight world is to truly understand your environmental impacts throughout your full value chain: Where did everything come from? Who made it? How much energy did it take? Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals traces food on a few radically different journeys, including following corn from endless fields in the Midwest to nearly every processed product on the planet, and tracking vegetables and dairy from seemingly oxymoronic “industrial” organic farms to Whole Foods. The Omnivore’s Dilemma breaks down a value chain relentlessly but fairly. And it’s as thorough a look at a single industry—the business of feeding billions of people—that you’ll ever see. Pollan covers a tough issue from every angle: financial, strategic, moral, emotional, and cultural. It’s an important book for anyone who thinks about the role of business in society—or anyone who eats.
Like many baseball fans in the 1980s, I found The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, first published in 1985, to be a breath of fresh air. James explained basic statistics in ways that a 10-year-old could (mostly) understand and showed how good research techniques could overturn orthodoxy and provide new ways to understand the game we loved so dearly. Some of the lessons I gleaned from James that I apply to my work in innovation include not always trusting my “eyes,” seeking out the hidden factors that explain success, and always appreciating the role played by luck, context, and small sample sizes. I re-read one of James’ old books every year and always take new lessons from it.
Janine R. Wedel:
Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe shows how the financial system collapsed on itself—from within—without benefit of war or external economic calamity. Top players in global finance, caught up in misguided incentive structures and unfettered by oversight, created barriers to entry to their financial games in the form of mathematical equations and euphemisms. As Tett discovered, parsing these barriers and decoding the rules of the game required the same skills and sensibilities that she had earlier employed in making sense of ethnic conflict in Tajikistan. In Fool’s Gold, Tett brings to life both the world these players inhabit from their own point of view, while examining it from a detached observer’s perspective. This approach is essential for sustained success in business or any other arena.
The business book that I found most valuable in 2009 is Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO. Using the groundbreaking work he has championed as a foundation, Brown has emerged as the evangelist behind “design thinking”—using the inherent creative problem-solving skills designers have developed over the years to create new choices, new alternatives, and new ideas across a broad array of problems. He demonstrates through numerous real-life projects for Bank of America, Kaiser Permanente, and P&G how “design thinking unleashes not only passion and creativity, but dramatic innovation.” The essence of design thinking at IDEO grew out of its industrial-design heritage, which focused on the user experience. But the book’s most important message is how incorporating design thinking into an organization’s DNA enabled people on the factory floor at Toyota, brand managers at P&G, and healthcare professionals at Kaiser Permanente to create hundreds of improvements, new products, and an improved patient experience.
Gary B. Cohen:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” John F. Kennedy said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Any leader who has tried to change himself, others, or an organization knows it is hard. If you have ever tried to change and failed and wondered what stopped you from succeeding, read Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.
Adam L. Penenberg:
David Liss’s novel The Devil’s Company is a thriller set in eighteenth-century London at the dawn of globalization and the rise of corporations, a rollicking story with believable, three-dimensional characters and dramatic flourishes. Liss imbues his narrative with viral marketing schemes—Dutch East India Co. representatives paid noblemen (“connectors” in the Malcolm Gladwell sense) to don certain fabrics to create demand among the population—as well as the manipulation of stock markets, racketeering, insurance fraud, and government corruption. In the end, the reader comes away with the realization that when it comes to business, there is very little new under the sun.
Andrew F. Krepinevich’s 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century discusses how best to address the unthinkable on national-security issues, which applies equally well to business. The book offers valuable lessons about how to think more broadly and realistically about the future, which is critical in times that are constantly changing and changing in unexpected ways, and will have an impact on every business.
James Fallows’ Postcards From Tomorrow Square: Reports From China is insightful, entertaining, and highly useful. Fallows does a masterful job of explaining the China that I know from building products there, and the side we never see on the evening news or read about in the daily newspaper. It’s not about cheap labor and poor working conditions but, rather, about modern factories, a huge infrastructure to support product development and manufacturing, and advanced supply-chain technology that lets a customer phone in an order from the United States and receive it from the factory three days later. One of the best chapters covers Shenzhen and the consumer-products industry; I’ve never read a better explanation of how things work in China.
Anna Marie Valerio:
How can high-achieving women and men create successful lives, integrating work and family? Diane Halpern and Fanny Cheung’s Women at the Top: Powerful Leaders Tell Us How to Combine Work and Family offers insights from sixty-two women leaders from the United States, China, and Hong Kong. Both men and women who strive to achieve at work yet spend time with their families will learn practical strategies for time management, setting priorities, and separating or integrating the two domains of work and family.
Marsha Petrie Sue:
Making sense of Web 2.0 and leveraging the marketing capabilities of tools such as LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook, and Twitter baffled me. Chris Brogan and Julien Smith’s Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust showed me, step by step, how to positively influence my business using these as business tools. Their examples are simple enough for even a layperson like me to understand and sophisticated enough for savvy online media experts.
Michael D. Watkins:
In How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, his salutatory sequel to Good to Great, Jim Collins shows how bad leadership can take companies from great to really terrible. While the stories are about firms, the lessons are for leaders everywhere. Only by avoiding hubris and the undisciplined pursuit of more can you hope to preserve what made your organization great . . . or even good.
Mia de Kuijper:
While Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World describes economic upheaval in the past, it is eerily relevant to our own era of rapid economic change. The bankers in the title struggled within the confines of a financial system that would soon be shelved. In addition to its enormous documentary value, Lords of Finance raises important questions, such as what will succeed our current international financial system—since indications are that it might be about to be shelved as well.
This fall, my tree house on Orcas Island was crying out for a copy of Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s account of his two years in the small cottage he built on Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. His message of living simply and in harmony with nature seems extremely relevant today. Lest we knee-jerk back to old habits, pursuing more money, more things, etc. in search of happiness, consider: “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life, that must be exchanged for it, immediately and in the long run.”
I’ve read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose twice and refer to it often. This book is challenging to read; it requires your undivided attention, and I frequently find myself having to re-read a page because the depth of what Tolle is saying takes me to such a deep place that my mind wants to shut down. Tolle’s basic teaching is to let go of ego (not easy) and forgive the egos around you (really not easy). A New Earth isn’t a business book, but it should be.
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather ranks highest for me as a business book about strategy and leadership, since, of course, I do not approve of the violent, racist, and sexist aspects of the novel. Puzo tells a story of three Mafia bosses—Vito, Sonny, and Michael Corleone—each of whom uses a vastly different theory of strategy and leadership style.
Vito dispenses justice, follows and enforces a moral code (albeit a twisted one) and runs his family like a government in hiding by delivering justice and setting regulations to limit the family’s activities to what he considers harmless vices. His power comes from his connections, just like any politician in charge of a government. He runs the mob through a loose confederation of families, constrained by a “commission” to keep the peace and set the product portfolios of the families. His strategic theory is essentially Michael Porter’s in nature: Keep peace among the families, reduce rivalry, avoid wars, set high barriers to entry around each family’s geographic territory, and protect the families’ autonomy from the government using political power.
In contrast, Sonny sees the family as an army that uses overwhelming massive force in a battle of annihilation that weakens or destroys its enemies’ forces; his strategy is based on Carl von Clausewitz’s military logic. This is much akin to Jack Welch’s dictate of being No. 1 or No. 2, so you have market power in your industry. As Frederick the Great once said: “God goes with the bigger army.” But Sonny never achieves the overwhelming force needed to be No. 1 or No. 2 because he thinks he is fighting just one other family, when in fact he is fighting several.
Michael Corleone’s approach is completely different: He is clever, disruptive of the other New York families, willing to move to Las Vegas where gambling is legal, seeking global venues for his casinos, and constantly acting unpredictably, forcing everyone else to underestimate him and to become reactive to his moves. He seizes the initiative, even when he is weak. Michael’s strategic approach—to disrupt markets and be the center of the storm while knocking rivals off balance—is pure hypercompetition. As if taking a page from my book on the subject, Michael embraces change and disorder, destroying the geographic organization of his father’s era, and creating opportunities and temporary advantages that he exploits with cunning, speed, and surprise.
We watch the three godfathers evolve to higher levels of strategy, until Michael becomes a modern corporate CEO, using sophisticated strategy to maximize shareholder wealth in an increasingly chaotic and global world. Rival Virgil Sollozzo, the novel’s apparent antagonist, triggers an evolution of the industry from oligopolistic behavior to aggressive wars to global competition by proposing a global joint venture to supply narcotics to the U.S. market. The mafia’s geographic structure and Vito’s world as capo di tutti capi fall apart in the face of a revolutionary new product that shifts the balance of power among the families and stretches across borders that can no longer be controlled by a national oligopoly.
The Godfather is the perfect metaphor for the changes in American business culture and competition that have occurred from the 1970s to the present time. But the mob began this shift twenty-five years earlier!