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What's the Best Business Book You Read This Year?
By Matthew Budman
For two decades, we've been asking people about their favorite business books, and every year two or three shrug off the question with, “I rarely read business books.” But not this year—everyone jumped in with an answer. Why? Perhaps because, as Stuart Crainer argues in our Q&A this month, business books are more relevant than they used to be. For decades, consultants and academics aimed to make companies more efficient and profitable; now, more and more have broader concerns—they're looking to remake all of corporate America or even, well, the world.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, has crafted a compelling account for how when to take charge. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead builds on her experience at Facebook, a stint at Google, and service as chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury Secretary. It also draws on an array of studies to make the case that too many women—and many men as well—are ready for leadership responsibility but underestimate their talent or are shy about exercising it. Her formula is clear: Appreciate your strengths, lean in, take risks, and reach high. Those who aspire to lead will find a powerful playbook here, and those who already lead will be grateful for its readers' heightened readiness to take charge as well.
Blake Mycoskie started TOMS, the shoe retailer, and Start Something That Matters, the story of how he made it a thriving company, has taught me a lot about how to succeed in business today. His company revolves around an incredible premise: For every pair of shoes sold, the company gives a pair to someone in need. That means you can feel great about your shoe purchase because you're also helping someone else in the process. It also makes a great story, which has no doubt helped spread the word about TOMS shoes. The book gets at a central question we all ask ourselves: How am I making an impact on the world? How am I helping people? Mycoskie's book, and the lessons in it, stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
The best book I have recently read is Dan Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The author continues his practice of offering up keen observations of human motivation, this time in the workplace. His discussion of why we do what we do, and his use of research to support his philosophy, make his books relevant and important for any smart communicator.
Denise Lee Yohn:
The popular belief “culture eats strategy for lunch” might lead you to conclude there's no need for strategy—I know I did for a while. Given the increasing pace of change in today's business world, I had begun to question the importance of strategy. I even wrote a piece explaining how the delineation between strategy and execution had become irrelevant, arguing that instead of thinking about choosing a path (strategy) and then following that path (execution), companies need to be focused on adapting to and excelling on whatever path they find themselves on.
But then A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin set me straight. In Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, they show how strategy—smart, clear, simple strategy—doubled sales, quadrupled profits, and increased the market value of P&G by more than $100 billion. The book reframes the seemingly antiquated strategic-planning process into a set of five integrated strategic choices, and then shows how P&G applied this approach in brand after brand, with consistently remarkable success. Armed with the clarity that strategy is really about making specific choices to win in the marketplace and compelling examples of its use, I count myself a believer in strategy once again.
Right after finishing my own book (written on a Mac), I read Walter Isaacson's excellent biography Steve Jobs. Jobs was unique, but there are aspects of his character and personality that should be instructive to anyone in business: the intensity of his focus on what it takes to make a great company and products, his ability to forge a corporate culture around his vision and values, and his capacity to recognize and learn from mistakes (of which there were many, all ultimately overwhelmed by his great successes). On the flip side, his legendary inventiveness unfortunately can't be emulated, while his abrasiveness and mistreatment of underperforming colleagues shouldn't be.
The top ingredients for twenty-first-century success are raw talent and creativity, coupled with the ability to connect and adapt to competitive markets. For anyone who, like me, is interested in the new world of work and in helping people and institutions become the best that they can be, Maynard Webb's Rebooting Work: Transform How You Work in the Age of Entrepreneurship is a vision and a playbook rolled into one. The legendary Silicon Valley CEO takes his passion for mentoring and challenges us to think about what we care about. Webb tackles some of the most important questions about the future of work: the impact of technology on the labor market, the strive for work/life balance, the challenge of sustaining passion and motivation, and the special role of entrepreneurship and risk-taking in the new economy.
The best business-related book I've read in the last year is Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond describes a number of flourishing societies bringing on their own collapse, best illustrated by the Polynesians on Easter Island who completely destroyed their habitat in the pursuit of building huge, iconic statues. All companies should learn this lesson: No matter how high you are flying today, it is your choice whether to fail or succeed in the future.
As one who is thoroughly intrigued by the relationships between brands and consumers, I found David Robertson's Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry a truly inspiring and fascinating account of how a brand can create a truly passionate “romance” with its consumer base. I'm a father of three children under the age of 11, and LEGO never ceases to amaze me as a consumer. Brick by Brick reveals the reasons why LEGO has become the strong brand it is today. By focusing on leveraging its own consumer base, kids, to co-create innovative ideas and news, the company takes the consumer relationship to a new level and, as a result, continues to thrive in a children's toy world undergoing a digital revolution. Brick by Brick shows how even mature brands, if they continue to truly understand their consumer and let them play a significant role in their innovation strategy, can grow their romance with the consumer to unprecedented levels.
I recently read Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years, a book that stayed with me because it was about failure rather than success. Instead of looking at the few cases where megamergers or roll-ups or expansions worked, authors Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui give us countless examples of the times it didn't. The book doesn't blame the individuals either—it blames the strategies (which will give you pause next time you consider them). It's a book that will definitely make you think next time you find yourself flippantly giving business advice or hear a pundit doing the same.
In a time when candor and transparency in business are low, finding a methodology for evaluating the financial integrity of a company is vital. Now there is one. In Investing Between the Lines: How to Make Smarter Decisions by Decoding CEO Communications, Laura Rittenhouse makes the invisible visible—giving reader's insight into a ways to see beyond fog and corporate speak and determine the growth or failure trajectories of companies. The Rittenhouse Index has astutely and accurately measured the collapse of Enron and Lehman, among other companies. In viewing the gaps between what companies say in their annual reports and what they are actually doing daily to create value, the reader is exposed to a new framework that has astounding accuracy in predicting corporate success. You will learn to separate the facts from fluff, decode the meaning behind platitudes and jargon, and decipher “fog.” With this knowledge, a leader can not only read annual reports with a new eye for truth and candor, a leader can also see how to engage in more candid conversations in their organizations. An eye-opening and fascinating read for those willing to address their corporate blind spots and corporate speak for the long term value building journey.
The best book I've read this year is Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, which underscores the dramatic change we are experiencing in marketing and why it will only continue to accelerate. It also helps underscore the unspeakable bond between customer experience and technology and sparks new ways to think about innovating the experience.