What’s the Best Business Book You’ve Read Lately?

What's the Best Business Book You Read This Year?tcbrPDF normal

By Matthew Budman

What's the Best Business Book

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.

—Matthew Budman

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadMichael Useem:

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.

Professor Useem is director of the Leadership Center at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and co-author with Dennis Carey and Ram Charan of Boards That Lead: When to Take Charge, When to Partner, and When to Get Out of the Way.

Start Something That MattersKimberly Palmer:

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.

Ms. Palmer is senior money editor at US News & World Report and author of The Economy of You: Discover Your Inner Entrepreneur and Recession-Proof Your Life.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates UsJim McCann:

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.

Mr. McCann is founder and CEO of 1-800-FLOWERS.com and author of Talk Is (Not!) Cheap: The Art of Conversation Leadership.

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really WorksDenise 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.

Ms. Yohn is author of What Great Brands Do: The Seven Brand-Building Principles That Separate the Best from the Rest.

The Mortgage Wars: Inside Fannie Mae, Big-Money Politics, and the Collapse of the American DreamJens Nordvig:

Timothy Howard's The Mortgage Wars: Inside Fannie Mae, Big-Money Politics, and the Collapse of the American Dream debunks a number of prevalent myths about what was going on within the government-sponsored part of the mortgage market. Written by a true insider, the book provides a unique account of what actually happened, and how different vested interests were fighting for control both of the market itself and the broader public opinion.

Mr. Nordvig is managing director and head of fixed-income research, Americas at Nomura and author of The Fall of the Euro: Reinventing the Eurozone and the Future of Global Investing.

Steve JobsTimothy Howard:

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.

Mr. Howard is former vice chairman and CFO of Fannie Mae and author of The Mortgage Wars: Inside Fannie Mae, Big-Money Politics, and the Collapse of the American Dream.

Rebooting Work: Transform How You Work in the Age of EntrepreneurshipOrly Lobel:

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.

Professor Lobel is Don Weckstein Professor of Law at the University of San Diego and author of Talent Wants to Be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free-Riding.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or SucceedSteve Yastrow:

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.

Mr. Yastrow is a strategy consultant and author of Ditch the Pitch: The Art of Improvised Persuasion.

Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy IndustryTim Halloran:

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.

Mr. Halloran is president of Brand Illumination and author of Romancing the Brand: How Brands Create Strong, Intimate Relationships with Consumers.

Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 YearsRyan Holiday:

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.

Mr. Holiday is author of Trust Me, I'm Lying and the forthcoming The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage.

Investing Between the Lines: How to Make Smarter Decisions by Decoding CEO CommunicationsJudith Glaser:

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.

Ms. Glaser is CEO of Benchmark Communications, chairman of the Creating We Institute, and author of, most recently, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results.

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend BiologyLisa Arthur:

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.

Ms. Arthur is chief marketing officer of Teradata Applications and author of, most recently, Big Data Marketing: Engage Your Customers More Effectively and Drive Value.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media—the First 2,000 YearsLarry Downes:

Though it's not explicitly about business, I was inspired by Tom Standage's Writing on the Wall: Social Media—the First 2,000 Years. Standage, a master of the history of technology narrative, has a startling thesis: From the evolution of primates to Roman graffiti to the great democratic institution of the coffeehouse, the defining force of human civilization has been our invention of ever-better and cheaper technologies for the collective dissemination of information.

Reviewing in remarkable detail the history of what Standage calls “really old media,” it's clear not only why Internet-based social networks, group blogs, video and photo sharing, and services such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, reddit, Instagram, and Tumblr have proven wildly popular, but why their success was inevitable.

The craze for decentralized information generation and sharing is no fad. Rather, Standage argues, the brief and relatively recent period of concentrated information distribution characterized by dominant newspaper chains, radio, and broadcast television—what we know as “mass media”—is the historical and technological aberration. In business, science, and especially politics, open always wins—eventually.

Whether or not you accept the book's provocative conclusion (I do), the lesson for business is clear: You can't control the flow of information, or expect consumers to accept your carefully scripted marketing messages as gospel. Efforts to manage the message about your products and services are not only impossible but counterproductive. Better to provide customers with all the accurate information you can and rely on human instinct to embrace and promote the best offerings. That is, assuming what you have to offer really is better on some strategic dimension. If not, the market will expose your every scuff and defect, now sooner rather than later.

Mr. Downes is an Internet industry analyst and co-author, with Paul Nunes, of Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation.

The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good LifeIdo Leffler:

The best book that I read this year is Tim Ferriss's The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life. The older I get the more I appreciate the need to learn (and learn fast). This book combines two of my passions, food and cooking, combined with a guide to learning skills in the fastest and most efficient way possible. Ferriss is a master of taking difficult skills and mastering them; if you read this book and apply his Meta-Learning techniques, you too will be cooking like a Michelin-star chef in no time (or anything else, for that matter). Having been a friend and über-fan of his for years, I was happy to be able to get a glimpse into how he develops his “super powers.”

Mr. Leffler is co-founder of Yes To Inc. and co-author of Get Big Fast and Do More Good: Start Your Business, Make It Huge, and Change the World.

Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of BusinessBob Burg:

Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business is really a superb case study on why companies that honor all of their stakeholders and not just their shareholders actually do much better financially than those who don't. It's also a terrific look at how companies can create an enthusiastic and happy team, ultra-loyal customers, and feel great about the value they provide. Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey and Bentley University professor Raj Sisodia show why the companies they call “conscious companies” simply do better.

As the authors magnificently demonstrate, those companies with a higher purpose than simply financial, and who honor all of their stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, community, the environment, etc.—actually make substantially more money than those who don't. As is typically the case, when you focus on providing value to others, the result will be financial prosperity.

There is nothing theoretical about this; the evidence is abundant. The authors cite a number of companies and provide many very specific examples. And, of course, Mackey has run his company exactly as he describes in the book and the proof is in the pudding (though, in his case, it would be a very healthy pudding).

Mr. Burg is co-author of The Go-Giver and author of, most recently, Adversaries into Allies: Win People Over Without Manipulation or Coercion.

Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You MeetWalter McFarland:

Can organizational culture be changed? What about national culture? If so, how? If you are Ron Kaufman, author of Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet, your answer is a resounding yes. What makes Kaufman's answer (and his book) unusually relevant are the real-life experiences that inform it. Although there are many such experiences and examples of success in his approach, one stands out most for me: his role in helping the nation of Singapore shift its national culture to one focused on customer service. Kaufman started with the national airline and pushed on from there, with the active help of the great government of Singapore. Imagine an American man able to shape the culture of another country. Uplifting Service offers real help in how to refocus your organization's culture to one of service. Once implemented, the service culture ensures you better serve your customers, your stakeholders, and each other. If you've been to Singapore, you can see and feel the power of this in action.

Mr. McFarland is 2013 chairman of the American Society for Training and Development, founder of Windmill Human Performance, and co-author of Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live Love, Parent, and LeadJen Shirkani:

I read a variety of book types but always look for the leadership lessons within them. My favorite one this year is Brené Brown's Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live Love, Parent, and Lead. Too often, especially as leaders, we feel pressure to be perfect, to always have the right answers and deliver on continually successful strategies. It's easy to buy into competitive-scarcity thinking and the pressure that comes with it. Many leaders try to hide their struggles, thinking it will make them look weak or ineffective. Brown masterfully reminds us that there is great power in being real, in owning our authentically imperfect selves and in letting humility lead us to greatness. This book is filled with ideas to enhance our communication, engagement, and connection to others.

Ms. Shirkani is CEO of the Penumbra Group and author of Ego vs. EQ: How Top Leaders Beat 8 Ego Traps Using Emotional Intelligence.

William Henry HarrisonPaul Oyer:

How did you get to the position you hold now? There were surely some random acts that determined your path, many of which you don't even know about. For example, maybe you would have gotten into that “reach” college or business school if not for some admissions officer who was having a bad day. In addition to my interest in the role luck plays in our lives, I've always been a U.S.-presidents trivia junkie, and I have read a lot of presidential biographies. As you might expect, the lives of Washington, Adams, and the like hold valuable and interesting lessons. But I was surprisingly intrigued and fascinated by Gail Collins' William Henry Harrison, about the life of our ninth president. Harrison's claim to fame is that he had the shortest tenure of any American president, dying a month after taking office.

Harrison is a fascinating character. His entire career is based on being in the right place at the right time. The book explains how an average guy from Cincinnati can rise to be a war hero and even president of the United States based on a few good days when he was young. There are a lot of CEOs who get on the right track early and a lot of great would-be-CEOs who get derailed early and are never heard from again. Collins tells us all about the life of a man who exemplifies the idea that luck and random events are critical determinants of our individual fates and our collective outcomes.

Professor Oyer teaches economics at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and is author of Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Economics I Learned from Online Dating.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of AmazonBob Rosen:

Most recently, I've really enjoyed and been fascinated by Brad Stone's portrait of a true leader and catalyst for change: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Stone writes a gripping tale about this ever-inventive and highly adaptive leader. In addition to his extraordinary knack for innovation, we're also inspired and encouraged by Jeff Bezos' almost-otherworldly resilience. Has there ever been a more ridiculed executive than Bezos during the early years of Amazon? This book shows how he weathered that difficult time in the company's history, and also brings to life one of his most memorable characteristics: the joyful laugh that bursts from him whenever he learns something new.

Mr. Rosen is CEO of Healthy Companies International and author of, most recently, Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted in an Uncertain World.

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us AllEmanuel Rosen:

The best (and certainly the most practical) book I have read recently is Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom and David Kelley. Think of this book as a personal trainer for creativity: Beginners who describe themselves as “not the creative type” will gain confidence in their creative ability, guided by the authors' years of experience, while those who use their creativity daily will find numerous strategies and tactics to improve their performance (even top athletes have personal trainers). Creativity can be learned and nurtured; it's like a muscle. And the Kelley brothers help readers stretch, build, and develop this crucial skill.

Mr. Rosen is author of The Anatomy of Buzz and co-author of Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information.

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in BusinessSteve McKee:

I have found the work of Patrick Lencioni invaluable throughout my career, and his latest work, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, is no exception. Lencioni's perspective underscores my own research surrounding the destructive internal dynamics that take (and keep) companies down. Without neglecting the importance of strategy, he makes a compelling case that even the best laid plans have little chance of success is a company's leadership team is divided or otherwise unhealthy. Not only did I find the book insightful and encouraging—I had my own senior management team read it and work through what Lencioni calls the “Four Disciplines Model,” which required us to answer six critical questions necessary to create clarity within our organization. It was an eye-opening exercise that will help ensure my company stays on track for the long term.

Mr. McKee is president of McKee Wallwork & Co., a Businessweek.com columnist, and author of, most recently, Power Branding: Leveraging the Success of the World's Best Brands.

The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and CompaniesNiraj Dawar:

Chris Malone and Susan Fiske's The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies, captures the essence of consumers' relationships with brands. Like their relationships with humans, these are based on the dual dimensions of warmth and competence. Companies today are grappling with the two key challenges in relating with customers: building credible and authentic relationships, and navigating the possibilities of new media and platforms for building those relationships. This book serves as a valuable and thoughtful guide for both challenges: It shows us which relationships are lasting, and it provides a lessons on how to build them.

Professor Dawar teaches marketing at the Ivey Business School in Canada and Hong Kong and is author of Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers.

Knowledge for Action: A Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational ChangeJesse Sostrin:

This year I re-read a Chris Argyris classic. Knowledge for Action: A Guide to Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Change, has been incredibly important to the fields of management, leadership, and organization development because it focuses on the “how” and gives readers a framework to identify and correct “defensive routines” and undermining political and relational problems that so often occur in organizations. His ability to name what was previously so ill-defined has provided a platform for a generation of scholars, consultants, and leaders to understand and resolve stumbling blocks from the world of work that need not remain unknown.

One thing that every leader can take away from Argyris's 1993 book is the ability to look at ways in which adversarial relationships and broken processes can be turned into productive partnerships and successful performance outcomes. The writing's simplicity and clarity lends itself to this kind of practical application, especially considering the elusive subject of “undiscussable” problems. It is the crossover between naming organizational issues, and also delivering tools to address them, that I try to deliver in my writing and consulting.

Mr. Sostrin is a consultant, coach, and author of Beyond the Job Description: How Managers and Employees Can Navigate the True Demands of the Job.