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Thought Leadership

Baker’s dozen: The best business books you should read

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“Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions – such call I good books.”
H.D. Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)”

Arranging blind dates and recommending books are quite similar trials. Not only does everyone have different preferences, but either activity can also waste an enormous amount of time if it does not lead to a more desirous future.

I offer the following suggested reading list knowing full well the risks, because I am fairly certain the books reviewed will enhance your intellectual capital, and may even be the catalyst to you seeing the world differently. I have left off the subtitle, date of publication, and publisher to save space.

I’ve had the honor of interviewing many of these authors on my radio show, “The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy,” and have included the link(s) to those shows.

Here are my baker’s dozen best business books.

13. Peter Block, “The Answer to How is Yes.” This is a splendid book, detailing the importance of starting with why questions, rather than how questions, when confronted with any change. Anyone involved in changing people’s minds needs to read this illuminating and lucid book. See Episode #183.

12. Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It.” Why does work suck? For the same reason the billable hour and timesheets do: they are all based on an incorrect theory about work and value. Firms are struggling with work/life balance, flextime, time management, and more. But, all these miss the point. Flextime is an oxymoron if you still have a schedule or “core hours.” Work/life balance is not up to firms to define, but rather their team members. Time management is, as the authors say, trying to find freedom in a prison. Knowledge workers don’t need flextime or work/life balance; they need control over their time. They need to be trusted to do their work. They need to be judged on results, not putting in time. Isn’t this how we all worked in college? Ressler and Thompson were responsible for initiating ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) at Best Buy. This book is the story of how they did it. Many professionals firms are beginning to employ this philosophy for their knowledge workers, with salutary effects. See Episode #24.

11. Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins, “Abolishing Performance Appraisals. ” This book forever altered my worldview regarding the uselessness and destructiveness of the annual performance appraisal process. The authors do a wonderful job dispelling every conventional myth about why this archaic ritual is still necessary. The fact is that it’s not even for legal reasons (Coens should know – he is a former labor attorney). I strongly suggest you read this book to see what conclusions you reach about a practice that is increasingly irrelevant in organizations comprised of knowledge workers.

10. Thomas T. Nagle and Reed K. Holden, “The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing (third edition).” This is the single best pricing book I have ever read. Nagle and Holden are pricing pioneers, each with their own pricing consulting firms. A new edition of the classic, along with a new co-author, is by Nagle and George Müller, “The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing (sixth edition).” Required reading if you are involved in the pricing function in your organization. See Episode #18.

9. Joseph B. Pine, II and James H. Gilmore, “The Experience Economy (second edition).” The authors propose a new value chain for businesses, going from services, to experiences, to transformations. It is a thought-provoking thesis, and one I believe is correct. See Episode #34.

8. Ricardo Semler, “The Seven-Day Weekend.” Semler will challenge everything you think you know about running a successful business. Read this book and discover for yourself the possibilities of creating a better future. Please. The present owes it to the future. His first book, “Maverick,” is also worth reading.

7. H. Thomas Johnson and Anders Bröms, “Profit Beyond Measure.” This is the book co-authored by one of the founders of activity-based costing, who has since gone on to develop “Managing By Means.” The book is a study of the legendary Toyota (and Scania) production process, all done without a standard cost accounting system. It is an embryonic book, but I believe it offers many avenues for further research. An excellent companion read is H. Thomas Johnson’s “Reflections of a Recovering Management Accountant,” an excellent paper Johnson delivered that especially resonated with me since I, too, consider myself a recovering cost accountant.

6. Thomas Sowell, “Basic Economics (fifth edition).” Sowell is one of the nation’s leading economic writers and scholastic thinkers, and is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. What is extraordinary about this work is Sowell explains economics without using any graphs, equations, or charts, and makes the complex quite understandable. He has written many books, all of which are worth reading. I would even pass on this book to your high school or college student. It will put them far ahead of their peers in economic understanding. See Episode #25.

5. Tien Tzuo“Subscribed.” This was the most important business book I read last year. The world is moving from products and services to subscriptions, favoring access and transformations over ownership and deliverables. That means customization, not standardization. I believe the subscription business model is value pricing 2.0. Rather than pricing the customer, you are pricing the portfolio, offering insurance and peace of mind to your customers. Who will be the pioneer firms to adopt this model first? See Episode #230.

4. Michael Novak, “Business as a Calling.” An exceptional book from one of the most thoughtful and cogent writers of our times, who was also a theologian. Novak makes a profound argument for why business is a serious moral enterprise. Required reading for anyone interested in morality, ethics, and enterprise.

3. Stanley Marcus, “Minding the Store.” Stanley Marcus was the son of the one of the founders of Neiman Marcus, and ran the store during the Great Depression until the late 1960s. I consider Marcus the leader in customer service, and the many stories and examples in this work support this view. He was an amazing man and had a great life story.

2. George Gilder, “Wealth and Poverty.” In my opinion, Gilder is the best writer and thinker on economics, sociology, technology, and entrepreneurship that you will find. I discovered his work, “Wealth and Poverty,” in 1981, and it forever altered my vision of the way the world works. This book is his classic (and has been updated), but he has written many others, including his latest, “Life After Google.” If you read only two books from this entire list, read anything by Gilder – twice. See Episode #60 and Episode #207.

1. Peter F. Drucker. Drucker is one of the truly serious thinkers the management consultant industry can point to with justifiable pride. Read anything, and everything, by Drucker. For aficionados, his autobiography, “ Adventurers of a Bystander,” is essential. Even though Drucker passed away on Nov. 11, 2005, at age 95, it does not mark the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning, since he has left such a rich legacy. Along with the economics profession, Drucker, alone, is responsible for introducing –and being among the first to recognize – the knowledge worker and knowledge economy to the business world. For excellent one-book summaries of his life’s work, see “Peter Drucker: Shaping the Managerial Mind, by John E. Flaherty,” and “The Definitive Drucker,” by Elizabeth Haas Edersheim.

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