Someone recently asked me which were the best business books I read last year. Since we here at VeraSage are inveterate readers, I’d love to know your best books from last year.
Tom Hood recently posted his, so I thought I’d share my Baker’s Dozen.
Some of these books I’ve already reviewed elsewhere, so will limit my remarks to books not previously discussed.
I’ve also noted my absolute Top Choices, so if you only read a few from this list, start with these.
Also, as always, you can access my shelf at shelfari.com for my complete library, my Top 100 Best Business Books of all time (see tag “bbb” underneath the shelf).
Top Choice: Thomas Alexander. Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince.
He was called “America’s Merchant Prince,” and “the melancholy Plato of retailing.” I consider Stanley Marcus the grandfather of Total Quality Service.
Here’s a man who understood the value of each and every customer, long before CRM and Lifetime Value became management fads.
The founders of Neiman Marcus also certainly understood their “Why” (see Simon Sinek’s Start with Why).
Stanley wrote four books during his lifetime, but this is one of the only ones I’ve seen written about him by an insider, Thomas E. Alexander, who met Stanley in 1965 and served nearly 20 years as his executive vice president of marketing.
This was an incredibly demanding job, since Marcus was the consummate marketer, and many previous men failed in this role. Alexander obviously did something right that made Marcus keep him around that long.
Alexander gives you an insider’s view of the famous Neiman Marcus Fortnights, a Dallas institution until they were discontinued in 1986.
There are many fantastic pictures and other inside stories of how Marcus conducted business, treated customers, his team, and foreign government officials. Many of the pictures come from the Stanley Marcus Collection at South Methodist University, DeGolyer Library.
You’ll read about the first out-of-state store in Bal Harbour, Florida, opened in January 1971, and also the controversy of the San Francisco store opening at Union Square.
The columnist Herb Caen was an vocal critic of Neiman Marcus opening there, and the irony was that Stanely Marcus was farther to the left than Caen ever dreamed of being.
One very amusing anecdote about Marcus are the two things that exceeded his expectations, which were very high. One was Sophia Loren, and the other was the Bohemian Grove in San Francisco.
In the final chapter, “Saying Goodbye,” Alexander tells of Marcus, age 95, reflecting: “Without change, there is no challenge, and without challenge there is only the status quo but no progress.”
Wise words. Stanley Marcus was an amazing man, and his story is compelling on many levels. This book adds another dimension to a man who has left an indelible legacy on the culture. Well worth reading after you read Marcus’s own, Minding the Store, the best book ever written on customer service.
Top Choice: Howard Hansen and Steven Geske. Healing Leadership. [Kindle Edition only].
I had the honor of writing the foreword to this book, but it doesn’t change the fact that this book had a profound influence of my thinking. Here is an excerpt from that foreword:
They say any writer should be able to sum up the purpose of their book on the back of a business card. I can do that for this book by using another author’s book:
The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them.
As with most ideas and relationships, it is no coincidence that the above was written by Edwin H. Friedman, in his masterful book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Healing Leadership takes a totally different approach, and one that is not very comfortable for those of us used to reading business books. How many books on leadership have you read where the central message is you can’t succeed at affecting change in the people you lead? That you need to get out of the business of needing others to change? The authors even admit they won’t get rich by dispensing this type of advice.
Rather than assaulting the reader with endless platitudes and checklists of “do this and don’t do that,” this book advocates a “way of being,” recognizing that leadership is an emotional process, not a mechanistic science that treats humans like machines.
You are about to explore some very profound, powerful, and simple concepts. But please don’t confuse simple with simplistic. Virtuoso bass player, accomplished pianist, bandleader, and composer Charles Mingus said: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
Three creative concepts from Healing Leadership have permanently altered not only my worldview, but my behavior. The authors present the “Energy Management Model,” which teaches how we could have greater success in achieving our goals if we tried not so much to control time—an impossibility, as it is outside us—and instead tried to control energy—eminently possible, as it is within us.
You’ll learn the difference between episodic and chronic anxiety, along with the 10 telltale signs of someone who is chronically anxious, and what to do about it.
Finally, the concept of Emotional Triangles—what the authors call “the weather of human relationships.” This framework ties everything in the book together, while offering an enormously effective way to lower your anxiety. After reading about Emotional Triangles you’ll wish you had understood them in elementary school.
But don’t confuse simple with easy. These frameworks are very counterintuitive, and they will no doubt cause some confusion. Don’t despair. That’s a leading indicator that your understanding is deepening. You simply must wrestle with the concepts in this book if you want to achieve real change—transformations that will truly make a difference in your life.
One of my favorite definitions of the role of leaders comes from business consultant Peter Block: “The real task of leadership is to confront people with their freedom.” In Healing Leadership, Steven and Howard do exactly this. It’s not comfortable, it’s vexing, and it goes against everything you were taught in business school. The difference is: it works.
John Kay. Obliquity.
John Kay is an economist who has written many books I highly recommend. He does a good job blending economic theory with business strategy.
This book is all about obliquity, which he defines as “Goals are often best achieved without intending them.” Achieving complex objectives indirectly rather than directly. The real world isn’t like Sudoku, where you can arrive at your objective directly.
Citing many different examples of this concept, Kay does an excellent job of applying it to business. A couple of example of the obliquity route: cities. Jane Jacobs despised the urban planners who believe they can directly create a great city. Great cities flourish when they are unplanned, which leads to creativity.
Creating shareholder value (which Jack Welch called one of the dumbest ideas) is an example of a direct objective, but it’s obtained indirectly by creating great products (think Apple). No one works to maximize shareholder value.
We do so more in line with Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. Kay does a good job dispelling the notion that business is based on greed: “A corporate culture that extols greed cannot, in the end, protect itself against its own employees.”
He talks about how measurements can cloud judgment. Using [Benjamin] “Franklin’s Rule” (drawing up a list of Pro and Con to make rational decisions), Kay illustrates that real decisions aren’t made this way—though we think they should be.
Robert McNamara’s tragic management of the Vietnam war by the numbers illustrates the flaw in this thinking.
Kay also discusses the “teleological fallacy,” which infers causes from outcomes, and how it’s one of the oldest mistakes people make. Today we call it the Halo Effect.
Kay explains why business autobiographers can describe their success, but not explain it. Sort of like John Paul Getty’s advice: “Strike oil.”
Kay also explains why it’s more important to be right rather than consistent (unlike, say, in legal matters, where precedent is more important).
Numbers give a false sense of precision and it’s no way to build a great business. Think Six Sigma when Kay writes: “The process in which well-defined and prioritized objectives are broken down into specific states and actions whose progress can be monitored and measured is not the reality of how people find fulfillment in their lives, create great art, establish great societies or build good businesses.”
Top Choice: Tim J. Smith. Pricing Strategy.
I met Tim Smith at the Professional Pricing Society conference in Chicago in April 2011. He told me he read my book (Pricing on Purpose) while in Prague, which kept him from getting into trouble…LOL.
He does cite my book in his, as a justification for pricing discrimination. Although this book is more like a textbook, and is very quantitative, it’s still very readable and enjoyable.
He’s got plenty of thought-provoking exercises (there’s a companion workbook for this text). Smith understands that pricing is not just about the numbers; that it’s more art than science, but he does discuss both, and even has a chapter on behavioral economics.
Overall, this book needs to be in every serious pricer’s library.
William Taylor. Practically Radical.
I enjoyed William Taylor’s other book, Mavericks at Work.
This book is also good, with three major themes: 1) Transforming your company; 2) shaking up your industry; and 3) challenging yourself.
A lot of it is profiles of change agents from a wide swath of sectors, some of whom you’ll find fascinating. Most change fails because it focuses too much on what’s wrong while undervaluing what’s right.
The book advises not to benchmark your competitors for new ideas (stop looking in the same places) and gather as many “zero-gravity” thinkers as you can—folks who are not weighed down by the baggage of industry expertise.
Taylor also understands the importance of a company’s “Why” or purpose, and provides many thought-provoking examples and research supporting this concept.
He’s wrong about the housing crisis at the start of the book, but other than that, this is good journalism, along with some important lessons. If you enjoy reading about entrepreneurs and change agents, this is well written and very interesting.
Andreas Widmer. The Pope & The CEO.
This is a great book by a former Swiss Guard, who are charged with guarding the Vatican.
Adreas Wedmer spent two years (1986-88) in his early 20s guarding Pope John Paul II, and this book discusses the leadership lessons he learned, which helped him become a successful entrepreneur.
He met Ronald Reagan at the Vatican in June, 1987, two days before Reagan delivered his “Tear down this wall” speech in Berlin. There’s a great discussion of ethics in the book, with the point being made that utilitarianism is the framework behind pornography.
Also, how firms are not moral agents because they have no soul. Hence, a person-centric framework is what the Pope espoused. Other lessons from the Pope apply to business as well, since business and faith go together.
I found the inside look at the Swiss Guards fascinating. A very worthwhile read.
Joseph Maciariello and Karen Linkletter. Drucker’s Lost Art of Management.
This is an incredibly deep book, which contains a wonderful idea: Management is really a liberal art—not a science or a profession—and should be a humanities discipline.
This would lead to a more humane and moral society. The idea that business is a science has always seemed strange to me, since we are dealing with human beings, not machines. This is an idea Matthew Stewart discusses in his excellent book, The Management Myth.
A liberal art is defined more by what it’s not: vocational training. Its purpose is to educate citizens to be society’s leaders, by emphasizing judgments and values.
Drucker first mentioned this idea in 1988, but he didn’t clearly define it. The two authors of this book both knew Drucker personally, and they are scholars, one from business and the other a historian.
They have researched all of Drucker’s writings on this link between liberal arts and management, shedding light on how this could be accomplished.
Drucker defined himself as a social ecologist—someone who creates and maintains a society of functioning organizations that anticipate change, and manage both continuities and discontinuities.
The book is a deep look at which philosophers, political scientists, economists, and other thinkers influenced Drucker’s worldview. It discusses his concept of the knowledge economy and knowledge workers. It’s a bit long, but still a very worthwhile read.
I now believe society would be better off closing its business schools and folding them back into the humanities. On average, I rather be led by someone with a liberal arts degree than an MBA.
Inder Sidhu. Doing Both.
Why do we build such beautiful bridges, such as the Golden Gate? After all, the military build utilitarian bridges all the time, capable of handling extreme loads. It’s costly to achieve the aesthetic appeal of the Golden Gate, so why bother, especially since the Bay Bridge right across the way does the job just as well without the flocks of visitors or suicide jumpers.
The premise of Inder Sidhu in this book is you can do both most of the time. He’s a veteran of Cisco, the 1984 startup that is now the 14th most valuable brand in the world, according in Intrabrand, and part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
This book was recommended to me by a colleague who suggested it would shed light on the “efficiency vs. effectiveness” that we have been engaged in over at VeraSage for years. It didn’t really help settle that issue, but actually reinforced the view that effectiveness everywhere and always trumps efficiency. But it’s an interesting book nonetheless.
Doing both is not a balanced compromise between two objectives but rather a mutually reinforcing multiplier. Each chapter provides an example in broad categories, such as:
Sustaining and Disruptive Innovations. A company doesn’t have to choose between one or the other, but should strive for both.
Multiple business models. Cisco embraces new business models either by acquisition or internal development. This is not easy, but it’s often necessary in order to capture new markets and not be cannibalized. Software as a Service and Subscription based pricing, as with WebEx, are examples of how they have changed their business model.
From volume to value with partners. Cisco evaluates its 55,000 partners not based on volume, but on value contributed—new customers, solving difficult technical problems, entering new vertical markets, etc. Rather than just providing discounts that can be used by bigger partners against smaller ones, Cisco changed the criteria to evaluating value, a great idea.
Excellence and Relevance. “By zeroing in on what matters most to customers, Cisco became excellent by focusing on customer pain points. But it became relevant by moving from customer frustrations to their aspirations.”
Superstars and winning teams. You can have both in your company. I think this one is tougher to achieve than the author leads us to believe.
Westpoint and Woodstock. This deals with the governance model of authoritative vs. democratic leadership. Cisco has both types, and it is a very interesting model, including councils, boards and working groups for decentralized management, and the traditional functions, geography and countries for centralized management. This has potential for professional firms as well.
Overall, this is a short book and a good read. But I still remain convinced that efficiency and effectiveness cannot be “balanced” as they are different things, and this book supports that view.
Two of my VeraSage colleagues wrote books that I read in 2011.
Tim Williams. Positioning for Professionals.
Even with all my bias, this is a fantastic book—a concentrated, yet cogent, look at how professional knowledge firms can position themselves based upon value creation.
Tim dispels many myths in this work, from size being the path to profit, and why going broad is not really as profitable as going narrow.
Tim also takes on “commodity” thinking, debunking this myth as well. As he writes, “Service is a commodity. Smart thinking is not.”
If you are a leader of a PKF, you will profit immensely from Tim’s intellectual capital on how to position and differentiate your firm. As Tim argues persuasively, this is the only way to capture more of the value you create and command premium pricing. A fantastic read.
Jay Shepherd. Firing at Will.
This is an excellent guide to everything an employer needs to know in protecting its legal rights, and avoiding costly litigation and other legal issues. Written beautifully, and very non-lawyerly, it’s easily accessible to everyone. You will get the benefit of Jay’s 17 years of practicing law on the management side. Indispensable. (Ignore the foreword).