There’s really no finishing school for CEOs-other than the school of hard knocks. Typically, the folks who succeed learn from hard experience or at the knee of a more senior business person who coaches them along. Based on AllBusiness’s expert panel of entrepreneurs, another main source of information and inspiration are business books. In every Barnes and Noble, Borders or airport newsstand there are hundreds of titles. The trick is finding the few that are worth your money and, more importantly, your time.
Forbes.com recently took a crack at idenitifying the best business books of the year for 2005. Like any list, it’s better as a conversation starter than a bible. Join the conversation: Use the comment section to tell us what books you’ve found interesting and useful over the past year.
I’m not a big fan of most business books. I tend to think that they are overly simplistic. Long on feel-good and short on how-to. With that disclaimer, here are some of the books that I’ve found thought provoking.
“The Wisdon of Crowds” by James Surowiecki is a fascinating book that whose premise is that that all of us as a group are smarter than any one of us as an individual. The examples that he uses to proove his case are stunning. Most notably, he tells how a group of navy personnel (motivated by a bottle of Chivas as a prize) found the wreck of a nuclear submarine that was lost on the bottom of the ocean even though they had no other clues. As you think about how to get good input from your team or your customers, The Wisdom Of Crowds will give you some ideas on how to tap into their wisdom and how not to misread the signals that they are giving you. This is one of the books that’s been passed from hand to hand among the CEOs of many internet media companies.
I am also a big fan of Malcom Gladwell’s books The Tipping Point and Blink . The first book examines how changes ripple through society and the roles of different people in the process. If you are trying to get people to adopt a new technology or change how they do things, it offers some interesting clues about where you can find allies. Gladwell’s second book is, I think, also valuable but a tougher read. It talks about the power of first impressions and how we work hard to stifle the truth that we get from our initial reaction to people and events. Gladwell is best at the descriptive aspect of the topic (how first impressions work) and less successful at the prescriptive aspect of the book–telling you how to harness your first impressions accurately.
A couple of years ago, I had the chance to talk to Clay Christensen who wrote “The Innovators Dilemma”. Christensen through this book has become one of the most often misquotes and misunderstood authors in business and technology publishing. The source of the misunderstanding is his phrase “disruptive technology”. Unfortunately people with limited reading comprehension jumped to the conclusion that this was always the latest and greatest new stuff. In fact, Christensen offers a fascinating description of how successful companies sow the seeds of their own destruction by focusing too much on their best and most profitable customers. While this sounds reasonable, the implication is that they also begin to ignore many other customers. These customers, in frustration, turn to new rebel companies with simpler, cheaper technology with a really disruptive business model. Think about how PCs turned corporate computing upside down. PCs were far less powerful than the mainframes and minis that every company had but they met the needs of managers who were being ignored by the high priests of data processing.
If you haven’t read “Freakonomics” by Stephen Leavitt, you really should give it a try. It’s a great airplane book for those of use blessed by the opportunity to travel on business. Leavitt uses the principles and techniques of economics to explain a slew of every day mysteries including the real motivations of real estate agents, the causes of the recent reductions in crime, and true safety of guns in the home versus swimming pools.
And now for something completely different. Take a look at Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. She tells how Lincoln saved the country by building his government around all of the people who competed fiercely against him for the Republican nomination for president. Many CEOs lack the guts to surround themselves with strong individuals with opposing views. Goodwin makes the point that only by incorporating his rivals in the cabinet, could Lincoln truly do all of the monumental things that were required of him.
So what links these books together?
They are all books that will get you to challenge the things that you take for granted and to examine how you make decisions. Whether or not you implement any or all of the ideas in these books, reading them and thinking about their theses will make you a better business decision-maker.