The 10 Best Books on BusinessWilliam Gadea 10.20.2016
Let’s face it, as a genre books about business have more than their share of flabby writing and theoretical hocus pocus. That does not mean, however, that there aren’t books out there that are useful and entertaining. Here are a few of my favorites.
PRINCIPLES FROM AN EMPIRICIST
Good to Great, by Jim Collins.
I’m loath to make “best ever” pronouncements, but there’s a reason I list this book at number one. Good to Great is a product of an exhaustive empirical study. Collins and his team looked at public companies that outperformed their peers over a period of time, and contrasted them with merely good performers to learn what made them distinct. He came up with seven principles that set these great companies apart. It’s a book where the obvious blends with the counter-intuitive in a way that feels true and useful.
THE FOUNDER BIO
2. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.
It came out just five years ago, but I would wager that decades into the future Steve Jobs will be seen as a classic. That’s partly because Jobs’ life is such a great story to tell. It’s the tale of a charismatic genius who ushers in the personal computer age, is fired by the company he founded, only to be rehired years later, after having founded two other great companies in the interim. But the success of the book also hinges on how successfully Isaacson balances his tone. He plainly likes and admires Jobs, but he doesn’t sugar-coat his eccentricities, cruelties included. Ultimately, this is a great case study on the advantages and disadvantages of management by the prototypical productive narcissist.
Indecent Exposure, by David McClintick.
Barbarians at the Gate, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar.
I group these books together because they are both smashing examples of boardroom dramas. Indecent Exposure starts with the discovery of a check forged with Cliff Robertson’s signature, and takes us through the titanic corporate struggle that swings from Hollywood to New York. Barbarians at the Gate is a chronicle of a leveraged buy-out attempt, where R.J. Reynold’s management, led by Ross Johnson, attempt to take over the company they lead. (It’s also a pretty good HBO movie, starring James Garner.) These books are the kind of business reading you can take to the beach.
5. The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.
Michael Lewis is probably the best writer on business around. He manages to be massively entertaining while illuminating sometimes complex concepts and cultures. Liars’ Poker, Flash Boys, and The New New Thing are all great reads, but The Big Short is the book that will have the most historical resonance going forward. It talks about the characters who made fortunes by betting against the people who created the 2008 financial crisis.
6. Built to Sell, by John Warrillow.
Unlike most of the books on this list, Built to Sell is aimed at the small business owner. It is told in narrative format, where a mentor advises a young business owner about how to build a business that can be sold. However, Built to Sell is not just a book for people who have already got their eye on the exit door. Importantly, the things that make a business sellable – focus and scalability – are also the things that make it profitable.
7. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.
A big part of business is getting teams to work together towards a common goal. There is a lot of squishy theorizing about how to do this, but for my money the best take is this short, simple book by Patrick Lencioni. It follows a fictional CEO as she gathers her management team for an off-site retreat. She describes the five dysfunctions that can lay ruin to a working team – absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results – and she engages with her team to eliminate them.
THE LEADERSHIP CLASSIC
8. Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tse.
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War often makes these kinds of lists, and I’ll admit that book has some applicability to business. However, I’d prefer to list what I think is probably the finest book ever written on leadership, Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching. Machiavelli said that a leader should either be loved or feared, and it was easier to be feared. Lao Tse says that being loved is better than being feared, but the best is when nobody notices that the leader is there. Instead, they think: “We did it all ourselves!” That’s truly something to aspire to.
THE MODERN PHILOSOPHERS
9. The Lean Start-up, by Eric Ries.
The title is what I like least about this very good book. It borrows the concept of kaizen, or constant improvement, from the Lean Manufacturing philosophy of the Toyota Production System. But that’s nearly all the connection to Lean Manufacturing there is; this is a book about software business. The concept The Lean Start-up introduced is important and has been widely accepted in the tech field: don’t wait until you develop a perfect product. Just create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and iterate as quickly as possible, based on real market feedback, till you get a product-market fit. A must-read for the new economy.
10. The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen.
If you have ever heard a self-important tech-head talk about “disruption,” they got that term from Clayton Christensen. Chances are good, however, that they don’t know that’s where the idea came from — and the chances are even better that they misunderstand the concept. According to Christensen, disruptors come from down-market or a different market with a cheaper, but inferior solution. At first, the market incumbents have nothing to fear. Indeed, they are frozen from adopting the new technology because of “value networks”; the new tech is not what their customers or partners want, and it’s a lower margin product. However, as the upstart solution matures it starts competing on quality with the more expensive legacy tech, and giants are brought down. It’s a great insight, fastidiously illustrated with case studies by Christensen, a Professor at the Harvard Business School.
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