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Nov 29, 2009

20 Business Books They Expect You Have Read

crib notes for the current canon

Instructor, Caroline Bender

Business reading (or reading in whichever trade you practice) can be quite rewarding.  It helps articulate and codify your own workplace experiences, provides insight into the experiences of others, explains the development of a particular business practice, and earns points with management.  The Finishing School understands that keeping up with the business canon is very low on your list -- not because of its priority, but because it can be time-consuming, and requires both hands.

As our faculty tend to sigh, when we ask for their weekly book reviews, "I wish I had time to read."

In the interest of your time management, and just in time for holiday hinting, BWFSandSC present our crib notes for 20 commonly cited business references, to help you keep up with the herd and select which of these texts will get your precious time.

full disclosure: The Finishing School is an associate of Amazon.com and indicates in the capsules below whether a book is available in Kindle format.  We are referring specifically to the Kindle brand electronic reader, powered by Amazon.  Texts may also be available through other electronic reading devices.

last disclaimer: consider your public library and/or starting a book-buying co-op with workmates and networking groups.  A share/swap program can help everyone benefit.

Now the list - chronological order
The Art of War - by Sun Tzu (6th C, BCE)

Indulge your zeal to win by studying the master’s 13 chapters on waging war, from Laying Plans to The Use of Spies. Made available in English in the 1970s, Art of War might be the business book most cited by other business books (unless The Prince holds that honor). Sun Tzu the man may be more legend than fact, but he is very quotable: “Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: it is merely a question of instituting signs and signals.”
Print, Audio, Kindle

The Wealth of Nations – by Adam Smith (1776)
You think you read this in Western Civ. Don’t read it again; just memorize this: unregulated markets will naturally lead towards equilibrium
Print, Kindle

How to Win Friends and Influence People – by Dale Carnegie (1936)
We think of this text as coming from the “gray flannel suit era,” but it is a generation earlier. Its core principles, carefully outlined, sum up as “don’t be a jerk.” These were indeed hard times. While not the first self-help book, it may be the inspiration for the first self-help book parody, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, published the following year.
Print, Audio, Coursework
Atlas Shrugged – by Ayn Rand (1957)
Not technically a business book – a novel, in fact – but quoted often around the cube rows, usually by frustrated upstarts who have not yet shrugged themselves. Atlas:Rand as Dianetics:Hubbard. You’ll never read it, but you might check out the audio for your commute.

Here’s all you need to know:
“Objectivism” means “man [is] a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” (that is pg 1170, so we saved you some time.)
Alan Greenspan was a disciple of Ayn Rand’s
“Who is John Galt,” is the workers’ catch-phrase we know today as “It is what it is.” Get the t-shirt.
Print, Audio, Film
The Feminine Mystique – by Betty Freidan (1963)
“Housewifery expands to fit the time available.” If you read this in your 20s, as an assignment, try reading it again. By the way, it is not the “feminist,” mystique. We weren’t there yet. As a working woman, you owe it to the Mad Men generation to familiarize yourself with this. Freidan analyzes why women of a certain class (and, let's be honest, race) were bored and frustrated, and plows through the modern century’s (Western) definition of successful womanhood. Flash forward to My Secret Garden and The Beauty Myth for more of the same.
Print, Audio
The Peter Principle - by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull (1969)
Everyone is eventually promoted to their level of incompetence. With this book came the study of "hierarchiology," the study of stratifications in human society. Decades later, structures like “flat” and “matrix” organization would attempt to resolve Peter’s basic principle. Let us know if you think it has.
The Managerial Woman - by Margaret Henning (1976)
The premise of this text, and of the Simmons College School of Management, which Henning helped establish, was that nothing taught to Henning and her co-author Anne Jardim in their Harvard Business program seemed to apply to the world as they moved through it. Moreover, they could not move their male colleagues to their way of thinking. They write, “The primary aim of this book is to help men and women understand the critically different beliefs and assumptions which they hold about themselves and each other, about organizations, and a management career.”
In Search of Excellence - by Tom Peters (1982)

Tom Peters is the kind of expert the word “guru” is applied to, having forged his chops in organizational consulting practice, being listened to by bigger heads than his. Tom Peters says pithy Zen-like things like “Great people don’t make great teams,” which of course is true. Why didn’t you think of that?
Print, Audio, DVD
The Leadership Challenge - by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (1987)
“Leadership challenge” is a registered trademark and a sort of Mary Kay cleansing system for leadership development. Kouzes and Posner were big in the adult learning/student development scene when they dared to suggest that Leadership could be taught and learned ...and presented evidence to back it up. They also opened discussion on whether Managers and Leaders were necessarily the same thing.

Learn the 5 Practices of Exemplary leadership (also trademarked): model, inspire, challenge, enable, encourage.
Print, Audio, Kindle. Currently in its 4th edition, and updated constantly.

Bonfire of the Vanities – by Tom Wolfe (1987)
What other “business read” would have been serialized in Rolling Stone? This late 80s “Crash” type novel drops The Master of the Universe into New York’s boiling over melting-pot when he hits a black man with a car. Cited in the business world, it is usually meant to refer to opportunists looking out for their own interests at the expense of others and not understanding the culture they themselves live in.
Print, Audio, Kindle, Unwatchable Film

 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - by Stephen R. Covey (1989)
This is self-help more than business, but so many business people turned to it, to figure out what the heck had just happened to them, that it qualifies for our purposes here. Most managers have this on their shelf, along with One Minute Manager, and sometimes First Break all the Rules. If you can actually invoke the habits to managers, you might have a conversation starter (they bear a striking resemblance to the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa, to tell you the truth).

You know “win/win” from this source. 7 habits went a little Chicken Soup crazy in recent years (see Highly Effective Teens, by Covey-the-Younger, Sean). If you have to pick only one, stay with the original. And yes, that’s the Franklin Covey guy.
Print, Audio, Flashcards
Barbarians at the Gate - by Bryan Burrough (1990)
1990 seems recent to some of us. It isn’t. We are so accustomed to leveraged buy-outs, mergers, and bail-outs, that it is hard to understand why the fall of RJR Nabisco was such a big deal. Or how a cigarette company and a cookie company were the same company in the first place.

Barbarians at the Gate brought a Capote-like narrative non-fiction to business reading that made later works like The Predator’s Ball, The Informant, and The Smartest Guys in the Room possible. It also evoked an All the President’s Men memory as the story unfolded slowly before being compiled for publication.
Print, Audio, Kindle, Film
The 5th Discipline – by Peter M Senge (1990)
…is systems thinking. Well, sure, we know that now, but it took an MIT professor to work it out. Senge advocated for “learning organizations,” a popular idea that drove some mission statements, until chief learning officers and knowledge managers needed to be cut.

“The tendency to see things as results of short-term events undermines our ability to see things on a grander scale. Cave men needed to react to events quickly for survival. However, the biggest threats we face nowadays are rarely sudden events, but slow, gradual processes, such as environmental changes.” Senge states 11 Laws of the fifth discipline, which make for good quoting, but most didn’t catch on. “The cure can be worse than the disease,” did, and “small changes can produce big results.”
Print, Audio
Built to Last – by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras (1994)
Collins challenged companies and their leaders to become “visionary,” before "start-up," "innovate," and "leapfrog" were thrown around the office. Instead it tried to coin the word “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) which the grateful nation notices did not, in fact, last. (See Fast Company’s review of the companies Collins and Porras claimed would “last,” before the Internet boom.)
Spawned a franchise which includes Good to Great (2001) and Success Built to Last (2006)
Print, Audio
Who Moved My Cheese – by Spencer Johnson (1998)
Subtitled “An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life,” which turns out to be “go with it,” which is…sort of amazing. Also amazing was 5 years on the NYT Bestseller list. Change management is all the talk in the Information Age, as organizations attempt a do-over every few months or so. Cheese used the allegory/parable approach to over-explain how not to let stuff bother you. Rather than simply tell us the story, the narrative has us listen to someone tell it to someone else, which stretches the story to book length. This one can be read on Wikipedia.
Print, Audio, Braille
The Tipping Point - by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
The phrase means "the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable" and uses the “3 laws of epidemics” to explain how change happens. People ate this book up, but couldn’t figure out how to make it drive profit. It did help the case for “viral marketing,” and may be the Big Bang of social networking, but that remains to be seen.
Print, Audio, Kindle
Good to Great – by James C Collins (2001)
“Greatness” in this context has a financial meaning, not necessarily “immortalizing” your brand or your impact on the world. Like any solid biz-text, it has 7 principles of (in this case) companies that “went great,” and coins a lot of cutesy terms like “rinsing cottage cheese” and “getting on the bus.” Collins himself calls it his “prequel” to Built to Last, but some of the eleven Great companies named in the text did not last.
Print, Audio
Jack: Straight from the Gut – by Jack Welch (2001)
Management went mad for GE CEO Jack Welch, and he may have been an early role model for those you work with and alongside (see Jack Donaghy and Don Geiss on “30 Rock”). In the 20 years he ran GE, he sliced through inefficiencies and personnel, adopted Six Sigma quality control, and increased the value of the company 10 times over. He also seemed famously out of touch with public outrage.
Print, Audio, Kindle
Freakonomics - by Steven D. Levitt (2005)
This is one for the water-cooler, if people still stand around those anymore, or for the smokers’ bench, esp. if you have no sports talk. Freakonomics gained notoriety for suggesting that abortion had actually reduced crime, but it also does creative math with baby names and wrestling. It’s awfully mathy, but in ways that try to appeal to a general readership For example:

“…as incentives go, commissions are tricky. First of all, a 6 percent real-estate commission is typically split between the seller's agent and the buyer's. Each agent then kicks back half of her take to the agency. Which means that only 1.5 percent of the purchase price goes directly into your agent's pocket.

So on the sale of your $300,000 house, her personal take of the $18,000 commission is $4,500. Still not bad, you say. But what if the house was actually worth more than $300,000? What if, with a little more effort and patience and a few more newspaper ads, she could have sold it for $310,000? After the commission, that puts an additional $9,400 in your pocket. But the agent's additional share -- her personal 1.5 percent of the extra $10,000 -- is a mere $150. If you earn $9,400 while she earns only $150, maybe your incentives aren't aligned after all. (Especially when she's the one paying for the ads and doing all the work.) Is the agent willing to put out all that extra time, money, and energy for just $150?”

One you can cite when making sure you and your business partners as “aligned.”
Print, Audio, Kindle, Film in progress

The Wisdom of Crowds - by James Surowiecki (2004)
New catchphrase preferred by those who also like “the law of large numbers.” Repeating the subtitle (Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations) would be too annoying. An expansion of the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – in this case smarter – that favors “disorganized” decision-making. The key difference between a smart crowd and a dumb mob, says Surowiecki, comes to 4 factors: diversity of opinion, independence of individual thought, decentralization, and a mechanism for turning private judgment into collective decision. (This is the part your organization may be missing.)
Print, Audio, Kindle

Can you provide the 20th?  If we have left out your favorite(s), please contact us through the comments, or through our Facebook page. We would welcome your review and recommendation on an upcoming book review Sunday.

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