Friday, December 17, 2010

The top 10 business reads of 2010

The top 10 business reads of 2010

When I read Daniel Pink’s Drive last January I admired it and wondered whether any book this year would be better – it was so stimulating, and well written, on the essential topic of motivation. A few weeks later, I delved into Switch, the latest offering from brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, whose 1997 book Made To Stick was my choice of best book that year, and I wondered if they would repeat in 2010.

When The Management Mythbuster by David Axson came along a few months later, I was positive I had now read the best book of the year. It told us that a lot of the conventional wisdom on management is wrong, and was fascinating reading. However, Hundred Percenters by Mark Murphy, two months later, gave me pause to reconsider; and then when I feasted in the summer on The Executive and the Elephant, a terrific book by Vanderbilt University Professor Richard Daft, I realized it was also contender for best book of the year.

It has been an unusually strong year for management and business books, and any one of these five books is deserving of top spot. In the end, I struggled between two: The Management Mythbuster, whose strength is that it offers contrarian ideas, and The Executive and the Elephant, which excels in giving practical advice for self-management.

Depending on your needs and interests, you can choose your own best book of 2010. Here’s my selection, and the rest of the year’s top 10:

1. The Executive and the Elephant (Jossey-Bass) by Richard Daft: The “executive” is our higher consciousness, the CEO of our brain, intent on controlling what we do. The “elephant” is the unconscious systems and habits that seem to run wild with our thoughts and impulses, defying the orders of our intentional mind. Effectiveness depends on our inner executive gaining more control over our inner elephant, and this book will help you if you apply its wisdom. Prof. Daft combines an academic approach with research and carefully constructed frameworks, along with a blizzard of practical tips to win this internal struggle.

2. The Management Mythbuster (John Wiley) by David Axson: The consultant argues we are managing 21st-century businesses with 20th-century processes – worse, 20th-century processes that don’t work all that well now. Mission statements, strategy, budgeting, total quality, performance measurement, financial reports – it’s all, to his mind, wrong-headed. His argument is so powerful that you will agree at least in part, perhaps subscribing to some of his alternatives. It’s also funny: He promises, and delivers, an irreverently thoughtful book on essential issues.

3. Hundred Percenters (McGraw-Hill) by Mark Murphy: A researcher and trainer, Mr. Murphy has developed some intriguing approaches for getting employees to give 100 per cent. It’s easy to nod off when people talk about employee engagement, because it’s often mushy or abstract, but he has some terrific ideas for setting goals, gaining accountability through better feedback, and providing better motivation by understanding the shoves and tugs that push and pull your staff.

4. Switch (Broadway) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath: Chip Heath is a professor of business at Stanford University and brother Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship. They open with three surprising facts about change, based on research, and then present a new model for implementing change through directing the rider, motivating the elephant (yep, there it is again), and shaping the path. It’s immensely readable, and will change how you handle change.

5. Drive (Riverhead) by Daniel Pink: The author and former speechwriter to Al Gore looks at human motivation since our days on the savannas escaping predators, and lays out a new theory, based on intrinsic factors – what we like and want – rather than fear or extrinsic, outside rewards. He argues that people want autonomy, a feeling of mastery in their work, and meaning. He makes his case in the style of Malcolm Gladwell, mixing storytelling and research, with a book that in the end is more satisfying and helpful than Mr. Gladwell’s best-seller Outliers.

6. How To Hire A-Players (John Wiley) by Eric Herrenkohl: Hiring “A” players for your team doesn’t have to be a crap shoot if you adopt some of this recruiting expert’s ideas. Toward the end, he touches on ideas that will be familiar, but the first part of the book has lots of novel suggestions that make sense.

7. Mojo (Hyperion) by Marshall Goldsmith: Mojo is the moment when we do something that’s purposeful, powerful, and positive – and the rest of the world recognizes it. It’s about happiness and meaning in life. We want to get our mojo working, and this executive coach offers a quiz to test how you’re faring and a model to improve based on identity, achievement, reputation and acceptance.

8. Get Rid of the Performance Review (Business Plus) by Samuel Culbert: The UCLA management professor presents a very non-academic assault on performance reviews – savage, sarcastic, and irreverent – as well as a replacement called performance previews. It’s a more collaborative process in which the manager and subordinate discuss how they can work more effectively, together, to meet the many demands they face together.

9. Smart Growth (Columbia Business School) by Edward Hess: The University of Virginia business professor debunks the prevailing belief, inspired by Wall Street, that companies must grow or die. He shows how rare it is for companies to continually grow, and offers a more sensible, nuanced approach, based on a thoughtful, detailed consideration of what type of growth is best for your company.

10. Good Boss, Bad Boss (Business Plus) by Robert Sutton: Having written a book about jerks (The No Asshole Rule), the Stanford University management science professor returns with a look at how not to be a jerk and instead be a good boss. There aren’t many surprises here, but it’s a comprehensive, research-based report that, while not quite as iconoclastic as Prof. Culbert’s book, suggests academics can write in a sprightly way if they wish.



Two topics that seemed to dominate this year’s books were social media and the financial crisis. Nothing on social media was all that compelling for me.

I read a few books on the financial crisis, and if I had to recommend one, it would be Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (Norton), not because it was well written – which it is, like an Elmore Leonard novel – but because it focuses on people who saw the folly that was about to happen, showing it was foreseeable, and happened to profit from it.

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