The top ten business books of all time

 

I read a lot of business books because it’s part of my job. I find many of them thought-provoking and exciting. Some, even, are as exciting as a John Grisham thriller. I have collected a top ten list of business books and thought I’d share them with you. The main criteria for selection is their enduring impact. They are books I come back to again and again. Here is my list, in alphabetical order.

 

  1. Built to Last
  2. Crossing the Chasm
  3. E-Myth Mastery
  4. Five Temptations of a CEO
  5. Good to Great
  6. Ogilvy on Advertising
  7. One Minute Manager
  8. Positioning
  9. Shoe Dog
  10. Start with Why

Again, all these business books have one thing in common: enduring impact.

1.      Built to Last

How is it possible for some companies to remain great for decades while most companies fade away over time? What makes them different from the rest? Built to Last, written by Jerry Porras and Jim Collins, provides the answer by focusing on 18 exceptional companies that have grown into business giants. The product of years of intensive research, Built to Last explores why and how these companies have stood the test of time, ultimately revealing that enduring companies share a common trait: they are fully aligned, top to bottom, as to vision, values, purpose, structure, and execution. This alignment—when maintained and sustained over decades through hard work and discipline—is the foundation for enduring greatness.

2.      Crossing the Chasm

The “chasm” is the place where new, high tech products go to die, says author Geoffrey Moore, and the chasm must be crossed if a product is to succeed and become adopted by the mainstream. To make the leap requires creating a “whole product,” defined as one that is fully supported, provides a compelling and easy to understand value proposition, and is carefully positioned for the right audience. Most tech innovations never become whole products and thus never cross the chasm between the Early Adopters who enthusiastically support it to the pragmatic Early Majority who make it profitable.

3.      E-Myth Mastery

E-Myth Mastery is the ultimate guide for entrepreneurs on a shoestring budget. It’s all about mindset, says author Michael Gerber. Entrepreneurs who succeed learn they must work on the business, not in the business. Too many startup entrepreneurs see themselves as technicians rather than managers and marketers—in other words, they see themselves working in the business, not on it. This perspective limits their ability to grow a real company—one that doesn’t rely solely on them, and them alone, for their company’s survival.

4.      The Five Temptations of a CEO

Why is this on the list? Partly because it’s written by management consultant and master storyteller Patrick Lencioni. Partly because it pulls back the curtain to reveal what life is really like for the CEOs of major companies. But mainly because the lessons revealed will likely remain relevant for years to come. While some of the five temptations may seem trivial, there is nothing trivial about them to those in a position of power. It’s lonely at the top, and many CEOs live in a bubble. As such, they are tempted to focus on status more than results; tempted to be popular with their direct reports instead of holding them accountable; tempted to favour team harmony over productive conflict, and tempted to be right rather than open to change and appearing vulnerable. The Five Temptations is a timeless classic.

5.      Good to Great

Jim Collins’ second (and best known) business book is really a prequel to his first (see #1, Built to Last). His book poses the question, How does a good company become great? and answers it with compelling research and analysis. Great companies have outstanding leaders—Collins calls them Level 5 leaders—who possess a strong sense of purpose built around unshakeable values. The opposite of the charismatic, egotistical leader, they are unusually humble, yet have an indomitable will. Leaders at great companies make sure the right people are on the bus. They aren’t afraid to accept constructive criticism so lingering problems are confronted before they cause lasting damage. Great companies focus their time and effort on the areas they are deeply passionate about and have expertise in, something Collins calls the Hedgehog Concept. Once all this is in place, they build a culture of discipline so the company never strays from its purpose and values.

6.      Ogilvy on Advertising

David Ogilvy’s thinking revolutionized the ad business sixty years ago, and in the process turned his own agency into a global powerhouse. In 1983, his visually stunning second book, Ogilvy On Advertising, promoted his groundbreaking approach to advertising, one that still resonates with marketers today. As one reviewer noted, “Ogilvy’s writing is captivating. His work, legendary. His ideas, timeless.” He based much of his company’s work on direct response, ceaselessly data tested every campaign and in the process became a god to millions of earnest young advertising professionals. “Advertising is salesmanship” was his motto, and he famously tied the firm’s success to the sales they generated for their clients, not the creative awards they won for themselves. “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative,” he told every employee, and the memorable campaigns in this timeless book prove he was right.

7.      One Minute Manager

This short book (barely 100 pages!) packed a powerful punch when it was published. Its legendary lessons on how to manage employees remain just as powerful today as they were thirty years ago. An instant classic, The One Minute Manager turned conventional management upside down. Employee goals should be written on a single page; his or her manager should take no more than a minute to read them. Instead of poorly timed periodic performance reviews, feedback should be ongoing and instantaneous. Catch employees when they do something right; not when they do something wrong. One-minute praisings should then occur, as should one-minute reprimands when they do something wrong. Both should be done in a quick and timely fashion. Does all this sound like common sense? Of course. But it was not and is not so easy to implement—for many managers it requires a change in mindset. A great entry-level book for managers, I can’t recommend it enough.

8.      Positioning

This book blew my mind when I read it because of its utterly compelling message: Positioning is not what you do to a product, it’s what you do to the mind of the prospect. This “about-face” on the idea of positioning is why this book had such a profound effect on marketers around the globe. Simply put, there’s too much noise for consumers to absorb, so they filter out 99% of it. Only the category leaders (and near leaders) penetrate the overwhelmed consumer’s mind on a regular basis. What are the rest of us to do? Find a niche, say authors Al Ries and Jack Trout. Find a hole in the consumer’s mind—then fill it. It’s now an old argument, but to me, that message is just as applicable today. For example, a new group of fast-growing software companies (MongoDB and Alteryx and Elastic come to mind) have successfully avoided competing with software giants like Microsoft and Google by positioning themselves in their prospects’ minds as the undisputed leaders in their own software category. Best of breed. Their breed. The result: instant recognition, rapid sales growth and an increasingly wide economic moat.

9.      Shoe Dog

Shoe Dog is Phil Knight’s business memoir. It’s about a shy long-distance runner who turned a passion for running into a global dynamo called Nike. Knight’s vision wasn’t to make running shoes or grow a 100-billion-dollar business, however. He simply wanted to “make the world a better place through running”, something he loved doing every day. Although an introvert, Knight became one of the world’s most powerful CEOs despite encountering betrayal, near bankruptcy and a 1970s public that mocked “those crazy” roadside runners. Through it all, Knight began to realize there were three keys to building a successful company: get the right people on board, get them to work together and get them to work for a common purpose.

10.  Start with Why

This book became a must-have after I watched Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk on leadership a few years ago. Start with Why offers a simple but profound insight: People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it. He uses Apple as a prime example to explain. Apple doesn’t sell products; it sells belief systems. Sinek explains it this way: If Apple were like every other company they would sell like this: “We make great computers. We design them beautifully and they’re simple to use. Wanna buy one?” That’s selling the WHAT. Instead, Apple sells the WHY: “Everything we do is about challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. That’s why we design our products to be beautiful and simple to use. We happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?” It’s a completely different message because it starts with why. The rest of the book proves why it works.

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A quick note: Those are my top ten business books of all time. Many others deserve honourable mention. Millions of books are consumed every year because books educate and entertain. They also reshape our brains, a fact proven by neuroscientists. High achievers are particularly avid readers because they’re constantly seeking to get better. Warren Buffett famously reads 500 pages a day. Ultimately, reading takes us out of ourselves and makes us feel good, and does so in ways that are better than any drug because the feeling lasts much longer, and the only side effect is an expanded mind.

One more quick note: astute readers will note that the photo shows a couple of books that are not in the top 10. These were originally part of my top ten but after careful consideration have become part of my honourable mentions list.

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