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The Essential Intelligent Executive Reading List

In every class there are a few students who want to learn more than what the texts present. Usually they are looking for the "great books" of business. Below are my choices. In many cases I give the name of a specific book; in other cases I am describing a class of book and give some examples. In practice, the list is pretty representative of the types of books read most often by most CEOs or by managers who pride themselves on their state-of-the-art approaches or their managerial intellect.

1. Covering Current Events

The classic answer is read the Wall Street Journal, but the Journal is expensive, and catching it every day is pretty demanding. An easier answer is to start reading a business weekly or bi-weekly. The biggies are Fortune, Forbes, or Business Week.

2. Covering Your Industry

If you know your profession or industry, find out what the biggest selling periodical is in that field, and start reading it (either at the library, or get a subscription). If you're an accountant, the sooner you start figuring out about the players and the games, the sooner you'll be able to talk intelligently to other accountants about their business. Note that lots of professional organizations offer discount subscriptions to students as well as to members.

3. Peters, T.J. and Waterman, R.H. (1982). In search of excellence. New York: Warner.

Get it and read it. It is the definitive "pop" management book of the 80's, and looks pretty strong coming into its second decade. If you're a real hardnosed type, look for the old articles in 1983 and 1984 that followed the "excellent" companies and found many declining. Still, this book defines our current managerial ethos.  A new edition was released in 2004.

4. Kepner, C.H. and Iikubo, H. (1996). New York: AMACOM.

Kepner, with Tregoe, practically invented modern rational executive decision making, with their book, called in its latest (1981) variant, The New Rational Manager (Princeton: Kepner-Tregoe). This time, Kepner and Iikubo combine traditionalist, stick-to-the-facts, optimizing management and group collaboration - a melding of 1950's and 1990's - but it works.

5. Porter, M.E. (1980). Competitive strategy: techniques for analyzing industries and companies. New York: Free Press.

Porter's way of describing types of competitive situations and responses is another hallmark of the 1980s/1990s style of management. The writing is well done, and the ideas have been embraced by managers throughout the world. Porter, like Peters, is one of the management superstars of today.

A recent revival for tough times has been the translation of Sun Tzu's The art of war, published by Oxford University Press. Despite the title, the book done in 100BC remains a readable and insightful approach, with ideas such as if you are forced to engage in battle you have already lost the war.

6. A Real Life Book

These books give business people a glimpse of how the great minds work, or how great things happen. There are a number of ways to get this type of information. If you like stories about individuals consider:

Iacocca, L. with Novak, W. (1984). Iacocca: an autobiography. New York: Bantam.

Lets face it, Lee's work has become the standard against which other business "autobiographies" is measured. In comparison, Trump's work was seen as too self-supporting, and most others as too dull. Its a good read, and gives you a better than average feel of what it must have been like for a manager who went all the way and then had to start over again.

If you like biography instead of autobiography, try Hal Livesay's American made: men who shaped the American economy (1979), published by Little Brown. Livesay is an excellent writer, and a business historian of note. The book looks at Whitney, McCormick, Carnegie, Edison, Ford (both Henry I and II), du Pont, Sloan and Land.

If you like team stories, the most famous now is:

Kidder, T. (1981). The Soul of a New Machine. New York: Avon.

Considered a classic, it describes the development of a new type of computer by a team of professionals and technical types. Revered by entrepreneurs and big business types both, and a great read to boot.

If you prefer just the bottom line, where that is advice with a minimum of story line, the top book changes as folks get tired of one author and look for the same old platitudes in a new package. The current "profit and apple pie" preacher is:

Mackay, H.B. (1988). Swim with the sharks: without being eaten alive. New York: Ivy.

Harvey is a shameless self-promoter, who writes engaging 5 page chapterlets on topics like salesmanship, negotiating and management. After a potpourri section, he also gives you advice to pass onto your kids. Nice applications of common sense from a practicing manager.

7. A Survive People Book

There are actually books out there which help you cope with problem people better. The two I like the most are:

Grothe, M. and Wylie, P. (1977). Problem bosses: who they are and how to deal with them. New York: Fawcett.

Bramson, R.M. (1981). Coping with difficult people. New York: Dell.

Both are readable, and give a lot of practical advice of getting you work done when you have to face problem types. These books teach coping, not curing. The goal in coping is for you to get through.

8. Bolles, R.N. (1990). The 1990 What Color Is Your Parachute?. Berkeley: Ten Speed.

The classic text for job hunters and job changers. Give good strategies for planning and keeping current when you're in a good but not great job. On nearly everyone's bookshelf, where the boss can't see it.

9. A Negotiating Book

There is a growing body of books out there to help you negotiate smarter. Most hold in common the belief in building win-win solutions. Nobody is really getting anywhere today telling you how to stab others. The top titles include:

Cohen, H. (1980). You can negotiate anything. New York: Bantam.

Fisher, R. and Ury, W. (1981) Getting to yes: negotiating agreement without giving in. New York: Oxford.

Niremberg, G.I. (1980). The art of negotiating. New York: Pocket Books.

These three titles all use the same win-win attitude, and are generally offering different mixes of the same ideas. Pick the one whose writing appeal to you most. Fisher and Ury is the most erudite (they teach the course at Harvard); Cohen is the most down to earth. Niremberg's book falls in the middle, but he has another, written with Henry Calero, which is a real straight shooter entitled How to read a person like a book (1971: New York, Pocket Books). It tells you how to read body language, and is a lot more useful to business people than its competitor volume Body Language.

If you want to get a feel for the philosophy behind win-win thinking (which is one of the rare occasions I've seen CEOs get philosophical), a few books to read include:

Axelrod, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Bok, S. (1978). Lying: moral choice in public and private life. New York: Vintage.

Kohn, A. (1986). No contest: the case against competition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

10. An Entrepreneurship Book

The 80's were the decade of the entrepreneur, and it may indeed hold into the 90's. There are hundred of how-to books, and dozen specific to almost any type of business you want to try ("How to make $10,000,000 in One Month In Your Own Shoelace Cleaning Business"). Two stand out from a practical perspective.

Hawken, P. (1988). Growing a business. New York: Fireside.

This book is easily read, and talks about the overall perspective of starting a business. It acknowledges that its painting in broad generalities, in order to help people understand what entrepreneurship is about, before they get tied down to the minutiae. Hawken also has a videotape series matching the book, which can often be obtained from rental stores or seen on cable.

Vesper, K.H. (1990). New venture strategies: revised edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Does for entrepreneurship what Porter's book does for big businesses. Lots of insight, written for MBA students or people with business experience. A book which gives a lot of information and lead for how to solve problems in start-up.

11. A Stress Reduction Book

All of the above may make you very nervous; what can you do about it? Don't worry, your bookshelves are full of new guides to relaxation and stress management. First check out these titles to see if you do have a problem:

Harvey, Joan C. (1985). If I'm so successful, why do I feel like a fake? The Impostor Phenomenon. New York: Pocket Books.

Maslach, Christina (1982). Burnout - the cost of caring. New York: Prentice-Hall Press.

Russell Hochschild, Arlie (1983). The managed heart: commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: U. California Press.

Schaef, Anne Wilson, and Fassel, Diane (1988). The addictive organization. New York: Harper.

These four books talks about the common impact of long-term stress. Harvey's title explains that book's focus. For people who find their jobs require them to be pleasant and supportive to others (and thereby internalizing a lot of emotions of their own) burnout is the likely outcome. The Maslach and Russell-Hochschild books outline these problems. For many of us, we see the problem as coming from the increasing demands of the workplace, and these are the additive organizations of the fourth book. What can you do to cope? Try -

Benson, Herbert with Kipper, Miriam (1975). The relaxation response. New York: Avon Books.

The classic and still the most accessible book on relaxation techniques around.

Conclusion:

The purpose of reading the above is two. Most superficially, reading these things will "give you something to talk about" when you meet with business people, because those things above are just the types of things they read. Second, the above books help you get a deeper understanding of the major ideas and people in business right now, even if you can't wow some potential employer with the knowledge.

If you get into the habit of keeping current on business topics, start hunting around bookstores (even B.Dalton or Walden Books) in their "New Releases" and "Business" sections. You'll quickly recognize when a new book is out, and when a business book hits the bestseller list, that's a sure sign that managers will be reading it. (The trick is to pick the books before they hit the best seller lists. CEOs in big businesses tend to have a knack for that. Don't ask me how they do it.) Often the new books are reviewed in the business magazines, and you can quickly figure out if you want to read it or not.

What's left unmentioned? Just what a lot of folks consider basic. I don't know many managers who can get by without reading:

A local daily newspaper;

A National daily newspaper (The New York Times, USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor, or for many, the Wall Street Journal);

A weekly national news magazine (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report)

A lot of thoughtful managers also read some "doubledome" management magazine. The most famous example of these is the Harvard Business Review. Berkeley, Michigan, Sloan/MIT and others have competing magazines. They tend to be very applied, written in a bottom-line style using a lot of business jargon, and usually is where the latest business ideas get expressed (e.g. "the mommy track" in HBR, Just-In-Time systems in Sloan, etc.).

Interestingly, there are a lot of people who are "into" business, and think nothing of reading WSJ, Fortune, the Harvard Business Review and a couple of trade magazines in addition to bestsellers, a general news magazines or Newsweek, and of course the daily newspaper. Why read so much? There are an awful lot of ideas and opportunities and problems out there, and if you don't see them, some competitor might. One executive told me his worst fear:

What would kill me is to have a problem blow up on me and find out that everyone else knew the answer because they read it in something I should have been reading.

Personally, I just like to read.
Higher purpose. Greater good.
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