“I can’t stand business books,” was the standard response when I brought up this topic in our team. In general, I completely agree. Reducing someone else’s business success to a checklist, negates all the subjective factors you face. Learning from anecdotes told by CEOs sets you up for future lamentations of “but, it worked so well at…”.
The best of the genre, however, is different. We quickly realised that our favourites equipped us with mental frameworks that improved our own day-to-day decision making. They were also works that challenged us, with arguments that we first had to be convinced of, before later internalising. Here are those five books:
A Great Place to Work: What Makes Some Employers So Good – And Most So Bad
Written in 1988 after a mammoth study of corporate America, Great Place to Work seeks to identify the essential characteristics and dynamics that motivate employees, stimulate productivity and a sense of personal fulfillment.
If the examples used seem a little antiquated at first, it’s not long before you realise the insights are timeless. Thanks to its age there are no gimmicks or quick fixes suggested here. Everything Levering’s research promotes may not be achievable overnight, but it’s certainly in reach of any enterprise today. Out of print now, it’s going for one cent on Amazon!
Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead
In contrast to Great Place to Work, Work Rules shows you round a company at the cutting edge. But this is not just a book about Google (if you want that, check out How Google Works).
Bock’s stories – from the company where he leads People Operations – help illustrate his philosophy of work, and how to build a high-performing company culture that attracts exceptional talent. If we had to pick one book that guides us at Peakon, it’s this one.
The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done
Drucker’s stature makes summarising Effective Executive like writing a review of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band today. Both works being released in 1967, their influence has shaped how we think about the fields of management and music so profoundly, it’s easy to forget whence that influence came.
You could argue that most bands since The Beatles have, at least conceptually, been trying to replicate Sgt. Pepper’s. But it’s less controversial to say that Drucker’s central thesis here is still the defining challenge of a modern executive’s work-life: how to spend his or her time on the most impactful activities. For that alone, it’s a very worthwhile read.
Readable in one transatlantic flight, there’s something for everyone in REWORK. For startup readers DHH and Jason Fried go against the prevailing Silicon Valley wisdom regarding ambition, ownership, and venture capital – asking you to reconsider the kind of company you’re building.
For readers in more established businesses, no punches are pulled when they say “planning is guessing”, “ASAP is poison”, or “meetings are toxic”. This bold style can turn people off – I’ve friends who practice what REWORK preaches, but admonish the book itself. However, I’ve always found it leaves you confident that you can improve yourself, your team, and your entire business.
The Four Steps to the Epiphany
The grandaddy of modern tech entrepreneurship books. Lean Startup might get all the credit these days, but Eric Ries is to Steve Blank what Elon Musk is to Henry Ford.
Written by someone with five IPOs, eight startups, and a teaching position at Stanford under his belt, Four Steps is more practical than its contemporaries like Crossing the Chasm or Innovator’s Dilemma. Blank offers a step-by-step framework for building a startup from start to finish:
Customer Discovery – testing hypotheses and understanding customer problems and needs by putting founders in front of customers. Customer Validation – developing a sales model that can be replicated and scaled. Customer Creation – creating and driving end user demand to scale sales. Company Building – transitioning the organisation from being designed for learning and discovery, to a well-oiled machine engineered for execution.
Four Steps is required reading for anyone who aspires to building a real product and business.