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“What’s the Best Business Book You’ve Read Lately?”
By Matthew Budman
Has the backlash arrived? You know, the one against the short-attention-span culture in which thoughts are no more than 140 characters and people read books on their smartphones?
For this year’s survey, when we asked a series of authors of current business books to name recent favorites and inspirations, no one offered the usual, “I don’t read business books”; neither did anyone cite The Hunger Games or, heaven forbid, Twilight: Breaking Dawn. This is a serious collection of serious books—works that take on international economic trends, chronicle important lives, and examine the ways in which our minds work. And a few even qualify as holiday vacation reading, if you don’t mind learning something along the way.
As both a writer and speaker, I’m always interested in books on communicating better, and I just finished one that all businesspeople should read. It’s by Terri L. Sjodin, it’s titled Small Message, Big Impact: The Elevator Speech Effect, and it’s a fascinating look at how to make your message compelling, persuasive, and, most of all, effective. She takes the idea of the elevator pitch to a whole new level. Required reading for anyone serious about communicating better.
As we researched and wrote our book on what we termed the “ultimate turnaround story” that is Rwanda in the eighteen years since the genocide, my co-author Andrea Redmond and I read numerous books for information—and inspiration. One of the best, by far, was Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World.
Paul Farmer has traveled the world, from Haiti to Peru, Russia to Rwanda, bringing hope and health to the poorest, who suffer from devastating illnesses from HIV/AIDS to resistant strains of tuberculosis. Mountains Beyond Mountains captures powerfully the vision of a man who would cure not just the sick who often live in miserable corners of the world but also the well and well off, who suffer myopia and even blindness where the needs of others are concerned. In places and with cases that would make others throw up their hands in despair, Farmer finds a way, one patient at a time. If you wonder what difference one person can make (particularly in a world that suffers from economic maladies), then prepare to be inspired.
Heidi Grant Halvorson:
Are humans rational and essentially selfish? Sometimes. Are our perceptions of other people—be they strangers, colleagues, or lovers—faulty and skewed? Usually. Can our intuitions be trusted? Can we make good decisions? Yes—under the right conditions. The bad news: Human thinking and reasoning is complicated and riddled with flaws and biases. The good news: Those flaws and biases aren’t random—they are predictable. So you can learn to compensate for them, or take advantage of them, provided you understand how thinking works.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman takes you on a tour of the mind. He explains that there are really two systems of thinking: one that is thorough, effortful, and largely accurate, and one that is quick, efficient, and frankly lazy. Knowing how each system operates—and when—will transform your understanding of yourself, your employees, and your customers. Technically, Thinking, Fast and Slow is not a business book. It’s a book for thinking people about thinking people. Which makes it, in my opinion, one of the most practically useful books you’ll ever read.
Michael J. Mauboussin:
It’s hard to imagine a longer lever in life than the ability to make good decisions consistently. Our minds are just not designed to be effective in dealing with many of the decisions we face today. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow leads a comprehensive tour of our cognitive biases. Kahneman entertains and educates as he relates the profound findings of his remarkable career.
For example, Kahneman suggests that you think of the mind as having two systems. System 1 is fast, automatic, and very hard to train. System 2 is slow and deliberate, but malleable. His point is that most of us cruise through life relying primarily on System 1, and for the most part that’s fine. But in certain situations, our System 1 spits out the wrong answer, and unless System 2 is there to check the work, we make a mistake. Knowing when System 1 is likely to mess up is very useful—it basically tells you when you can go with your gut.
This book is rich and deep and warrants periodic re-reading. If you embrace the implications of Kahneman’s work, you will think about problems differently and more effectively.
Jeffrey D. Clements:
Corporate directors, CEOs, and managers are duty-bound to put shareholders first, right? Wrong! In the brilliant The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public, Cornell law professor Lynn Stout explains not only how everything we’ve been told about “shareholder primacy” is untrue but how this false “rule” is bad for everyone, including shareholders. This plain-English book, from one of the nation’s leading corporate-law experts, shows how the mythical and damaging rule of maximizing shareholder value came to take hold, how much the myth departs from economic and legal reality, and how much better business, society, and all people, including shareholders, will be when we free ourselves from the myth of shareholder value to return to the public purpose behind corporations.
Lina M. Echeverría:
It has been said that most of the important things in life are invisible. And it certainly seems as if habits are one of the most potent invisible forces in our lives. Based on the most up-to-date neuroscience, Charles Duhigg makes the case in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business that in both our personal and business lives, we can change old habits, and acquire powerful new ones. The second part of this book leads us in its exploration of the changing of fundamental habits of organizations through the ripple effect of new habits cascading through organizations and replacing older ones. This may be our answer to incorporating the organizational wisdom that brings success in other cultures. I believe in the creation of cultures of innovation, not through large-scale, top-down efforts but, rather, through the fostering at the heart of key small groups clearly identifiable cultures based on values, and encouraging them to diffuse to the larger organization through exchanges and interactions.
Sara Eisen’s Currencies After the Crash: The Uncertain Future of the Global Paper-Based Currency System takes a unique approach by inviting renowned strategists and academics who have extensively published on foreign exchange. The content is not academic—it’s easy to read, practical, and up to date, with applicable ideas; a broad audience can get a good idea what currency systems there are in the world and what is changing after the 2008 crisis—most of all how the dollar standard is morphing into a dual reserve currency system between the dollar and Chinese yuan and perhaps a third reserve currency too. A good book to read about the world of currencies and rapid change of the financial system.
Scott Reynolds Nelson:
In Demystifying the Chinese Economy, World Bank chief economist Justin Yifu Lin tells a very different story about the Chinese miracle than most books on China. Why did China fall behind the rest of the world between 1700 and 1950 after inventing gunpowder, movable type, and the monastery? An efficient civil-service system absorbed the nation’s geniuses without teaching them math or the scientific method. Thus China got a well-run state but fell behind in chemistry, steam, and steel. How did China innovate in the last fifty years? By letting Germany, Japan, and the United States devote billions to inventing while China patented or borrowed methods the big boys had already discovered. Written as a series of lectures to young Chinese economics students, the staunchly free-market Lin mixes Confucius, Marx, and David Ricardo in a story studded with modern examples of how innovation happens. A readable romp through the ancient and modern worlds.
David X. Martin:
The best business book I read this year was William R. Rhodes’ Banker to the World: Leadership Lessons From the Front Lines of Global Finance, covering the major global financial crises of the past few decades, focusing on how they were mediated, and what lessons were learned. It is essential reading for those who want to understand the current crisis in the Euro zone, and to learn what good leadership is all about. The book is especially compelling because Rhodes was in the eye of so many financial storms, and makes the reader feel as if he or she had a front-row seat. (I actually had a front-row seat in some of the crises, because I worked for Bill for many years at Citibank.)
Two stories in particular reveal why Bill was so successful at solving crises. The first occurred when he was on his way to China, and his plane blew a tire at a refueling stop. It eventually got back in the air, but—already over China—the pilot had to turn back because he had forgotten to file a new flight plan. Everyone I know would have given up and headed home at that point. But not Bill: He still managed to show up for the last two hours of the meeting—and actually make an impact. The second story concerns a colleague of ours who lost a parent and, after a short period of mourning, came back to work. We were in the middle of a major crisis, but Bill walked into the guy’s office, closed the door, and spent an hour consoling him.
In short, Bill’s success was based on the respect—and trust—he earned from the world’s business leaders and statesmen, because he always did the right thing. In addition, everyone who knew him knew that Bill would never give up until the problem was solved. Banker to the World should be on every executive’s bookshelf.
The most impactful book I have read recently is William Rhodes’ Banker to the World. I know Bill well because we both served in the international division of Citibank and on the board of the Institute of International Finance. In Chapter 8, Bill states, “It’s rare that one man or woman can carry out a major achievement alone. That’s why building consensus is important to the process. Getting all stakeholders to play a role in the solution by giving them a voice in the process is an important way of accomplishing this. . . . Team building, consensus building, and innovative solutions are the keys to success.” I am a firm believer and practitioner of team-building to accomplish an objective. It has worked with me, as well as for Bill, all over the world in different cultures. Building a consensus to address major world issues and challenges is more important now than ever. That is why Bill’s words resonate with me.