Books are obsolete?

Don’t tell the folks in the corner office. They’re reading books at a frantic pace. By some estimates, the book business market generates more than $1.2 billion in sales every year. And the figure continues to grow.

Ask anyone who regularly reads these tomes — and we did — and you’ll find one common complaint. On the helpfulness scale, most business books range somewhere between useless and irritating.

“So many books on the market are heavy on theory, but light on grounding,” says David Steward, chairman and CEO of Cincinnati-based F+W Publications Inc. “There’s just no solid evidence for what they’re saying.”

So it’s probably worth a little research before you start wading through a book guaranteed to do little more than lighten your wallet.

The good news is that there are gems out there, thought-provoking publications that offer business professionals everything from inspiration to reassurance. At their best, they can challenge the way we think and nudge us in directions we might never have had the courage to go.
Some of the very best business books, it turns out, aren’t strictly business books at all.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which the author regarded as a mystery when she wrote it in the mid-1950s, is hailed today as a paean to capitalism and has thousands of business people as ardent fans. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, billionaire Mark Cuban, former Gillette CEO James Kilts and John P. Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, are among the many high-profile — and remarkably successful — notables who sing its praises.

“I’ve never found a book that I didn’t learn something from,” says Pete Strange, president of Messer Construction. “That’s why I try to read some every day.”

For many of us, the end of the year is a time to reflect, review and, on occasion, regroup.

And that’s where a good book can come in handy. We spoke with a handful of hard-reading local executives and asked them to share some of the books that they found of particular impact, books that have helped them navigate the complexities of their professional and personal lives.

Some of the titles are familiar. You’ll know them from the Top 10 lists where they lingered for years. Others ... well, only your local bookseller may know them. But slow down, take a look and somewhere in all of this, you might just find the book that changes your life.
By Hermann Hesse

“When I was growing up, I had a severe stutter. I could barely speak. I couldn’t answer phones. I couldn't do anything unless I rehearsed it. This book made me realize that I could feel sorry for myself, that I could be a victim or I could get over it. The main character comes from a protective and emotionally unexpressive family. So did I. And he had to go through all sorts of personal trials in finding out who he really was. Me, too. The book made me realize that I had the power to change it for myself. I went to the library and read everything I could about stuttering and ways to rid yourself of it. And it got better. Not overnight. But by the time I got out of college, I took a job in Boston where I was on the phone all the time with people I didn't know. It’s the worst possible sort of job for a stutterer. At the time, I thought ‘what have I done?’ But it was a trial by fire. And I won.”

The Power of Full Engagement
By James E. Loehr and Tony Schwartz

You could look at this as a book simply about trying to stay young. But Ellerhorst, who turned 52 this year, took much more from it. “The premise of the book is that it’s your life,” he says. “You can make positive choices that will benefit you in terms of being able to do the things you want and also maintaining effectiveness in your job.”

By Jack Welch and Suzi Welch

Yes, Jack Welch is viewed as damaged goods by many people in the business world. But Ellerhorst, who understands the inner workings of corporate life more than most, insists that there is still much to learn from Welch’s bestselling book. “There’s no one who would say he didn’t make mistakes,” Ellerhorst observes. “But from a strategy perspective, it sets up great guidelines. How do you win with a limited set of resources at your disposal, for instance. We’ve all been in that position. Or how important it is to focus on people in leadership legacy. The whole idea is that you focus on people’s strengths instead of spending time on finding fault.”
The Art of What Works: How Success Really Happens
By William Duggan

Once again, practicality is what Ellerhorst finds so compelling. “It’s really a book about using your experiences and your existing knowledge — the things you already know — and creating something new out of it.” It’s filled with case studies that read more like epic biographical dramas: Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Napoleon. “They’re great stories. And they’re great lessons.”

The World is Flat
by Thomas Friedman

This book helped me focus on the important strategic issues facing Grant Thornton and the accounting industry. Friedman’s discussion of the next phases of globalization is very interesting. The world’s economic playing field is being leveled, thus the use of the metaphor “The World is Flat.” While he reasons that there is no way to stop the wave, the question I find intriguing is, “'How do people in advanced countries respond?” Friedman believes they have to move up the value chain. They must create special skills and develop new products they can differentiate in the marketplace. He discusses the concern that America is importing a significant percentage of its scientific and engineering resources, and the impact this will have on our scientific and technological capabilities. As the U.S. pushes for open trade, open markets and open politics, we are helping create a world that will challenge our stature in the world. Indeed, are we prepared for this “Flat World”?

Donna Jones Baker
President & CEO
Urban League of Greater Cincinnati
The Greatest Salesman in the World
By Og Mandino

“Most business books are tutorial; they teach you how to do things based on what others have learned and how they have been successful. But this book was inspirational and helped me to unleash what I already had in me.” Baker was executive director of Associated Black Charities in Baltimore when she first read Mandino’s book. “The organization was relatively small at the time. But there was so much that I learned from it that was applicable in my everyday life — it was amazing. In the time I was there, the organization had made a quantum leap. The budget grew from $500,000 to $26 million. And the book had a lot to do with that.”

Good to Great: Why Some Companies
Make the Leap...and Others Don’t
By Jim Collins

So much of the business world is in a constant state of rush. But Collins’ long-term view of business success is what makes this bestseller so appealing to Baker. “He’s not just concerned with short-term profits — one or two years. But his book holds up some very recognizable companies, including Kroger, and how great companies grow over time. We see their mistakes and their successes. And they’re both important.”

The Answer to How is Yes: Acting on What Matters
By Peter Block

“This is one of the few management books that I’ve read that actually worked for me. So many of them are filled with platitudes and common sense lessons that anyone could come up with if they just thought for a minute. But Peter’s book recognizes that a good manager doesn’t operate in a vacuum, that he has to create an environment where the board and the staff work together and move as a unit and share ideas rather than having it dictated from one person. It’s a much more positive approach. And it works.”

In the Heart of the Sea
By Nathanial Philbrick

“This isn’t a management book. But I find myself thinking about it every day in business situations. It’s an historic retelling of a whale ship epic. There’s a young captain in charge of three whale boats and he’s put in a position where he has to make some management decisions that determine the survival — or not — of the crews. Any CEO is put in positions like this sometimes. Not life or death ones, usually, but ones where you impact a great number of people’s lives. If you never look back and reconsider a decision you’ve made, then you’re not thinking enough. It’s important to do a little soul-searching.”

Through the Looking Glass
By Lewis Carroll

“It’s the one book that taught me how important it is to maintain stability in the midst of the surreal world of business.”

The Prince
By Niccolo Machiavelli

“You need to desire the best but expect some of the worst from some people you have to deal with. I’m not suggesting that you go out and poison people that you’re in conflict with. But it wouldn’t hurt to have a taster for your food every so often.”

Pete Strange
Messer Construction
Managing as a Performing Art: New Ideas for a World of Chaotic Change
By Peter B. Vail

“This focuses on how so much of what we do, as executives and consultants, doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with the lives of middle managers who are in the thick of our day-to-day business. We need to be more sympathetic. Time after time, we leave them out there in the white water while we stand on the shore.”

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge
By David McCullough

McCullough is trained as a civil engineer, so he holds special interest for me. This book isn’t just about the technical challenges of building the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s about the social concerns. And — this is the part that is so interesting to me — it captures what we do as we attempt to turn dreams into reality. There are more ways to measure success than in terms of cubic meters.”

The House at Pooh Corner
By A.A. Milne

“I know Pooh isn’t a business book. But there’s so much to learn in it. Think about it — it’s a story about a community of individuals who live and work together. They have very different strengths and weaknesses, but it’s harmonious. Organizations, when they are working at their best, are a community, too. They find the best in each other and draw on the best so that everyone contributes something important.”

The Velveteen Rabbit
By Margery Williams and William Nicholson

“It’s really a wonderful life story. That’s why we read it to children. As humans, we tend to think it’s bad when things get tough. But that’s only part of our life story. You really don’t become your best self — or the best leader — until you’ve gone through enough tough things to make you real.”

Discovering Your Personality Type: The Essential Introduction
to the Enneagram
By Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson

“This is a book about understanding archetypes. Not stereotypes, which is very different. But basically, it’s about a hands-on approach to relating to other people and paying enough attention to understand how they work.”

A Civil Action
By Jonathan Harr

“The leading character is a lawyer, like me. My practice isn’t nearly as exciting as the one in the book. But the one thing that sticks with me — and I re-read the book every so often — is just how much of an impact you can have on a client’s life. It’s important to keep in mind how everything can be riding on what we do. It’s easy to lose sight of that sometimes. I find this book a good reminder for me.”

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don’t
By Jim Collins

“This is the single business book that I’ve probably used the most,” says Steward, who thinks Collins’ insistence on measuring companies using solid, empirical data makes this “much more credible than most other business books. We’ve done whole strategic plans based on that book. I really believe in the messages in it.”

RenGen: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer — and What it Means
to Your Business
By Patricia Martin

“I find this book very provocative,” says Steward, who adds that “it confirmed a lot of what I’d been thinking about already, that there is the emergence of a cultural consumer, people who are sort of the antithesis of the super-mass-cost-focused (ones) who have driven the success of companies like Wal-Mart.” One more reason he finds it so intriguing: “I think it is especially prevalent in younger consumers who don’t want to do exactly what other people are doing.” (In the interest of full disclosure, Steward noted that the book is published by one of F+W’s portfolio of companies, Adams Media.)

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the
Mt. Everest Disaster
By Jon Krakauer

“I like books that are about facing challenges and obstacles. This isn’t strictly a business book, but I think that a lot of success in business is based on how people behave when confronting challenges.”