80 Books for Managers

From Financial Times Handbook of Management 3rd Edition, via 800-CEO-READ

This is the piece that the Financial Times wrote to do with the list. I thought it was oustanding and decided to include it here.

80 Books Every Manager Should Read

The last two decades have seen an explosion of interest in business and management books. They routinely feature in bestseller lists, arouse controversy, and earn some of their authors large amounts of money. Along the way, usually through a process of osmosis rather than dramatic conversion, they also alter the ways in which managers manage.

In the instant, action-oriented, pressurized world of business, books change things. They change perceptions. They change behavior. They alter expectations and aspirations. They inform. “In no other profession [besides business], not excepting the ministry and the law, is the need for wide information, broad sympathies, and directed imagination so great,” reflected Owen D. Young, then chairman of Radio Corporation and General Electric in 1929. And never has the need been greater than the present.

In no other field do books now hold such a central role in the dissemination of best practice and new concepts. Helped by the fact that business is increasingly global and the skills of management often universal, books make their way round the world, shaping the management of the future.

Since 1945 we have witnessed the inexorable “professionalization” of management (indeed, some have argued that we have witnessed the professionalization of almost every occupation). In the past, the quest for knowledge – new tools, techniques, and ideas – was part of the process of professionalization. Now, it is the route to survival.

If knowledge means survival, managers cannot be criticized for their relentless search for new skills and new approaches. But too often these resemble an indecent race to find the latest bright idea, the single-stop answer to all their business problems. Managers are addicted to the newest and brightest ideas. They buy the fashionable books of the moment and then within months, perhaps weeks, move on to the next fashion. This is good news for publishers.

For managers it means a relentless and largely impossible quest to keep up to date with the latest thinking. Books and articles are devoured and pored over. It is a losing battle, but one they must endeavor to fight. “The only thing worse than slavishly following management theory is ignoring it completely,” observes The Economist. Richard Pascale, author of Managing on the Edge [out of print], is a vehement critic of the managerial enthusiasm for fads and instant solutions. In Managing on the Edge he charts the rise and rise of fads since the 1950s. He calculates that over two dozen techniques have come and gone during this period, with a dozen arriving during the period 1985 to 1990 alone. Pascale believes that this trend is likely to continue.

Much of what is written is indigestible. Economist John Kay describes the formula for an article in the Harvard Business Review: “One idea per article, although it will not be taken seriously if expressed in less than 3,000 words. Assume no prior knowledge of anything … definitely no jokes – our audience has no sense of humor – but frequent references to exchanges with senior executives such as John Harvey-Jones and Akito Morita.”

The skeptics are right to question the practical usefulness of much that is published. “You can be very bold as a theoretician. Good theories are like good art. A practitioner has to compromise,” says Warren Bennis. Even so, the canon of management literature is full of ideas which have been implemented and which have affected the lives and performance of millions of managers. “All the great business builders we know of – from the Medici of Renaissance Florence and the founders of the Bank of England in the late 17th century down to IBM’s Thomas Watson in our day – had a clear theory of the business which informed all their actions and decisions,” observes Peter Drucker in Management. Cut through the dross and there is a broad swathe of carefully researched, well-written, insightful books on what makes managers and their organizations tick.

The Harvard Business Review may be lacking in humor and brevity, but a great deal of the material it includes is perceptive and practically useful. There are business books which stand the tests of time and usefulness. They are not placebos but vibrant cures.

And, lest it be forgotten, books and the research behind them do change things. Look at the part played by W. Edwards Deming in the renaissance of Japan. Think of the impact of Michael Porter’s work on the value chain which has been taken up by companies throughout the world, as well as his work on national competitiveness which has altered the economic perspectives of entire countries. Porter has been called in by countries as far apart as Portugal and Colombia to shed light on their competitiveness. Who thought customer service was a key competitive weapon before Peters and Waterman? In the business world, books are more than ornamental shelf-fillers. The influence of best management practice and leading-edge thinking is increasingly all pervasive. Ignore it at your peril.

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