What’s a Good Business Book?

March 28, 2010

In response to our post on Youngme Moon’s Different, one of our readers asked, “what criteria do you use in determining the quality of a good business book?”  It’s a great question, and the answer is probably far more subjective than we want it to be. I’m personally looking for the mix of inspiration and instruction, solidly in that order.  I want to be challenged to be a better manager/leader/person, and then I want some directional clues as to how I might pull it off or at least what success might look like.  And I want the messy, human version of it.  I want the backstory and the stumbling, the scenes of people taking their swing and sometimes missing because that’s how my life feels to me.  Those details normalize the improvement process.

Based on that criteria, here are ten more “business” books (very broadly defined) that moved me recently, in no particular order:

  1. Absolutely American — a Rolling Stone writer spends four years following cadets at West Point as they learn how to lead, and drinks the Kool-Aid by the end.  Speaks to the power of commitment and meaning in an organization.
  2. The Essential Drucker — a ‘best of’ volume from the “man who invented management.”  There is magic on every page, sentences like, “there is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
  3. The Power of Full Engagement — lessons from training high-performance athletes on managing energy, not time.  Explores how change occurs at the personal level.  Good enough for Oprah.
  4. It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys — the title inspires me on good days, mocks me on bad ones.  The book lays out a very actionable framework for creating order out of chaos.
  5. Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most — my favorite message here is to do it, to really have those hard conversations, a useful reminder for someone like me who grew up in a WASPy, midwestern culture that’s not so sure that’s a good idea.
  6. The Prophet — quick, accessible wisdom from Kahlil Gibran, the brilliant Lebanese philosopher.  I’m reminded daily that business is actually quite personal, and the quest to be a better human being touches all aspects of life, including work.  Among the best guides I’ve found.
  7. Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln — a less-than-gentle reminder that communication is an essential leadership act. Some of the advice is silly, like put headlines on the bottom of all your slides in very large caps, but the basic message stands. You’ll be a better speaker by the end.
  8. Leadership and Self-Deception — not easy to consume, but the only book I’ve found that goes after the personal and organizational costs of lying to yourself, a very common human behavior.  The cover calls it the “word-of-mouth phenomenon that is changing lives and transforming organizations,” and I don’t think that’s an understatement.
  9. John Adams — I’m a shameless Adams fan, so take this with a grain of salt, but the story offers up an alternative portrait of effective leadership.  Adams was the anti-Washington, abrasive and emotional and aesthetically displeasing.  Hated by many of his contemporaries, Adams did as much if not more to create and sustain the unlikely American experiment.
  10. Start-Up Nation:  The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle — aside from telling the incredible story of Israeli entrepreneurship, the book reveals why culture is such a critical input into ambition and innovation.  The message is relevant for anyone who wants to learn how to grow countries, companies or leaders.

Retention is Not the Same Thing as Satisfaction

March 21, 2010

Last year I posted about the research Dennis Campbell and I did in financial services where we found the surprising result that self-service can increase costs (the article was just published in Management Science.)  Dennis and I have been working with Ryan Buell, a fantastic doctoral student at HBS, on additional research about self-service.  This new research shows, unsurprisingly, that online customers have higher retention than customers who are exclusively offline.  The goal was to determine whether the increased retention is due to greater satisfaction (customers love being in control and using all those convenient online tools) or greater inertia (it’s too painful to re-enter all those billpay addresses).

The winner? Greater inertia — the aggravation of switching  is just too high for online customers.  Even more troubling, it turns out that online customers are less satisfied than offline customers.  So even though online customers stick around longer, they’re not at all happy about it.  Why is this a problem?  Because these customers are a ticking time bomb for banks.  Once a competitor figures out how to reduce the pain of jumping ship, they’ll be first to exit.

It’s tempting in any competitive environment to conclude that “loyal” customers must be satisfied ones.  But we’ve found that even when customers keep giving you their money, they still might be miserable.  All those familiar faces may not be placing a particularly high value on your products and services — rather, they may simply be placing a higher value on the time and energy it would take to leave you.  My advice is to start scanning the horizon for competitors who can give your customers a better experience without exacting a high price for the privilege.  Or better yet, play it safe and become that competitor yourself.


Fewer, Better People

March 15, 2010

The first time I heard the concept of “fewer, better people” was in an executive education session taught by my colleague and mentor Earl Sasser several years ago.  I have been captivated by the idea ever since, the idea of building an organization that cultivates and rewards excellence in its employees — and makes it sustainable by minimizing the size of the team.  I have rarely seen the fewer/better HR strategy in practice, however.  In a recent NYT interview, Kip Tindall, CEO of the Container Store described his version of it:

…one great person could easily be as productive as three good people. One great is equal to three good. If you really believe that, a lot of things happen. We try to pay 50 to 100 percent above industry average. That’s good for the employee, and that’s good for the customer, but it’s good for the company, too, because you get three times the productivity at only two times the labor cost.

A significant obstacle to enacting this strategy is that you need a great deal of confidence in your ability to tell the difference between good and great employees. And then you need the discipline to say no to the good ones, which can be particularly difficult in a growth context.  But the merely good can destroy a culture of great.  Finally, you need to design an environment where great people can work effectively.

None of these steps is easy.  Take the average fast food restaurant as an example. Now try to redesign the restaurant to require a third of the people, each making twice the current wage.  The current selection and training processes would have to be scratched.  Jobs and incentives would have to be thoughtfully reconsidered.  Where to begin?  Start with this workforce in mind, and pull out a clean sheet of paper. How could their work be done differently?

The answers aren’t obvious, but what’s the potential payoff?  Employees, customers and owners who all love interacting with your business.


The Best Business Book I’ve Ever Read

March 9, 2010

I’ve recently finished a book written by my colleague Youngme Moon.  I’m about as biased an observer as there can be when it comes to Youngme, but I don’t want that to get in the way of my recommendation.  Youngme’s book Different is easily the best business book I’ve ever read.  It made me smarter, more observant and more insightful.  If you’re thinking about how to differentiate a business in an increasingly competitive landscape, here is your handbook — no, here is your inspiration. For a taste, take a look at this introduction to Different on YouTube.