Even the world’s leading entrepreneurs are in a constant state of learning. So, what do the brightest minds in business read when they need guidance? Make room on your bookshelf for these…
The COO of Facebook admits she always has a pile of books on her nightstand, including A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen. This slim book (more than one reviewer says it can be read in one commute) is a self-help guide for those who don’t like a softly-softly approach to self-development, but prefer to be scared into striving. “Life is made of moments, small pieces of silver amidst long stretches of tedium,” writes Anna, whose mother died when she was 19. “It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves now to live, really live… to love the journey, not the destination…. So many of us changed our lives when we heard a biological clock and decided to have kids. But that sounds is a murmur compared to the tolling of mortality.”
It’s no surprise the CEO of Amazon is a bit of a book buff, so what’s on his essential reading list? As well as the autobiography of Walmart’s founder Sam Walton, he often rereads the wartime novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (who, when he was writing the book, placed himself in a state of solitary confinement in his house with no contact with the outside world for four weeks so he could reach “a mental state in which my fictional world is more real to me than the actual one”).
When it comes to business books, at the top of Jeff’s reading list is Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. The authors discuss how to create a brand that stands the test of time, based on a six-year research project at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, which studied companies like Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Motorola, Procter & Gamble, Sony and Disney. “Make the company itself the ultimate product be a clock builder, not a time teller,” argue the authors. “Imagine that you met a remarkable person who could look at the sun or the stars and, amazingly, state the exact time and date. Wouldn’t it be even more amazing still if, instead of telling the time, that person built a clock that could tell the time forever, even after he or she were dead and gone?”
When new employees start work at Square – Jack Dorsey’s latest venture and, as such, Twitter’s sibling they all receive a welcome pack containing a pamphlet that explains the company’s principles (“we start small; we collaborate in commons; we round the square; we craft the entire span in a breathtaking way”) plus a copy of a book close to their boss’ heart The Checklist Manifesto written by Dr Atul Gawande. As the name suggests, it discusses how checklists can be used to improve productivity and satisfaction in the workplace. For the founder of a social media site based on simplicity and brevity, it’s the perfect match, and Jack has called it his “success metric” for his work at Twitter. He also posted an except on Tumblr from the chapter on how to attract an investor.
“One needs a person who can take an idea from proposal to reality, work the long hours, build a team, handle the pressures and setbacks, manage technical and people problems alike, and stick with the effort for years on end without getting distracted or going insane. Such people are rare and extremely hard to spot.”
Even though her role as CEO at Yahoo relies on Marissa Mayer having cutting-edge knowledge of high-tech innovation, her favourite book was first published in 1988 (that’s six years before Yahoo was even founded). However, The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman (originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things) is classed as a classic in the design industry, examining why some products satisfy customers while others frustrate them. The nuggets of advice include, “Rule of thumb: if you think something is clever and sophisticated beware it is probably self-indulgence,” and “Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible.”
When the Facebook founder set himself a New Year’s challenge to read a new book every fortnight – and invited the Facebook world to join him – the first book he chose was The End of Power by Moisés Naím, which has the tagline, “From boardrooms to battlefields and churches to states, why being in charge isn’t what it used to be.”
In case you aren’t one of the millions of people who’ve bought it since (the day Mark recommended the book it sold out on Amazon), it really talks about how “micropowers” and challenging “megaplayers” from insurgencies in the Middle East to disruptive tech start-ups shaking up the status quo. There’s also a section on doing good titled, “Philanthropy: Putting the Bono in Pro Bono”. Another famous fan of the book is apparently Bill Clinton, who recommended it to UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
The online retail site Zappos is consistently ranked as one of the best companies to work for in America. So, could the secret to their contented taskforce lie in the favourite book of CEO Tony Hsieh – namely Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright?
The authors argue that within a company there are tens or hundreds of “tribes” (including staff who are hostile, passively antagonistic, knowledge hoarders and lone warriors) and that, to run a happy taskforce, these tribes have to be mapped, analysed and strategies put in place to handle them.
“The goal is to give you the perspective and tools of a tribal leader,” the authors write. “The result is more effective workplaces, greater strategic success, less stress, and more fun. In short, the point of this book is for you to build a better organisation in which the best people want to work and make an impact.” According to Tony, the book codifies a lot of what they do instinctively at Zappos, and he urges more start-ups to try the techniques suggested. In fact, Zappos now offers an audio recording of the book to download on the website – for free.
In 1969, John Brooks published Business Adventures: Twelve classic tales from the worlds of Wall Street and the modern American corporation. It went out of print in the late ’70s but then in July 2014 – shortly after Bill Gates revealed it was his favourite business book – it suddenly came back onto shelves.
So, what is it about the book that resonates with the cofounder of Microsoft, who was given the book by Warren Buffett as a gift back in 1991? According to a review Bill wrote on his website, his favourite chapter is titled, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox”, and tells the stories of developers who in the 1940s used their own savings to develop the first photocopy machines at great financial and health risk (the first machines came with a fire extinguisher because they were prone to emitting flames!). You can see why this is inspiring reading to a tech innovator always pushing boundaries.
“Brook’s work is a great reminder that the rules for running a strong business and creating value haven’t changed,” says Bill. “For one thing, there’s an essential human factor in every business endeavour. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfect product, production plan and marketing pitch; you’ll still need the right people to lead and implement those plans.”