I read a lot of good and useful books that I generally recommend, but most of them did not make this list.
These are the few books that when I read them, fundamentally changed my perspective on business and leadership forever after. They directly impacted how I worked and led, and what I actually did. They each played a specific role in turning me into the business leader (and person) I am.
Some of the books on this list I ready very long ago, and some of them more recently (and how I wish I could have read them sooner!), and one of them I wrote!
Note about the links:
The links below are not affiliate links, they’re just here for convenience — I don’t get anything if you click and buy.
Caveat about RISE: I wrote RISE because it contains equally huge lessons that have had as much of an impact on me and my success as these other books, but I could not find them in a book, so I wrote one. (And yes, I do get something if you click and buy that one… but that’s not why it’s on this list.)
Here’s the list:
Favorite Strategy Book:
Good Strategy/Bad Strategy:
by Richard Rumelt
There are SO many books on Strategy. And I’ve read a lot of them.
This one is the first to articulate that:
The problem many companies face is not a lack of strategy, but the damaging and distracting presence of a Bad Strategy.
Richard Rumelt defines Bad Strategy really well, cringe-worthy, in fact. You have seen and made these mistakes. Unproductive vision and mission discussions, thick power point decks, vague, lofty goals…
The lessons he so clearly outlines in this book became a key tool for me to help organizations finally get a Good Strategy in place.
Hint: Richard Rumelt emphasizes that Good Strategy must describe what you will DO…And which problems you will specifically address.
If your strategy reads like a list of goals and hoped-for outcomes, it’s a Bad Strategy.
I also did an interview about this with Richard Rumelt you can find here.
This is an important and very useful read for any leader who wants to develop strategies that will actually work. I use it all the time.
Favorite Leadership Book:
Flight of the Buffalo:
by James Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer
There are even more books on Leadership then there are on Strategy!
Many of them annoy me. Many of them are self-promoting retrospectives of careers past. Many of them are about philosophical platitudes, and leadership psychology that I never found very useful.
I read Flight of the Buffalo a very long time ago, before I was a manager of people. I decided that I wanted to be the kind of leader described in this book. When I got a chance to lead, I did it this way, and have done so ever since.
The key thought: Let your people lead.
The way to get your team to be committed, responsible, and highly motivated is to let them lead. If you want to increase the performance of your team, let the people own solving the problems. If you have to be in charge and control of everything, people will never feel ownership, they won’t genuinely engage, and they won’t grow. They’ll just do only what you tell them to.
And you will not be a successful leader – because your success will be constrained by you. This book taught me to encourage my team to be way “bigger” than me, by letting them lead and own and do big things.
This has had such an impact on how I build teams, and how I delegate – not just work, but decisions and power. It’s how I built great, high-performing teams over and over again. I wrote more about letting your people be super-heros here: People Like to Be Amazing.
To this day, one of the most exciting leadership moments for me is when I discover my team is capable of something I could never imagine doing personally. It’s such a big win all around.
Favorite Book on Communication:
Made to Stick:
by Chip and Dan Heath
This book is simply brilliant!
This book had me at hello, where it suggested in the intro that:
The test of a good communication was that a listener could re-tell it after hearing it only once.
Wow, that’s pretty high bar for a business communication. (And I could repeat that after reading it only once!) If a prospect read the home page on your website one time, could they walk away and tell someone else what it said?
Made to Stick gives you a precise and useful outline for how to make sure your communications are getting through, that they are not boring, and that they are well, sticky.
One simple example they cite is they story of the fox and the sour grapes. This story exists in dozens of languages, and it never requires a marketing team to “roll it out”.
The authors dissect what makes some communications work (and stick) and others fail (go ignored).
It is step by step manual with examples, tests and guidance to tune your communications in 6 key ways which they refer to as their SUCCESs model.
I think about this approach all the time.
I wish I could clear the bar they so beautifully outline more often, but I can say that my communication (writing, speaking, presenting) has improved greatly because of having this book as my conscience.
Entrepreneurship and Making Business Happen
And now for something completely different…
This may seem a bit of an odd pick for a list of business books, but I was really moved by this book.
Many of you know who Jerry Weintraub is. He was the producer/promoter for Elvis, Led Zeppelin, John Denver, Frank Sinatra, the Oceans 11 movies, and loads of other things.
Why this book is on the list is because it hits you in the face with something too many people in business organizations, distracted by their busy work-load, forget:
When you are in business, you need to sell things. You need to build a following and a buying audience. You need to make business happen.
The book is full of impressive and pretty out-of-the box stories of how he made things happen. Stories like how he called Elvis’s agent every single day for over a year, or contrived wildly creative promotion events out of thin air – Like the Frank Sinatra live event at Madison Square Garden.
These stories served to remind and inspire me that:
In business — guts, persistence, and talking your way into things unabashedly is very often what makes business go.
I found it to be very entertaining and very useful. When I am hesitant sometimes I think, “what would Jerry Weintraub do better than me in this situation?”
Most Useful Book on Career Advancement
by Patty Azzarello
There are three big lessons I put in RISE
1. I learned in my own career is that if you want your career to progress, you have to be the one to move it forward. And there is so much more to succeeding and advancing at work than working hard and doing a good job. RISE outlines all the extra stuff.
2. It breaks my heart to see people hating their jobs. It doesn’t need to be that way. The way to be the most successful and the most satisfied and happy in your work is to find a way to use your natural gifts and strengths more of the time. You can and should be true to yourself, and be thriving at work.
3. You need to find a way to proactively deal with all the annoying people, roadblocks, disappointments, and political crap that can damage your effectiveness and reputation, and stall your progress.
If you do all three of these things, you’ll succeed and be happy doing it. No one will do this for you. RISE gives you the manual to take more control of your career, get better at your job, and get more recognition and reward for your hard work.
The lessons in RISE are the ones that I used, and they work. (I’m telling the secrets.)
These are not books, but there are three HBR articles that also that impacted my leadership style and approach. These are oldies but goodies, and their lessons are as relevant as ever. I think about them often in the work that I do every day.
1. The Smart Talk Trap:
by Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton
This article is a great read which calls out some people’s tendency to think they are adding value by “talking smart”.
Some people have perfected the art of not taking action, by perfecting the devil’s advocate role, and making sure when they do it, that they sound really smart. They love to talk (in big words with lots of data) about why your approach won’t work.
The authors zero in on the gap between talking and action. I love it.
This became so fundamental to my approach, to always focus on the actions and the work to be done, and to create very clear measures and accountability. The people who are only talking are not helping, but it can sometimes be hard to get them to stop!
After reading this article, I became much more confident about saying, “What specific actions are you recommending instead? If you are not recommending actions, your comments are not helping us. Let me know when you are recommending alternative actions”.
This concept was futher developed in a book by the same author’s called The Knowing-Doing Gap. (which I have not read). But I love the article.
2. Right Away and all at Once – How we saved Continental:
by Greg Brenneman
This is a wonderful first person article about a turn-around. The big aha’s in this article for me were:
1. That their “go forward” strategy was a very simple list that every single person could easily understand. I have always strived for this in my businesses and I’m pleased to say that Dr. Richard Rumelt (above) would agree a simple description is a requirement of Good Strategy.
2. The Cost reduction of the turn-around also included investing more money in the “go-forward” things. This is a lesson I used in almost every business I ran, and always in the ones I turned around. A mentor described this to me as, “Your cost cutting strategy is flawed if there is nothing that is getting more money”.
3. Like in “Flight of the Buffalo”, this story is a wonderful example of letting the people who owned the problems, solve the problems. It also illustrates the importance of moving forward with the involvement of everyone, which became another key element of my leadership approach – getting the whole organization on board.
3. What Effective General Managers Really Do:
by John P. Kotter
There were two key lessons for me in this article.
1. Effective General Managers focus on the work that needs to be done.
This may sound simple, but I see so many general managers that consider it “beneath them” to care about the work. They just want to think big, strategic thoughts, do deals and rub elbows with other executives.
I’m not suggesting you get involved in micromanaging the details of the work, but this article re-inforced something I always believed and have always done:
A leader should be really clear about who is doing what work, to deliver specific outcomes, and make sure it happens.
Those general mangers who act like they are above managing execution do not have organizations that execute well.
2. Effective General Managers collect input from a wide range of people at all levels to know what is going on and what matters.
Too many general managers think spending time with the individuals who do the work is beneath them. This article reinforced that:
As a GM the only way you can learn what your job should be is by getting input from people across the business doing the work.
Scheduling regular 1-1 meetings, brown-bags, breakfast meetings, cocktail meetings and seeking input has been part of my leadership style from the beginning and I could not have survived and succeeded without it.
As I wrote this post, trying to figure out “what I missed”, It was interesting to me how so few sources have had such a big impact on the leader I became.
It is also interesting to me that I did not have to even look at or review any of these books to share the lessons I took away from them. That’s the point. These lessons really stuck with me and I think about them all the time.
Of course, over time we all self-select information that we agree with, and builds on our accepted world view. But I have been pretty successful, and I have pretty happy along the way, so I can at least report that these lessons learned and this approach to Business Leadership worked for me!
Enjoy and use them as they are useful to you. I wish you much success!
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)