‘Top-Drawer’ Business Books of 2013

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Jeff Swystun
Jeff Swystun



business-books-2013It was a relatively lean year for outstanding business books even though Sheryl Sandberg grabbed attention and book sales with “Lean In.” Her well-intentioned but unremarkable plea for empowerment will go down in history as one of the most skillfully promoted books. In fact, a great book for 2014 would be one that examines the marketing lessons from the launch and support of “Lean In,” a work that was highly irrelevant to the vast majority of working women but was unavoidable in the media and on shelves.

This year in business books reinforced something I have long known. Being successful in business is incredibly hard. Whether you are leading a startup or managing a team within a famous blue-chip company or rising early to open your own dry cleaning business, there are no shortcuts or magic panaceas. Books promising four-hour work weeks are fables, how-to books are vacuous and dangerous and the content of so-called inspirational works are trite, ineffectual and soon tossed out when met with the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

Writers and publishers are teaching people to learn through top 10 lists, ridiculous acronyms, and over simplified truisms repackaged for mass consumption. I believe that reading has become a way out of thinking because the lessons are so obviously spoon-fed. If business is hard, then reading about business should be hard, too. We should do our own thinking and arrive at our own conclusions only after doing some real homework and challenging ourselves by what we read.

I call my annual selections ‘Top-Drawer.’ This tongue-in-cheek title is meant to describe books that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well-written, practical, thought-provoking and innovative. Many are ones you may not have connected directly with business, and that is important because business lessons do not only come from business books.

Life is too short to drink cheap scotch — equally so, there is precious little time to tolerate books that are not ‘Top-Drawer.’ The list is presented in no particular order and the number of books selection varies year to year. This year there are only nine chosen — compared with 12 last year. I look forward to your feedback and recommendations on ones you found ‘Top-Drawer’ this year.

Seeing What Others Don't: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights by Gary Klein

I always wondered why it took so long for the human race to put wheels on luggage. Cognitive psychologist Gary Klein unravels this conundrum and the more important need to more effectively solve problems and get things done. It is amazing how little we know about insights, how they are formed or what prevents them from being found. I love what Klein does for a living: observing people in their natural setting and unraveling the behavior behind their motivations and their abilities. The examples will entertain and educate. I both laughed and shook my head when he exposes businesses for their hypocritical stance of promoting creativity and innovation all the while blocking new ideas and playing it safe. There are plenty of lessons for individuals and organizations who have open minds and who recognize the need to do away with unhealthy biases.

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman, Paul Clark Newell

The catalyst for this book was relatively innocuous. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Dedman noticed a grand home for sale. It had been unoccupied for nearly 60 years and that intrigued him greatly. “Empty Mansions” is “a rich mystery of wealth and loss, connecting the Gilded Age opulence of the 19th century with a 21st-century battle over a $300 million inheritance.” In it we meet mysterious reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. The woman is an enigma. At the time of her death at age 104, no new photograph of her had been seen in decades. She owned palatial homes in California, New York and Connecticut, yet lived for 20 years in a simple hospital room — even while in excellent health. It is a ripping good yarn that will have you wondering about legacy and succession, not to mention estate and tax planning.

The Everything Store by Brad Stone

While this book launched, respectable business news outlets had a heyday pointing out that Amazon has never really made money. The New York Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal hit on this as did Daniel Gross who wrote in The Daily Beast that Amazon, at the time, had a market capitalization of $166 billion, reported 24 percent revenue growth and had a 64 percent climb in share value yet, “The company, first founded in 1994, still doesn’t make any money. In the third quarter, it reported a $41 million net loss.” This is just one of the mysteries of this growing octopus. At its heart, Amazon is an order fulfillment company, so as the book title implies, it can sell everything. It is a great read that also holds lessons in leadership. Jeff Bezos knows what he wants and he exhibits a constancy of purpose that will not be derailed. There is also some spice in the pages as author Stone digs into the CEO’s interesting past.

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

The brothers Heath are academics who know how to make hard concepts more approachable without losing their complexity. Dan teaches at Stanford, Chip teaches at Duke. In their latest effort they tackle a key challenge in any business or career — indecisiveness and poor decision- making. They identify four “villains” of decision-making and provide antidotes to get one moving along accurately and, well, decisively. They lose a couple of points for packaging the suggested solutions into an acronym, but I was feeling generous so they made the list.

Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers by Niraj Dawar

Through his research, Dawar asks managers, "Why do your customers buy from you rather than your competitors?" The answers invariably cover a sum of intangible exchanges rather than reciting a list of functional product benefits. This sets up the engaging premise of the book. Value is no longer upstream in production, but rather it "is created in the interactions with customers". He calls for companies to "reformulate their strategy for the downstream," which reaffirms the value of branding. He brings theory to life with examples and cases ranging from Nestle and the pod coffee market to Sainsbury's private-label wine to the Zagat Survey. I respected the use of these cases versus the usual suspects that show up time and again in business books.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Why was Susan Boyle’s first appearance and Gangnam Style YouTube sensations? Berger, a professor of marketing at Wharton, studies the science of social “epidemics” and provides six tasks for getting people to share what you have. These include: social currency, triggers, emotional resonance, observability, usefulness and storytelling. The last one I appreciate as it calls for imbuing a product with a narrative to enhance its power and appeal. The book offers techniques for helping information spread including ways to design messages, advertisements and information that people will pass along and endorse.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

Moss is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter at The New York Times, and here he examines the rise of the processed food industry and its link to obesity. He reveals secret meetings among the giant food companies held to stave off potential class-action suits and to control the story to comfort consumers. The statistics provided are sobering. The rise in consumption of bad stuff equals the rise in revenue and profits: Annually, the average American eats 33 pounds of cheese, which is more than triple what was eaten in 1970; 26 million Americans have diabetes; the processed food industry in the U.S. accounts for $1 trillion a year in sales; and the total economic cost of this health crisis is approaching $300 billion a year. His narrative is engaging and compelling and on every page there is another brand mentioned that probably resides in your very own kitchen right now.

Youtility: Why Smart Marketing Is about Help Not Hype by Jay Baer

The author playfully points out the “difference between helping and selling is just two letters.” But it is a big difference indeed. The best businesses solve problems for consumers and the marketing demonstrates those solutions in a credible, entertaining and relevant way. Baer believes that if you sell something, you make a customer today, but if you genuinely help someone, you create a customer for life. He stresses trust and mutual benefit in the brand and customer relationship rather than loud, overwhelming promotion or, in other words, instead of trying to be amazing, focus on being useful.

Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy

You will have to excuse this book making the list only because it was first published in 2012. Somehow I missed it and needed to right the wrong of not including it last year. In 2005 Carl Honore wrote,In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed.” It was a worthy book that had precious little influence on an accelerating world. Thankfully, Partnoy returns to the subject with this counterintuitive and insightful work. Technology may exert new pressures to speed up our lives; however, the choices we make regardless of speed or conscious or unconscious thought do benefit from delay. As the book points out “slowing down our responses yields better results in almost every arena of life … even when time seems to be of the essence.” This is a subject near and dear to me in the study of marketing. So many practitioners talk of speed and are enamored of technology when really the issue is their lack of uniqueness, thoughtfulness and respect for the consumer. In my work with companies I often witness “speed” used an excuse for avoiding the critical thinking that produces winning strategies.


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