5 business books I’ve read

I’ve bought my fair share of business books, started most of them and finished a few. I’m not sure that much of this time has been well spent but these five were a good investment and I’d read them again.

Top Management Strategy
Benjamin Tregoe and John Zimmerman (1985)

In the mid-80s I was running the Methocel business for Dow Chemical Europe and we were summoned, along with other businesses, to present our strategy. We were told that we should base our presentation on the idea of Kepner Tregoe and this book was recommended. It’s not a difficult read. It’s main these is that companies have a ‘driving force’ which determines their choices of products and markets. Successful companies know what their driving forces are and manage their businesses accordingly. We reckoned that the driving force of the Methocel business was ‘products offered’ is there’s a core product offering, in our case hydroxy propyl methyl cellulose, which is modified as and when needed to respond to developing market needs. Such development was the responsibility of the Technical Service & Development people and during my time for example they refreshed our offerings for spray plaster and tile adhesive just often enough to stay ahead of the competition.

Marketing Warfare
Al Ries and Jack Tout (1986)

A good friend and business colleague recommended Marketing Warfare. It’s a slim tome and I remember reading it on a flight between Copenhagen and Birmingham. It’s a nice contrast with all those heavy volumes on marketing which are immensely serious and seemed focussed on enabling marketing to feel important. These volumes often start with a definition along the lines of ‘marketing is ‘human activity directed at satisfying needs and wants though exchange processes’. There are many others saying pretty much the same and Ries and Trout say that they’re missing the point which is the need to be more competitive. Marketing is ‘the strategy and tactics a company uses to wine the battle of the marketplace’. It’s about killing the competition. The book draws on the work of Karl von Clausewitz, looks at the lessons of military history and analyses multiple examples of companies who’ve got it right and those who haven’t. It’s all written in the language of advertising so it’s an easy read.

The Discipline of Market Leaders
Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersma (1995)

There are fashions in management books and I touched many of them in the 80s and 90s. These included Competitive Strategy (Porter), Competing for the Future (Hamel & Prahalad) and Improving Performance (Brache and Rummler). I’ve read lots of them, at least I’ve started to read lots of them because I used to buy them when I was enjoying business class on a long haul flight. I reckoned it was a way of paying back the extra cost of the seat. The one I read to the end was The Discipline of Market Leaders and to some extent it complements Top Management Strategy. It’s really a book about positioning and its thesis is that there are only three basic positions that a company can take and that in each market there’s generally room for each to be practiced successfully. I’ve also found it to be a useful framework for viewing the competition and understanding why they might behave in the way that they do.

The Empty Raincoat
Charles Handy (1996)

in 1995 I lost my job. That in itself wasn’t a bad thing, I didn’t enjoy it anyway and I went on to find one which was much better, but it did give me the opportunity again to take stock and think about my future. The Empty Raincoat is not really a business book, it’s really philosophy and was, I guess, on of the first to start to look at the paradoxes of our world whereby technology advances, GNP increases and opportunities multiply but life doesn’t get any better. It may for some of course but that’s not universal. In many respects Handy was rehearsing current debates which are driven by climate change, the power of big tech and the role of populists in determining government policies.

Management Teams. Why They Succeed or Fail
R Meredith Belbin (2006)

Since 2003 I’ve worked as a ‘consultant’. It’s a title which just says I’ll work for anyone who give me money and for a while I did this with Qi3, a small consultancy in Cambridge. For two years it was responsible for running a business plan competition for the Research Councils of the UK. Part of the competition was training in how to manage businesses, entrants into the competition were university researchers so knew little about this, and I ran a module of teams based on the ideas developed by Mr Belbin and articulated in his books. I’m a fully paid up member of the Belbin fan club for two reasons. Firstly I subscribe to his theories, they are well thought out, there’s some decent evidence to underpin them and they appear to work. And secondly because the Belbin organisation is not based in Harvard or Silicon Valley but in Comberton, a village just outside Cambridge, where it operates from a small unit with a view out over local fields. I like that!

Underlying the Belbin approach is the definition of nine team roles and it’s perhaps not surprising that as we characterised the researchers who entered the competition we encountered so few who scored high as ‘completer finishers’. That explains who so many PhDs are delivered late.

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