09. March 2016 · Comments Off on What makes for a “good” business book? by SmartBrief’s James daSilva · Categories: Uncategorized

I am delighted and grateful to have my old college cross country teammate James daSilva, senior editor at SmartBrief, write a great guest column on how to discern which business books are worth our time and attention.


There is no shortage of books on business, including those on leadership and management, innovation, strategy, productivity, technology and entrepreneurship. The question is: Which books are most worth reading, and how can I determine this?

There’s no one answer, but as someone who receives dozens of books from authors and publishing houses each year, I can offer my own experience. Let’s start with the conclusion: A good business book goes beyond boilerplate language and big promises; it is focused; and it seeks to inspire the reader to find his or her own solutions.

My conclusion rests on these premises:

  • “Business” is a general term for an endless variety of situations. No book can cover all of them, and those that claim to are suspect.
  • 7-step systems and buzzwords are not bad, but they must be examined for what they contain. Are they simply a good way to advertise the author, or do they perform in the real world?
  • Great business books inspire more than they prescribe. That’s why the idea of potential is so important – does a business book give a framework that is grounded yet flexible?

Why do I think these qualities matter for a good business book? One is simply time. We’re all busy, and there’s a wealth of reading we’d like to tackle. Also, depending on our jobs, we might already be reading at work; tackling a business book can feel like work, so we’d better choose wisely.

Given that, I look at a book’s focus. I don’t know what I’m necessarily getting with something like (the hypothetical) “Being a 21st-Century Leader,” but something like Scott Eblin’s “Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative” is clear – busy executives who wish to prioritize their health and well-being but don’t know how. Similarly, a book on “strategy” had better be a comprehensive textbook; otherwise, I’d prefer a book specifically about, say, zero-based budgeting or operating as a multinational in highly regulated industries.

Focus can also be theme-based. David Burkus’ new book “Under New Management” is a collection of chapters on ways to rethink long-held business and operational practices. If you’re seeking inspiration on doing things differently and smarter, this type of book might help. Notably, though, it won’t guarantee success or prescribe a specific solution for your organization – that hard work is up to you.

I also look at what’s behind the book’s theme, its catchphrases and the formula it recommends. The publishing world, of course, has experienced considerable change. In just the past 4-5 years, I’ve seen a marked increase in authors doing their own marketing and PR, and the workload of promoting a book can seem greater than the writing. Given that, it’s tempting for an author to “invent” a new system of thinking, or a theory of business, and attach the proper catchphrase and gravitas to it.

Such branding is understandable. But does the book go deeper? The messy truth of the world is that principles cannot be applied in every situation or in the same way. We need to be discerning, curious and inquisitive, and books that help us find the basis for those inquiries are helpful. Those that say, “Do these 3 things and all will be well,” will be popular but ultimately empty.

Finally, does a business book inspire? Does it dictate, or does it offer a framework for the reader to apply as needed? Andy Grove’s “High Output Management” remains a classic in its fourth decade in large part because, while the then-Intel CEO will share how he structures his day, makes decisions and manages direct reports, he does not pretend that the semiconductor industry’s examples are universal. You’ll learn how he decided where to site a new overseas factory, but more importantly, you’ll learn the process.

All this said, don’t be afraid to try out a book. You can always stop, but you might also be pleasantly surprised.

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