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The Problem With Business Books (and Some Notable Exceptions)

A marketer we used to work with had an office filled with tall piles of business books. When asked if he really read them all, he replied, “No, but I got the gist of all of them.” While that statement would be ludicrous when applied to most publishing genres, it worked when talking about business books. That’s because this category offers almost an endless number of volumes that focus on just one idea or concept. Written by top-notch researchers and successful CEOs, these works often deliver one-dimensional messages, based on already-established professional wisdom. These business book authors sometimes start with a concept and then spend about 150-250 pages giving examples that “prove” their concept is true and relevant. They then name their concept in with catchy phrases (Blue Oceans, Lean In) and watch the money roll in.

For these types of publications, it really is pretty easy to quickly get the gist. Sometimes readers can learn everything they need to know by reading one chapter, or less. Or from simply scanning the front flap of the dust jacket.

Now, if you like a lot of business anecdotes, that’s fine. And if you have a lot of time on your hands (as some of us do these days), business books are, technically, ways to pass the time. And if you’re a newbie to the business world, some of these books can help you learn or brush up on the basics.

However, in our experience, very few business books offer fresh thoughts, detailed instructions, or good advice that we can actually use. Don’t believe us? Check out these best-selling stinkers.

by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne

This is a classic “one message” business book. Oceans with lots of sharks are red with blood (a red ocean). Blue seas are empty and uncrowded (blue ocean.) Grow your business by avoiding fierce competition (red oceans) and finding new niches (blue oceans). Seriously, that’s it.

by Spencer Johnson

People don’t like change. It makes them uncomfortable. Especially if you’re in business. The end.

by Sheryl Sandberg

This best-seller encourages women to lean into their careers by asking their husbands to do more. Yes, the world is very biased against women, but if you make your husband do more (lean in) so you can work longer/harder/more assertively, you can succeed as Sandberg did. Some people think this is a feminist manifesto. Others wonder it’s okay to assume everyone has a husband ready and able to pick up the slack. Still others are scratching their head at the assumption that women have been discriminated against primarily because they have too much to do at home. Every mom/wife/single woman who every watched her male co-workers leave work before she did will have a hard time with this tome.

by Jim Collins

Great companies have great leaders, strong teams, are ruled by facts, and are focused. All true, but is any of that surprising? Did anyone really think that great companies had bad CEOs, weak teams, made stuff up as they went along, and were all over the place? To be fair, there is an interesting fox/hedgehog analogy in this book, but since we know nothing about how hedgehogs actually act or what they represent, it was lost on us.

by Ben Horowitz

You can learn to be a great CEO, but it will feel funny at first. CEOs are either decision-makers or implementers. Hiring and firing are hard. Being organized is hard too, but really important. The upside of this book? Ben Horowitz likes to swear, and he shares some good stories.

However, There are Exceptional Business Books, too!

While most business books are one-message-wonders that you should avoid (or stop after you have read the front panels,) there are some notable exceptions. The books listed here are thoughtful, full of valuable information, and are generally worth reading. It’s our opinion that the following books are interesting, compelling, and helpful, even for seasoned business veterans.

by Malcolm Gladwell

This book asks, “What makes high achievers different?” While many people who read this book choose to focus on the 10,000-hour rule (it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at anything), what Gladwell actually seems to be emphasizing is that the secret to success is a fair amount of being in the right place at the right time. Plentiful resources and a powerful shot of good luck also help. While many people have chosen to see this book as an homage to the rewards of hard work (10,000 hours), closer reading will show that it’s really a dissertation on the power of privilege, in all its forms. Even if the message wasn’t powerful (but it is), this book is worth your time because (1) Gladwell is a very good writer, and (2) he knows how to find fascinating examples from all walks of life. Like many of Gladwell’s books, the stories he shares are really more social commentary on bigger issues than practical business advice (which we happen to like, BTW).

by Carl Gould

As the name implies, this book offers seven distinct packets of wisdom. The good news is that each of these packets is focused on one part of the life cycle of a successful business, and they stand up to critical scrutiny. We’ve found that most business owners recognize themselves and their businesses in at least one of Gould’s descriptions of structures, challenges, and stages of growth. And unlike so many business books, this one is full of useful tips and real-world advice.

Full disclosure: Carl Gould is not only a super-smart business consultant and a best-selling author, but he is also a Cup O Content client. 

by Al Ries and Jack Trout

This tome was written before digital was big, so some laws are a little outdated, but overall Al and Jack deliver 22 different laws, as promised. Marketers have loved this book since it was first published in 1993, and for good reason. The laws and examples in this book are detailed, clearly stated, and distinct enough that even experienced marketers can think about their industry in new ways.

by Jim Harter, Marcus Buckingham, and the Gallop Organization

This is one of those rare business books based on new (at the time of publishing) research. It’s also special because it includes a chance to complete one of those skills/quadrants evaluations to find out what you (or your employees) are really good at. But the real point of this book is to tell you that people are wired very differently, and there’s just no use fighting it. Creative geniuses will never be good accountants and good accountants will never be creative geniuses. So, stop trying to fix bad hires and get on with it.

What’s Your Favorite (or Least Favorite) Business Book?

Listen, reading is a subjective activity, and we know everyone has different opinions on what’s good and bad. Even as we wrote this, we knew some people we like and respect will disagree strongly with some of our opinions. So, we’d love to hear from you—share your selections in our comments section.

What to find more Cup O Content reading suggestions? Check out these articles.



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