5 Business Books That Made a Difference

Last Updated Aug 18, 2010 11:33 AM EDT

Great Business Books The vast majority of business books are garbage, but over the course of twenty-something years I managed to find five that made a difference. These aren't books that inspired me, changed my life, helped me find my cheese, or taught me 7 habits.

These are books of substance that taught me how to be a successful marketing executive and provided tools I've used over and over to help companies succeed.

No, I'm not Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but with all due respect, neither are you, right? Besides, I've had, still have, a relatively successful career. So I'm thinking there's a decent chance that whatever epiphanies worked for me may also work for you. At least that's the theory.

One more thing you should probably know. I don't like to read business books. You see, I don't have much respect for the authors, most of whom are academians and self-proclaimed experts or "gurus" with no real-world experience whatsoever. Call me crazy, but I think that sort of limits their credibility in advising anyone in the real world, let alone managers and executives.

That said, there are exceptions. Not only that, but there was a time when I wasn't so jaded and full of myself, when I thirsted for knowledge, when my CEO was constantly leaving business books on my desk for me to read. So read I did.

And hey, don't let some of the "marketing" titles fool you. Many of our modern concepts of business and markets are derived from these books, so everyone with management or executive aspirations will benefit from reading them.

Lastly, I limited my commentary to what each book taught me; they're not book reviews:

What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School by Mark H. McCormack
Provides dozens of practical lessons on what works and doesn't work in the real business world, critical lessons in selling, marketing, managing, running a business, indispensible stuff I used throughout my career. Also taught me to ignore the academic stuff and trust my own instincts and common sense.

The Tao of Leadership by John Heider
As a young executive with a lot to prove and even more angst about my ability to prove it, this book showed me that leadership meant doing almost the exact opposite of everything that came naturally to me. People who worked for me back in the day may laugh at the thought of me being Tao-like, but they never saw what I was like before I read this book.

The Marketing Imagination by Theodore Levitt
Setting out to learn a new trade in the early 90s - marketing - I don't know what I did in a previous life to deserve just happening upon Levitt's masterpiece. From globalization to the service economy to competitive differentiation, this book called so many things right it's almost a one-stop-shop for everything that matters about marketing.

Relationship Marketing by Regis McKenna
If I had to find a bulls-eye - the one thing my success was built on - it's positioning strategy. Corporate positioning, product positioning, market positioning, competitive positioning, any kind of positioning, call it what you want, it all started here. McKenna literally wrote the book on positioning.

Marketing High Technology by William H. Davidow
More practical than the other two marketing books, Davidow's is the high-tech marketing bible, especially for product marketers. It taught me about the power of market segmentation and the cost of gaining market share. It also helped me to better define the marketing function.

Honorable Mention:
  • Liars Poker, Michael Lewis. Besides being one of the funniest books ever, Lewis taught me that I can ditch my executive career and still be a successful writer.
  • The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams. Don't take yourself too seriously. Also, people are most productive in the morning; I switched my staff meetings to the afternoon.
Now it's your turn: what business books made the biggest practical impact on your career?

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