Choose your business books carefully

I read few if any serious books during my first 15 years in business. Occasionally, I did scan newspapers and trade journals. But it was not what you would describe as someone who is reading to learn. Then one day a young man who worked in our accounting department popped into my office touting a Wall Street Journal book review of “In Search of Excellence.” I thanked him, skimmed the review and gave it to my wife as a gift suggestion.

On Father’s Day the book arrived. Graciously I picked it up and read a few pages and then a few more and then I couldn’t put it down. This was my first serious book reading in a long time. In it, authors Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, who had studied top-performing American companies, shared some fascinating common success factors. Wow. There was so much to learn. More importantly, it could easily be applied to our little business. The experience changed my attitude about reading books and began an educational reading regimen that continues to this day.

For me, the magic of this business book was in the studies, examples and lessons. Together they made for a relevant, interesting, educational and applicable read. Suddenly, I was learning from reading — and becoming a more effective executive as a result. It made me want to keep digging. I knew that becoming more informed would pay off: I would be able to give better direction and make smarter decisions. And I did.

Tips for a starting a reading regimen 

Here’s how to build a quality reading routine for self-development. First, select books that are both interesting to you personally and relevant to your career growth.

Second, figure out which skills you most need to develop and find the books that will give you the most knowledge to improve those skills. For me, selecting the right people for my team would always be one of my most important decisions as a leader. So I started sourcing books about recruiting and interviewing. I have read my share. And my all-time favorite is “Who” by Geoff Smart, which I recommended in a previous column.

Third, round out your reading with books about becoming a great leader. Two top reads on management and leadership are “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and “The Best at What Matters Most” by Joe Calloway. Patrick Lencioni and Marshall Goldsmith are also excellent authors on the subject of leadership.

Fourth, biographies of people you admire can be great learning sources, too. Just think about the leadership challenges of men like Lincoln, Churchill and Eisenhower. In particular, look for biographies of leaders in your profession. In my world of retailing, the biographies of Walmart’s Sam Walton and Bernie Marcus, founder of Home Depot, have been inspiring and educational.

A few more thoughts:

  • Learn from your reading. If you are not growing from the experience you are reading the wrong material.
  • Apply your knowledge. Quoting books to others only serves to make you look smart on the surface. It’s what you do with your newly acquired knowledge and personal skills that really matters.
  • Start (and maybe end) with book No. 1. A word of caution: The second book by a big author is rarely as effective as the first. So, always go for the debut release from a variety of authors.
  • Share your favorite books. You can visit my website, joescarlett.com, for more than 60 reviews on books about business, leadership, history, biographies, education, politics and retailing.

Finally, pause and ask yourself this: “What is your learning agenda?” Ponder that for minute and see if you have a solid answer.

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