I read for a lot of reasons, but I read business books primarily to help me shape my thinking. They provide new perspectives and help me to articulate thoughts not yet fully formed. Reading business books also allows me to hear stories that provide insight and inspiration.
Maybe I’m just getting older and more boring or more set in my ways, but these stories – as well as novel and actionable perspectives – are becoming fewer and farther between. I think this is regrettable. I also think the innovation economy is fundamentally rewriting the rules of the capitalist market.
Much is written on the ills of capitalism and how a truly free market is not the correct way to address our economy. These are all interesting – and even the basis for one of my recommendations below – but they fail to address the next question: what should we do about this? If you are telling me the free market does not work, pointing out the failures is the easiest part; telling how to address the issue is harder. Turning it over to the government or increasing regulation is often the retort, but that fails to address the problems of socialism. Personally, I can buy into the failings of the free market, but I encourage anyone to tell me what we can or should change and why.
Similarly, the good business story is in short supply in books as well. It is possible that I pass over some of the books because I know I can wait for the Netflix documentary on spectacular screw ups (see Elizabeth Holmes, Uber, WeWork). I think there are some underlying and fundamental trends happening in the economy that no one really has a handle on yet. I am sure there is material out there that in a decade will seem particularly prescient, but I am equally sure that there is material out there that will look idiotic in a decade. Deciphering which is which is a challenge for us.
So with that lukewarm introduction, let me give you two books that are good stories and two books that provide new perspectives.
Two Good Narratives:
The Man who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America–and How to Undo His Legacy by David Gelles
This book about GE’s Jack Welch was fascinating to me. I grew up in an era where Jack Welch and his accomplishments were greatly hailed and lauded. The rank (list your top ten employees) and yank (and fire your bottom people) was seen as ruthless but necessary, and a good way to create shareholder wealth, which would flow out to the broader economy. More recently, that transaction-based mindset has been questioned – and with good reason. The goliath conglomerate that was GE is now in shreds. While I am sure many different theories exist, Gelles’ perspective is that short-term thinking, shorting R&D, becoming a financial company instead of a company that actually made things, and rewarding people solely based on the short-term monetary value they created led to GE’s downfall. This makes for a compelling read, a cautionary tale, and a lesson on what not to do as we move forward.
This has made several lists over the years, but I was slow to the party. My loss. The story of how Phil Knight built Nike is a classic. It is a story of perseverance, luck, and smarts, all of which are fundamental to business success. Phil Knight’s story is inspirational, fun, and interesting, and he tells it well. If you like business biographies, there is a reason that this one makes a lot of lists. Stop putting it off like I did and read it.
Two New Perspectives:
After the pandemic, with government spending making us rich and the labor market tight, people wondered what in the world was going on. My reaction to labor market challenges (and I still think this is correct) is that there is a limitation on BS. Having gone through an existential crisis (which is true for all of us, just different in varying degrees), our ability and desire to do things for work and money at the expense of family or personal life is substantially diminished. A couple is not going to take a $70k and a $40k job and pay $40k in childcare; one of them is leaving the workforce. An hourly worker is not going to take a $10-an-hour job when they can make $20 on Uber. A good deal of labor is also spent on things that are not really meaningful or creating things, and so much is lost in busy work, meaningless paperwork, ridiculous compliance, and other activities that are demeaning and demoralizing. I am not sure if the book offers good answers as to how we can find the way out, but it does provide a perspective that I think is helpful in this new economy.
This is both a good narrative and a good perspective, but I put it here because, with the rise and (maybe) fall of Bitcoin and the role of the Fed during Covid, taking a step back and looking at the history of money is helpful. Money is all about trust, according to Jacob Goldstein, the former host of NPR’s Planet Money. This is a fun and approachable narrative about the history of money: the rise of central banks, the use of paper, and other sources of stored value. He does not delve too deeply into the present situation with either the central banks or Bitcoin, but this is good. History offers a much better perspective on the present.