Leader’s bookshelf

02.06.14 BooksBY TOM COX | OB BLOGGER

Five books that will make you a better leader.

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02.06.14 BooksBY TOM COX |OB BLOGGER

My mornings are best when I start them off reading something stimulating, challenging and enlightening.

These are the books I couldn’t put down over the past few months.

Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming

Everyone who manages (or who wants to understand the sources of quality) need to read this unpolished, genuine account of Deming’s thinking.  Richly interspersed with quotes and interviews of workers that could have been recorded yesterday, this timeless book will recharge your excitement over being the leader your followers crave.  Summary: workers want to do good work; here are the myths cluttering your head that are stopping you from helping them effectively.

Biggest insight I got: Deming gives a simple mathematical way to see if individual performance metrics are reflecting real individual differences, or just variations created by your system. Obviously, you can’t improve system performance through individual incentives! For that you need systemic change.

The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems by Christian Madsbjerg, Mikkel B. Rasmussen

I’m a big fan of brainstorming and group process work, so Madsbjerg and Rasmussen’s sharp, accurate critique on the limits of such activities — tossed in casually in the first section — rocked me back on my heels and made me read closely.  Summary:  Moment of Clarity breaks truly new ground for managers and leaders — laying bare the thinking and outlining the steps needed for “sensemaking” (the core skill needed to cope with a world that changes faster each day), and for mastering a crucial form of problem-solving, abductive reasoning.

I call this the best new business book of the year.

Guide to Business Modelling, Third Edition (Economist Series) by John Tennent, Graham Friend

In my consulting work I often need to build Excel models of complex questions — like how to set prices, how to set discount levels, how to predict (and track) the way revenue will shift as a client changes from one set of core customers to another.

This book dramatically improved my Excel skills, while providing a more robust modeling methodology than my home-grown one. I’ve adopted most of their guidance because it really does work better.  The examples are also excellent.  Couple this book with one of my frequently mentioned favorites, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business (a revised edition comes out this month), for extra juice.

Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow, by Chip Conley

At the recent “100 Best Places to Work in Oregon” event, it was revealed that the top companies’ employees were happiest about having a company purpose or mission they could believe in. This book — among other virtues — gives you the recipe for uncovering your unstated mission, or for restating your current mission in far more compelling terms.

I was most impressed with the author’s fidelity to Maslow’s insights, while weaving in the work of dozens of other writers and thinkers. Conley is a great synthesizer of ideas who doesn’t over-simplify them.

The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, by Daniel Coyle

This is the book I wish I’d had when I was parenting younger kids — and planning my own career development.  It’s never too late to start doing things better, and if you are serious about managing your own talents or nurturing those of your staff, this book will delight you while giving you insights.

My personal takeaway is to struggle more at the edge of my competence, rather than repeatedly doing things I’m already good at.  This sort of “edge practice” is where learning is fastest.  And take a close look at the graph on how one’s commitment level boosts the effectiveness of practice.  A highly committed learner will improve more from low frequency practice, than a low commitment learner will from high frequency practice.  Combine high commitment with high frequency and the effect is massive.


Tom Cox blogs on leadership for Oregon Business.