The Best in the Business

As an executive at a publishing house for decades I read dozens of business books. Some I read for my own interest. Others were assigned to me by my boss for our team to read.

Too many of these were filled with abstract ideas, gave few examples of how to put the theory into practice, had longs lists of to-do’s, were based too much on one person’s experience, or simply had too few ideas.

The best of them kept their audience firmly in mind. The authors knew their readers were busy people who needed fresh, practical ideas on specific topics. They had to keep the attention of people who were distracted by dozens of problems needing immediate attention, people who wanted help—right now. How did they do that?

1. Stories. Some business books (which shall be nameless to protect the guilty) give theory or outlines without engaging the human element. Stories engage our passions. But they also use stories to make principles concrete. Often we don’t know how to put an idea into practice in our own context until we see an example even if it is in a completely different setting.

One of the most memorable pieces of leadership advice I ever read was in First, Break All the Rules. Counterintuitively the authors said not to spend a lot of time trying to fix weaknesses in employees. Rather concentrate on their strengths and on your best employees. That seemed odd to me until they told a concrete story of Jean P. whose average for data entry was 50% higher than the national average. Her manager helped her set goals to improve and track her progress. In three months she doubled her performance. So she set new goals and in six months she doubled that! (p. 177)

Suddenly the point became clear. Rather than spending a lot of time trying to get five average people on the team to improve by 10%, far more could be achieved by giving focused attention to star performers (in data entry or sales or case loads). When I read that, I got it! And it transformed how I managed.

2. Practical. The best books don’t open with several chapters of theory and then offer concrete advice at the end. Rather they mix theory and practice in every chapter. Unless readers feel they will get something they can use right away, they will give up on the book.

3. Substance. I am often annoyed by business books which “are magazine articles with a very high view of themselves.”* Books that stretch out a single, thin idea are exasperating. They waste my time. While most readers won’t tolerate a thick, academic approach, they do want something that is based on solid research which has been distilled in a way that doesn’t talk down to them. Which brings us to the next point.

4. Simplicity. It’s hard to put something into practice that you can’t remember. It’s also hard to put something into practice that is overly complicated. Don’t get me wrong. I love subtly and nuance and balance and sophistication in everything I read. Sometimes I’m able to gather the main points myself. But it is so much better if authors could do that for us.

One of the best business books I’ve read is, under the surface, a manual on how to write a business book. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is for those who have an important message to convey—teachers, sales managers, team leaders, coaches, writers, parents, entrepreneurs talking to investors, yes, . . . and those writing business books.

They highlight six points which they summarize in a memorable acronym SUCCES—Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Clarity, Emotion, Stories. And they practice what they preach, using all six of these features in their book to explain each of the six points.

No one formula is right for every book. But if you are able to incorporate even some of the elements the Heath brothers encourage, regardless of the kind of book you are writing, then you’ll definitely be in business.

*As my friend Steve Board once put it.


The business world is one of the worst offenders when it comes to jargon. It is full of superficially hip insider language that lends a sense of currency to ideas that are (or should be) just common sense. If I hear metrics, optics, curating, ecosystem, and granular one more time I will stack up all my business books in my front yard and set them on fire.

To put it plainly, jargon masks meaning. It doesn’t make things clearer. It hides what you are saying.

I suppose it is inevitable. Consultants persist in fabricating such vocabulary to make it seem they are worth the big bucks you pay them. Max Mallet and friends pull back the curtain on the machinery of these “all-powerful wizards.” Here are two of forty-five terms that are worst offenders.

Buy-In. David Logan, professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business notes: “Asking for someone’s ‘buy-in’ says, ‘I have an idea. I didn’t involve you because I didn’t value you enough to discuss it with you. I want you to embrace it as if you were in on it from the beginning, because that would make me feel really good.’”

Core Competency. In business-speak, this means a fundamental strength even though the word competent means only having a needed skill. “Do people talk about peripheral competency?” asks Bruce Barry, professor of management at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Business. “Being competent is not the standard we’re seeking. It’s like core mediocrity.”

One that annoys me most is:

Onboarding. Integrating new employees is important. Making sure they feel welcome and a part of the team is important. Why not just say that? Besides sounding like waterboarding or overboarding, do we want to begin by telling people they are getting on a cruise ship? Sure, workplaces can be fun. But if you want committed, long-term employees, captivate them with meaningful, life-giving work.

What’s the business jargon you love to hate?

image: Pixabay, mohamed_hassan

“Buy This Stock Now!”

You’ve seen the pop-up adds and click bait many times. “He predicted the Great Recession. Now look what stock he says to buy!”

What few ask, however, is this. What other predictions did he make that failed? Were there dozens? Hundreds? No one remembers those. But if you make lots of such guesses, then odds are one or two will be right.

Freakonomist Steven Levitt tells us just this. “Most predictions we remember are ones which were fabulously, wildly unexpected and then came true. Now, the person who makes that prediction has a strong incentive to remind everyone that they made that crazy prediction which came true. . . . And without any sort of market mechanism or incentive for keeping the prediction makers honest, there’s lots of incentive to go out and to make these wild predictions.”

As Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking, Fast and Slow, the intuition of experts is pretty good when (1) an environment is regular, and (2) when one has learned “these regularities through prolonged practice” (240). So in specialized fields like nursing and firefighting, expert intuition is likely to be valid.

But where the variables are so wide ranging and the environment so vast that it cannot be regular (like picking the next hot stock or the next political hot spot), then expert intuition has the approximate same value as a warm bucket of spit.

Photo credit: Pixabay, nvodicka

Not an Exact Science

Since I’ve been an editor all these years, many people assume I have a degree in English or journalism. They are wrong, of course. I have a degree in mathematics.

That may seem an odd thing, but studying mathematics has helped me tremendously as an editor in at least two ways. First, it trained me to think logically and rigorously. Second, it means I’m not totally lost when it comes to thinking about the numbers side of publishing. And there are a lot of numbers to think about: profit, loss, expenses, budgets, sales rates and projections, price calculations, spread sheets, and more.
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Taking Stock

Next week IVP undertakes its annual ritual of taking stock. I don’t mean we will evaluate how well we did or didn’t hit our goals for the end of our fiscal year on June 30. Rather almost all office personnel are commandeered by those in our accounting department and our distribution center to “do inventory.” I and my colleagues will don lightweight grubbies (the forecast is for the high eighties) and partner with our more warehouse-savvy comrades to count books.
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