Managers and leaders of organizations fall into various categories. When it comes to reading books and articles on management, they tend to group along a continuum. There are those who simply don't read anything, probably the majority. There are those who occasionally glance at a book or article to pick up some bullet points, a useful practice. Then there are those who buy books and pretend to read so that they can use an author's name or drop a hot title to impress their colleagues. I used to work with an investment banker who would do this on a regular basis, even though he probably had trouble getting through "See Spot Run." I remember asking him what it was that he thought was most valuable in The Wisdom of Teams. His expression gave new meaning to the cliché about the deer caught in the headlights.
Finally, there are those who actively seek things to read that can help them elevate from good to great, to paraphrase a best-selling business title. When they apply this knowledge, you can see the difference in their organizations' performance. And when the habit spreads to the staff level or across units, they achieve a form of nirvana: the learning organization.
Several years ago, I began urging my clients to read certain authors to help broaden their perspectives, to open themselves to alternative approaches or to simply focus more clearly on a specific issue. Typically I would have to buy the book myself, and I would give it to them on a Friday and suggest that they "take a look at it" over the weekend. I knew that these were one-time opportunities, so I was very careful in what I recommended. The author who turned this experiment in organizational learning into a real success was Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni's books, especially The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, but also his others, have three qualities that convert "take a look at it" over the weekend into "I spent the whole weekend reading it." First, Lencioni knows how to write; these books are good reading. Second, every manager I know connects to the reality in Lencioni's "parables." And, finally, after reading the book over the weekend, these managers could do several things differently on Monday morning. There were immediate applications.
From this experience, I have developed my four principles for management development through reading:
Principle One: The books must be good reading. They have to be interesting, it cannot take a long time to "get into them," and they must relate to the problems that managers face in real life–people have to see themselves in these books. And by seeing themselves, managers realize that they are not unique – and in particular, that they are not failures – because a lot of other people are facing the same problem. Otherwise, how could someone write best-selling books about them?
Principle Two: If the book or article doesn't change the way you think about something or if there isn't an immediate application, in effect an instantly usable tool, it isn't worth reading. Pass your time reading fiction or history books. Here are some examples: Ken Blanchard's Raving Fans gives you an invaluable mental model for thinking about customer service. As a way of thinking, it is all anyone needs to know. I can say without equivocation that universal application of Blanchard's model would transform the Virgin Islands into the No. 1 tourist destination in the region. In Execution: the Discipline of Getting Things Done, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan focus our attention on the critical function of implementation. It is the exception to the rule, a useful book written by a former big time CEO. In one of Lencioni's recent books, Death by Meeting, he takes unproductive meetings out of the realm of the inevitable and relatively harmless, shows the damage that they do, and gives us models for change that can be applied instantly.
Principle Three: Do not read books on leadership or management written by ex-CEO's of big companies, politicians, football coaches or people on television. These contain mostly self-serving narcissism written by people who have spent much of their adult lives flying at 37,000 feet without great awareness of – or interest in – what is happening on the ground. What got them to where they are will not help you get to where you want to be.
Principle Four: Avoid books with words in the title such as "leading," "leadership," "lead," "winning," "the only ." or "power," or those with references to the management styles of historic or religious figures. Napoleon, Chairman Mao, and Attila and the Huns are not useful managerial role models, and their experiences do not present useful applications. Blasphemy issues aside, Jesus was not a CEO. He did not "manage" the apostles to keep them "on message."
Here is a suggested summer management reading list. At the broadest level, Jim Collins's Good to Great and his short monograph Good to Great in the Social Sectors give us excellent measures for defining excellence. Good to Great in the Social Sectors is an excellent self-assessment and planning tool for the non-profit sector. Similarly, William Joyce, Nitin Nohria and Bruce Roberson (What Really Works) present a framework for success that applies to all organizations: clear strategy, flawless execution, a flat, simple organizational structure and a culture that rewards performance. I've already mentioned Execution and Raving Fans, and, for the most immediate rewards, read any of Patrick Lencioni's books, but especially The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Death by Meeting.
Management can be isolating. There is often little time and few opportunities to share experiences with peers. Sometimes, for example, in small businesses, there are no peers. In the old television series Moonlighting, Bruce Willis once made a typically obnoxious remark, to which Cybill Shepherd responded, "You are the most disgusting man I've ever met." Without missing a beat, Willis retorted, "You ought to get out more." Many managers experience the same lack of context. Clients often ask me, "Have you ever seen anything like this before?" My invariable answer is yes, which typically hurts their feelings because they thought they were unique but also provides comfort because they realize that we are all in the same boat. Reading is a way of getting out more.
Good management literature also gives us context and helps us look at the world of organizations in new and helpful ways. It helps us change our mental models. Paul Newman played Luke, a chain gang prisoner, in the classic movie Cool Hand Luke. His repeated escape attempts were met with beatings and other cruel punishments, and the managerially oriented – but sadistic – warden would repeatedly tell him, "Luke, you have to get your mind right." Good management reading helps us get our minds right without the beatings.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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