September 25, 2007 9:09 am

The best business books of all time

Shareholders don’t necessarily expect their chief executives to spend time reading business books. Thinking about business, yes. Doing business, definitely. But reading about it?

Picture Jeff Immelt, General Electric’s chief executive, settling down for a couple of hours with Barbarians at the Gate, the 1990 classic narrative about the buy-out of RJR Nabisco. Or Lakshmi Mittal, head of ArcelorMittal, dissecting Built to Last, the Jim Collins/Jerry Porras analysis of the world’s most durable visionary companies. It sounds at best a waste of their time, at worst a dereliction of duty: “Hold the mega-merger – I’m just finishing the chapter on leadership.”

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Yet a Financial Times’ straw poll of a range of top global executives, entrepreneurs and experts revealed that most had found at least one business book – including the books above, recommended by Mr Immelt and Mr Mittal – particularly useful, even inspiring.

Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys, the Indian IT services company, said Kenichi Ohmae’s The Mind of the Strategist had given him a “mental toolbox” with which to build a strategy. Tom Glocer, chief executive of Reuters, said Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma had had a “profound effect on my thinking around innovation” when he first read it.

True, nobody claimed to be an avid reader of business books, which most defined as books about management. A few said it had been a while since they last looked at their favourites. And a couple of participants reckoned that business books were not worth the trouble. David Eldon, the former top Hong Kong banker, now chairman of the Dubai International Financial Centre Authority, suggested he found it more useful to hear directly from successful businesspeople and to read the FT.

But judging from our (admittedly unscientific) survey, it is probably no exaggeration to say that some of the best business books have had a direct influence on the growth of the world’s largest companies.

Our aim at the outset of the survey was to come up with a shortlist of five titles, from which FT readers could select an all-time favourite. It seemed likely that this top five would emerge naturally from the recommendations of the business experts. No such luck. Jim Collins’ Good to Great received four mentions, but no other book got more than one each. And there were some striking omissions. While five volumes by the late, great Peter Drucker were singled out, nobody chose The Practice of Management, which Stefan Stern, our business columnist, reckoned would be the most-cited.

Another FT columnist, Michael Skapinker, missed Tom Peters’ and Robert Waterman’s flawed, but influential In Search of Excellence. And there was not a single mention for Tom Friedman’s paean to globalisation, The World is Flat, the inaugural winner of the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in 2005 and already one of the most cross-referenced works in business publishing history.

Still, there were some thought-provoking selections. Peter Mukerjea, former chief executive of Star Group India, picked Helena Norberg-Hodge’s Ancient Futures, about the influence on Ladakhi culture of modern economic pressures. Who would have expected to find works by Ayn Rand, the libertarian intellectual and author (an inspiration to, among others, Alan Greenspan), in the same list as The Firm by John Grisham? All were recommended by Scott Moeller of Cass Business School.

Samuel Palmisano of IBM, while admitting that “I don’t have as much time to read as I used to”, paid tribute to a former Big Blue boss, Thomas Watson Jr, who wrote Business and Its Beliefs. That was a good way of underlining the IBM legacy – although he could have gone one better and also recommended his immediate predecessor Lou Gerstner’s book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, (the choice, as it happens, of Sony’s Sir Howard Stringer).

Is there, then, a single business book that holds the secret to good management? Probably not. As Fred Kindle, chief executive of ABB, points out, even Good to Great’s much-praised assertions about what makes a high-performance company have been challenged by Philip Rosenzweig’s recently published volume, The Halo Effect. But then, as Mr Kindle, says: “If there was only one valid truth, the book about it would have been written years ago and we all would have read it.”

That said, we are giving readers the chance to vote until October 25 on an all-time favourite business book, from five of those selected by business experts. We enlisted the help of FT specialists to draw up this shortlist, using the criteria applied for the FT/Goldman Sachs annual business book award. (Read the 2007 shortlist). The award tries to find the best books on finance, economics and industry, as well as management.

Jim Collins’ Good to Great – the choice, among others, of Meg Whitman of eBay and Gerard Kleisterlee of Philips – has to be on the list, as does one book by Peter Drucker. We chose The Effective Executive – “almost biblical in its lapidary prose”, according to Suman Bery of India’s National Council for Applied Economic Research.

Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma was the third strategy book on the list. It was joined by Barbarians at the Gate, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, still, more than 15 years since its publication, the benchmark for business story-telling. Finally, it seemed impossible to ignore a work that Henry Tang, the Hong Kong government’s chief secretary for administration, said had laid “the foundation of free-market economics”: Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

Read the full views of all the business experts’ contacted by the FT, and vote for, or comment on, the best business book ever.

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