January 26, 2014 7:08 pm

Business books: the pick of the crop

To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Persuading, Convincing, and Influencing Others, by Daniel Pink, Canongate, RRP£14.99/$26.95

 

The premise of Pink’s latest book is that everyone is in sales these days, whether their title contains the word or not. He points out that the internet has made it harder for sellers to exploit the information gap with buyers.

CarMax, for instance, is a used car emporium that allows buyers to see the same information as that available to its sales people, making it less likely customers will buy a lemon.

His argument that old-style selling is dying does not quite hold up – he seems in awe of some traditional techniques – but he does justice to an often unfairly maligned profession.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone, Bantam Press/Little, Brown, RRP£18.99/$28

 

Stone’s detailed examination of the rise of Jeff Bezos and Amazon was the deserved winner of the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs 2013 Business Book of the Year Award, not only for its insights into the famously frugal and driven founder, but also for its wider management lessons about how to survive and thrive in the internet age.

Stone describes a man who applied his genius to the unlikely goal – formed in the chaotic early days of the internet – of an online store that would sell everything. He then implemented this concept ruthlessly, annihilating or absorbing incumbents and rivals alike.

The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and its Secret Influence on American Business , by Duff McDonald, Simon & Schuster, RRP$30

 

McKinsey’s access to the higher echelons of US and global business gives its consultants potentially huge influence. McDonald tells the story of how it has built and wielded that influence.

He tugs at the loose threads in McKinsey’s tale of buttoned-up efficiency and sometimes self-righteous rigour – notably the fall of its former head, Rajat Gupta, in the Galleon insider trading scandal – and asks whether the net effect of “the Firm” is positive or negative.

At the heart of its success, he says, is an ability to charge clients repeat fees and step away when its recommendations fail.

The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business, by Rita Gunther McGrath, Harvard Business Review Press, RRP£20/$30

 

McGrath’s book attacks Michael Porter’s theory of competitive advantage, which has been a linchpin of management and strategic thinking since 1985, and points out that in a world of changing competition, evanescent opportunities and constant challenge, there is no such thing as a sustainable lead.

The key, instead, is to nurture rapidly evolving early-stage innovation and to move beyond advances in product features – which are easily copied – towards improvement of the whole user experience.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, by Scott Adams, Penguin/Portfolio Hardcover, RRP£14.99/$27.95

 

Fans of Dilbert – Adams’s wonderful cartoon antidote to the absurdities of office life – ought not to worry that this cross between an autobiography and a self-help book contains few cartoons.

Adams analyses the repeated failures that made him the success he is, and unveils his philosophy of life so everyone can study it.

This includes his use of systems, rather than goals, to improve his odds of striking lucky and, more controversially, repeated “affirmations” (such as “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist”) to sharpen his focus.

The I of Leadership: Strategies for Seeing, Being and Doing, by Nigel Nicholson, John Wiley/Jossey-Bass, RRP£18.99/$29.95

 

The gifts of jazz musician Duke Ellington and the heroism of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton help Nicholson explain how leaders can take control of themselves, work out their true identity, and use it to adapt to the inevitable waves of change that assail modern organisations.

He divides leaders’ tasks into acts, tactics and strategies. He then discusses how they can master each and lead with more conviction by answering the question “Who am I and why am I here?”. Nicholson’s lessons are complex but potentially more useful than many simpler books.

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