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Six books in 12 weeks. The challenge we set listeners of our new business book podcast in 2016 was a stiff one and, in truth, it is not clear how many met it.
What is clear, however, is that FT columnists, asked to select a “classic” business book, came up with an extraordinarily eclectic list.
Their choices included straight-down-the-middle business titles, such as Bryan Burrough and John Helyar’s Barbarians at the Gate, but also a great novel (Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, recommended for its insights into hierarchy and bureaucracy) and a 1962 collection of workplace advice, dating tips and recipes (the mould-breaking Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, later editor of Cosmopolitan).
The first series generated some real insights into the business world, as seen through the eyes of a variety of authors.
David Nasaw, the author of Andrew Carnegie, the mammoth 2006 biography of the industrialist and philanthropist, told the show that if he were writing the book again, he would place more emphasis on Carnegie’s “distaste for men of wealth who didn’t produce anything”. Carnegie, he said, had a “notion that there was something noble in creating a product and giving it to a larger public at a lower price, and something ignoble about making money from the buying and selling of businesses to people”.
Discussing those same people, and how they were portrayed in Barbarians at the Gate, about the hostile bid for RJR Nabisco in the 1980s, Martin Dickson, FT New York bureau chief in the aftermath of the deal, said the book set “a new bar” for business writing. But by exposing the egos and machinations of dealmakers, he said, the book also presented an unpleasant public profile of Wall Street and corporate America that was influential in the years to come.
Lucy Kellaway picked Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson’s The One Minute Manager (“incredibly famous, incredibly short”), whose simple message about how to get the best from people has sold millions. To Lucy’s disgust, though, she learnt that the idea she loved best — that it is important to give short, sharp “reprimands” to team members who make mistakes — had been adapted in the new edition to the softer “redirects”.
As Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, pointed out in our first podcast, time-poor businesspeople are looking for concise lessons that they can apply immediately — hence the hail of bullet-points at the end of every chapter in management books.
There is plenty to learn from all the books in the first challenge, whether an 800-page biography or a 100-page parable. In different ways, they all follow Francke’s rules for effective presentations: “You tell them what you’re going to tell them, you tell them, then you remind them what you told them.”
In that spirit, here is a reminder of the books in the first FT Business Book Challenge: Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw; Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson; Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown; The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few by James Surowiecki. Go to ft.com/business-book-podcast to listen to our Business Book Club podcasts.
The second series of the FT Business Book Challenge starts in February. If you have ideas for books that should be tackled in the new series, or would like to take part in the podcasts, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor and author of “Leadership in the Headlines: Insider Insights into How Leaders Lead”