Leadership by Geoff Colvin

10 tips from the best in business

February 25, 2009: 3:14 PM ET
Photo courtesy of Kathrine Berger

Photo courtesy of Kathrine Berger

by Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten

As authors of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, published in February by Portfolio, we found ourselves stumbling across the most important business insights of the last 30 years. We learned plenty about leading, managing, innovating and saving your company and yourself when disaster lurks around the corner. In case you don't have time to read all the stuff that we did--or you're so busy that you can't even to read our new book!—here are 10 pointers that we picked up from those 100 Best books:

Better to be first than better. In the 1980 classic Positioning, Al Ries and Jack Trout show that being No. 1 in the mind of the customer offers enormous market advantage. Today, Apple's (AAPL) iPod and McDonald's (MCD), two companies holding strong in the recession, exemplify the concept, dominating their respective categories. Can't be first? Take a step sideways and create a new segment where you can be.

Manage actions, not time. Productivity guru David Allen says that we make the futile mistake of trying to manage all the wrong things--time, information, priorities--when none of these can be controlled. In his 2001 book, Getting Things Done, he advises: Build your next steps around actions. Use to-do lists. Tip sheets and software modules are just a Google (GOOG) search away.

Find faults faster. Silicon Valley design firm IDEO has helped create groundbreaking products ranging from the original Apple mouse to the Palm V (PALM) handheld organizer. In 2001, IDEO general manager Tom Kelly wrote The Art of Innovation, explaining how the firm succeeds. By building prototypes early, IDEO makes mistakes happen faster and speeds products to market. Making something beats imagining what it might be.

Drive pushes; passion pulls. Randy Komisar's 2000 pseudo-memoir The Monk and the Riddle is about success. Not the kind of success that can be quantified by dollar signs. "It is about the purpose of work and the integration of what one does with what one believes. The Monk is not about how, but why," writes Komisar. "Purpose" and "passion" are contemplated in many books we chose for the 100 Best. Komisar shows us that work and life, ideally, are one and the same.

Be remarkable. In his 2003 book, Purple Cow, Seth Godin encourages risk-taking. Create something exceptiona that will get people talking, he says. Word-of-mouth marketing is more powerful today than ever. The person or organization whose ideas spread the furthest wins. L.L. Bean's no-questions-asked return policy and OXO's (HELE) ergonomically, easily grippable kitchen gadgets are just two examples of what fans eagerly tell their friends about.

Any industry is ripe for reinvention. Billy Beane turned Major League Baseball upside down by using unusual metrics to evaluate talent when his team couldn't compete with money. Michael Lewis' Moneyball (2003) proves that all businesses are in danger of disruption. So you might as well do some of your own reinventing.

Find a parade and get in front of it. In Zag (2006), branding expert Marty Neumeier advocates a kind of radical differentiation he calls "zagging." Look for the white spaces and start marching--because follow the leader is a game for kids.

The President gets 100 days, you get 90. In The First 90 Days, author Michael Watkins says that managers used to get 100 days to prove themselves in a new job. Newcomers now get 90. Certainly, since 2003, when this guidebook was published, the honeymoon has contracted even more. But whatever the number and whatever the job, Watkins details why you must get out of the gate quickly--and gives good advice about how to do it effectively.

Be unreasonable. The cliché is that change is the only thing predictable in an unpredictable world. Charles Handy would disagree with this. He says that we're living in The Age of Unreason (1990). Change is unpredictable. The best way to combat change? Become a changeling yourself.

Read anything Drucker. -- The late management sage delivers insights through powerful Socratic questioning. When Jack Welch took over General Electric (GE) in 1981, Drucker challenged the new CEO with a single question about his conglomerate: "If you didn't own any of these businesses now and had a chance to buy them, would you?" Drucker formed many of his early beliefs while consulting for General Motors (GM) in 1940s. What advice would he give the auto giant today?

Jack Covert is the founder of 800-CEO-READ, a Milwaukee-based specialty business book retailer. Todd Sattersten is the company's president. They are the co-authors of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, available now from Portfolio. Both read countless business books every year and review many of them on their Web site and blog at www.800ceoread.com.

Join the Conversation
Fortune's Most Powerful Women
Fortune's Most Powerful Women For the latest on the most influential women in business, philanthropy, government, and the arts, like us on Facebook.
Guest Posts
Fortune Most Powerful Women Fortune Most Powerful Women The rolodex that redefined power
Profile in The Washington Post
Sheryl Sandberg: Sheryl Sandberg: Don't leave before you leave
COO of Facebook
Wendy Clark Wendy Clark Exec learns firsthand how the homeless live
SVP of the Global Sparkling Brand Center at Coca-Cola
Video
Marissa Mayer's 3 biggest decisions as Yahoo CEO With company stock up over 100% since she began running the company 16 months ago, Mayer reflects on her choices to date. Watch
Chelsea Clinton on running for office: 'I don't know' The vice chairman of the Clinton Foundation talks about her diverse career path and growing up in the spotlight. Watch
About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

Email Pattie Sellers | Welcome to Postcards.
Follow Pattie | email newsletter
MPWomen go Global

The Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership brings rising-star women from countries around the world to the U.S. for three-week mentorships with participants of the annual Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit - among them Ursula Burns of Xerox, Laura Lang of Time Inc., Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, and Tory Burch.

Read more

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.