Best Business Books for Young Professionals

Bookshelves-smallLast semester, I taught three sections of a strategic management course at a local university. The students were all seniors, near graduation, and many had already landed a job and were ready to enter the business world full time. I thought it might be helpful to share some recommendations for great business books that might help them as they entered the business world, recognizing, of course, that few students in college have much time for leisurely reading outside of their required coursework.

And, while many seemed bored and disinterested as I shared my recommendations (no real surprise there, I suppose), I persisted. Interestingly enough, by the end of the semester — and even after — a number of them contacted me to ask if I could send them the list of books I’d recommended.

I received another request recently and thought the list might also hold interest for my blog readers. So, here’s my list of my favorite business books — some old, some new.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Dr. Stephen Covey

This was a very popular book when it first came out, and it continues to be at the top of best-seller lists. Covey died in 2012; he was one of the founders of the FranklinCovey organization, which launched the Franklin Planner, an organizational tool that I used for a number of years. Surprisingly, none of the students in my classes had heard of this book; that’s unfortunate, because it really does deliver some good, real-world, practical advice.

Now, Discover Your Strengths – Marcus Buckingham (Gallup)

This is actually the second of two books offered by Gallup Press in this series. The first, written by James K. Harter, is “First, Break All The Rules.” It offers some counterintuitive advice, most notably the idea that managers should spend more time focusing on their best employees and less trying to improve the competencies of their weaker staff members. “Now, Discover Your Strengths” continues this focus and offers an assessment (StrengthsFinder) that readers can take to identify their own strengths, the idea being that if we focus on building our strengths instead of overcoming our weaknesses, we’ll be more successful. While other researchers have come forward to challenge this notion, it’s still a compelling idea, I think. I enjoyed both of these books!

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert B. Cialdini

This book was recommended to me by a vendor I worked with when serving as the public affairs director for a public utility company. Her company had used the book as a training tool for salespeople, and she highly recommended it. Because I was so impressed with her sales skills, primarily her focus on building value as opposed to pushing product, I decided to take a look at it and was glad I did.

I’ve actually purchased (and lost!) a number of copies of this book over the years after loaning to various colleagues and students. It’s well worth the read and is based on solid research into the impacts of our communications on others.

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell

A few of the most interesting things about this book, I think, are the many very similar points raised by both Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Cialdini. Cialdini’s book was released first.

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done – Larry Bossidy

I’ve worked with a number of companies and organizations on strategic planning initiatives, and I also conducted some research on strategic planning when writing “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Strategic Planning.” Through my work and discussions with a number of business people, I’ve learned that it’s not the planning part that people find so challenging; it’s the doing! Or, in other words, it’s the execution. Bossidy does a great job here of exploring the reasons why many plan elements don’t get executed. He also provides some sound tips for how to get more done.

Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

“Freakonomics” comes from two University of Chicago researchers and professors who look at things from a very unique perspective. I found this to be a fascinating way of applying economic principles to business concepts and commonly held beliefs.

Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

This book is similar to “Freakonomics” in that it relies on applied economic and psychological principles to make compelling points that challenge commonly held beliefs. Ariely also conducts experiments to support his work — and he has a very fascinating personal background.

The Balanced Scorecard – Robert S. Kaplan

There’s a saying that goes something like this: “What gets measured gets managed.” This book presents a very commonly used measurement tool in business settings: the balanced scorecard. It’s a good introduction/background to this concept, which is widely used in businesses as a way of monitoring performance/strategic plan execution.

Blue Ocean Strategy – W. Chan Kim

Today’s competitive business environment demands that businesses be innovative — more innovative than ever before. That’s tough to do. Kim suggests that the key to success is staking out a space where nobody else has gone before — the blue ocean — rather than attempting to compete in the red ocean where everybody else is. It’s a concept relevant to new business development and product innovation — going where others haven’t gone before to carve out a unique niche.

Good to Great – Jim Collins

This was a popular book when it was released, but, like any book that takes a similar approach, what currently makes a company or individual great may not stand the test of time. Not all of these organizations are still great. Why? What made some of the mighty fall? It was very likely poor strategy in the face of environmental/market changes. You can never rest on your laurels, and you must be continually monitoring and responding to internal and external shifts. There are still some good lessons to be learned by the companies Collins covered that are still great — as well as those that aren’t.

Leading at the Edge of Chaos – Daryl R. Conner

I had the opportunity a number of years ago to interview Conner for an article I was writing on how to effectively manage change. This book emphasizes his theories and advice for anyone involved in managing change — but especially for those in leadership positions. Because change is a constant, it’s still very relevant advice. He talks about “sponge capacity” in his book, an interesting concept that applies to the many, many people in business who feel “too busy.”

The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch

This book offers an amazing perspective and reflection on life from a man whose life was far too short. This professor, and author, knew his life was coming to an end; he prepared his last lecture to deliver some powerful advice.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten – Robert Fulghum

Fulghum offers simple, practical and very relevant perspectives on getting along with others — in kindergarten and beyond!

Credibility – James M. Kouzes, Barry Z. Posner

In business, credibility equals personal brand. And just as with company/product brands, this is hard to build and very easy to damage or lose. For students just entering the workforce, recognizing the power of their individual brands, and protecting their credibility, is crucial — but easier said than done.

That’s my list. What would you add?

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