10 tips from the best in business

February 26, 2009, 1:14 AM UTC
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 iPod and McDonald’s , 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 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 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 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 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 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.