What academics can learn from business II: the best business books

In the first post in this series I argued that whether you know it or not if you are training to be a PI in an academic (or government or NGO) environment, you basically have to wear a bunch of different hats corresponding to all the different functions a business has from human resources to sales and marketing to management. What you may not know is that the business world is absolutely aflood in advice/self-help books on every topic under the sun. It’s a bit of a joke really. Every year hundreds of books come out claiming to show you how to be the best in the world. But people buy them. And read them. Even if they don’t want to they have to read some of them because they become the lingo du jour. It won’t impress the boss if you have a vacant look when she uses the latest buzz word. From my business days, I recall having to read a book called “Crossing the Chasm” before an executive retreat because the boss expected it and we were all going to talk about it. It was, to say the least, fluffy. It took a couple of hundred pages to say what could have been said in 20. And it was entirely anecdotal. It short it was a typical self-help book. One concept and a bunch of inspiration. And it was totally off target – it was all about moving from selling to early technology adopters to the mass market. Only our products were never going to move to the mass market. Ironically if you’ve ever flipped through an inflight magazine you will see an add promising to save busy executives time by provided digested versions of all the important business books for the year.

For those of you who identified some gaps in skills relative to the list I laid out and want some advice on where to go to develop some of those skills, I want to provide you my own version of the digest. Here I will summarize (but definitely encourage you to read) key points from four books to help develop some of the business skills most academics don’t get trained in. I’m not going to offer anything in human resources, accounting or general counsel (although see this post on intellectual property law). They are boring and country specific and most academics matter them with the patience and kindness of the people doing these functions in their university. And of course I am not going to refer you to a book to learn how to do your core function of science. But I’ve got suggestions for management, marketing, sales, and time management. And I’m not going to say this repeatedly. But every one of these books is short and fluffy and a very quick read. And easily available second hand (business books sell at much higher volume than academic books for some reason …). So if a book on my list interests you, I strongly encourage you to go read it. It will cost you $5-$10 and two hours.

Management: The second best selling business book of all time is In Search of Excellence by Peters and Waterman. The central conceit is they identified a list of excellent companies and then interviewed and studied them to see what they all had in common. It has since come out that they weren’t exactly – uhmm – rigorous in how they selected companies nor studied them. And some of the companies listed as excellent are now in the dumps. But I believe it is still the best book out there on management. Some of the key points I got out of the book are:

  • The central job of a manager is not to tell people what to do. It is to create a culture of values so that all the employees already know not just what to do but how we do it and what we value.
  • Creating a values culture is a lot harder than just micromanaging people. But it turns people loose to buy into their jobs and invest their passion and creativity. It is the path to what some people call the theory Z style of management that everybody in the 1980s felt Japan had mastered and the US hadn’t. The prior forms of management where X (totalitarian micromanager) and Y (laisse faire hands off). Creating a values culture takes time. And to be honest, it involves lots of intangibles and so can be a leap forleft brain rational scientists. Intangibles like prizes, spending your time talking about culture and values, team-building, and providing vivid metaphors and examples of what you want that stick in people’s minds because if they’re a little wacky.
  • MBWA – Management by walking around. Managers who sit in their office and make people come to them are out of touch. And failing to create a values culture. Devote time daily to just walking through your workspaces and talking to people. It may just be a “how are you” conversation which builds loyalty. Or it may be catching a potential problem or brilliant idea that literally would never have walked into your office. Face time matters and do it in the workspaces, not your office.
  • Have a bias for action – don’t overanalyze or have people excessively afraid of making mistakes. To borrow another business slogan, make “Just do it” part of the culture.

Marketing: I argued that a big part of your job is to create a brand. Whether you recognize it or not scientists have brands. Everybody thinks they know the niche of the players in their field. So since it exists, manage it to be what you want. My recommendation on this front is easy: The Twenty-Two Immutable Laws of Marketing by Ries and Trout. Of all the books I am going to recommend this is the one you will think you can skip. Don’t. It is 120 small pages of big type. You can read it in under an hour. And it is written in a lively style with some cartoons. And even if it never improves your science career, it will help you parse the business section of the newspaper and the advertisements on your screen. The key principles are that you can own one and only one concept. And you want to be one of the top two players on that concept. If you’re not there rework and redefine the concept you own until you are. The book expands on this a lot. And I’m not sure if it is exactly true that you can only own one concept in academia (we tend to be intellectuals who can hold slightly more complex framing) or that you have to be in the top two (I suspect top five is good enough in academia). But the core message of identifying your market and then showing discipline in communicating that this is your market is a good one. And Trout and Ries would absolutely say that I am wrong to give academics to be slightly more expansive.

Sales: My recommendation on this topic is probably the weakest of my recommendations. But its been a top seller since the 1930s: How to Make Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie The book will feel dated in language and certainly sexist. But the core message of treating people well never gets old. If you want a more up to date version, try Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Bradbury and Greaves. So called “soft skills” do matter and they can be developed.

Time management #1 – One of the most popular business books of the last 20 years or so has been Seven habits of highly effective people by Covey. To me, many of the principles in this book are obvious – plan backwards from the goal. Take care of yourself (in business language “sharpen the saw” since we need a little manly violence to sell the book). And there is a lot of overlap with the last section about treating people well. Honestly, I pretty much only remember one thing from this book, and Covey didn’t invent it. But the one thing in this book that transformed my work life relates to time management and was lifted from American President Dwight Eisenhower. It is a simple 2×2 grid Urgent/not-urgent. Important/unimportant:


Time management by Dwight Eisenhower

The key insights are that: a) urgent/not-urgent and important/un-important are largely independent orthogonal axes but we tend to conflate them in our minds. And we tend to let other people’s priorities (urgent) drive us instead of our own priorities (important). Your entire work life is about swimming against the current to stay out of doing tasks in the unimportant boxes and get into the box of doing things that are important but not-urgent. Nobody’s banging on your door to do them. But they are the most important things you can do. In academia that is often writing the paper. Having the conversation with somebody to kick off a new project. Or just thinking. Dwight Eisenhower as a general and then a president may have had it easier delegating and blowing off things to stay out of the un-important row than we do. But having this vision clearly in mind can be gamechanger.

Time management #2 – This is a newish book that to my knowledge is not a blow-away best seller and I’m still finishing it: Deep Work: rules for focused success in a distracting world by Newport. This book highlights a paradox – in the modern knowledge economy the most important thing to do is to think deeply, and in the modern knowledge economy the sources of interruption and distraction are ever increasing. Scientists probably already knew the importance of the first half (deep thinking) long before the word knowledge economy existed (we were perhaps among the first knowledge workers). But we are part of the same society that is making it ever harder. This book is pretty harsh on social media. You may or may not like that part. And it of course doesn’t have a recipe (7 easy steps to deep thinking would be nice …). But I have found its anecdotes and its passion for the importance of deep thinking to be inspiring. It has been very helpful to me in thinking intentionally about how I need to reshape my life to do the book writing I want to do.


So there you have it. Five books. You could probably read them all in a weekend and not even feel drained. And just because these are the five business books that have spoken most profoundly to me doesn’t guarantee they will to you. But I hope you have gotten a few useful references/ideas out of this post.

How about you what business books have you read that benefited your work life? Or were a waste of time? What do you recommend?

4 thoughts on “What academics can learn from business II: the best business books

  1. I am currently using the method for time management “Getting Things Done” from the book of the same name by David Allen. It is working pretty well for me. My procrastination reduced a lot and, therefore, my productivity increased. I think the idea behind the method is similar to the urgency-importance diagram. GTD helps me to not waste my full energy doing only the urgent things, but to allocate it mostly on the important long-term projects (also known as “my Ph.D. thesis”).
    In some months we will be able to check whether it worked for this main purpose or not. 🙂

  2. Its not a business book per se, but I found Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking fast, and slow” to be really great for understanding my own biases and decision making processes, and so how I could recognise them and make better decisions. Some relevance to “deep” thinking in the modern world as well.

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