Bad Business (Books)


Many years ago, my boss strongly suggested I read Good to Great. Have you read it? It’s a fine book filled with all kinds interesting ideas and tidbits. Or so I’ve heard.

I never read it. I didn’t feel compelled to use my free time to read books that didn’t speak to me. I still don’t. Plus I was in the middle of Empire Falls, a much better book that simultaneously broke my heart and made me love life.

It’s not uncommon for a boss strongly encourage an employee to read a business book. I had another boss give me a series of Covey books and encourage me to buy the Covey planning system. I’m like — I have Microsoft Outlook and we pay for a really great administrative assistant. I’m going to be just fine.

Call me crazy, but I am unimpressed when an organization spends money and distributes business books to employees. Case in point? This story from Waukesha, WI where the city mayor ordered his staff to read a Christian motivational/leadership book.

The book, “Sequencing: Deciphering Your Company’s DNA” by Michael Metzger, was distributed by the mayor to department managers with assigned reading pages to be discussed at three meetings April 7, 19 and May 3. He also gave copies to aldermen, without reading assignments.

A founder of the book’s publisher, Game Changer Books, is Gary Lato of Waukesha. Lato donated $500 to Scrima’s mayoral campaign. The Lato Family Foundation, which Lato runs, gave $16,500 to Scrima’s New Day in Waukesha charitable fund for community causes. The publisher was paid $428.16 in tax money from the mayor’s and council’s budgets for 30 books.

For the record, I don’t care that the business book is rooted in Christian beliefs. I care that the book is sketchy, unproven, and published by a donor to the mayor’s campaign. Here’s my favorite part of the article.

Most who were contacted, however, said the book wasn’t helpful as a motivational or management tool. One who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from the mayor called it a “lame” book. Another found it interesting but said it wouldn’t be one he’d recommend for organizational motivation.

Public Works Director Fred Abadi, who is Muslim, said he felt there was a religious tone and researched the author but wasn’t offended.

He said, “I’ve done lots of graduate work at Marquette, and there are all sorts of management books out there, so my question is: Why this book?”

I love how one of the employees asks, “Why this book?”

Here’s why. There are many business authors who write awesome books. That should be enough, right? The marketplace should lift big ideas to the top and let the dumber books fall by the wayside. Except the large industrial publishing complex comes down like the wrath of God on those who don’t move merchandise. So great business authors (and even mediocre ones) have to

  • hustle,
  • craft speaking tours that include speeches to corporate/church audiences,
  • and insist that event planners buy a mandatory number of books as part of the overall contract.

What does this mean? Well, when you see a big-time speaker at an event, she has been paid a speaker’s fee + travel expenses + the profits from the book sales. And the company/manager/event planner who booked the event is stuck with any remaining books that don’t move.  You have a weird system that is pushing books, skewing public perception of the quality of these business books, and making it seem like some books are more popular (and more important) than others.

In short, it’s a racket.

And really, I’m not against capitalism. I think it’s okay that really great authors make a buck by selling large quantities of books to willing readers. I love the idea of sharing knowledge and encouraging employees to expand their minds. A good idea is a good idea. We owe it to our colleagues to be lifelong learners.

But in the case of this Waukesha mayor — and many other companies, associations, and churches — the situation is sketchy and underscores the insidious, incestuous relationships that form between authors/agents/publishers/readers. Business books are not always distributed because they are great or have ideas that are aligned with a company’s values. It’s about moving merch.

So if you want your employees to learn something new, don’t buy into the system and hand out trendy management books. Create an atmosphere of continuous learning. Share new ideas and be open to trying something new. And encourage your employees to get a library card and spend time — not money — on some really great business books. After all, the local library is a great way to reduce expenses and make a demonstrated commitment to your local community.

And I might use my library card to finally read Good to Great.


h/t to Cluewagon

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