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Former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca doing a TV commercial for his cars. (Photo by Ted Thai/The LIFE… [+]
If you’re looking for inspiration and actionable insights from the successes and challenges of great entrepreneurs and executives, each book on this list tells an eye-opening story in the words of the person who was its catalyst.
This gives every title, some of which are recently published, some of which are classic, essential value for anyone planning, managing, or growing or a business. Or an empire.
Some Stories: Lessons from the Edge of Business and Sport by Yvon Chouinard
Some Stories by Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia)
You would expect that the charmed life of Yvon Chouinard–climber, environmentalist and founder of Patagonia–to be so distinct from the rest of us that it would naturally offer inspiration and wisdom when in print. Some Stories, which was released earlier this year, certainly offers plenty of that, but the thoughts and the example set by Chouinard may also upset the equilibrium of any reader who has become stuck in their work or in how they spend their days. It’s an essential read and a worthy successor to Chouinard’s previous work, the well-known Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.
Yes is the Answer! What is the Question? by Cameron Mitchell
My Father’s Business: The Small-Town Values That Built Dollar General into a Billion-Dollar Company, by Cal Turner, Jr. with Rob Simbeck
My Father’s Business by Cal Turner Jr. (Center Street)
The Dollar General of today is a publicly-traded company with 15,000 stores across America. Few realize that it’s a multi-generational business whose roots go back to the Depression. That’s when author Cal Turner, Jr.’s grandfather started buying and liquidating bankrupt, small-town general stores one by one. Taking us from there to today, Turner reveals the often-stressful dynamics of family involvement in a business, his own need to evolve his leadership style along the way, and the unique realities involved in becoming a prominent, publicly traded firm.
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (Scribner)
Ask any aspiring or established entrepreneur, including Bill Gates, and they’ll have Shoe Dog somewhere on their list of favorite business books. In his memoir, Phil Knight details how he went from selling sneakers out of the trunk of his car to building Nike, which would become one of the most globally recognized brands. The memoir by the creator of Nike not only follows the history of his career and company but offers valuable startup lessons, including the difference between being a manager and being a leader and how company culture can make or break your company.
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch
The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch (W. W. Norton & Company)
Thomas Lynch is principal of a family-owned funeral home in Milford, Michigan. He’s also a National Book Award finalist and a poet of renown. Combining his gorgeous prose style with a unique, emotion-laden subject makes The Undertaking, which also spawned a PBS special, an extraordinary read about a business niche that is rarely discussed in the general business press.
Growing a Business by Paul Hawken
Growing a Business by Paul Hawken (Simon & Schuster)
This may be the most flat-out encouraging business memoir you’ll ever read (and re-read; it’s worth more than one time through)—particularly if you’re in the early days of building a company. Paul Hawken takes you step-by-step through his founding of Smith & Hawken Tool Company: from the beginnings, when he had to shoot his own catalog photos (because there was no money to hire a pro) through the company’s ultimate, runaway success on a national level.
Hawken discusses the nitty-gritty of making payroll, the near-impossibility of getting a loan when you actually need it, and why too much capital, as opposed to too little, is the bigger danger for a company that’s just getting started.
Personal History by Katharine Graham
Personal History by Katharine Graham (Vintage)
You can watch Meryl Streep play Katharine Graham onscreen or you go straight to the source and read her autobiography. When Graham became president of The Washington Post, it was just a small family-owned newspaper. By the early ‘70s she would become CEO and one of the first women to lead a major U.S. paper. In addition to publishing the Pentagon Papers, she supported investigations into the Watergate scandal, which of course lead to the resignation of President Nixon. By the time Graham stepped down as CEO in 1991, The Washington Post would grow into a media conglomerate with newspaper, magazine, television and cable businesses. But Graham’s autobiography is about so much more than her career. The trailblazer is brutally honest about her life as a dutiful daughter and wife to Phil Graham, who suffered from depression and ultimately committed suicide. The following decades would usher in more first-female CEOs of major companies, including Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo.
Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey by Carly Fiorina
Rising to the Challenge by Carly Fiorina (Sentinel)
Speaking of the first wave of women to lead major corporations, Carly Fiorina becme the first woman to lead a company listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average when she became CEO and president of Hewlett Packard in 1999. Her first memoir, the bestselling Tough Choices, tracks her journey from the secretary for a small real estate office to the leader of a major Fortune 50 company—but it wasn’t a smooth ride to the top. She had to deal with a storm of criticism that her male peers never had to face. Fiorina took the helm at HP during dotcom bubble of the ’90s yet managed to steer the company toward a period of revenue growth and innovation. Her more recent memoir, Rising to the Challenge, packs more insights and takeaways for other women aiming to reach their fullest potential. It also explores aspects of her life beyond HP, giving the reader a deeper look into her life as a philanthropist, women’s rights advocate and political activist.
Setting the Table by Danny Meyer
Settting the Table by Danny Meyer (Harper Perennial)
Setting the Table is both a business memoir and one of the best treatises ever written on customer service, or what Danny Meyer prefers to call “hospitality.” The subjects that Meyer, the founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group and a restaurateur renowned in New York (and internationally via Shake Shack, a development that postdates this book), touches on range from the very personal (what it took for his marriage to survive the death of their twin infants) to the nuts-and-bolts practical to the soaringly inspirational. While an obvious must-read for those in the restaurant business, it’s equally essential for anyone who’s aspiring to improve their interactions with and treatment of customers.
Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca
Iacocca by Lee Iacocca (Random House)
Lee Iacocca had at least two great acts: First, he led the Ford Motor Company and then swept in an era of great innovation for Chrysler in the 1980s. In addition to saving the auto giant, he was also credited for rebuilding Ellis Island. The autobiography of arguably one of the best executives of the 20th century also touches on his life as a philanthropist and activist. While Iacocca was the bestselling business book of both 1984 and 1985, his leadership lessons still ring true today. Make a trilogy out of it and pick up Talking Straight, in which he lists his ten rules for good management, and, his last book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? in which he outlines tough questions leaders must address to help restore America.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
There has never been another entrepreneurial/political/diplomatic/inventing/publishing career like Ben Franklin’s, and there’s no other business autobiography like this one. You’ll want to read it both for the extraordinary life it describes and for Franklin’s sometimes bluntly practical tips for getting ahead (one key to his ascension in the printing business was to forgo drinking at lunch, even though this made him an outcast among his fellow printshop workers, whom he describes as “beer guzzlers”).
In one particularly telling moment in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, he sets up an elaborate roadmap for how, with daily effort, he’ll cure himself of all his vices and replace them with virtues. Unfortunately, one of these intended virtues is “humility,” which Franklin ultimately gives up on achieving. Why? Because even if achieved, he calculates, he would then be proud of his newfound humility.
Instead, he settles for the appearance of humility. His strategy for achieving this is brilliant and served him throughout the rest of his public life, including his famous stint as ambassador to France: “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own,” as well as “the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present.”