Top-Drawer Business Books 2017

It is that time again. For years, Swystun Communications has been sharing its annual “Top-Drawer” business book list. Other rankings are too narrow in definition. As Robert Weider said, “Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative person looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.”

Our list is less traditional. Often it includes, and is sometimes dominated by, books not categorized as “business”. We avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are tossed aside when one bumps into the blunt adversities in actual commerce.

The list includes books released in 2017 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. Remember, life is too short to drink cheap scotch or to read books that are not Top-Drawer. So keep these selections within easy reach for repeated reference.

The One Device by Brian Merchant

The iPhone X is out and geeks salivate at its new features. Meanwhile, more and more studies show that smartphones are influencing and changing our behaviour in ways that concern sociologists, the medical profession, and parents of teens glued to the device (many adults are adhered as well).

Merchant’s book will appeal to phone lovers and those who wonder where this tech will lead. The book is an analysis of both the enormous cultural impact of the device and a history of its manufacturing process. It was on the shortlist for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Books of the Year.

Supposedly, the book was ten years in the making. It strays too much to celebration but is still excellent. We recommend turning off your phone and reading the hardcover version just to be retro-analog for a short time.

The Spider Network by David Enrich

True business crime is always fascinating. This entry tells the tale of the Libor scandal, the deliberate manipulation of the key banking interest rates. Didn’t hear of it? Don’t be embarrassed but right your ignorance by picking this one up.

It will seem incredible, if not, unbelievable. At the same time dark and troubling, the book is an entertaining inside account. Superlatives do not suffice here but let us say that this is one of history’s biggest, farthest-reaching scams to hit Wall Street since the global financial crisis. It will be a movie. Think Kelly’s Heroes meets Liar’s Poker meets Ocean 11 meets Moneyball. If that is true then Brad Pitt is sure to be in the ensemble.

Janesville by Amy Goldstein

What happens to a town reliant on a big business and brand that then packs up and leaves? This prize winning book comes from Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Goldstein. It is worthy of all those prizes. The author studied Janesville, Wisconsin after General Motors shuttered the town’s assembly plant during the Great Recession. Few of us remember just how bad those years were – we have picked ourselves up again and continue to spend stupidly. Residents of Janesville were not so lucky.

There have been many books that have looked at this territory before. Those have looked at the impact for six months or a year after the big event. This examination goes on for years to record the trauma and lasting damage. Be prepared for redemption and feel-good content too. You will rally along with the residents of Janesville as a few of them find a way back.

Insight by Tasha Eurich

The subtitle may be all you need to convince you to read this book, Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. We bought into the premise and observation instantly. All of us are self-deluded, insecure, or unaware. We all need help in this area for our own happiness and to better our relationships.

Eurich is an organizational psychologist who helps people overcome obstacles to professional success, a big one is being oblivious to their flaws and mistakes. Each chapter juxtaposes an anecdote about a struggling client she’s coached with relevant scientific research, and ends with some practical exercises readers can use in their everyday lives.

These exercises — like inviting someone to a meal and asking them to tell you everything that’s wrong with you — take courage. But Eurich’s experience suggests that, if you do take her advice, you’ll be better positioned to advance in your career. Yikes! You may be more like us and decide instead to dine alone with plenty of liquor, all the time telling yourself that you are right and everyone else is wrong.

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan

Lots going on here. The building of an iconic magazine. Pop culture that greatly influences business and vice versa. Perseverance. Differentiation. Oh yeah, and sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone‘s founder, editor, and publisher, and pioneered a media property and curated a generation. The book is replete with those entertaining bon mots like the The Who trashing hotel rooms but there are plenty more you will have never heard of. That adds to the entertainment but if you do not get the business lessons around relevancy and reinvention then you are already a dinosaur.

Interestingly, the biggest lessons may be in the realm of office politics and warfare. It seems Rolling Stone had plenty of both. The magazine was the equivalent of a fast-moving tech start-up so there is great applicability to what they experienced for the next Spotify. Wenner basically packaged the sixties and seventies so the branding acumen is critical to note and emulate. A fun read with or without drugs and alcohol. You are allowed sex after finishing the read.

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

We must admit that we follow young Derek on Twitter and read every damn piece he writes for The Atlantic. Thompson argues that the idea of “going viral” has caused us to have overly simple perceptions of what makes a hit a hit. This resonates because the vast populace seems to have overly simple perceptions of everything these days.

Instead, Thompson takes you through painstaking research to show how record labels manufacture pop sensations, how Facebook’s newsfeed shapes national discourse, and how Donald Trump took an unlikely path to the presidency. It used to be mass media and mass consumption now we are living in the age of mass delusion and a pervasive laziness to separate fact from fiction.

Startup by Doree Shafrir

We have worked with many startups and they are incredible organisms. They can also be dark and sad. Desperation due to a fast cash run rate and zero revenue makes for strange behaviour. Jeff Swystun published a short story on this subject called, “Start-Upped”. It sold enough copies to refill his own bar…one of the problems at start-ups is drinking.

Shafrir’s savvy and satirical novel will have you grinning and groaning in recognition at the antics of her tech-obsessed cast of characters. Techie bro Mack McAllister, founder of the mindfulness app TakeOff, is nervous about his second round of funding; journalist Katya Pasternack is on the lookout for the next viral story sensation; and Sabrina Chloe Blum, mother of two and TakeOff’s unlikely social media manager, is trying to get a handle on what TWF and LOL mean.

When some secret and salacious info goes public, each has to work out the cost of being Internet famous. Startup is obviously written by someone on the inside: Shafrir has written for Wired and is the senior culture writer at BuzzFeed News, and her skill at capturing the world of crack-of-dawn juice-fueled raves before work and debaucherous SXSW pilgrimages, while exposing our collective obsession with technology, is a much-needed reflection on our time. Read Startup and then read Jeff’s very own, Start-Upped.

Woo, Wow, and Win: Service Design, Strategy, and the Art of Customer Delight by Thomas A. Stewart and Patricia O’Connell

Customer service is the least consistent and most elusive aspect of business today. Okay, that is dramatic. You could say the same of innovation, talent management, and a host of other subjects. However, customer service is fascinating because we are all consumers.

A recent study from Wunderman shows that we now compare every brand experience to those we consider leaders. Netflix, Starbucks, Apple are our benchmarks when we visit the dry cleaners, grocery store and local pub. That is both fair and unfair at the same time.

The authors, rather than viewing a customer as a mark to be manipulated or a source of data, see each customer as “an active, and quite possibly idiosyncratic, participant in the creation of value.” Woo, Wow, and Win is what might be called a post-marketing book. It views the act of winning over customers not as a series of tag lines and media buys leading to purchases, but as a set of customer experiences, which, when handled appropriately, can drive business forward.

The strength of the book is its willingness to eschew marketing orthodoxy. In fact, the first of its five service design principles is “The Customer Is Always Right — Provided the Customer Is Right for You.” In short, there’s no business sense in bending over backward for a customer who’s not a fit for what you’re selling. Lots of common sense, uncommonly presented.

Nothing But a Circus by Daniel Levin

The only way to make sense of our world is to find the nonsense. A circus is as good a metaphor as any. Another sorting device is Maslow’s Hierarchy except self-actualization is as base as the need for shelter and procreating. The is where Daniel Levin has ended up. He conducts an eye-opening exploration of the human weaknesses for power.

It is a hilarious journey through the absurd world of global elites, drawing vivid sketches of some of the puppets who stand guard, and the jugglers and conjurers employed within. Most spectacular of all, however, are the astonishing contortions performed by those closest to the top in order to maintain the illusion of integrity, decency, and public service. This is not about being infallible, it is about not fibbing to one’s self or the people you serve.

Nothing but a Circus offers a rare glimpse of the conversations that happen behind closed doors, observing the appalling lengths that people go to in order to justify their unscrupulous choices, from Dubai to Luanda, Moscow to Beijing, and at the heart of the UN and the US government.

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