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Must Read to Succeed: Jack Covert on the 100 Best Business Books

Friday, December 2nd, 2011
jack covert

In 1984, the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops hired Jack Covert to promote business and computer books to the Milwaukee business community. He grew that 3-shelf business section into a US$7 million specialty business book retailer, 800-CEO-READ, and won a reputation in the competitive world of business-book publishing. Covert has helped turn such books as The Goal into national best-sellers and his monthly best-seller list is standard reading. A Doubleday/Currency editor once described Covert as, “not simply a bookseller – he’s a tracker and a prophet.” In 2000, Jack began to write book reviews called “Jack Covert Selects” for national newspapers. This led him to write The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, which ranks the best business books and also references nearly 400 notable others, to be released in paperback in the United States in November 2011. He gave this exclusive interview to Victor Fic, our special correspondent for economics and politics. 800-CEO-READ sells business books and spreads business ideas via its daily weblog and its monthly newsletter, The Keen Thinker; monthly essays in ChangeThis.com; its annual Business Book Awards; and its Knowledge-Blocks.com, a new online project to help readers turn what they know into knowledge they can use.

How many business books have you read in total?

It is impossible to know because I’ve been reading and selling business books for 27 years. Maybe 3000. To get a taste of how many books I read, each month since 2000, I have chosen 3 books to review for my Jack Covert Selects recommendations, or approximately 375 books. Double that because I imagine I reject at least 3 books each month as well. That’s 750 business books in 10 years.

Is this a world record?

No idea. Are there world records for book reading – particularly biz books? But I doubt there are many folks out there who could rival that number, maybe simply because I’ve been doing this a long time.

What motivated you to tackle an ambitious project such as reading, categorizing and judging so many business books?

I was hired to sell business books for a local book shop chain after I closed my record store – a perfect fit perhaps because I had been a small business owner or because I was a book lover or because I am a salesman at heart. To sell business books, I needed to know them. Then after 25 years of this, it was time to consolidate all that information and experience into a book of my own. There were 11,000 biz books published in 2007, so you must have an expert to filter and recommend the best. We provided that service to customers through ‘The 100 Best’ and do it daily at 800ceoread.com/blog.

What are your sub topics?

I gravitate toward autobiographies, business histories and leadership. I find motivation in stories of success and wish to learn how to be a better leader. For ‘The 100 Best’, we broke the genre down into categories that best fit peoples’ interests and professions; namely Personal Development, Leadership, Strategy, Sales & Marketing, Rules & Scorekeeping (or accounting), Management, Biographies, Entrepreneurship, Narratives, Innovation & Creativity, Big Ideas, and a chapter called Takeaways that are a bit like fast food meals. They are quick, tasty and easy to consume on the run.

East Asians especially love to list schools, people, etc., in terms of best to worst. What is the single best business book that you have read, and why?

That’s a difficult question for a number of reasons, so we avoid ranking the books in The 100 Best. Is “best” the best book for me? Or is “best” the best academically or stylistically, or perhaps with the largest audience? But because best often means most important, such business books are often the first to tackle a subject in new and provocative game-changer ways. Examples are In Search of Excellence or Reengineering the Corporation or Drucker’s writing on leadership. My favorite book in The 100 Best is Age of Unreason, by Charles Handy, because it was the first business book that spoke my language. And through it, Charles Handy offered me a way into business books.

How did Dr. Suess, a children’s writer, get in?

A reviewer must be open-minded because you can’t judge a book by its cover. And here, my co-author was the book’s champion despite people’s assumption that a children’s book can’t teach us a valuable and very adult message. As he wrote in his review, “It is this book’s broad appeal and keen effectiveness that demands its mention here. ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go!’ is self-help at its finest [just as] Thoreau and Emerson championed self-improvement on the individual level.”

Why does The Monk and the Riddle, a work of philosophy, impress you?

It is unconventional about the real meaning of work, not the bottom line, and not the market value. “What would you be willing to do for the rest of your life?”, the author asks, and not enough people can answer. Why is it important? You can’t be a good leader without self-reflection, loving what you do and creating that positive environment for your employees to thrive in. Such books make us more well-rounded leaders. “It’s the romance, not the finance, that makes business worth pursuing,” is a brave statement in this book.

Are you courageous enough to identify the worst few – and defend your attack?

The 100 Best is a select group and many books were discarded, so there really aren’t any “worst” there. But the worst overall use cheap sentiment and rehashed ideas to answer really complex questions for real working people. Books that are often derided, such as Who Moved My Cheese, can find an audience, and 14 years after publication in hardcover, it has sold many millions of copies.

Some self-made millionaires in business scoff at MBA programs and books, claiming that it takes instinct, hard work and experience to succeed. They insist that schools and texts are expensive, redundant or that they actually claim to instill understanding simply by promoting fancy theories, etc.

What is your take on all this?

As a guy who barely graduated from high school, I tend to agree that hard work and luck – and experience with an open mind – can teach a lot. But building a foundation of knowledge through school or books shouldn’t be over-looked because it can lower your learning curve. Books can be very effective teachers, such as, for instance, Ram Charan’s What the CEO Wants You to Know – This is an excellent primer.

Some observe the rise of a humanistic approach to management in the US – do you see it?

This trend started 20-plus years ago and was documented in In Search of Excellence, which asserted that organizations must be structured to account for the irrational people who work there. From our book, we explain Peters and Waterman’s advocacy of humanistic values, including meaning, a small amount of control, and positive reinforcement, as a post-militaristic model – the soft stuff, such as ‘culture and people matter’. This management approach hasn’t been consistently implemented because being adaptive is hard but rules and consequences are easier.

Is the entry of women such as Carly Fiorina and minorities into business reflected in the books?

Business books reflect the business world over time. We chose the bulk of our books for The 100 Best from the writings of the past half-century when there were few female heavy-hitters in business and even fewer writing such books. Now, over 50 percent of people graduating with business degrees are female and that trend will rise in the coming years. Twenty years from now, if we rewrite The 100 Best, no doubt half the authors will be women. This same up-trend will be true for other minorities. Tony Hsieh, Youngme Moon and W. Chan Kim are leaders and authors of Asian descent.

What is the future or trend line in the topics and the advice that these books give?

Are there many new ideas to plumb? Maybe not. But there are new ways of teaching and learning that remain undiscovered. There will always be space in the genre for leadership books, strategy books, how-to guides to inspire better productivity or higher profits. I enjoy seeing the influx of big idea, multi-genre books. Business is a confluence of various disciplines such as economics, psychology, philosophy and statistics. Authors Dan and Chip Heath, Steven Johnson and Malcolm Gladwell make business books appeal to a wider audience.

Your selections are westerncentric. How do they benefit readers in Japan, Korea, China or Singapore?

I sell business books to a mostly western market, so that influenced selections for The 100 Best. However, globalization has erased distinctions between East and West. Note the many translations – Japanese, Russian, simple and complex Chinese, Indonesian, Brazilian Portuguese, Thai, Korean and Polish – of The 100 Best because our collection synthesizes. The books featured are a curiosity but are also universal.

The 1980s saw a flood of Japanese management books. Can you judge which were excellent?

The Toyota Production System, by Taiichi Ohno, is included in The 100 Best and we also included Deming who helped rebuild Japan’s industrial infrastructure. While not included in our top books, The Art of Japanese Management by Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos was one of the first to introduce Japanese management to a western audience. Ten years later, The Mind of the Strategist was published in the United States, introducing Americans to Kenichi Ohmae. We see the influences of Japanese management in many books. Now it is more about integrated approaches as evidenced in some great books by Matthew May, such as, for instance, In Pursuit of Elegance, The Elegant Solution, or The Shibumi Strategy.

Is the the rise of China producing good books on Chinese management style? How about the Sun Zi classic, Art of War?

Just as China’s economy is developing at near the speed of light since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the Chinese management style is also a fairly new topic developing in business books. Certainly the way China does business is heavily influenced by their cultural values and political influences, and so it is not a management style that can really be adopted. But China has a powerhouse economy that produces quality products at a good price. So China has much influence on western business and books about China’s remarkable growth and productivity are numerous. Our favorite is China Shakes the World, by James Kynge, the Financial Times bureau chief in Beijing for many years. Mr. China and Oracle Bones are also notable. Perhaps the best known is The Art of War and we certainly considered it for inclusion in The 100 Best, but to some degree it is the adaptions of the book’s philosophy that have created its popularity and applicability in business.

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