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Books on Managerial Skills

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The Startup Garden: How Growing a Business Grows You
by Tom Ehrenfeld
Foreword by Jim Collins
Paperback from McGraw-Hill Trade

Growing Your Managerial Skills

by Tom Ehrenfeld

Books that can help bookstore owners become entrepreneurial managers

Bookstores are on the ropes, taking hits from a range of competitors. Superstores have transformed consumer expectations, the Internet has destroyed the advantages that once came with the territory and our Wal-Mart economy continues to batter margins in every industry. Booksellers can respond to these external challenges by growing their own managerial skills, using some of the books on their own shelves.

New technologies, markets and consumer expectations will always be a fact of life. What matters for bookstore owners and managers is how these trends affect the discipline of management. In Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HarperBusiness), Peter Drucker argues that real innovation—and job creation through new markets and industries—occurs only when people put new technology to work. More than a decade ago, Drucker wrote, "The new technology is human management." 

Today I believe that phrase would be entrepreneurial management. The smartest startup veterans and the shrewdest managers behave in similar ways: they spot and exploit opportunities by leveraging existing and available resources, know-how and connections. They seek and harvest change by making new connections where they didn't exist before. Finally, they strive to improve their process literacy. 

The Five Keys 

Entrepreneurial managers create opportunities for growth in five key areas. First, they create a sense of purpose by articulating the company's goals and mission. Second, they leverage the potential of employees by setting boundaries and discussing how to accomplish mutual goals. Third, they bootstrap (i.e., leverage the output of their available resources) on both a personal and organizational level. Fourth, they improve their managerial ability through networking and benchmarking. And finally, they create systems that enable the company to continue to realize its unique and valuable promise, without their constant individual presence.

The following resources should help you cultivate your own managerial mastery. Some give explicit instructions, while others are simply good reads with more implicit lessons to share.


Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras (HarperBusiness) is probably the best book about the importance of using values and beliefs as a conscious compass for decision-making. The authors show how "visionary companies" such as Sony, Disney and Hewlett-Packard grew and prospered as a result of basing strategy and operations on a few simple values. The critical point of this book is a sense of how explicit organizational values and goals lead to long-term success. 

For a more personal look at how certain companies grew by pursuing a clearly defined mission, I would suggest several excellent business narratives. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time (Hyperion) is a lovely explication of how the company's values translated into particular operational choices such as giving front-line employees extensive training, health plans and stock options. Going back a bit further, co-founder David Packard of Hewlett-Packard shares terrific stories about his company's use of values as a compass in The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company (HarperBusiness).

Mission statements are like business plans: the process matters as much as the end result. The act of engaging employees to participate in articulating the mission statement sends a message of empowerment and aligns the company around common goals.

Setting Boundaries and Aligning Goals 

The most effective way to manage employees is to hire the right ones. While there are many books that help select the best people, my top pick is 45 Effective Ways for Hiring Smart: How to Predict Winners and Losers in the Incredibly Expensive People-Picking Game by Pierre Mornell (Ten Speed). 

Once you have the right people on board, the challenge is to set realistic goals, make expectations explicit and create a climate that encourages productive accomplishment. The best book on turning around a toxic atmosphere of entitlement is Judith Bardwick's Danger in the Comfort Zone: From Boardroom to Mailroom—How to Break the Entitlement Habit That's Killing American Business (Amacom). Bardwick is neither cynical nor judgmental; she simply believes that managers must actively and explicitly challenge employees to set goals, and then find ways to mutually accomplish them. This book does a nice job of suggesting how to follow through with this task.

The ability to talk, really talk to others, is a key managerial skill that Bardwick fails to address. There are a handful of extremely useful books that do encourage dialogue. Two in particular offer both theory and practice, providing a clear and understandable set of practices for qualitatively better talks. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen (Penguin) is probably the best of the lot, though sometimes the vocabulary the authors create to communicate their ideas is a bit annoying. Also helpful are Crucial Conversation: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books) and Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success in Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott (Viking). Finally, the most ambitious, difficult, and ultimately rewarding of the crop is Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs (Doubleday). 

Networking and Benchmarking 

There's no bible on the topic of networking, one of those informal practices that can be vastly improved through conscious and formal attempts at a more systematic approach. The more I research this topic, the less comfortable I am recommending any one title. 

Having written on this topic, I can offer a few simple guidelines. First off, take steps toward forming a personal network of three to five peers or mentors who will help you develop professionally. Pick people you trust and listen to what they say without becoming defensive. Choose people from different industries who can help you focus on your process skills rather than industry or store knowledge. Temper your guilt about asking others for their help by offering your expertise to someone you believe you can help. Teaching is often the best form of learning.

Finally, in the category of benchmarking, I would recommend Benchmarking for Best Practices: Winning Through Innovative Adaptation by Christopher Bogan (McGraw-Hill). Ask yourself: where can I learn the best practices from other industries and apply them to mine? Try subscribing to a trade publication in an industry that has no connection to yours. Or take a field trip to Wal-Mart to study how front-line employees greet people. Observe how Whole Foods Market stores display produce. Read Paco Underhill's excellent Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Touchstone) to learn how great store design encourages customers to behave in certain ways. Get out of the store and out of the box and learn from others.


Bootstrapping is the label we give to entrepreneurs who somehow transform the resources they have into a productive and profitable enterprise that fuels its own growth. It means adding extreme value through resourceful and imaginative use of the resources available to you. The best large organizations continue this essential practice through productivity, innovation and execution.

Start on a personal level by finding ways to boost productivity. This requires a conscious and systematic approach to how one works and to how one can ratchet up output significantly. I highly recommend David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity (Penguin). His system is simple, commonsensical and invaluable. Another book that has a tremendous influence on many is Stephen R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (S&S). 

The next step in boosting productivity is applying this leverage to progressively larger realms. Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive (HarperBusiness) lays out the simple though profound ways that executives can radically increase the value they add to their organization. 

Surprising and powerful new forms of management can occur when employees know the company mission, understand their role in the business and are coordinated by an owner/manager who designs systems to tap the full productivity of the company. My favorite example is the growing practice of Open Book Management (OBM), the systematic cultivation of company-wide financial literacy. The idea is that when all the employees understand how the company makes money and how their individual actions affect the bottom line, they realize they are not merely permitted to make changes for the good; they are expected to. 

There are three terrific books on this topic. Managing by the Numbers by Chuck Kremer and Ron Rizzuto with John Case (Perseus) offers a clear and instructive breakdown of how to parse financial statements and link them to managerial actions. This guide can help any employee. The story of how Springfield Remanufacturing Company pioneered OBM is told in the cult business book The Great Game of Business, written by the company's CEO Jack Stack (Currency/Doubleday). Last year Stack wrote another brilliant book on the further implications of this practice, A Stake in the Outcome: Building a Culture of Ownership for the Long-Term Success of Your Business (Doubleday).

Managerial Systems 

Your organization needs to continue to grow, thrive and deliver service to customers without your constant presence. That's the fundamental message of the helpful book The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber (HarperBusiness). You can help your company realize its full promise by stepping back—shifting from being a manager to a leader. And good leaders spend their time on the things that matter most, the areas in which they alone can add the most value. To accomplish this, you need an organization with systems that give individuals the confidence, direction and permission to keep things running and thriving. The mark of great managers is that they create great managers. Noel Tichy shows how in his trenchant The Leadership Engine  (HarperBusiness).

Keeping it all together is discussed at length in one of last year's best business books, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan (Crown), who show how the best leaders teach with a few simple habits. They spend a disproportionate amount of time hiring and coaching the right people. They make sure they develop ambitious strategies tied to their particular strengths. And they stay sufficiently involved in operations to ensure that people do what they say. 

Final Thought 

One final quotation from the best management writer and thinker ever, Peter Drucker (from Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Purposes, HarperBusiness): "There is only one definition of business purpose: to create a customer. It is the customer who determines what a business is. The customer alone is the foundation of a business and keeps it in existence. He alone gives employment."

Reprinted with permission of the author, Tom Ehrenfeld

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