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Gurus Galore!

  No management book was ever number one on the New York Times Best Seller list until "In Search of Excellence" by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. It sold well over a million copies and spawned the Guru Industry.

Some years back I had the opportunity to ask Tom Peters what it took to have that kind of success with a management book. He told me to do three things: write a great book, promote it with everything you've got, and get lucky.

"In Search of Excellence" was a great book. It wasn't because of the research, which was somewhat contrived. It was the writing and energy that made the book great.

There had been management books before, of course. Most of them were written by academics or folks who wrote like academics. They were profound, well organized, and well, boring.

"In Search of Excellence" was well written and full of energy. When you read "In Search of Excellence" you jumped up and called people. You stuck Post-It notes all over the book. You filled up your to-do list.

Writing helped make the book great. Promotion helped make it popular.

Both Tom Peters and Bob Waterman were consultants with the venerable firm of McKinsey and Company. The firm had given them time to write and helped with the research. The book helped McKinsey look good.

So they spent money on professional book promotion. They made sure that the authors were available for interviews. They bought a lot of books and handed them out to clients. Book promotion doesn't get any better than that.

McKinsey's promotion efforts helped push the book up the charts, but luck played a role, too. In the early 1980s it looked like the Japanese were going to win it all. American managers were nervous, a bit shell-shocked and ready to listen to something new.

Peters and Waterman figured they had something new to offer. They thought it was time to get back to some basics that had been abandoned in the love affair American management had with quantitative methods. They told companies to pay attention to customers and workers, keep things simple, and rely on live trials rather than survey research.

They knew others were working on similar books and they wanted to be first into the market. Publication of "In Search of Excellence" was scheduled for 1981. Then it was delayed by the publisher.

In the meantime, "The Art of Japanese Management", a well-written book with much the same message as "In Search of Excellence", was published. Peters was angry and disappointed. He thought the other book had stolen the show. He was wrong.

Instead of stealing the show, the earlier book had simply built up the audience. When Peters and Waterman's book came out it went right to the top of the best seller lists and stayed there. Lots of people noticed.

Consultants and consulting firms noticed what the book did for Peters and Waterman and for McKinsey. Publishers noticed the success of the book, too, and they thought it might help them find that most elusive of publishing properties, a sure thing.

Consultants seemed like the perfect choice of author. They had academic credentials and their experience with clients gave them credibility. Even better, their consulting firm could be counted on to promote the book and even buy several thousand copies.

The result of this confluence of self-interest was a flood of books by consultants. For the most part they put a sexy label on what they touted as "big ideas," capable of transforming corporate life and profitability at a stroke.

A few really were big ideas but they took a lot of time and money to implement and were often misinterpreted. Re-engineering was a good example.

Properly done, re-engineering rebuilt a company from top to bottom, streamlined it and made it more competitive and profitable. But hardly anyone got all the way to the end of the process because it took so long and sucked up so many human and financial resources.

Even worse, many managers used "re-engineering" as an excuse to do some good old-fashioned layoffs. Folks on the shop floor and in those office cubicles figured that out pretty quick. When they heard management using the term "re-engineering" they knew there was bloodletting to follow.

Most of the big ideas, though, weren't that big. Some weren't very good at all and some were downright dangerous. But that didn't seem to matter.

In the go-go Nineties no one was spending a lot of time evaluating and comparing new concepts. It was an era when "new" seemed more important than right and besides the rising tide of the economy was lifting everybody's boat so you stood to look good no matter what you did.

So, for fifteen years or so, consultants and consulting firms poured big idea books into the bookstore. The big ideas sounded good and they were relatively easy for the authors to generate.

That's because management doesn't have a lot of its own songs to sing. Management is a bit like a mockingbird, singing the songs of other fields. The favorite songs in the last ten years have been lessons from historical figures, lessons from chaos theory, and lessons from biology.

When the Dot-Com Bubble burst, so did the credibility of several gurus. Then Enron began The March of the Corporate Felons and people realized that Enron had gotten an awful lot of consulting advice. Big ideas and Enron fell out of favor. Arthur Andersen, who had provided consulting and big ideas to Enron, fell out of business.

The guru big idea books have pretty much disappeared from the shelves these days, but the gurus will be back. They're hunched over their word processors as we speak, cranking out a book about a new big idea: getting back to basics.

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Of all the business books published in the last two decades there are only a few that I consider excellent, worth reading and re-reading. Here are some of my nominees.

The books on this list are all business books. There are certainly other good business books, but I like the density of what's in these. There are other books which are great and helpful, but they aren't specifically about business and so I didn't include them.

There is also one book that I put on the list and took off again, then put it on and took it off. That book is Execution by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. The problem for me is that I think the book belongs on this list, but it hasn't been out long enough and I haven't gone back to it often enough to be sure.

I've reviewed many of these on my Resource website.


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