To refresh your business mind, try curling up with a good book

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

September is typically viewed as the end of summer, the time for kids to become students again, and often a month for a final late-summer vacation … maybe a quiet week at the beach. Rest and relaxation is needed by the human body and also the human spirit. Businessmen and women often become so wrapped up in the affairs of their business life they virtually forget they have a life outside work. (Your spouse and children told me this was true.)

Try taking even a weekend trek for relaxation and plan to read a relaxing book. There are many lists from which to choose. Allow me to suggest an eclectic list of some books I have encountered recently. At least one should tickle your fancy and cause you to relax and read and, in turn, relax even more. It sure will be more relaxing than heading out to the outlet mall in the heat of the day … and cost less, too.

Let’s begin with a short book close to my heart. Professors are accustomed to trying to fit too many tidbits of information into a 50- or 75-minute time frame. Imagine, however, if you wanted to impart what was important in life when you knew your time of life was very limited.

Professor Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor, did just that. He was giving “The Last Lecture” and only he knew it could well be his last one, because he was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He distilled his ideas of what was important in life in this unique manner, although he says he was speaking primarily to his family in his lecture. Teaming with a Wall Street Journal reporter, he then published a book of the same name prior to his death this summer.

There are significant lessons for managers in this “lecture,” particularly about choosing priorities and enabling others. I urge you to pick up this book at the bookstore or library and spend a few hours thinking about its meaning for you. You will find you will change for the better as a person and also as a manager. (Go to www.thelastlecture.com for video and audio clips.)

Maybe you would prefer a book that will both make you think about the business workplace and make you laugh. Gregory Bergman’s “BizzWords” (Adams Media) suggests that to succeed in business today, you need not only a laptop and an iPhone, but you also must utilize the correct vocabulary. Many of these terms are quite new, while a few have been around a while. Because the Web and the world of business are so interrelated today, some of the words are downright “nerdy” and perhaps when used by a younger person in the company, will elicit stares of wonderment. You have already learned the youth vocabulary is different from the seniors.

The author tries to be humorous, but has freely borrowed ideas and terms from others, often without giving proper credit. Nevertheless, it is worth a few hours — even a few days — of browsing, and you can pick up some new jargon to take back to work. Heck, it is a good weekend read even if you aren’t at the beach. What do you suppose these terms mean? Chainsaw consultant, bright-sizing, voluntary simplicity, ohnosecond, egosurfing, eternity leave, or bozo explosion? We all want to look out for that chainsaw consultant in these times of precarious employment.

Oddities in employment jargon can easily be compared to oddities you experience behind the wheel of your car. Tom Vanderbilt has written a book that will bring smiles to your face. It’s called “Traffic: Why we drive as we do (and what it says about us).”

Cars, he argues, isolate us from social contact, converting us into ego machines. He compares traffic culture in various cities across the globe. His scenarios will bring smiles to the faces of international travelers. He hypothesizes that the more corrupt a society is, the greater the frequency of traffic accidents in that society. Another of his contentions: a woman in the car will cause an American man to drive more slowly than he otherwise would.

One of his most discerning observations is we tend to regard everyone else on the road as subhuman vermin with the IQ of a turnip. You will enjoy all 400 pages of this book and chuckle often.

Moving from land traffic to a book about air traffic, Jonathon Miles has written a laughable book about customer letters to an airline: “Dear American Airlines” (Houghton Mifflin). It is a novel about the impact of a lost flight on the soul of a traveler. A 53-year-old failed poet turned translator was traveling to his estranged daughter’s wedding when his flight was canceled. Stuck with thousands of irate, yelling passengers in the purgatory of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, he watched the clock tick and realized there was no way he could arrive in time for the ceremony. Frustrated, irate and helpless, the traveler did the only thing he could: he started to write a letter. But what began as a hilarious demand for a refund soon became a lament for a life gone awry, for years misspent, talent wasted and happiness lost. It’s an important novel and the 200 pages will fly by. After you put the book down, you will realize that so much you read could fit your life, too.

However, if you really want to read a business book that will offer great insight in a short amount of time, management consultant Jim Collins (“Good to Great”) and a team of researchers examined company data from more than 1,400 firms, whittling the list to 11 — including Fannie Mae, Gillette, and Wells Fargo — that had substantially improved their performance, growing from just “good” to “great.” (prior to the 2007-2008 meltdowns).

This is a common-sense framework that allows any management team to assess its effectiveness, and identify those members who are not stepping up to the plate, either because of a skills mismatch or an attitude mismatch or a host of reasons. When you’re a little company and you’re trying to figure out what type of talent you need to mesh with your business plan, this allows you to think smartly about it.

Virtually all levels of junior managers can comprehend it: Once you get the lingo, you can get everybody on board. Everybody can relate to that. If you don’t have the right people on board, you’re going to have a tough year making the numbers. It’s one of those books that you read and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

One goal of reading for personal enrichment can be to spend time in September considering the value of labor (human resources, human capital, workers) to the enterprise. Several of these books offer good ideas for the appreciation of our workforce. Good luck on applying some of these ideas to the workplace. Let me know some of your favorite reads … and yes, you do have time to read.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is Professor   Emeritus – International Management, Pamplin College of Business of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue.

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