The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1989) by Stephen Covey
Why it mattered: One of the best-selling, non-fiction titles ever, Covey's book camped on The New York Times best-seller list for five years. Anything but a simple read, his approach to success melded a highly structured approach with what amounted to good, old-fashioned values. Unlike the typical self-improvement author, Covey didn't promise quick results. Instead, he laid out a long-term program of study with many prerequisites before graduation.
He also brought home as no one before the importance of balancing personal and business achievement. His treatment of effectiveness was holistic, calling for as much or more effort to go into the inner entrepreneur as the outer enterprise.
Why it still matters: Like In Search of Excellence, Covey's book is almost required for any entrepreneur who wants to consider himself or herself well read. Also, Covey started his work on the book by studying the success of literature going back more than 200 years. As a result, it's based less on changeable factors like technology or competition and more on relatively immutable personal human values.
What to ignore: The Seven Habits, and especially the self-management systems that have since been energetically marketed by the Franklin Covey firm, are based on common sense that even Covey admits many people already have. If you're satisfied with your life and your leadership, there's no need to dedicate yourself to this program.
Reengineering the Corporation (HarperBusiness, 1993) by Michael Hammer and James Champy
Why it mattered: Hammer and Champy came along with a radical, startling prescription for overhauling businesses wholesale. "Don't innovate--obliterate!" was one of the phrases of their gospel. It opened eyes to the possibility that business had gone very wrong by adopting operational policies that were more inefficient than innovative.
Their primary declaration was the need for businesses to identify their most important processes and get as good at those as possible. Among other changes they called for was tearing down the silos that separated functions in most companies.
Surprisingly, for a book based on the relatively dry field of operations research, Reengineering the Corporation turned out to be one of the best-selling business books ever, and buzzwords from it were inescapable in the first half the 1990s. While not as influential as it once was, it was prominent during its heyday as few business books have been.
Why it still matters: Though many companies have been at it a decade or more, refining business processes remains a valuable route to differentiation. Getting more done with fewer people, in less time and with less cost will provide a competitive advantage.
What to ignore: This book is the most controversial of these nine classics, largely because corporate cost-cutters hijacked their reengineering prescription and used it to disguise and justify mass layoffs. Ignoring the human cost of any measure can doom an entire reengineering project. While reengineering may entail job losses, it doesn't have to; there are many other cost-cutting measures whose human costs are less severe.
Built to Last (HarperCollins, 1994) by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras
Why it mattered: Pairing iconoclastic recommendations with lots of research and careful analysis, this book started Collins on his way to becoming probably today's most widely read and influential business writer. The approach resembled In Search of Excellence--the authors picked 18 visionary companies that had survived an average of 50 years and attempted to dissect what made them so long-lived. One improvement over the approach taken in In Search of Excellence was that in Built to Last, Collins and Porras compared their companies with more pedestrian companies. Visionary company Hewlett-Packard, for instance, was set against Texas Instruments.
The co-authors dismantle many longstanding beliefs, including that successful businesses must be founded by charismatic leaders. It's more important, they said, to have strong core values and extremely ambitious goals.
One of the book's most appealing attributes is a highly readable writing style. Despite the authors' analytical bent, the text flows like a fictional narrative. And the positive tone suggests that if these companies can do it, you can, too.
Why it still matters: Collins and Porras have more traction at this moment than any others on this list. Collins' second book, Good to Great, written without Porras, was if anything better received than Built to Last. To get up-to-date with business thought leaders, look to Collins' works.
What to ignore: Much space goes to describing the mass of data they assembled and the rigor of their methods, which included using a control group to help validate results. Still, don't treat their findings as immutable truth. These are good ideas and inspiring tales, but in the end, each entrepreneur has to create his or her own success story.