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4 Books That Changed Business Leaders' Lives

Why a fairy tale inspired a highly successful approach to leadership.

4 Books That Changed Business Leaders' Lives

[Photo: Flickr user [cipher]]

The average American read 12 books in 2015, according to findings from the Pew Research Center.

Reading for pleasure, according to Dr. Josie Billington, deputy director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool, can also improve your health, preventing conditions such as stress, depression, and dementia. "Reading can offer richer, broader, and more complex models of experience, which enable people to view their own lives from a refreshed perspective and with renewed understanding," Billington told Fast Company in a previous interview. The bonus is that with the understanding and perspective gained between the pages of a book, Billington says the reader is better equipped to cope with difficult situations because their "repertoires and sense of possible avenues of action or attitude" have expanded.

While many books can be good reads, few stick with us and actually change how we think. Four business leaders weighed in on the books that had the most impact on their management style, along with specifics about why they were so important. Here are their insights in their own words.

Appreciating Differences

Sabrina Wiewel, chief customer officer, Hallmark Cards

A staple on my bookshelf is Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type by Isabel Briggs Myers and Peter B. Myers. The book explains the personality types and their significance to how we approach work and life.

I first read the book years ago when it was given to me by one of my former leaders. At the time, I had recently taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator assessment, so I was given the book to accompany my results. Since then, I’ve pulled the book out on numerous occasions throughout my career when I needed some perspective on leading and working with personality types different than my own.

Before reading Gifts Differing, I don’t think I’d ever really considered how the different personality types perceive the world and approach their work and relationships in ways unique from my own. For example, I am a strong extrovert on the Myers Briggs scale. I need to process things out loud. This book offered really valuable insight into how I can effectively lead introverts, and address their need to process things more quietly and often in more time.

I recently had to lead my team, comprised of a variety of personality types, through a dialogue on a contentious topic. Knowing that some of my team members are introverts who require the extra time to process information, I gave them a heads up prior to the meeting so they could come into the conversation with a developed point of view.

Inspiring An Extreme Trust Makeover

Brian Spindel, president and cofounder, PostNet

The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey was a book that really resonated with me. To be a strong, effective business leader of a global franchise organization, you must have the ability to build and maintain strong relationships with people in all areas of your business—from your employees and franchisees to customers, strategic partners, and any others that in some way touch your business.

I was so impressed with a lot of the concepts in the book about how trust can enable an organization, and how lack of trust can constrain it, that I put together a leadership exercise. My leadership team read the book, and we had a half-day workshop where an internal moderator walked through and talked about areas of our business where there was a perceived or real lack of trust that was holding us back. We talked through those areas—our interpersonal communication, communication between departments, and our communication with others—and used the concepts of the book to increase the amount of trust and break down the barriers that lack of trust creates. Now, we communicate with greater transparency to our franchisees, customers, suppliers, and others.

While I already believed in these principles, the book did a great job of bringing it all together and made me more mindful than ever that trust in my organization starts and ends with me—through every interaction, meeting, phone call, and email. I must set the standard.

Becoming A Fairy Godmother

Barbara Corcoran, real estate entrepreneur and costar of ABC’s Shark Tank

My grandmother first read Cinderella to me when I was about 4 and, like every little girl, I hoped I would one day be found by a real live prince.

I had a hard time learning to read in school so I read picture books to myself until I was about 11. Cinderella remained my favorite, but I got a whole different message out of it the older I got. I figured out I probably wouldn't get a lucky break someday to take me out of our overcrowded apartment—we had 10 kids and 1 bathroom—so I let go of the idea that I would be rescued and decided I’d better become the prince. I worked my ass off after school from age 12 on and got as many jobs as I could, figuring if I could work really hard I could be the one to make other people's dreams come true.

When I opened my real estate brokerage business at age 23 and hired my first employee, I decided I would become the fairy godmother to anyone who was willing to join me. I worked like crazy to make their dreams come true. I spent all my time doing whatever I could to help make them successful and have a good time doing it. My management style was 100% fairy godmother, granting their every wish, putting on big parties, and making them believe in their own magic.

When I sold the business 25 years later for a truckload of money it was the happy ending I had worked for, and I left behind more than 1,000 very happy and successful people, all with stories of their own.

Going To The Dogs

Chris Dorsey, CEO, Dorsey Pictures

My most impactful business read was Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard—who also happens to be a friend. It helped me to let go of some of my inherent need for control and to let others "own" the business. Sometimes they make mistakes, but what the hell, I make mistakes too, but the difference is that staff has no need to care if I make mistakes.

The book is also about the social responsibility of a business—a manifestation of the adage that it's one thing to make money, but quite another to make a difference. We like making money, but if we can make a difference at the same time—even in small ways—profit then has a broader definition.

It also showed me that happy people do better work, and it isn't always about the money. Before I read the book, I wouldn't have considered, for instance, allowing employees to bring their dogs to work. Now I think we have more dogs in the office than people, and the staff is absolutely happier around their pets. It creates a different relationship between staff members since they also get to know canine family members as well. We’ve actually had people apply for jobs at our company who couldn't accept the positions because they were allergic to dogs. But they could also see how happy people were with their dogs in the office, so they never complained about that requirement when turning down the offer.

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