Only 57 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002 according to a 2004 report titled “Reading at Risk ” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Given that so few American’s read books, I became curious as to what types of books do successful entrepreneurs/executives read?
Several years ago, I had opportunity to meet the founder/owner of one of the few black-owned cosmetics firms left in the US with annual revenues of $30 million. The company manufactures more than 400 beauty agents, from shampoo to lipstick. One of the firm’s public relations executives had come to Sam Houston State University to address students on black entrepreneurship. At the time, I was teaching entrepreneurship.
The meeting resulted in an invitation for me to visit North Carolina for a meeting of a group he called “Mastermind.” The group were individuals all interested or actively involved in either starting or were small business owners. We all seemed to arrive in the late afternoon, were treated to a very nice reception, but were told to go to bed because our meeting would begin the next day at 4am. After a 3 am wake up call, we all assembled in a large conference-ballroom 4 am. After a hearty “good morning,” we were told to read a classic book on thinking and growing rich. When everyone had finished the book (around 10:30 in the morning), The founder and president gave a commentary on the wealth creation process. Being the only white person in the room, I was extremely flattered to be part of this group to gain first hand insight. At the end of the day, the entire group was bused to his home where we were given a tour. By his bed stand was relatively new book on sales. In his library, were several shelves of books that he had obviously read (they were underlined and marked up): all on sales strategy and inspirational books on management. I also noted his bed stand was full of motivational tapes on sales by noted motivational speakers. I asked him why did he read those books when he obviously was already a very, very successful in sales and management. His answer was revealing: “I play to my strengths. By reading books on sales and management, I get new perspectives and sharpen my skills.” And I don’t waste a second on music as I drive to work – I play those tapes in my car. It keeps me ‘charged up.'”
In April 2010, I attended a conference for deans of business schools hosted by the AACSB – International. One of the speakers was the Chief Executive Officer of America’s leading food companies. After his riveting talk, I approached the podium to say hello. On the table by the podium was his brief case. As he put his speech folder into the brief case, I noticed a recently published book on management which had a paper clip in it indicating that he was actively reading the book. Again, I thought to myself, why is one of the most successful executives in the US reading a popular “trade” book on management?
I could cite many other instances of where I have encountered extremely successful executives and entrepreneurs who were at the “top of their game” who were obviously reading books on management, sales, economics, etc during their travels. One evening, I was invited to have dinner with a former member of the National Security Council who had worked for President Clinton and President Bush on the National Security Council. At dinner after his speech at Erskine College, he told the group of academics that President George W. Bush was an avid reader. The table of liberal academics (all admitted Democrats) were shocked to hear that Bush actually had intelligent conversations with this particular national security adviser (whom they trusted) over very sophisticated books. When our dinner guest described the titles of some of Bush’s 700 page volumes and the quality of questions his raised over the books, the group was absolutely stunned. Several asked, “how could that they guy who couldn’t form a complete sentence grasp the intellectual content of such sophisticated, academic research tombs?” The answer was that Bush was different person in one-one-one conversations than in public. The adviser reminded the table that President Reagan was often thought of as intellectually shallow, but the quality of Reagan’s personal library of his readings and the extensive amount of writings (including a handwritten diary of his presidency) shocked many of his critics.
The lesson here is that successful politicians, executives, and entrepreneurs build their successes in life by reading books on their subject areas. Reading provides perspectives, wisdom and “lessons” (history) that feeds their professional growth.
So, next time you are at the airport, will you pick up the airport novel, or a more serious book related to your profession? Something to think about…