Old-School Business Books in Need of a Comeback!

"The Peter Principle" is first on deck (because incompetency never goes out of style)...
“The Peter Principle” is first on deck (because incompetency never goes out of style)…

I believe there are authors of certain business books, now faded into online oblivion, who would be considered “rock stars” in today’s digital world.

Being the “printed” dinosaur that I am, I intermittently go on reconnaissance missions. I enjoy looking for obsolete business books in antique stores and combing through my father’s eclectic home library (when he’s not paying attention).

The titles I’m thinking of deserve a rebirth, a renaissance of sorts, despite the age of their pages. And who knows–it’s very likely these classic tomes are already available as digital downloads.

Why not disrupt your (contemporary) digital-heavy reading list with some enduring business wisdom? Consider shifting your professional paradigm with these “oldies”:

The Peter Principle Lives On–Even Modern Technology Can’t Hide Incompetency: Please tell me this book, and its wickedly accurate theory, isn’t a foreign concept to you. The book was co-authored by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in 1969, but it’s as timeless as a Las Vegas hotel room without any clocks.

For those of you hesitant to admit you’ve never read this tiny bombshell of a book, Dr. Peter’s self-named principle states that:

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

And ladies, just because the late-1960s language refers to the male of our species doesn’t mean you are exempt from The Peter Principle.

Given the book’s brevity (my paperback version is a measly 156 pages), you should make time for chapters like “Pull & Promotion,” “Push & Promotion,” “Hints & Foreshadowings,” and my personal favorite, “The Psychology of Hierarchiology.”

The Peter Principle opens a gateway of psychological possibilities for professionals who remain in positions of competency. You won’t regret reading it.

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor Is the Predecessor to TV’s Mad Men: The name Jerry Della Femina should mean something to those of you who currently straddle the twin-sister worlds of advertising and marketing.

Although outdated, Della Femina’s tell-all expose of Madison Avenue’s seductive hijinks (of the 1960s–the book was published in 1970) is a page-turner that reveals the truth in advertising. And Della Femina would know. He was a poor lad from Coney Island with a learning disability who discovered a talent for telling stories in 60 seconds or less.

Della Femina became chairman of his own ad firm, Della Femina Travisano and Partners (in 1967), and opened offices in New York City and Los Angeles (with billings of $250 million annually). His agency’s first major account was…Blue Nun wine! Does anyone remember the hilarious radio spots for Blue Nun featuring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara?!?

The book’s title comes from a long-ago brainstorming session for a major Japanese electronics corporation that was red-hot in the 1970s.

Whether you’re a binge-watching slave to AMC’s Mad Men or immersed in the 21st-century feeding frenzy known as social media, Della Femina’s book is a must-own addition to your business library. Seriously–read it!

Games Mother Never Taught You Reminds Us That Workplace Equality Is Still “Game On”: First published in 1977, Betty Lehan Harragan’s clarion call to women was startling to read if you were a freshly minted college graduate in the 1980s. I think this teaser on the paperback’s cover says it all: “The Classic Guide to Making It in a Man’s World.”

Ladies: By the time you finish reading this masterful analysis of male-female corporate politics and gamesmanship, you will never again resort to self-pitying thoughts regarding your career!

In Chapter 4, “Jargon of the Business Game,” Ms. Harragan reviews specific genres of jargon that perhaps formerly challenged (and annoyed) female professionals: Military Metaphors, Sports Vernacular, “Scoring” Is the Broad Connection, and Locker Room Language (80% Sex, 20% Excreta).

I challenge you to read Games Mother Never Taught You (or at least cherry-pick certain chapters) and refute the fact that the male-female divide still exists in corporate America. Here is the author’s original inscription to her daughter:

“For my daughter Kathleen who will enter the workforce in the mid-1980s prepared to accept nothing less than fully vested citizenship in the American economy.”

HOOAH, Betty Lehan Harragan!

When There Are Barbarians at the Gate, Distract Them with Cigarettes and Cookies: There are some people, such as Jon Friedman of MarketWatch, who consider this 1988 missive “the best business book ever.” (Source: Wikipedia) It’s based on a series of articles written by investigative journalists Bryan Burrough and John Helyar for the Wall Street Journal.

The book, all 592 pages of it, was re-released by Harper Collins in 2008 for its 20th anniversary. It tells the true story of how former RJR Nabisco CEO F. Ross Johnson kick-started a leveraged buyout (LBO) of the company back in the 1980s. He attempted to give the rest of Nabisco’s shareholders “the boot.”

But Mr. Johnson encountered external opposition from Henry Kravis and Henry’s cousin, George R. Roberts, principals at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. The resulting bidding war remains a classic LBO case study discussed at business schools all across America.

No time to read Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco? HBO filmed a marvelous screen adaptation in 1993; it stars the indomitable James Garner as F. Ross Johnson.

Given our current phantasmagoria of on-demand and streaming technology, I’m confident the film is still available for your viewing pleasure. But in my honest opinion: consider reading the book first!

I Could Have Written My Years with General Motors, but Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. Beat Me to It: For the unaware, my first job upon completion of graduate school was with…General Motors. I became an acronymic S.E.I.T. (Salaried Employee In Training) with G.M.’s (corporate) Customer Sales and Service staff, a newbie recruited via Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

No, my overlords didn’t provide me with Mr. Sloan’s My Years with General Motors (published in 1964) upon arrival. I had to buy my own copy–hence, the “cheap” paperback that has graced my private library since the 1980s.

When Alfred P. Sloan joined the General Motors Company in 1918, its founder, William C. Durant (aka Billy), was busy driving (heh, heh) the company toward the brink of bankruptcy. Additionally, the avalanche-like rise of Henry Ford’s Model T in the early 1920s wasn’t exactly the kind of competition the floundering General Motors needed.

Per the back cover (the book was originally published by Anchor Books/The Anchor Library of Economics):

“Mr. Sloan led G.M. in a policy of ‘a car for every purse and purpose,’ then a revolutionary concept. At the same time he supervised the company’s massive reorganization and plunged G.M. into the burgeoning installment credit business.”

This is the same man who co-founded the Sloan-Kettering Institute in the 1940s (affiliated with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute since 1963) with another General Motors alum, Charles F. Kettering.

If you want an inside view of the automotive industry’s meteoric 20th-century rise, Mr. Sloan’s book is the one to read. I suggest borrowing it from the library…

These additional old-school books deserve mention. Yes, I had to read them all:

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie (1937)

The Functions of the Executive, by Chester Barnard (1938)

The Practice of Management, by Peter Drucker (1954)

Power: A Radical View, by Steven Lukes (1974)

Also see the Business Pundit’s article entitled “25 Best Business Books Ever” (some of my suggestions are included) for an excellent addendum to your current reading list. And while you’re there, browse around the Business Pundit; it’s a très resourceful website!


What is your favorite business book of all time? Are there certain business-related books you reread annually or every few years? If so, what are those books’ titles, and what do they mean to you as a business professional?

My favorite, a scathingly breezy read, is The Peter Principle. If you’ve never read it and live in the South Jersey/Philadelphia region, I’ll gladly lend you my copy if you promise to give the book the TLC it deserves…

Lori Shapiro is the owner of By All Writes LLC, a business-to-business (B2B) writing, editing, and research company in Marlton, New Jersey. She revels in shielding her clients from the pain of writing their own print or web marketing and educational copy. Please call Lori Shapiro at 856-810-9764 or email By All Writes LLC at lori@byallwrites.biz  for a no-obligation project quote today!

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