What Finance People Can Learn from NY Times Health Bloggers

I’m growing quite fond of my digital NY Times subscription because the paper provides some great fodder for my work blog. Oddly enough, the health writing seems to be providing the majority of this fodder so far. I purchased my subscription for half price late last year when they were running holiday deals and I’ll probably renew. Their marketing worked.


Book Review: Linchpin by Seth Godin

Seth Godin is primarily a marketing and management guy, so his books don’t often hit the list of books finance and accounting people should read. Which is a shame, because at times I felt like this book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, spoke directly to the financial person in me.



These guys seem to have their act together. They run this Chicago company called 37 Signals which is headquartered in my neighborhood. I use a few of their products, albeit sparingly, and they are truly excellent. In fact, after reading this book, I’m going to dig a little deeper into Basecamp and Highrise because maybe I should throw them in the mix with my other productivity tools.

They grabbed me early on with this simple truth that actually drives a chunk of my consulting business:

Technology that cost thousands is now just a few bucks or even free. One person can do the job of two or three or, in some cases, an entire department. Stuff that was impossible just a few years ago is simple today.

This is both exciting and frightening for me. There are some awesome tools out there to do financial analysis and because I’m slightly ahead of the curve I’ve been able to capitalize on their value. However, if this simplification continues, I’m going to have to continue to innovate or be oversimplified!

But enough about me. Let’s talk about this book. It’s a massive stack of quick hits (3-5 page chapters) on how to thrive in today’s competitive environment. What makes these dudes an authority on the subject? Well, they are thriving in today’s competitive environment and this gives an indication of the value system that has allowed them to do so.

I’m interested in what they say also because I agree with just about everything they say. Like this:

Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination in itself.

How appropriate. I’m trying to get smaller as we speak. I’m stripping things down to the core.

Sure, they take a lot of heat for this. They got harangued by many in the media when they took Mint to task for selling out to Intuit. But I love it because they practice what they preach. They seem to live in a nice little zone of anti-hypocrisy.

Here is their take on the concept of less.

Ever seen the weapons prisoners make out of soap or a spoon? They make due with what they’ve got. …


… And we always keep features to a minimum. Boxing ourselves in this way prevents us from creating bloated products.

and finally:

… Be a curator. Stick to what’s truly essential. Pare things down until you’re left with only the most important stuff. Then do it again. You can always add stuff back later if you need to.

Lotta stuff. Lotta stuff that I can live by. Lotta stuff on the alone zone and no meetings and visual prioritization and teaching and wabi-sabi and spending other peoples money. And it all has examples, either from their own company or other professions and firms.

The only question is how do I keep reminding myself of this stuff. I read it on the Kindle so I have the Kindle App on all of my devices; should I just read through the bookmarks I added for this book occasionally? Should I create a calendar item to repeat this every other month or something? How about posting quotes on my bathroom wall?

I’ll think of something.


The Essential Drucker

My familiarity with Drucker is mostly from reading certain excerpts of his stuff as an undergrad. I regret not “getting” the management classes I took in school. I liked pouring through the detailed concepts of finance, economics, and accounting but I didn’t expend the same amount of resources on management. In retrospect, this stunted my development as a businessperson. There is a certain aspect of thinking from the organizational and personal development level that I didn’t do until my mid-30s.

Maybe it’s a function of age, but now management books are really interesting to me. This book is especially interesting because of its scope and efficiency. It distills a big chunk of Drucker’s management theory into a well-organized and relatively short book. The subtitle is “The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker’s Essential Writings on Management.” It’s the management book you read before you read other books on management; actually, before you read another business book period.

The first chapter sets management in the intellectual realm. Drucker first describes the task of management with a caveat (page 4):

To be sure, the fundamental task of management remains the same: to make people capable of joint performance through common goals, common values, the right structure, and the training and development they need to perform and to respond to change. But the very meaning of this task has changed, if only because the performance of management has converted the workforce from one composed of largely unskilled laborers to one of highly educated knowledge workers.

He then proceeds to broaden the scope of the term management (which I wish I would have read in 1987) and eventually describes management as a liberal art.

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art – “liberal” because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership: “art” because it is also concerned with practice and application.

I agree with Drucker, management is worthy of focus. It doesn’t come naturally except for the gifted few and you will be better positioned to help yourself, your business, and society if you at least have a rudimentary understanding of what it’s all about.

There is so much in this book that to begin pulling out the gems is difficult. The easiest way for me too depict it is with a cheat sheet of some sort. Check it out below. There are 26 chapters and they are grouped into Management, The Individual, and Society. I’ve taken things a few steps further and sub-grouped the chapters to assist the reader. I’ve also highlighted a few quotes and lists that I think represent the point of each chapter.

The Essential Drucker

It’s very theoretical and very fascinating. Drucker is a national hero in Japan (reminds me of Ben Franklin and his stature in France) and he clearly has great fondness and high hopes for the country. Applying his experience from that country to the US and management in general is a keen aspect of many of Drucker’s writings.

I highly recommend this book just to have around. You don’t need to read it all in one sitting. If you are in a reflective mood around your annual performance review, read chapters 13-17. If you are thinking of starting a new business, read chapters 10-12. In either case, Drucker will satisfy your needs or provide a basis for digging deeper into the topic.


The Art of the Start

I have been reading a lot of blogs lately and one that I keep coming back to is Guy Kawasaki’s How to Change the World. It has a lot of practical content on entrepreneurship, marketing, and management. Much of it relates to the tech industry because he manages a tech venture fund and is a former Apple exec. The blog is interesting enough so I bought one of his books.

He claims that this book is specifically geared towards starting a business, a not-for-profit, or a new product in an established company. He is stretching it with the not-for-profit and established company claim. I would only read this book if you’re slaving away in your garage on the next YouTube and you’re wondering what the next steps are.

Here is my diagram:

The Art of the Start

This diagram is not quite as involved as my diagrams for Execution and Blue Ocean Strategy. It’s a different style than those. This book is not very theoretical and is written kind of like his blog, just a bulleted brain dump of his thoughts, which I think is appropriate for covering the topic of starting a business. He is just grazing the surface of a broad range of topics which is what the person in the garage needs most.

For sure however, that person in the garage is going to have to shortly recognize when they need additional business knowledge. If capital is scarce and bootstrapping is the route taken, much more focus on running the business is going to be required. That means being clear that your personnel policies, marketing strategy, operational model, and financial infrastructure are sound. In this case, Kawasaki’s book will still be a great start, but will need to be supplemented quickly with more general business learning.

If the garage owner has a compelling enough idea and capital flows freely, they may never need to think about running a business because the capital provider may very well bring in a CEO. In this situation, the inventor can stay on and concentrate on the technical and creative side of things or take the money, buy a bigger garage, and start working on the next big thing.

These are extremes, but in either case, this book is a solid start that can be consumed in a matter of hours. So get started if you want to get started.


Six Disciplines for Excellence

There are lots of good things that have come out of my hometown of Findlay, OH, in no particular order:

That small town America can churn out such manufacturing, culinary, and athletic excellence may come as a surprise to some, but not if you grew up there. That’s why, when my brother-in-law suggested a business book written by a local entrepreneur, I took it to heart and put it on my reading list.

Gary Harpst, a local Findlay guy who sold his financial software business to Microsoft and started a small business consultancy, wrote this book. The subtitle is “Building Small Businesses that Learn, Lead and Last.” Therefore, don’t expect to gain a lot from this book if you just finished your MBA and you’re shuffling paper at a huge multi-national.

In short, this book is a great overview of all of the different things you need to excel at in order to have a successful business. There’s not any single concept that feels particularly groundbreaking. In fact, if you’ve read much of the popular and classic business press, you will immediately see where Mr. Harpst is grounded. But he makes no bones about it and gives credit appropriately. I think he is comfortable that his book is intended to be an overview and that if you really want to become expert in each area, you have to read more on your own, or hire a Six Disciplines consultant, of course.

You have heard of the vest pocket MBA. This book is like that but it won’t fit into your vestpocket. Let’s call it the “briefcase MBA.” Some of the great books that he relies on follow, and I have already started picking up the ones that I have not read because I was so compelled.

If you are just starting a small business and you are curious about resources that can help you with the business side of things, you can’t go wrong with this book. I would blast through it quickly without reading all of the charts, tables, and graphs. Then, I would start from the beginning and read it for implementation purposes. When you get to an aspect of your business that you think needs extra focus, look at the footnotes that Mr. Harpst gives and start reading some of the books that he used to formulate his theories. The man ran a highly successful business so he knows what he is talking about.

I have another idea for those that have just started their own gig but have no business experience whatsoever. Try this, grab this book and the E-Myth and read them together. They are both about small business. Just bounce back and forth between the chapters or something. In the E-Myth, you don’t get charts, graphs, lists, or stats like you do in Six Disciplines. The E-Myth is motivational, theoretical, and emotional whereas Six Disciplines is practical and tactical. They are a great complement to each other. Give them a whirl.



The subtitle, The Discipline of Getting Things Done, drew me into this book. It’s a common theme these days; David Allen’s book Getting Things Done (GTD) has a cult-like following amongst the internet set, popular websites like Lifehacker and 43F espouse the benefits of GTD and personal productivity, and it has become popular to say things like “git ‘er done” with a fake southern accent (I’m guilty).

I did not expect this book to address any aspect of personal productivity, and it doesn’t. What it does address is how a CEO gets the job done. It’s basically CEO 101 by a rock-star CEO (Bossidy) and an accomplished consultant/academic (Charan). It’s a management book; a treatise on the ingredients that your company needs to consistently deliver results. Bossidy and Charan detail the building blocks and processes that they feel will allow your company to bridge the gap between what your company wants and what your company eventually gets.

I drew a picture:


This book is laid out in a straightforward manner. Chapter 1 begins by identifying the problem, referred to by Bossidy and Charan as “the gap nobody knows.” They follow it up with a chapter recounting the real-world execution successes and failures of three companies (Xerox, Lucent Technologies, and EDS). These examples drive home why the authors feel the discipline of execution is so important for your company. The rest of the book provides specifics, with lots of examples, for the three building blocks and three processes outlined in the picture above. Your company’s leadership and staff must achieve excellence in all of these areas in order to have the best chance of achieving execution success.

The target audience for this book may appear to be grad students and middle managers that aspire to be a CEO some day. However, I think this book is also appropriate for first-year staffers that are embarking on any sort of career in an industrial corporation. It gives an excellent description of the internal workings of a business entity and how processes like strategic planning, budgeting, performance reviews, and quarterly management reviews are linked. These processes, along with all of the informal, cross-departmental dialogue a company has, are referred to as the “Social Operating Mechanism.” By linking all of this, Bossidy and Charan take some of the mystery out of why people have to participate in such apparently mundane things as departmental budgets, monthly variance analyses, and annual people assessments. If I would have read an overview like this when I joined corporate America after leaving public accounting, it would have accelerated my learning curve on many aspects of management.

This is not a complicated book. Just by the nature of the topic, it’s more practice than it is theory. Bossidy and Charan clearly explain the nuts and bolts of how to excel at each aspect of execution without a lot of business jargon. I think this book has a place in your business library because you need something that links the big picture to the bottom line, so to speak. It may fit nicely somewhere between Competitive Advantage and The Goal.