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THE INC. LIFE

19 Books These Top Executives Say Showed Them the Way to the Top

Here’s a pile of books recommended by high achievers.

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BY Christina DesMarais - 15 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It's all about efficiency: The most successful people are students who watch and learn from others who have already carved a path to the top. Here's a pile of books recommended by high achievers.

1. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

"[It's] a historical novel, but for me, it's a tale about overcoming adversity with grit, determination and relentless optimism. Whether in a start-up or an established business, competition makes it hard to drive profitable growth. While it's critical to have smart strategies, superior leadership and execution through optimism, I find that grit and determination are invaluable. The Power of One is also a great read, which is why it's one of the few books I've read multiple times."

--Andy England, CEO of National CineMedia, America's largest cinema advertising network

2. Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

"I just finished [it] last weekend and it's a phenomenal book. He's kind of this investor savant and he believes that you can structure and write down rules for almost anything, including human behavior and how you manage. He has a fascinating sense of principles, but also talks about the different psychological tests that are prevalent in the workplace--like Myers Briggs--and describes innovative tools like creating 'baseball cards' so that employees can understand the personality types of the people they work with. For an engineer trying to understand management, it's a great read."

--Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, an open source software company which has fostered the widespread growth of open source across industries and doubled the company's revenue during his 10 years as CEO

3. Leading at The Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition by Dennis N.T. Perkins

"The backdrop of [this book] is Sir Ernest Shackleton's remarkable journey of crossing the unexplored Antarctic continent with a team of seamen and scientists. As the true story unfolds, revealing the crew's dire pursuit for survival, ten lessons of what it takes to be a great leader emerge--focusing on core leadership principles of balancing optimism with realism, summoning the courage to take risks, the importance of consistent messaging and more. The lessons from Shackleton, while conveyed in page-turning adventure, are appropriate for any level of leader and apply universally to businesses in all phases of growth or evolution."

--Charlie Alutto, president and CEO of Stericycle, a healthcare waste management company that has disposed of over 70 million pounds of pharma waste since 1989

4. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

"'People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it.' Based on his powerful TED Talk, Start with Why is Simon Sinek's model and movement for inspirational leadership. Through his foundational question of 'why' Sinek probes deep into the success of some people and organizations that goes beyond their profitability. Rather, he examines why their influence, innovation, loyalty and more lead some to be more successful than others. He provides a framework that allows leaders across industries to emulate the practices of successful leaders like the Wright Brothers, [Martin Luther King] and Steve Jobs who shared no commonalities except that their ideas, movements and products were seeped in the 'why.' This book has enabled me to identify my 'why'--to make people happy--and align my personal and professional goals with that purpose."

--Fabio Ronga, CEO of beqom, a provider of a cloud-based total compensation solution, used globally by over 100 large companies

5. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

"The principles presented in [this book] are just as pertinent today as they were when it was originally published in 1936. At its core, the book represents the most valuable lessons in relationships and empathy, all critical to achieving business success. From learning to acknowledge your mistakes, to avoiding criticism and complaints, to empowering others to express their ideas and opinions, Dale Carnegie's straightforward yet prolific insights have helped me establish a company culture that supports individual creativity, growth and equality."

--Mark Buff, CEO of Mohu, "The Cord Cutting Company," which has helped consumers save more than $1 billion by eliminating monthly cable and satellite bills since 2011

6. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

"For those seeking a truly honest account of the path to business success, there's no book that better articulates the realities of the experience than [this one], which chronicles the many challenges Phil Knight faced and overcame in building what ultimately became the biggest shoe empire in the world, Nike. Phil's memoir poignantly illustrates how perilous, uncertain and struggle-ridden the road to success is for entrepreneurs, emphasizing the value that comes from failure, and the importance of endurance in learning to deal with setbacks. It's been a great source of advice and comfort in coping with the many challenges and emotions that have come with scaling Koio's rapid organic growth over the past couple years."

--Chris Wichert, co-CEO of Koio, a leather sneaker brand which has collaborated with Game of Thrones, JonBoy and The Beverly Hills Hotel, resulting in more than 400 percent revenue growth last year

7. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin

"Have you ever thought 'Why can't I accomplish this goal? I should be able to.' This book provides a deep insight into how you work every day, and by extension, what criteria is needed for you to reach a goal. By taking her quiz, you can identify as a Rebel, Questioner, Obliger or Upholder. The result is an understanding of why you can't achieve some goals and why you over-achieve in different settings. This self-awareness can help you structure your work, your personal goals and your life in a way designed for you to succeed. It keeps you from thinking 'I should be able to do that,' and helps you rework it into 'I can do that if I do it this way.' Understanding the tools and structure that you need to succeed can help you work around things that normally would hinder you and move toward the best version of yourself."

--Loni Freeman, VP of human resources at SSPR, a national public relations agency that has worked with brand-name clients like Groupon, Halogen Software and TOGO's Sandwiches

8. In Search of Excellence by Robert H. Waterman Jr. and Tom Peters

"This book and the success strategies it uncovered have formed much of the basis of my approach to entrepreneurship and management. The notion that 'structure is not organization,' is embodied in the way we operate here at PowerInbox. Instead of investing in and over-emphasizing formalities like a large HQ, corporate hierarchy and other traditional business structures, we've instead chosen to stay lean, agile and close to the customer, which has made all the difference in our success. In Search of Excellence, with its expose' about what it takes to be successful in the long term, was decades ahead of its time in terms of how to empower and motivate employees through autonomy. I'm so glad that I discovered this wisdom early in my career. It has no doubt saved me from several missteps along the way."

--Jeff Kupietzky, CEO of PowerInbox, a multichannel digital monetization platform used by over 600 publishers to drive revenue through one-to-one engagement with over 85 million unique monthly subscribers

9. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

"I read this book in high school and it inspired me to try to be one of the people in the world that drives change. Later in life I realized disruptors actually need a full team to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders."

--Rajeev Behera, cofounder and CEO of Reflektive, a real-time feedback HR platform that recently raised $60 million for its work to kill the annual performance review

10. The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins

"The book is written to help the leaders who are in transition between companies or roles. However, I found that wisdom from the book is very useful for new team members regardless their levels, and also early startup founding members who are continuously challenged by new roles and responsibilities as their companies grow."

--Ikkjin Ahn, cofounder and CEO of Moloco, a mobile advertising Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) company which recently announced a Series B funding of $11 million

11. Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don't by Jeffrey Pfeffer

"Jeffrey Pfeffer spent decades working with Fortune500 companies, top startups, and teaching at Stanford Business School. Here's what he observed: being talented and turning in a good performance is not enough to insure a successful career, it also requires that you self-promote, be memorable, and most importantly, be politically skilled and purposely seek out power. And while that might not be what you want to hear and might not be the world that you wanted to participate in, this is the world that exists. So accept it, learn from it, and get in the game. Your greatest career challenge will be learning how to prevail in the political battles of the office, and this book is your roadmap to being an effective leader."

--Jocelyn DeGance Graham, founder of CloudNOW, a 501c3 non-profit focused on championing women in tech and providing STEM scholarships for the next generation of female leaders; and named by the Business Journal as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Women in Silicon Valley and by CRN as one of the 100 Most Influential Women in IT

12. Why Does E=mc2? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

"As an AI scientist and now CEO of an AI company, I am in the position to look at established industries from a different angle, the AI angle. Relativity challenges our physical world view by looking at experimental results and formulating breakthrough hypothesis that turn traditional theories upside down. It sounds like, and indeed is, the equivalent of what a CEO should do: armed with data and ideas, challenge established practices and products, no matter how entrenched they are."

--Max Versace, cofounder and CEO of Neurala Inc., a Boston-based company building artificial intelligence emulating brain function in software which pioneered the development of deep learning neural network software for NASA to use in planetary exploration, where processing power, battery life and communications are limited

13. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

"It hooked me in its effort to answer one single question: 'Why does my foot hurt?' The path to that answer, like all health-related journeys, combines the physical, mental, spiritual and cultural realms. For me, it was less about the activity of running and more of an organic odyssey about overcoming perceived limitations and self-imposed barriers to tap into your inner super-human."

--Priya Kamani, M.D., founder and CEO of Living Matrix, a patient information management system for personalized and functional medicine which claims has established the largest database for personalized and functional medicine research in the world

14. Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

"Antifragile is a term coined by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in this disruptive book. Taleb describes antifragility as the 'opposite' of being fragile, and also a more important trait than flexibility. When an entity is antifragile, it becomes stronger and grows in response to stress, as opposed to becoming weaker or simply coping. Because challenges and uncertainty are the daily norm for operators in the cannabis industry, individuals and companies who are able to become antifragile have a huge advantage over their competitors."

--Afzal Hasan, president and general counsel of CannaRoyalty, a leading publicly traded company in the legal cannabis industry who has represented public companies and underwriters in raising over $500 million through prospectus financings and private placements

15. The Martian by Andy Weir

"In addition to being an entertaining and engaging read, this book also an embodiment of so much of what I believe is critical to success in business and running a start-up, including efficient problem-solving, resourcefulness and grit. Also, the book's plot--about getting off Mars before dying--is a really great metaphor for building a company before running out of money. In fact, because it speaks so well to a lot of our company values, every new employee at my company gets a copy of The Martian pre-loaded on a Kindle when they join."

--Jennifer Fitzgerald, cofounder and CEO of online insurance marketplace Policygenius which has served 4.5 million customers to date, one of only four female founders in the U.S. to have raised more than $50 million for a fintech startup and a frequent contributor to Huffington Post and CNBC

16. Good to Great by Jim Collins

"[This] is a book I constantly think about as I expand my team and vision of Brain.fm. Leaders of great companies don't start with 'where,' but 'who' and in the book the author illustrates how great organizations need to focus on finding the right people first over anything else. As my team grows, I remember that a culture fit is more important than a resume."

--Daniel Clark, CEO of Brain.fm, which uses a patented AI engine to generate music backed by scientific research to help listeners focus, relax, and sleep that recently received a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation

17. The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas

"[This book] lays out the practical learnings of two programmers as they developed in their careers. From the perspective of a software developer, their ideas were useful and compelling. What was most compelling to me however was the idea that craftsmanship was something that should be pursued in any discipline. Prior to reading this book, I thought of craftsmanship as something that might apply to carpentry. After reading this book, I felt that craftsmanship was an important element of all of our work; a view that stays with me to this day."

--Charles Teague, CEO of Lose It!, one of the first apps in the Apple store in 2008 which remains a top grossing and top-rated app with over 30 million downloads and more than 66 million pounds lost

18. The Element by Ken Robinson

"[This book] is filled with so many great themes and stories about finding your passion and nurturing your creativity, both of which are incredibly important for any entrepreneur. I read this book a while ago and the lesson that has stayed with me all these years later is the importance of taking the time to think about what it is that you really want to do. Don't take an opportunity just because it's presented or for the wrong reasons. You want to wake up every morning with a clear sense of purpose."

--Georgina Gooley, cofounder of Billie, female-first subscription shaving and body care products which exceeded its first year of sales projections in less than four months since launch

19. Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, Nixon to Clinton by David Gergen

"As an entrepreneur who has read hundreds of business biographies, I was excited to finally read a political biography that gave lessons on leadership. David Gergen's book profiling the leadership qualities (and failings) of several U.S. Presidents was eye-opening. He shared great insights into how a leader's temperament matters more than his or her intelligence, how a leader's passion can inspire a great team to assemble itself and how communication is really a leader's most important asset. This book is packed with insights that all entrepreneurs can benefit from."

--Neel Premkumar, founder and CEO of FORTO, a coffee shot that has experienced 400 percent year-over-year growth in over 40,000 stores across the U.S. and online

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