<preform>Built to Last<br/>Troubleshooter<br/>Making it Happen - Reflections on Leadership<br/>Small is Beautiful<br>Maverick<br/>The Rise and Fall of Marks and Spencer<br/>The Business Enterprise Handbook </preform>

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The Independent Online

Anyone starting a business, or wondering how to move forward, grow and improve an existing business will probably look for help and advice in a book. And what a choice there is. There are so many books on every aspect and philosophy of business that one almost needs a book on how to choose the right business book. Many publications can be genuinely helpful for managers of any size of business while others are basically one idea, that could just as easily be put forward in a single article, surrounded by an enormous amount of padding.

Anyone starting a business, or wondering how to move forward, grow and improve an existing business will probably look for help and advice in a book. And what a choice there is. There are so many books on every aspect and philosophy of business that one almost needs a book on how to choose the right business book. Many publications can be genuinely helpful for managers of any size of business while others are basically one idea, that could just as easily be put forward in a single article, surrounded by an enormous amount of padding.

"Most managers don't read business books," says Rufus Olins, the editor-in-chief of Management Today. "They buy them but they rarely actually read them. As far as we can see, the most popular type of business books are the self-help type for individuals, such as What Colour is Your Parachute?. However, one that does seem to be read and enjoyed by managers of medium to large companies is Built to Last, which was written by James Collins and Jerry Porras. That really seems to be worth a serious read."

This book is a classic among business publications, costing £15.99 from Random House Business Books. It took the authors, both Stamford University professors, six years to research. In it they take 18 "visionary" companies, such as Disney, Hewlett Packard and Ford, and work out what is special about them and what sets them apart from the "second division" companies in their sectors. They conclude that, as well as achieving excellence in their field, all the companies featured show an almost cult-like devotion to a "core ideology" or identity, and an active indoctrination of employees into "ideological commitment" to the company.

The Forum of Small Businesses (FSB), which has owners and managers of small and medium-sized businesses as its members, recommends the Troubleshooter series of books which tied in with the BBC series of the same name, featuring Sir John Harvey Jones, former CEO of ICI, giving ailing businesses a helping hand. Troubleshooter and Troubleshooter 2 (BBC Consumer Publishing, £14.99 each) came out in the early Nineties but the advice is still helpful, coming from one of Britain's most successful business leaders. In fact Amazon readers give Sir John's latest book, Making it Happen – Reflections on Leadership (Harper Collins, £8.99), five stars. This is not surprising, as it is full of common-sense advice on all aspects of business life and management, using the author's experiences as chairman of ICI and his experience of leadership in the Royal Navy. In particular, he demonstrates how it is possible to run a company with time and respect for everyone involved, and how this enables a company to excel.

Sir John says the best business book he ever read was EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful (Vintage, £7.99). "I had only worked in large organisations," he says. "I was very well aware of the problems of the large – inflexibility, remoteness from the customer, tendency to reaction rather than new thinking – but I accepted all these obvious problems because I believed the big battalions would always win. Schumacher's doctrine forced me to question the then prevailing orthodoxy."

Essentially, Schumacher's book, which came out in 1973, maintains that giant organisations and increased specialisation has resulted in gross economic inefficiency, environmental pollution and inhumane working conditions. He challenges the doctrine of economic, technological and scientific specialisation, and proposes a system of intermediate technology, based on smaller working units, communal ownership and regional workplaces, using local labour and resources.

Another book that has shaken many businesspeople's ideas of how a company should be structured is Maverick by Ricardo Semler (Random House Business Books, £7.99). Semler explains how he turned corporate thinking on its head when he inherited his father's ailing manufacturing business, Semco. He introduced revolutionary ideas such as allowing everyone in the company, even the cleaners, to view the business accounts, allowing employees to set each other's wages and even promote or fire themselves. An inspirational book for anyone who wants to "think outside the box".

To find out how not to run a successful business, you can have an entertaining and very informative read with The Rise and Fall of Marks and Spencer by Judi Bevan (Profile Books, £7.99). The book chronicles the rise and fall of one of Britain's best-loved retailers, showing how complacency, self-serving top managers and a refusal to move with the times caused the companies shares to nose-dive and, in the Nineties, saw their share of the retail fashion market drop by 20 per cent in just five years.

Finally there is The Business Enterprise Handbook (£30), which is based on research by Cranfield University School of Management, where the growth of 15,000 independent firms in the UK is reviewed each year. The results provide a management blueprint for growth and development. Each key area is dealt with using an integrated approach with useful case studies. It is textbook in style but is full of examples of how to grow your business and, almost as helpfully, how not to.

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