Best Business Books of 2019

Marco Mäkinen
9 min readJan 8, 2020


1. Safi Bahcall: Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

Why is it so frustratingly hard to create something new in a corporation? What kills creativity and why? And what could we do about it? Safi Bahcall created revolutionary cancer drugs in his biotech startup, sold the company and is now writing about his passion, innovation. He is intrigued by the obstacles to innovation. He explains why good teams with excellent people and the best intentions kill great ideas, as well as what we can do about it.

2. Ben Horowitz: What You Do is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture

Everybody quotes, culture eats strategy for breakfast, but few have actionable ideas on how to build a strong culture in practice. Horowitz’s previous book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a brutal leadership guide that became a bible for startups founders and other “war-time CEOs”.

What You Do Is Who You Are focuses on corporate culture. Horowitz draws on his own experience, as well as more surprising sources: the slave revolution of Haiti, prison gangs and Japan’s samurai culture. Unlike in some fluffy “employee experience” guides, this is not about how to have fun at work. It is rather a realistic look at what it takes to create culture at work.

3 Rita McGrath: Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen.

It happens all the time. A major corporation, think Kodak, Nokia, Yahoo, Sears, is blindsided and reacts too late to a major change in customer needs. Rita McGrath is a professor at Columbia Business School and Seeing Around Corners is the best business book of the year. It encourages us to look out for inflection points in systematic ways.

4. David Epstein: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Range appears to be just such an annoying, single idea business book, that gives the entire genre a bad rep.

The idea in itself is simplistic: the folk wisdom of “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” is wrong. Becoming a champion, a virtuoso or a Nobel laureate does not require early and narrow specialization. Quite the contrary. Generalists are better positioned than specialists to excel. You can expect a varied stream of ideas about diversity, child-rearing and life priorities.

5. Julie Zhuo: The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You

Leadership guidebooks make for awkward reading. Retired old men, known to be terrible bosses, mansplaining the basics of leadership. The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo is made from a different perspective. Zhuo started as an intern at Facebook, became a manager when she was only 25 and is now the vice president of product.

Zhuo is open about her insecurities, her mistakes, and shares what she has learned. The book is earthly and filled with concrete tips that even old guys like me can learn from.

6. Marc Benioff and Monica Langley: Trailblazer. The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform of Change.

Trust in politicians and media is on the decline, states the latest Edelman Trust Barometer. Instead, people trust companies and believe that they can change society for the better. This trust is earned by exemplary leaders like Marc Benioff., the company Benioff founded, has made it clear, from the beginning, that it had broader goals than only maximizing profits. It wants to be a positive force of change to its customers, employees and the society at large.

As a pioneer, Benioff benefits from its position but also faces harder criticism. The best parts of the book are the re-telling of stories where Benioff was forced to face tough questions. What do if Salesforce does not give equal pay to men and women? How do you treat minorities? What to do when legislation changes in a way that is in stark contrast to the company’s values.

7. Andrew McAfee: More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources — and What Happens Next

McAfee is an MIT professor, best known for the books, mainly on artificial intelligence and robotics, he has written together with Erik Brynjolfsson. McAfee might not be spell-bounding writing, but he is a clear and provocative thinker. More form Less is the driest, most earnest and also most important book on this list.

The previous time humankind faced a serious existential threat when the Club of Rome warned us about running out of resources in the late 1960s, we reacted with stern, centrally controlled actions. China adopted the one-child policy; market capitalism was criticized and socialist rose to power. Now climate change raises similar issues.

McAfee defends market capitalism and shows how it has, already, succeeded in using resources more efficiently, using less energy, causing less pollution and cleaning up the pollution of the past. We are even re-foresting the earth and protecting other species. McAfee produces compelling data and numerous examples. Must-read for anyone working on sustainability issues.

8 Robert Iger: The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company

When Robert Iger was named Disney CEO in 2005, the company was in a serious crisis. The animation movie hits had dried up, the shareholders of the company were quarreling, and the threat of a digital future lay on traditional media companies. Few believed in Disney’s ability to renew itself. Even fewer believed in Iger who had been the number two, behind former CEO Michael Eisner, when Eisner’s grip on the company had started to slip.

In his memoir, Iger describes this tough start in a touching way. He also tells, in a rare, candid manner, about the ensuing change process, his conflicts with his board, and the internal resistance to the changes he had to make. The best parts of the book teach 1) learnings from his many mergers and acquisitions keep what’s unique in the company you are buying and 2) teaching on change management if you want to change behavior, change what you reward.

9 Marcus Buckingham & Ashley Godall: Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World

Companies lead people in stupid ways. Despite good intentions, they end-up de-motivating people. Marcus Buckingham made this observation 20 years ago while working at Gallup. He has since lectured on the subject and written several books, including First Break the Rules, Now Find Your Strengths and Stand Out.

The message in his latest book remains the same, but now the point of view w is developing the organization, instead of thinking about your career.

Nine Lies About Work aims to reveal the harmful myths and misconceptions about leading people that many HR departments and management teams hold. It also aims to prove them wrong by using data. His writing partner, Ashley Goodall from Cisco provides a large global database.

The data breaks the myths. People don’t crave feedback; they want to be noticed. Positive attention is thirty times more powerful than negative attention. A good leader does not develop her employees’ weaknesses but focuses on boosting strengths instead. Work-life balance is not important, but people need to love their jobs. Collogues suck at rating each other. People don’t commit to companies, but they are ready to do anything for their team-mates. To achieve great results, you don’t need to cascade goals, but you need to give smart people the freedom to do their job. Thought-provoking stuff.

10. Anthony Kennada: Category Creation: How to Build a Brand That Customers, Employees, and Investors Will Love.

In a world where there already is too much of everything, it is no longer enough to create a recognizable brand. If you want to get noticed, you need to push harder. You need to create your own category.

Easier said than done. The force of habit and existing market structures make it very slow and extremely difficult. Most that attempt it will surely fail. But for the ones that succeed, can expect a major windfall. A category king captures 76% of the value in the category 10 years down the road.

Al Ramadan, Christopher Lochhead, Dave Peterson, and Kevin Maney created the concept of category design in their book Play Bigger in 2016. Now Kennada writes about the same topic, clearer and with better structure. And the examples of fresh: HubSpot created In-Bound Marketing, Eloqua Marketing Automation and DocuSign created the category of Digital Signatures. Kennada’s own experiences with Gainsight are especially helpful.

Here it is, the list of the 10 best business books of 2019. This year I had to cut many excellent books that would have made the top ten any other year. These include Thomas M. Siebel’s Digital Transformation and Tony Saldanha’s Why Digital Transformations Fail. I also had to cut Robert Schillers intriguing Narrative Economics and the second-best strategy book of the year, Connected Strategy by Siggelkow & Terviech, to make room for the books I felt were even more deserving.

I consciously dropped some big names, most notably Simon Sinek’s Infinite Game and Shoshana Zubofff The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Sinek’s book is a rather tedious, overdrawn blogpost, build around a single metaphor. Zuboff’s book is, of course, an important reminder of the fact that Google, Facebook, and many others do collect our data and sell it, but do we need to read 704 pages that take themselves too seriously are a bit too much.

I have to admit that I’m guilty of the same sin as Shoshana Zuboff. I take myself way too seriously. I spend each year more time on this list, I update my secret excel sheet, I give points and I change the order of the books several times during the final week.

I only list business books published in 2019. My definition of a business book is intentionally narrow. These are all books that talk directly about business. They contain ideas on how to develop the business further.

I try to cast a wide net. I start to read over 300 business books each year, the best of which I also finish. In practice, this means that I listen to books all the time when I’m doing one of my endless triathlon training sessions when I’m moving from one place to another when I take the dog out. I also read e-books when traveling and physical ones on the sofa and in my bed.

What’s the point? Why do I do it? I suffer from a severe case of FOMO when it comes to business books. I feel anxiety rising as soon as I hear about a new book I have not yet read. That’s why I at least browse everything I can get my hands on. If it does not impress me, I have no qualms about leaving it unfinished. ‘


1. Why is there no fiction on the list? Shouldn’t leaders and professionals read more literature? Wouldn’t it grow much-needed empathy? I agree, but my sample of new fiction is way too narrow to make a list. My favorites are Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, Claire Lombardo’s The Must Fun We Ever Had and Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. I also “discovered” Rachel Cusk, and now I’ve read most of what she’s written.

2. Why don’t you have important nonfiction books on the list? Shouldn’t everybody read The Uninhabitable Earth or Midnight in Chernobyl? The first is a reminder of why we should take climate change seriously. The latter is a horrible warning on what shitty, soviet style management, and the lack of transparency can lead to. But they belong to a different kind of list.

3. Do you read or listen to 300 books each year? Unfortunately, not quite as many. Again, I fell 27 books short of my objective. I started 417 books, but the rest I did not finish, and that I have no intention to finish. I would have wanted to read even more. There are 11,000 new business books published each year. But I simply did not have the time. Would it make sense, to focus on quality, instead of quantity? It sure would, but because I simply can’t do it, I try to at least help others to find the best books.