Margaret Fuller, a 19th Century American journalist, editor and book reviewer, said, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” This quote is exemplified by most people in executive leadership, who began as readers, became business leaders, and kept on reading.
This trajectory has certainly been a reality for me. As a private citizen, I like to think that people know Al Hartman as someone who lives to read. As a CEO, I hope my colleagues think of me as someone who reads to lead.
To bring better strategies and insights into the workplace, I routinely read books meant for CEOs — often written by fellow CEOs, which I share in my monthly newsletters. CEO books are certainly a different type of reading material than your average popular fiction or literary classic. The books that CEOs tend to read provide actionable advice and real-world stories of success in business from people who have achieved great things.
Below, I share some of the most impactful, most important CEO books I have read in recent years. I hope this list will give you a good starting point for your next professional reading selection.
The Importance of Reading to CEOs
Before I begin my list of “Al Hartman-approved” CEO books, I want to highlight the importance of reading to CEOs across the business and industry spectrum. Reading is not a unique hobby that I picked up — it is a ritual that countless business leaders have relied upon to drive themselves and the businesses they lead to new heights.
Author Thomas Corley spent five years studying self-made millionaires to see which of their habits contributed to their success. One of those habits was reading. In fact, 88% of the individuals Mr. Corley surveyed said they spent at least half an hour each day reading for self-improvement.
Many business leaders take this habit to extreme lengths. For example, Bill Gates — former Microsoft CEO and richest person in the world — reads 50 books every year. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk summarized his ability to build rockets that reach space in three words: “I read books.” Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett said he read between 500 and 1,000 pages every day when he was getting his start as an investor.
Why do CEOs read with such commitment? The answer goes beyond gaining wealth. I believe the ability to feel a sense of camaraderie with fellow business leaders plays a big role here. Almost every day, CEOs encounter business problems that many would say are insurmountable. CEO books tell us that our problems are not, in fact, insurmountable — leaders just like us have conquered these challenges before, we can too.
7 Best CEO Books that Al Hartman Recommends
I have read many books over the course of my long career. Some have remained in my mind for years and influence business decisions I make to this day. In recent months, I have read seven CEO books that have made that kind of large impact on me.
1. The Ultimate Sales Machine
As CEO of Hartman Income REIT Management, Inc., I have long maintained that our tenants are sacred — every single one of them. One of the most important endeavors we undertake is keeping our tenants once we find them. Chet Holmes’ book “The Ultimate Sales Machine” explains exactly how to do that.
In a nutshell, the strategy is enthusiasm. You have to enthusiastically pursue your clients even after they have signed with you. The many nuggets of wisdom in this book come together nicely with Ephesians 6:7, which tells us to “Serve wholeheartedly.” Serve your clients wholeheartedly, and you will keep them. The book contains volumes of additional and specific guidance, and I encourage you to add it to your reading list.
2. It’s the Manager
Who holds the key to setting the tone for your company and establishing your company culture? It’s the manager, which also happens to be the title of one of my favorite recent books. In “It’s the Manager,” Jim Clifton and Jim Harter explore some of the most important findings of a Gallup study on the future of work. The authors bring the hard data of the Gallup study to life with in-depth analysis and explanations that make it easy to capitalize on cutting-edge workplace wisdom.
For me, one of the key takeaways from this book was that business leaders need to share what makes their companies unique if they hope to recruit top talent. However, I suspect that leaders in industries different from mine might have wholly different takeaways. This just speaks to the broad applicability and potential for impact of this book.
3. Who Moved My Cheese?
Adapting to change is key to the success of any company. What do change and cheese have in common with each other? They are both major characters in Dr. Spencer Johnson’s book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” This motivational business parable discusses change in the workplace and how people can and should react to it.
I believe that our company has exemplified many of the important traits described in this book, with the COVID-19 pandemic being a recent and notable example. Our thriving team was well-equipped to navigate the many changes the pandemic caused, and the countless hours of work that went into developing and implementing alternative plans for the pandemic filled me with pride.
4. Excellence Wins
“Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise” is a book that is dear to me for two reasons: its insightful take on customer service culture and the fact that it was written by Hartman Income REIT board member, Horst Schulze.
Among many other points, Mr. Schulze emphasizes the fact that customer service is not the job of a single person or team — it is everyone’s job. He describes three key steps of great customer service:
- Offer a great welcome
- Comply with the customer’s wishes
- Say goodbye
It sounds relatively simple, but if you take some time to consciously apply these principles to every single interaction with a customer, investor, or vendor, you will quickly see the impact this strategy makes when you apply it wholeheartedly to your business.
5. Encouraging the Heart
Author James Kouzes gave me some much-needed inspiration during the chaos of COVID-19. In his book “Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others,” he argues that heart is the key to bravery, boldness, sacrifice, and soul in organizations. He writes that, “… nothing ever gets done without heart.”
At that moment in time, I was watching our company work to overcome the struggles the pandemic brought. The team showed up, supported each other and their customers, and stuck to our cultural driving forces: exceptional service and inspired values. That was the kind of heart Mr. Kouzes was writing about.
6. How Full is Your Bucket?
We could all use a little more positivity in both our personal lives and our work lives. Gallup’s “How Full is Your Bucket?” gives us a roadmap to bringing that additional positivity into our lives.
The book presents a framework for understanding our interactions by positing that we all have an invisible bucket and dipper. When people say or do things to us, our bucket is either filled or emptied. A full bucket makes us feel happy, and an empty bucket makes us feel bad. We use our invisible dippers to fill up other people’s buckets, which in turn fills up our own.
This framework aligns perfectly with our company core values of celebrating achievements, developing others, and caring about the customer. I hope this book will help you to frame your own values and those of your company to keep your buckets full.
7. The Power of Proven Results
I suppose that writing a book counts as reading it, too. My book, “Al Hartman: The Power of Proven Results,” summarizes the strategies and pursuits that have become my secrets to success. I wrote this book for business owners who want to make leadership decisions that help their companies grow, and I kept it short so you can learn in an afternoon what it took me decades to discover.
Read to Lead
I cannot emphasize this enough: reading is critically important for CEOs. From just the seven books I have included in this short list, you can learn how to keep your customer, define your company culture, adapt to change, provide world-class service, empower others, and grow your company. Imagine what you could learn by reading more than just the Al Hartman-recommended reading list.
As a CEO myself, I know how pressed for time we all are. Who has the time to read? If some of the most successful CEOs in history have found the time, you can too. All you have to do is make it a habit. Read for a certain amount of time or a certain number of pages each day. You will be shocked to see how far you get, and how much further you go, when reading becomes a studied habit.