Page Turners

An informal survey of company leaders suggests that executives’ top picks among both new and classic books offers not only provocative reading but a rare window into their concerns. The capital markets crisis has yielded a rich literature, and some aspect of the capital-markets crisis figures into every CEO’s selection. By Paul Rosta.

“Summer reading”: The words conjure up an idyllic picture of leisurely days on the beach devoted to immersion in a page-turner. In reality, of course, most senior real estate executives are much more likely to steal a few precious hours for reading on a cross-country flight than under a beach umbrella. Given the demands on their time to synthesize information from a battery of sources, it is remarkable that company leaders find time for books in the first place. That said, an informal survey of company leaders suggests that executives’ top picks among both new and classic books offers not only provocative reading but a rare window into their concerns.

The capital markets crisis has yielded a rich literature, and some aspect of the capital markets crisis figures into every CEO’s selection. Several cited Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves by Andrew Ross Sorkin. For Peter Roberts, CEO for Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. in the Americas, Sorkin’s account “offers good insight into leadership behaviors in a crisis and draws a pretty stark contrast between how different leaders respond.”

Another recommendation is The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis’ 2010 account of the housing and credit bubbles. “It should be required reading for all of today’s commercial and finance professionals,” declared Fred Schmidt, president & COO of Coldwell Banker Commercial Affiliates L.L.C., who also serves as president of the ONCOR International L.L.C. network. The Big Short also won the endorsement of Richard Green, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California. Lewis’ work, Gregory Zuckerman’s The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History and 13 Bankers by Simon Johnson and James Kwak are “the most vivid descriptions of what went wrong,” Green said.

Ed Indvik, CEO of Lee & Associates, drew sobering lessons from Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy. The work, by Barry Ritholtz with Aaron Task, details the repercussions of the federal government’s easy money policy and its repeated rescues of Wall Street. Indvik also cited A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers, an account of the investment bank’s implosion by Lawrence MacDonald, a former Lehman vice president. Among other themes, the book offers stark reminders that greed is a menace that will never be eradicated. Moreover, Indvik noted, it delves into the fact that “huge financial gains were achieved by the imprudent use of financing for residential (buyers) through subprime lending and the commercial market with CMBS lending excesses.” Absent sufficient risk management, he observed, “the abuses were ultimately unsustainable and the leverage in relationship to underlying value and debt service was too great.”

A need to understand other pressing economic topics is landing additional recent books on executive reading lists. Paul Daneshad, president & CEO of StarPoint Properties L.L.C., called Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle and How it Changes Everything “an imperative read.” He explained: “The thing that stood out the most is the fact that the average executive truly does not understand the scale and implications of our national debt and how jaded the current dialogue is when put into context of the magnitude and severity of the problem.”

Economic trends unfolding far from U.S. borders are also commanding attention. Prudential Mortgage Capital president David Twardock’s summer reading list includes Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise. The book’s co-authors, Carl Walter and Fraser Howe, argue that the apparently robust Chinese banking system rests on shaky ground that could undermine the nation’s economic success. Twardock read with great interest the discussion of China’s improving but still challenging transparency. The Asian giant likewise figures in the recent reading of Coldwell Banker Commercial’s Schmidt, who recommends On China, Henry Kissinger’s new exploration of the interplay between China’s history and its foreign relations.

Besides trends in capital markets, the books selected by real estate executives reflect a quest for fresh ideas about leadership. For a cogent discussion of best practices in client service, Roberts recommends Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business by Ranjay Gulati. “If you’re not effective at serving your clients’ or customers’ needs, you’re not going to succeed as a business,” he said. “Using that lens as a filter to see how your business can improve should be a constant exercise for all leaders.”

Among the top picks by Colliers International president & CEO Doug Frye this summer is Open Leadership: How Social Technologies Can Transform the Way You Lead, by Charlene Li. “I am truly fascinated by the phenomenon—or should I say revolution—that has been unfolding in front of us in recent years, driven by the relentless growth of social media,” Frye reported. “What I’m enjoying about this book is that it takes a very pragmatic and grounded approach to the application of social media in business.”

Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us offers the compelling argument that individual drive stems from three forces: a desire for autonomy, mastery of meaningful skills and involvement in a purpose beyond the self. Frye was struck by how closely those themes parallel his firm’s own bedrock principles of decentralization, fostering expertise and community service.

Frye’s recent reading also includes How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything … in Business (and in Life) by Dov Seidman. “A true sign of a values-led business is one where the ‘how’ part has equal or greater significance to the ‘what,’ and I think this book provides a great, action-oriented roadmap to developing not only a values-driven business but a values-driven life,” Frye explained.

Staying Power

Beyond recent arrivals, executives have plenty of suggestions for classics that merit re-reading or a first look. Some titles are decades old: Daneshad favors M. Scott Peck’s 1978 The Road Less Traveled and Richard Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad, published in 1997.

Other books deemed to be classics are of a more recent vintage. That applies to Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, according to Frye. Gladwell emphasizes the 10,000-hour rule, which refers to the time needed to master a discipline. “What separates the great from the good is the ability to sustain effort for long enough to become a true master,“ Frye commented.

Despite a few mixed feelings, Green found lasting value in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. “I find Taleb annoying, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right about a lot,” he observed. On a more offbeat note, the USC Lusk Center’s director found compelling reading in Tom Wolfe’s 2001 novel A Man in Full, whose protagonist owns an office complex burdened by heavy debt. Green cites the tale for its insights into “how hubris bites people in the real estate business.”

The pursuit of excellence is a subject of several works that earn the stamp of “classic” from Roberts. Good to Great—Jim Collins’ 2001 study of elite companies—remains “one of the most enduring business books,” the Jones Lang LaSalle executive contends. “Its fundamental lessons like ‘get the right people on the bus,’ ‘get on the right seats’ and ‘focus on your passion’ don’t go away.”

Works focused on noted CEOs also prove to be fertile ground. In Let My People Go Surfing, a 2006 memoir, Patagonia Inc. founder Yvon Chouinard reflects on his career, approach to business and environmental concerns. The memoir “is inspiring from the perspective that it was written by a man who has been there and done it,” Frye said. “I felt this to be a great study of authentic leadership, and was especially interested with the strong environmental core that runs through everything they do at Patagonia.”

And for timeless insights from an industry giant, readers may want to track down Zeckendorf: The Autobiography of William Zeckendorf, the 1970 memoir by a New York City-based developer whose signature projects include the United Nations headquarters. “It’s great storytelling from one of the true pioneers of real estate development,” Schmidt reported.