President Harry S. Truman found successful people fascinating. How they accomplished greatness intrigued him, so he read all he could about them, seeking insight and enlightenment. What he no doubt found can be summed up in the words of Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
If the key to success is staying one step ahead of the competition, knowing what the other guy is reading is vital. Warren Buffett reads six newspapers a day. Reagan read political theory. Patton read military history. What are government contractors reading, and which books do they recommend to those lining up behind them?
Yogesh Khanna, vice president and CTO for CSC, is constantly looking for the next technology angle.
“I’m always intrigued by looking at how to bring technologies and new business models into the workplace,” he said.
Khanna said he found inspiration in outside-the-box thinker Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma and the Innovator’s Solution. And for the up-and-coming in the IT space, Khanna recommends The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr.
“It’s a book that anybody who has focused on IT for the last 10 years and understands how we generate revenue, profits and margins must read because traditional models that we’re so accustomed to are all going to get thrown out the door,” he said.
When not reading for work, Khanna finds catharsis in the familiar pages of Kavita Khanna’s Saturday Morning Omelettes.
“It’s a book I’m proud of because my wife wrote it,” he said. “And it’s very relevant to me and my family because it’s a bit of her own personal experiences that she’s actually shared in that, and very relevant to bringing the core messages home for me.” USIS President and CEO Bill Mixon found inspiration in the works of Dr. Stephen Covey, Tom Peters and Jack Welch.
“Those would be the three authors that I think have put out a breadth of knowledge and a breadth of thinking around business,” Mixon said.
Tom Peter’s The Pursuit of Wow struck such a chord with him, Mixon said, he recommended it as a mustread for those starting out in the business world.
Currently, Mixon is tackling Howard Shultz’s Onward, a look at Starbucks’ business model, Donald Rumsfeld’s Known and Unknown and Do the Right Thing by Mike Huckabee.
Mike Carpenter, senior vice president of McAfee’s public-sector division, found confidence and structure in the management style Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton’s Now, Discover Your Strengths advocates. Carpenter also recommended Jim Collins’ Good to Great.
“Understanding the importance of having the right people and the right culture can outperform the best products,” Carpenter said. SRA President and CEO Stanton Sloane is the first to admit he has a short attention span, so you can bet the books he reads are of deep importance to him.
“The books that have influenced me tend to be things that provide some compelling new way of thinking about things, or some insightful way to look at something familiar in a very different light,” he said.
For Sloane, anything and everything by Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman are worth the time and effort. Laura Hillenbrand holds his attention as well, he said. Sloane recently finished Unbroken and found Seabiscuit a “wonderful read.”
Michael Farber, senior vice president for Booz Allen Hamilton, pointed to the value of discovery and going with the flow in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. He said he found business direction in Jeanne Ross’ Enterprise Architecture as Strategy, Carr’s The Big Switch and Competing on Analytics by Thomas H. Davenport and Jeanne G. Harris. Stan Davis’ Future Perfect,
Farber said, is “a lot like ‘plastics’ for fans of The Graduate.” (Re-watch the movie if that memorable line from the 1968 film has you scratching your head.)
On the lighter side, Farber said he enjoyed Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman, rated Albert Camus’ The Plague as “simply an outstanding read,” and drew parallels to life as a consultant with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. ITT Defense and Information Solutions President David Melcher’s bookshelf is a reflection of his life, he said.
“It is a list bred of a 32-year military career, Harvard Business School education and more recent experiences with ITT,” he said. “I would recommend any of them to an up-and coming executive as all are great reads about leadership, decision-making and how to manage change in organizations.”
On Melcher’s bookshelf sits The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, noteworthy to him for the analogies it draws between the fictionalized decision-making practices of Civil War officers and leaders of today.
Stephen Ambrose’s D Day and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation are particularly important to Melcher.
“As the son of a World War II veteran, I appreciated both books as reminders of the sacrifices of a great generation of men and women who served selflessly to preserve our freedoms, yet never talked much about their sacrifices, which is why Tom Brokaw’s book is so poignant and helpful,” Melcher said.
Melcher said he appreciated T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War for its grim portrayal of the realities of the Korean War and Michael George’s Lean Six Sigma for Service for influencing his career path.
“I first became interested in process improvement and efficiency as the Army’s deputy chief of staff for programs and later the Army budget officer,” he said.
“This book was my introduction to the nuts and bolts of process improvement, stimulated a desire to work on a Green Belt project and to help the Army leadership develop approaches for better management of the Army enterprise.”
Authored by one of his favorite Harvard Business School professors, John Kotter, Leading Change gave Melcher needed advice on leading change in his military and business careers.
Jim Collins’ Good to Great also makes an appearance on Melcher’s shelf.
“Almost 10 years since publication, I still find it a great collection of examples whereby some companies manage to find paths to great performance and the creation of shareholder value, and others do not,” he said. “There are lessons here for all of us to learn.”
As he prepares for ITT Defense’s spinoff from ITT later this year, Melcher is reading Value: The Four Cornerstones of Corporate Finance by Tim Killer, Richard Dobbs and Billy Huyett.
And what lessons are here for us all to learn?
The books that touched and influenced governmentcontracting leaders are as varied as the personalities who recommend them. Books that broadened thinking with new directions, tackled industry topics in new ways and offered guidance on a personal level. In each selection, they found giants who served as starting points to reach new heights.