Reading List for the Poolside MBA

Summer's a great time for MBAs to catch up on some of the latest business thinking. Here are some suggestions from B-school professors

School is out, the sun is shining, and the temptation to forget about structured finance and pick up a trashy novel for beach reading is overwhelming. But those who are determined to get ahead of the MBA pack and beat out the competition for jobs in the increasingly competitive business world know that getting through an ambitious summer reading list is an assignment worth accepting.

The best thing about a summer reading list is that you can customize it to meet your interests as though you're your own professor. Also, you can complete it at your own pace, whether you're reading on a chaise poolside or waiting for the bus you take to your internship. And you don't have to do it on your own. You can start with suggestions from some professors at top American business schools, who recently shared their suggested summer reading lists with Another good source is BusinessWeek's list of best-selling business books.

From what the profs sent in, not all books need to be formula-laden snoozers. Indeed, classic books—not all related to business—are popular choices. For example, Stewart Friedman, practice professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, put Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack (Skyhorse Publishing, 2007), on his list. The book is available in several editions, but the Skyhorse Publishing version has an introduction by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. "I'm biased," says Friedman, whose university was founded by Franklin. "Still, there aren't many better primers on building social capital."

Fiction, too

Some recent books seem set on becoming classics because they keep appearing on the summer reading lists of business school professors. The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman (Picador, 2007), Freakonomics (William Morrow, 2006) by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books, 2002) by Malcolm Gladwell have much to tell business students about today's world. "[Freakonomics] provides a framework for anticipating both the intended and unintended effects of incentive systems and when and how people will cheat and deceive to get ahead," writes Northwestern University Kellogg Graduate School of Management Professor Adam Galinsky. "It is a critical book for anyone in a position to design organizational structures and incentives systems."

Even fiction can teach students of business a thing or two, say professors. In fact, Wallace Hopp, the Herrick professor of manufacturing and professor of operations and management science at University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business includes The Goal (North River Press, 2004) by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox, a novel whose first edition was published the 1980s. It's about an Israeli physicist who saves a man's job and marriage with clues about production control. "Whatever the merits of the novel, it does a nice job of introducing the concepts of bottlenecks and variability, both of which are studied in our core Operations & Management Science course," writes Hopp in an e-mail.

From the Politics of Poverty to Accounting

Indeed, many professors are keen on using books to enlighten students of business about morality, ethics, and using their power for good and not evil. Galinsky also had How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living (Harper Paperbacks, 2003) by Rushworth Kidder on his summer reading list because, he says, "It provides an indispensable guide for navigating the ethical traps that permeate the modern world."

David Levine, the Eugene E. & Catherine M. Trefethen Chair in Business Administration at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, recommends The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford University Press, 2007) by Paul Collier because, he says, it offers a "realistic look at the problems faced by the poor and offers provocative advice on how to help them."

Many of the professors also include works that offer help with simpler problems—from More Than a Numbers Game: A Brief History of Accounting (Wiley, 2006) by Thomas King, which appears on the summer reading list of Robert Howell, professor of business administration at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, to Ten Deadly Marketing Sins (Wiley, 2004) by Philip Kotler, which is recommended by Kellogg Professor Tim Calkins. These are books that can teach you about specific functions or skills you will rely on in the workforce every day.