Best Business Books of 2020

The 5 Best Business Books of 2020 (According to Every Other Best-of-2020 List)

We looked through all the lists so you don’t have to

An illustration of 5 different books, some opened and others closed. Behind the books are sparkles and bracket style outline.
Illustration: Jake Terrell

This year, I read fewer business books than I usually do. You probably did, too. The category’s sales are down 20% since March, according to NPD’s Bookscan.

It’s not hard to understand why. A lot happened this year to distract us from our usual routines: a pandemic, a recession, an election.

Faced with these upheavals, it might not have seemed like books, particularly business books, would have much advice on how to navigate a world that, on many fronts, was hard to recognize. Many of the books published this year were written before Covid-19.

And yet, this was also a year in which business played a tremendous role in how we responded to the pandemic, from the creation of vaccines to our shift to remote work and e-commerce to the growing dominance of big tech in our economy. We saw the acceleration of business trends and the upending of old business models. How could the business books of 2020 inform our understanding of these shifts?

As I did last year, I looked at what prominent tastemakers in the world of business chose as their favorite business books of 2020. The Financial Times, Inc., Strategy + Business, and The Economist provide a view into narratives that resonate with journalists across business media. The selections from Porchlight Book Company, BookPal, and Amazon provide a commercial perspective from booksellers who specialize in the category.

Across a collective list of 100 business books published this year, just five titles appeared more often than the rest on this year’s best-of lists. Each of them says something interesting about the past and the present. These books might also help us make sense of what feels like an uncertain future.

1. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

Book cover for NO RULES RULES: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
Book cover for NO RULES RULES: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
Penguin Press

No Rules Rules was the most frequently chosen book across best-of lists this year, appearing on five of the seven lists we reviewed. The book provides two perspectives on Netflix. The first is from Reed Hastings, the co-founder and CEO of Netflix, explaining his beliefs about leading an organization and the reasoning behind some of Netflix’s unique management practices, like eliminating restrictions on vacation days and sharing sensitive financial information with employees at all levels. Hastings’s musings alternate with those of INSEAD business school professor Erin Meyer, who serves two roles, one as provider of relevant research and another as the voice of Netflix’s employees. As a part of writing the book, Meyer interviewed hundreds of workers all over the world. This dualing narration enhances both the traditional CEO book and standard business school title, as they respond to each other on the pages of the book.

Hastings says Netflix’s culture is based on three mutually reinforcing principles. The first is assembling a team with the best talent possible, because highly talented individuals make each other more effective. Doing that involves paying top-of-market salaries and constantly evaluating if the company has the best people for its roles. Next is increasing candor among members of the organization, because highly talented individuals thrive on feedback that can make them better. Last is removing controls and trusting people to do their best work. These principles combine to create a company culture that Hastings likens more to a high-performing athletic team than a family. It may strike some as overly harsh or competitive, but it has succeeded in creating an organization that earns an astounding $2.6 million in revenue per employee, nine times more than Disney does for each of its employees.

Read Marker’s interview with No Rules Rules coauthor Erin Meyer here:

2. No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier

Book cover for No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier
Book cover for No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier
Simon and Schuster

With the FTC announcing earlier this month that it would be filing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook over its ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp, Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier’s in-depth account of Instagram’s journey over the past 10 years couldn’t be more relevant. The book appeared across three best-of-2020 lists this year, and won the prestigious FT/McKinsey award. No Filter tracks Instagram from its origins in 2010 as a photo-sharing app called Burbn created by Silicon Valley founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, through its remarkable growth that led to a billion-dollar acquisition by Facebook, and to the challenges and internal competition it faced within Facebook, leading to the eventual departure of Instagram’s original founders.

Read an excerpt from No Filter on OneZero:

3. Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson

Book cover for Reimagining Capitalism in a World of Fire by Rebecca Henderson
Book cover for Reimagining Capitalism in a World of Fire by Rebecca Henderson
PublicAffairs

In 2018, Larry Fink, CEO of the $7 trillion hedge fund BlackRock, disagreed with the notion that businesses ought to maximize profit or shareholder value alone, arguing that “companies must serve a social purpose.” In 2019, hundreds of CEOs threw their support behind this idea, signing the Business Roundtable statement that pledged to invest in their employees, protect the environment, and deal ethically with suppliers. Just a few months later, the pandemic would put those good intentions to the test, and some companies fared better than others. In her book Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire, which appeared on three of the lists we reviewed, Harvard Business School professor Rebecca Henderson makes the case for the purpose-driven enterprise — and offers optimism that realizing it is not a pipe dream, showing change is already underway. Competitors in industries from apparel to mining have realized that cooperation is the only path to fix human rights problems in their supply chains. Unilever’s Lipton worked with their 500,000 tea leaf farmers to bolster sustainability practices that improved yields, increased farmer income, and built more long-term stability into their supply chain. Examples like these show the path for other companies and increase pressure on leaders to act on their lofty goals. Henderson’s advice for changemakers: “bring your values to work.”

Read Rob Walker’s piece in Marker on the case for stakeholder capitalism during the pandemic, in which he interviewed professor Rebecca Henderson:

4. If Then: How the Simulatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore

Book cover for If Then: How the Simulatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore
Book cover for If Then: How the Simulatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore
Liveright

Before there was Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Microsoft, there was the Simulmatics Corporation. In If Then, historian Jill Lepore writes the definitive story of the first company to process and analyze vast quantities of data with the cutting-edge computing technology of the era. Founded in 1959 by academics from institutions like MIT, Yale, Harvard, and Columbia — and drawing on government funding through DARPA — the Simulmatics Corporation promised to use its insights to revolutionize business, politics, and the media, similar to what a company like Palantir aims to do today. “The scientists of the Simulatics Corporation acted on the proposition that if they could collect enough data about enough people and feed it into a machine, everything, one day, might be predictable,” writes Lepore, in a history that is strikingly resonant with the issues we grapple with today. Simulmatics caused controversy for its role in John F. Kennedy’s 1962 presidential campaign, providing the candidate with intelligence about the electorate and voting behavior. The company’s prominence elicited anxieties about automation putting Americans out of work, an especially thorny issue for Democrats who had campaigned on protecting workers, until Simulmatics was finally wound down in 1970. This book appeared across three of the lists we reviewed and was also chosen for the longlist of the National Book Award.

Read a review of If Then on Towards Data Science:

5. Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future by Margaret Heffernan

Book cover for Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future by Margaret Heffernan
Book cover for Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future by Margaret Heffernan
Simon and Schuster

Some books are written to explain a moment, other books arrive at the right moment. Uncharted is both. Addressing our craving for a return to normal — or to understand the “new normal” post-pandemic — Margaret Heffernan, a five-time CEO and author of six books, cautions against there ever being a knowable future. In the vein of entertaining popular nonfiction authors like Mary Roach or Chip Heath, Heffernan takes us on a fascinating journey through humanity’s flawed efforts to predict the future, starting with the origins of commercial economic forecasting in the early 20th century. All the books on the list are great, but Uncharted is my personal favorite, because it makes you think about how you think about the future. As Heffernan explains in her introduction to an excerpt from the book on Marker, “A craving for certainty extracts a high cost: constricting our understanding, our imagination and our freedom… how much more might we be able to do, to see and to be if we kicked the habit?”

Read the excerpt from Uncharted here:

I am the publisher at Bard Press and the co-author of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. I read a lot of books.

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