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Top 22 Consulting Books You Should Read – and Why

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Published:
May 25, 2021
Reading Time:
12 minutes
Lynn Hunt
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

An online search will display multiple lists of “best consulting books.” They may all have merit, but there are so many on the market that it’s difficult to judge which would make the most difference to your consulting success.

So, I’ve decided to give some personal perspectives about the best management consulting books I have read and how they have impacted my approach to consulting.

John C Maxwell – Developing the Leader Within You

John Maxwell is the author who has most influenced my thinking about consulting – primarily because I hadn’t really thought about consulting as leadership. Neither had I thought much about why and how I should develop my leadership abilities.

I have read most of his books – which means I have quite a library, as he’s very prolific! I have also subscribed to talks on CD and now on podcast and have been privileged to attend conferences where he was the speaker.

“Developing the Leader Within You” was the first Maxwell book I read, and it remains for me one of the best consulting books on the market. I can still remember my surprise at the profound ideas being written in such a simple style. All the leadership and management books I’d read till then had been heavy and serious tomes. Yet this book was small, with short snappy paragraphs, wide white margins, call-out boxes to highlight important thoughts, and straight talk directly to the reader.

At its heart, according to Maxwell, leadership is influence. But you cannot influence if you don’t grow. Having a growth mindset and continually changing are fundamental. One challenge in this book was a real wake-up call to me as I was embarking on my consulting journey:

“Write down somewhere in the margins on this page your answer to this question: How have you changed . . . lately? In the last week, let’s say? Or in the last month? The last year? Can you be very specific? Or must your answer be incredibly vague? You say you’re growing. Okay . . . how? “Well,” you say, “In all kinds of ways.” Great! Name one. You see, effective teaching comes only through a changed person. The more you change, the more you become an instrument of change in the lives of others. If you want to become a change agent, you also must change.”

Another challenge for me was prioritization and procrastination. Maxwell described this so clearly: “The reason most major goals are not achieved is that we spend our time doing second things first.”

I went on to read “Developing the Leaders Around You”, “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, “The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork”, “ Failing Forward”, “Thinking for a Change”, “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions”, “Relationships 101”, “Attitude 101”, and many others.

In 2018, Maxwell released an updated version of “Developing the Leader Within You.” The examples are different, but the essential messages have stood the test of time – probably because he writes based on principle rather than what’s fashionable or trendy. He also released his latest book, “Leadershift.” It describes the 11 changes he has had to make in his own leadership journey – and which he believes are essential for every good leader. In this book, he makes an almost prophetic statement, given what was about to confront all leaders in 2020:

“To go forward, we need to move faster. And as leaders, we need to stay ahead, we need to see more than others, and we need to see before others…The more nimble, adaptable, and flexible we are, the more quickly we can move and change.”

My approach to consulting was significantly different when I realized that I could only influence others and expect them to make changes if I was prepared to do the same. And my Maxwell books have been lent out to my most important clients and have led to some successful consulting projects.

“Any fool can disagree with people. It takes a wise, shrewd and big person to agree – particularly when the other person is wrong.” - Les Giblin, Skill with People

Les Giblin – Skill With People

Les Giblin’s timeless classic “Skill with People” was first published in 1968 and has sold more than two million copies. It is still available on Amazon – currently for less than $6 – and might be the best management consulting book you will buy if you want great relationships and communication at home, at work, and with your most difficult clients.

It is a small book of about 30 pages packed with straightforward tips and advice. I carried it in my laptop bag for years as a constant reminder that I was the one who could set the mood and the outcome of any interaction.

Here’s one of the skills:

People are primarily interested in themselves, not you

Use this understanding as the basis of your dealings with people

  • Remove “I, me, my, mine” and replace them with “you”
  • Get them to talk about themselves - This will make the both like you more and think you’re a great conversationalist

It seems so obvious – until we watch and listen to ourselves and realize how seldom we apply it.

Another tough skill to learn – but essential for every management consultant – is the art of being agreeable. As Giblin says, “Any fool can disagree with people. It takes a wise, shrewd and big person to agree – particularly when the other person is wrong.”

He describes behaviors that will allow you to skillfully influence and convince people, make up people’s minds and set the tone for every meeting.

You might find yourself as surprised as I was at how poor our people skills are and how much effort it takes to unlearn bad habits and replace them with these simple but powerful techniques.

I am reminded, too, of another timeless and valuable book on people skills, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” originally published in 1936 but still recommended as one of the best consulting books on the market. Warren Buffet said of the book, “It changed my life.”

Jim Collins – Good to Great

I’ve selected “Good to Great,” which Jim Collins wrote in 2001, as one of my best consulting books because I’ve used excerpts so often in conversations with clients on strategy development, conflict in the boardroom, and selection of leaders. Some of my favorite quotes include:

best consulting books, Top 22 Consulting Books You Should Read – and Why
“People are your most important asset’ is wrong! The right people are!”
“Spending time and energy trying to motivate people is a waste of time. The right people will motivate themselves. The key is not to de-motivate them.”
“Leadership does not just begin with vision. It begins with getting people to confront the brutal facts and to act on the implications (yet never lose faith).”

However, this book’s most significant contribution to my consulting life was a warning to be VERY careful about latching onto the newest, shiniest management theories. This is true even if the author has become a superstar management guru and the book is the best-selling business book of all time.

The truth is that Collins got it wrong! This is despite his careful research and the indisputable success of the 11 companies highlighted in his book. However, if his premise is that the stock market price is the marker for success, his companies did very badly during the 2008 recession. Fanny Mae is a case in point, having gone from great to bankrupt and surviving only because of a government bailout. During the 2008/9 period, the market price of the “Great” companies declined by 43% compared to 41.5% for the S&P 500.

And, to be even more brutally honest, most of the 18 companies identified in “Built to Last,” which Jim Collins wrote in 1982, had a similar fate.

There was also an implosion of companies identified by Tom Peters in “In Search of Excellence” in the 1980s. This book sold four million copies in its first four years. It had a dramatic impact on companies at the time and is still on reading lists of best management consulting books.

This does not mean that we should not read as many consulting books as possible and understand new directions in thought. It just means that we should analyze our clients within their own contexts and cultures without attempting to force-fit the latest theory to their circumstances.

I’d recommend the following books and authors:

  • The Boston Consulting Group: Strategy: Classic Concepts and New Perspectives
  • Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things
  • Eric Ries: The Lean Startup
  • Walter Kiechel: The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World

To stay up to date, I also subscribe to some very helpful resources and blogs:

  • Harvard Business Review
  • McKinsey Featured Insights
  • McKinsey Quarterly
  • Bain Insights
  • BCG Henderson Institute

Some “How-to” books

All consultants need a toolbox of management models, processes, and techniques. If you are an independent consultant who previously worked for one of the big consulting firms, you will understand the value of the tools they taught you. Those who have not had that benefit must find what suits them best, what is appropriate for which client, and the pros and cons of each.

Fortunately, many books describe models and techniques and provide practical examples of how best to use them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Gerben Van den Berg, Paul Pietersma: Key Management Models: The 75+ Models Every Manager Needs to Know (the updated version of the 60+ Models book)
  • Dan Roam: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures
  • Barbara Minto: The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking

Reading is a Requirement for Consulting Success

Consulting is a journey, and books are indispensable companions on the way. The best consulting books I have read taught me that consulting success depends on my willingness to grow, change and be a leader. They also taught me practical skills, both interpersonal and technical, and have kept me at the cutting edge of thinking in the field.

I now count it as a marker of consulting success when clients ask what I am reading – and then borrow my copy or buy their own!