Book Review: Personal History by Katherine Graham (And The Business Lessons Therein)

I’ve always wanted to read Katherine Graham’s Personal History and when I saw Bill Gates was reading it it moved higher up on my list. It was a great book. Though long (600 pages), it’s a fun and easy read, as she chronicles being born into a newspaper family, her husband Phil taking the reigns of the Washington Post and ultimately committing suicide, and then her nerve racking step into the spotlight as publisher of the Post.

There are a number of reasons why I liked the book. It is a Who’s Who of influencers (from Presidents to Warren Buffett). It shows the largely unchallenged discrimination against women. It is some good U.S. history. It is an honest, personal account of journalistic leadership.

But it is also a good business book. I’ve written in the past that entrepreneurs should stop reading business books and instead should read traditionally non-business books to stretch their mind in other ways. As Jim Collins has observed, there are maybe a couple dozen really influential business books with original ideas. Most blatant how-to’s are crap. Also, it’s important to read books other than bestsellers. Novel insights are a dime a dozen and no one is novel if all they cite is The World is Flat/Blink/Freakonomics etc.

Graham’s stories contain a number of subtle business lessons. For example, when the Post union went on strike, she – the publisher – went down to the floor room and starting taking classified ads over the phone. That’s like the CEO of 700 employee company answering the reception telephone line. You gotta do what you gotta do, even when it means getting grimey and rolling up your sleeves.

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