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10 must-read books this spring, according to Advisory Board experts

Spring has sprung. With its arrival, Advisory Board's experts offer 10 recommendations on what you should read now to master leadership, understand loss, and explore contemporary issues within and beyond health care. 

Make sure you also read our brand-new report: 15 things CEOs need to know in 2019


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

 Jenn Stewart

Shay Pratt, Executive Director, Research

I like authors that draw me into subjects I didn’t know I cared about—in this case trees and botany. But Lab Girl is also a great memoir about an innately curious individual who discovers that she is really good at science. She pursues her strengths on a professional path that is, at once, determined, practical, and fun. Jahren includes short, interstitial chapters that reveal fascinating answers to biological questions (why do trees shed their branches?; why do forests stop expanding?; what's the deal with trees and fungus?) and also map to pivotal moments in her professional and personal journey. What I like best, though, is the way Jahren communicates the thrill of discovery. Here's a video of the author if you need more convincing. 

Becoming by Michelle Obama

 Jenn Stewart

Allison Cuff Shimooka, Executive Director, Research

I'm only halfway through Michelle Obama's Becoming, but it's already cemented itself as my go-to book recommendation. Michelle has a remarkably compelling life story in her own right—even if she had never married Barack Obama—which I believe serves a testament to the power of the American dream. What I personally find most inspiring is how she walked away from a very comfortable corporate law job (which would have allowed her to pay off her sizable student loans) for a career with far more uncertainty, but a much more compelling mission and purpose.  I identified so much with her— her struggle to have an impact, to live up to her potential, to balance the personal needs with the needs of her family— and found her candor beyond refreshing. You could even stop reading before her husband becomes president, or even a senator. The book stands on its own.


Leadership and Business

Mastering Leadership by Bill Adams and Robert J. Anderson


 Matt Cornner

Matt Cornner, Special Director, Talent Development

Mastering Leadership bridges two prominent theories about leadership—adult development theory (from the work of Kegan and Lahey in Immunity to Change) and adaptive leadership practice (from Heifetz and Linksy in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, which I've previously recommended)—while also offering a powerful tool for measuring leadership capacity (using the Universal Model of Leadership and the Leadership Circle Profile). This allows it to move beyond just understanding what leadership is and how it can be taught, and answers the question: "How do you actually measure leadership in a way that drives business results and organizational impact?" 


The Compelling Communicator by Tim Pollard

 David Willis

David Willis, Executive Director, Research

This is simply the best book I've ever read on giving effective presentations. Tim Pollard is a master of his craft, and has been teaching—and practicing—his methods for 30 years. Although the book is largely oriented toward a business audience, Tim's guidance is applicable to almost any context, and he enriches his text with numerous non-business examples. While I highly recommend a thorough reading, with extensive practice, you will learn a lot just by browsing (chapter nine is my absolute bible when it comes to presentation design). If there's someone in your life whose presentation skills leave something to be desired, you could do worse than to give them a copy of this volume (especially with chapter two bookmarked).


Glory Lost and Found: How Delta Climbed From Despair to Dominance in the Post-9/11 Era by Seth Kaplan and Jay Shabat

 David Willis

Amanda Berra, Senior Partner, Research

Let's be real, this is not a great book to bring with you on spring break. To get through this on the beach, you'll have to be a serious fan of business books—and you'll have to be immune to dense, "and then this happened"-type event summary—without ever getting the "what does it all mean" type payoff that you long to find. You're also going to need a generous amount of beach time, because this book is long.

BUT, if you're the kind of person who reads the frequent comparisons between the health care and airline industries and wants to know how fair those comparisons are, you will walk away from this book with some valuable information about what goes on in the airline business. Like, you probably already know that in health care, the annual cost trend line drifts up and down by a percentage point or two. Well in reading this book, you learn that fluctuations in oil prices make airlines' cost trends look like the spikes on Godzilla's back. In that environment, any given airline's exact same operating model can generate a healthy profit one month, and then send it to the edge of bankruptcy a month later. That's not the same as health care at all (knock on wood).  

On the other side of the coin, of course there are some applicable lessons, such as around price structures and price transparency. It's fascinating to read about legacy, high-price, high-fixed-cost airlines with complex and opaque price models (like Delta) experimenting with transparent, consistent "value price" type pricing in order to better compete with low-price airlines (like JetBlue and Southwest, that started off with much lower total cost bases—because of factors like having a low-tenure workforce with lower average pay). If, as the reader, you're familiar with the challenges of running a massive, high-fixed-price entity (such as a hospital), reading about what happened among the airlines is apt to underline what you already suspect about how transparent and consistent low prices are not going to work particularly well for your organization's cross-subsidy economics.  

I have faith: Somewhere out there is a beach-friendly book about the airline industry that health care professionals will enjoy reading, and which will enable us all to be more informed consumers of health-care-versus-airline-industry comparisons. It's just not this one. Maybe it's Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits that Plunged the Airlines Into Chaos by Thomas Petzinger, Jr., which I'm going to try next. How about we all read that one; or, maybe that book has yet to be written, in which case, this is a big opportunity for your spring break research and writing project. Let me know how it goes!



The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

 Megan Tooley

Megan Tooley, Practice Manager, Cardiovascular Roundtable

While not quite the light read you may typically envision for spring break beach reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating, well-researched, and important read for anyone in science and health care. It shows what happens when the ambition for scientific progress overshadows the need to protect those individuals that this same scientific progress is meant to serve.

The book is, in truth, two stories, both captivating in their own right. The first is the story of the creation of the immortal cell line known as HeLa, and chronicles how a social injustice gave rise to one of the most important discoveries in modern medicine. The second is a portrait of the Lacks family, crafted as the author follows the emotional roller coaster of her children learning their mother's cells were not only taken without her knowledge, but had survived her by decades (and even been to space).

Through both narratives, Skloot artfully blends science with social commentary as she explores the impact the push for medical discoveries meant to serve the masses, when left untethered, can have on individual—and particularly society's most vulnerable.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

 Jenn Stewart

Deirdre Saulet, Practice Manager, Oncology Roundtable

I finally got around to reading Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker prize in 2017. I'd highly recommend it. It's based on reported events that, after his son's death, President Lincoln would visit the crypt to hold his son's body. Most of the story takes place in the "bardo," the Buddhist intermediate state between death and reincarnation. It's a fantastical experience unlike any book I've read recently. Check out the virtual reality video the New York Times created about it here.

Contemporary Issues

Modern Loss by Gabrielle Birkner and Rebecca Soffer


Haley Wiesman, Practice Manager, Service Line Strategy Advisor

We don't always know how to talk about death. Modern Loss could make it a little easier. Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner provide a candid and refreshingly funny take on a tough topic with a compilation of stories from over 40 contributors who have experienced loss. The stories range from the experience of losing a grandparent, parent, spouse, partner, friend, and child—in ways that are deeply personal but relateable. I also highly recommend their separate guide to "griefspeak," a glossary of grief terms that helps put a name and description to common grief occurrences.


Bad Blood by John Carreyrou


Robin Brand, Senior Director, Revenue Cycle Advancement Center

I just finished reading Bad Blood about the rise and fall of Theranos, the Silicon Valley startup that claimed to be able to do an assortment of blood tests from only a few drops of blood. The problem? The technology never existed.

The book is The Emperor's New Clothes for the modern day, detailing the hubris and outright fraud on the part of founder Elizabeth Holmes—who was able to bank on our culture of lauding tech giants and promising startups to escape scrutiny for far too long. Why anyone bought the nonsense of someone who fakes a deep voice and only wears black turtlenecks (a la Steve Jobs) is beyond me, but I believe so much of her success comes down to greed. It's amazing how willing people are to suspend their common sense for the promise of huge financial gains. Yet, sadly, what sets this story apart from the typical financial fraud was its impact on patients' lives (the inaccuracy of the testing put many people's health at-risk).

The book is as much a character study as it is anything, and Holmes is a fascinating subject. Plus, the investigative journalism and great writing make it read like a thriller—I read it in two days.


Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and Grant by Ron Chernow

  Thomas Seay

Thomas Seay, Editor-in-Chief, Daily Briefing

It's funny how sometimes you read two books back to back, and even though they're wildly different in tone and era and subject matter, they somehow seem to be in direct conversation. That's the experience I just had reading John Carreyrou's "Bad Blood," about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, followed by—wait for it—"Grant," Ron Chernow's authoritative biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

Here's what struck me. In her early 20s, Elizabeth Holmes was universally regarded as a wunderkind. She was a self-made billionaire, unstoppable. At age 38, by contrast, Ulysses S. Grant was a failure by his own assessment: tossed from the Army for alcohol abuse, proven inept at farming and real estate management, and now working, humiliatingly, as his younger brother's underling in their father's business. Yet somehow, just a few years later in their respective stories, Holmes had been exposed as one of the 21st century's great con artists, while Grant had risen to command the Union Army.

My takeaways from this juxtaposition are admittedly trite. Greatness can emerge from surprising places. Success and failure are often temporary states. Dazzling intelligence is no substitute for good judgment. Perhaps most critically, you've got to surround yourself with the right people. (Grant had his wife and loyal aides, who helped pull him out of his alcoholic spirals and countered his naiveté—at least during his Civil War years. Holmes' closest ally at Theranos, on the other hand, was Sunny Balwani, whom Carreyrou portrays as a bombastic grifter who enabled her worst instincts.)

Still, even though these are trite lessons, I've rarely felt their force so powerfully—and besides, most trite lessons are worth relearning from time to time.




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