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Books For People Managers

My preferred method of learning is by reading books. Over the past several years I have read a number of books about people management. As usual, some of them were more helpful than others. And since several people asked for my opinion, I decided to make it publicly available for ease of future sharing.

The Effective Manager. This is probably the single most useful book on people management that I have read until now. The authors are highly opinionated, and the book is packed with concrete actionable advice, such as what is the best way to structure weekly one-on-one conversations with your directs, and the best way to talk to them about their performance. It is written by the folks who have been running the Manager Tools podcast for the past 20 years. They also have a fantastic Career Tools podcast and an extremely informative book on interviewing and hiring, The Effective Hiring Manager.

Radical Candor. One important takeaway from this book for me was that “obnoxious aggression is better than ruinous empathy”. This book does a great job articulating the idea that the longer you wait to tell someone they are not delivering what is expected of them, the more you will end up regretting postponing this conversation.

The Culture Map. An incredibly useful book that summarizes differences across cultures around the world when it comes to giving and receiving feedback, pushing back to one’s superiors, structuring and presenting information, and much more. This book is a must read if you regularly work with people from different countries and upbringings.

The Manager’s Path and The Making of a Manager. These books will be more useful for those working in the technology sector, and yet they are both worth reading at least once. The first book paints a really nice picture of a career progression from an individual contributor to a technical lead to a people manager to a manager of managers and all the way to the C-Suite, and how the company’s expectation of you will change along the way. The second book is written by a person who was one of the first designers at Facebook and thus presents a useful insight of what it takes to work side by side with engineers in a technology company.

Creativity, Inc. A fascinating read from the co-founder of Pixar about the company history and about running a company focused on the creative process. I found that a surprising number of ideas and approaches presented in this book map well onto the realities of managing a data science team. In both worlds the progress from working on a problem often ends up being highly non-linear, and it takes certain managerial prowess to deal with this type of environment effectively.

The Effective Executive. An absolute classic by the greatest management thinker of all times. Two great ideas proposed by Drucker are (1) hire people for strengths, not for absence of weaknesses, and (2) successful time management is not about doing everything on your list — rather, it’s about deciding what are the few things that you absolutely must do.

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Good book by an ex-GE leader that discusses a simple but important idea: the job of a leader is not just to figure out what should be done, but also to figure out how it will be done, and ensure that people who are tasked with carrying out the plan. Leaders who are content with “just coming up with the strategy” and seek to delegate implementation generally set their organizations up for failure.

Turn the Ship Around! A story from a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine captain about delegation and empowering his subordinates. It describes a successful application of the “servant leadership” model in a military setting. This model acknowledges the fact that the manager often knows less than his directs about their areas of responsibility, and his job is to empower the direct to do their best work.

No Rules Rules. A very interesting but sometimes controversial read from the co-founder of Netflix and the author of “The Culture Map”, mentioned above. The Netflix culture, as described by this book, seems quite unique, even though I suspect quite a few people would not want to work there. The core managerial principles are somewhat similar to the ones mentioned in the “Turn the Ship Around!”: set clear goals and directions to your team and let them figure out the best ways to achieve them. An important distinction this book makes is that organization needs high density of talent to be able to thrive with such a model.

Work Rules! Written by a former Senior VP of People Operations (read: HR) at Google, this book documents a number of interesting data analyses performed by Google on what makes their teams more effective. One of the key takeaways that stayed with me was that best performing teams had high levels of psychological safety and mutual trust between their members, and good managers played an oversized role in making this happen.

The Phoenix Project and The Goal, which came first and was the inspiration for the former. Two fantastic books about managing operational workloads, be it IT or manufacturing, both told through a fictional narrative of an overwhelmed manager meeting a wise consultant who helps them get a grip on the flow of work. I have met several teams in my career whose leaders would greatly benefit from becoming more familiar with these books. If you feel like your team is constantly getting pulled into multiple different directions and you are constantly fighting fires instead of doing work that you are supposed to be doing, I strongly suggest reading at least one of these two books.

The Five Disfunctions of a Team. Another book that uses a narrative to make a point, this is a short and extremely useful piece on how to get a group of people to work better together as a single team. I have personally liked the “Personal Histories” team-building exercise from this book so much that I have tried to use it with every new team that I had joined.

First, Break All the Rules. A useful survey of a large sample of managers that sought to answer the titular question: “What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently?” One important takeaway that stuck with me was that good managers spend more time with their top performers, while less successful managers devote a lot of their bandwidth to trying to help low performers get better.

The Dictator’s Handbook. Without a doubt, this was one of the several books that fundamentally changed how I see the world I live in. While not strictly speaking a people management book per se, this was nevertheless useful for this discussion. The key idea for me was that no leader can lead alone — everyone requires a group of supporters, and most leaders get supported as long as they can generate benefits for those who supported them in the first place. This explains why new leaders often bring about lots of managerial changes beneath them in the organizations. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants a better understanding of how politics works in any organization, be it countries or corporations.

The Like Switch and Just Listen. Both of these were very helpful in teaching techniques on speaking to people in a way that helps them feel they are being heard and understood. The core technique is what the former book calls “a sophisticated emphatic statement”, which is a fancy way of saying “you need to guess what the other person is feeling and name their feeling out loud to them in your own words”. When the other person hears you voice the thoughts they had in their head and that they did not express to you yet, it really makes them feel understood, and they become much more receptive to what you will say afterwords. You can call this the “this person really gets me!” effect.