When the pandemic locked down the high-profile business consultants and life coaches who double as globe-trotting keynote speakers, many of them figured it was an ideal moment to use the isolation and down time to write a book. There has certainly been a business book boom this past year, aided by academics, journalists and executives with previously planned or pandemic-prompted offerings. And surprisingly, many of the works have been top flight, which offers an abundance of opportunities for those who like to use the less frenzied holiday season for in-depth reading.
Here’s my guide to the best of the year, starting with a top 10:
1. A World without Email by Cal Newport: The title sounds like a fantasy but it’s not, as the Georgetown University professor shows by taking us inside businesses that have replaced e-mail with other forms of workplace collaboration, notably task boards to organize information. He documents how the “hyperactive hive mentality” that accompanies e-mail has made us less productive and more miserable because it doesn’t mesh with the way the human brain has evolved to operate, the constant context switches sapping mental energy. A World without Email is an overblown title and notion – although we had a workable world before e-mail was conceived – but certainly a company, or a department of a company, or a volunteer board you serve on can dramatically reduce e-mail and those constant context switches. The more skeptical you are, the more reason to read this book.
2. Digital Body Language by Erica Dhawan: As more and more of our communication shifts to e-mail, text, and other written forms, we’re losing the signals of tone and intent that face-to-face conversation allows. The communications consultant shows how to compensate, with emoticons, exclamation marks and a host of other tips for being more effective.
3. Did That Just Happen?! by Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Lauren Wadsworth: The clinical psychologists dive into typical, if excruciating, and all too human goofs people are making in the workplace as they deal with the diversity around them, offering insights to avoid such situations. They share from their own experiences and those of the many individuals and workplaces they have worked with.
4. Choosing Courage by Jim Detert: The Darden School of Business professor offers tips for taking the everyday acts of courage that can make us and our organizations more successful, by speaking honestly about the situations we are faced with rather than holding back for fear of rocking the boat. It’s a sensitively written guidebook, wise, humane and needed.
5. Beyond Burnout by Suzi McAlpine: Leaping off from her own case of burnout, the New Zealand leadership development consultant steers readers through how burnout happens and the best ways to deal with it, both as individuals and as leaders of organizations where colleagues may be falling under the grip of the increasingly prevalent malady. The book is well-structured, clear, personal and thorough.
6. Beyond Collaboration Overload by Rob Cross: The Babson College professor draws our attention to the role that collaboration plays in our frantic days, exhaustion and burnout. We swim in a world of collaboration and don’t recognize how it can become polluted. He details steps you can take to reduce unnecessary or less necessary collaboration in your life and your organization and, perhaps more importantly, gives you a new mindset to weigh the next collaboration appeals.
7. Net Positive by Paul Polman and Andrew Winston: The former CEO of Unilever and his eco-strategist co-author make an impassioned case for leaders to ensure the world is better off because their business is in it, well beyond the net zero mindset of climate change efforts, and then present a cogent guidebook for achieving that noble goal.
8. The Future of the Office by Peter Cappelli: Harvard University professor Tsedal Neeley brought years of study together in Remote Work Revolution – an extensive compilation of the research into that operational mode from well before the pandemic. It was effectively a year late when published on March 30, although very helpful. Nine months later, while recognizing the immense value in her book, I’d recommend a slender but thorough guide to the issues associated with the hybrid office, which was just issued by Wharton School professor Cappelli. It has the currency of an in-depth newspaper article with the depth of a human resources expert.
9. My Life in Full by Indra Nooyi: The former CEO of PepsiCo tells her unusual story, from growing up in Madras, India to attending Yale University and learning to put hot sauce on pizza to survive bland American food, to a time in consulting that led to successive leadership roles at Pepsi. As the title suggests, it’s a story of her complete life, not just business career; the struggles as a woman, mother, wife and daughter to deal with life’s events dominate the forthright book.
10. Open Strategy by Christian Stadler, Julia Hautz, Kurt Matzler, and Stephan Friedrich von den Eichen: Strategy is usually a closed, top-down affair, as a small group defines a new approach and, too often, it flops. The four professors share a different approach, opening key aspects of strategy-making up to front-line workers, others in the ranks, and even outsiders, tapping into differing perspectives and building enthusiasm for implementation.
- Most enjoyable reading experience for me this year was Let Them Lead by John Bacon, a stirring story of how the journalist and executive coach turned around the woeful Huron High School hockey squad of Ann Arbor, Mich., in four years through leadership principles of discipline, respect and empowerment.
- Three other top-notch journalistic efforts: Steven Kotler offers a formula for success in The Art of Impossible, Ian Leslie shows how to get the benefits of productive disagreement in Conflicted; and Brad Stone, who documented Amazon’s story in his 2013 book The Everything Store, captures the expansion in its reach since in Amazon Unbound.
- If you want a deep dive into diversity, one of the more pressing topics of the year, here are some additional selections: Bias Interrupted by University of California law professor Joan C. Williams; The Invisible Rules by Paul Harrietha, chair of the advisory board at Niagara College and Holly Catalfamo, co-ordinator of the honours Bachelor of Business Administration program at the college; Glass Half Broken, by Colleen Ammerman, director of the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative, and Boris Groysberg, a professor at the business school; and Where you are is not Who you are, Ursula Burns’ story of her rise from a New York City tenement to the helm at Xerox. Also, Kate Eberle, CEO of PresenceLearning, offers advice to well-intentioned male bosses leading women in The Good Boss.
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