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Leading through Books

I am an avid reader.  Fun fact, I’ve read more than a book a week since 2015.  While I can most frequently be found reading fiction, my leadership perspective and style are influenced by great nonfiction books I’ve read over the years.  You can count on me to have a book recommendation for you no matter what challenge you are facing.  

To name a few favorites that have had an impact on how I approach leadership and my career:

Drive by Daniel Pink

I read this in my first job out of college at Bain & Company.  This helped me think about what motivates people to do great work.  Daniel states that there are three elements of motivation - autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  Both finding these for yourself AND creating these for those on your team can have a huge impact on individual motivation.  

This framing helped me know from very early in my career what to look for to ensure I was set up well and excited to go to work.  And, as a leader, I knew these were critical elements to set people on my team up well - people do their best work when they are excited, given room to explore it on their own, have the knowledge and skills to do the work well, and can understand the impact and meaning of the work.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Giving feedback is hard.  Radical Candor serves as a reminder of how important it is and reminds you that it is a critical area of supporting your team.

Kim breaks down a 2x2 of manager approaches along the spectrum of caring deeply and challenging directly.  She makes the case that the sweet spot is to both care deeply AND challenge directly - this is radical candor.  If you just care deeply but don’t challenge directly, while you’re trying to be nice, you won't actually help someone figure out how to grow, develop, and improve.  And if you challenge directly but don’t show you care about the individual, this comes off as aggressive and unsupportive.  (And, not caring AND not challenging - definitely don’t do this!)

This book serves as a reminder and framing to help increase comfort with direct feedback while coming from a place of caring, compassion, and kindness.

Quiet by Susan Cain

Confession, I am an introvert.  My best friend in college used to describe me as the smart kid in the back of the room that no one knows is smart until they turned in their paper at the end of the semester - which worked out okay in college, but less well in corporate America.  In corporate America, we tend to reward the loudest voice and assume that person is the smartest and strongest leader.  

This book helped me internalize that people would think I was smarter if I spoke up more.  Do I want the world to be that way?  Not really.  But it helped me come up with strategies to get my perspective out there and my voice heard even while being introverted.  This was important for being seen as a leader and having influence, and ultimately growing in my career.

Myth of the Nice Girl by Fran Hauser

The subtitle of this book says it all - “Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate.”  Sign me up!  I’ve often struggled with seeing senior leaders who were not nice and would do whatever it takes to get the work done (I’m sure you’ve seen this happen before too).  Why do these people continue to get promoted and rewarded?  This did not create a culture that motivated me.

Fran tackles all different areas where we may not immediately think of nice as the right approach and how she used her niceness to her credit.  For example, being direct actually is the kindest thing you can do.  How challenging for someone to have to tease out what you mean and guess at your interpretation - that's not a nice approach.  We don’t often think of directness as a sign of niceness, but approaching it from that perspective is powerful, especially for women who are expected to be nice.

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

For someone who is looking to optimize and improve your career, this book is packed with actionable approaches to help find what you most enjoy. The authors take a design approach (similar to how design and research work to build products) to career decisions. For example, they recommend an informational interview approach to learn more about different jobs and roles to make informed decisions about what you would like to do - similar to an analytics test and learn approach!

One of my favorite approaches they recommend, which I have used to guide my own career decisions multiple times, is tracking your activities and assessing your energy (1-10), engagement (1-10), and if you experience flow (yes/no). I've done this for 2 weeks at a time and then used a pivot table to help surface (with data!) what sort of work activities I most enjoy. This approach highlighted my high enjoyment of 1:1s with my team and presenting strategic decisions guided by analysis. This findings helped lead me to coaching (deeply engaging with individuals) and product growth (focused on actioning insights). If you're interested in trying this yourself, I've made a template here - make a copy and see what surfaces for you!

Honorable mention to some great books about working parenthood (especially motherhood): Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Work Parent Thrive by Yael Schonbrun

These were books I read at the right time in my life and career.  I read Lean In before I had kids but knew I wanted kids and a good work-life balance.  Sheryl reminded me, “Don’t take your foot off the gas pedal until the baby is crowning.”  While I was trying to make career decisions in my 20s for my hypothetical future kids (when I knew nothing about what being a mom would actually be like!), it reminded me to stay in my career and grow and adjust as things came up.  I expanded my scope while in my first trimester with my first kid, got promoted while on leave with my second kid, and then adjusted my career accordingly when it made more sense as they entered school years.

Work Parent Thrive came along when my kids needed me in a different way and served as a great reminder of the power of the duality of being a working mom.  I’ve always seen being a working mom as somewhat like a liberal arts education - I can be challenged and benefited in one way for part of the day, and then I can go get a completely diverse and different set of challenges and benefits in another part of the day. Additionally, as I develop new skills in one area of my life (patience, communication, collaboration), these can help me grow in other areas of my life as well.  Work Parent Thrive has great actionable tips and mindset approaches to embrace the beauty of working parenthood.

And, if you’re looking for a fiction book that ISN’T (directly) related to your career?  (Although, I’ll make the case that reading fiction helps you as a leader- empathy, storytelling, communication,…).  I’ve got you for that too!  I can never resist a book about time travel and relationships or with some philosophical twist.  A few favorites from over the years to get you started: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Measure by Nikki Erlick, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, and anything by Ali Hazelwood or Taylor Jenkins Reid (rom-coms are GREAT books too).

What have you read that has had an impact on how you show up at work and lead?  I’d love to hear more about it!

Women reading a book as seen through library book stacks


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