6 books for great bosses to give or get as holiday gifts

December 19, 2011
Category: Uncategorized

Leaders are continuous learners, always looking to explore fresh ideas. That’s why I’m often asked to recommend good books for bosses. Sometimes I suggest what I’d call “classics,” which I’ve written about in previous columns. But let’s look at some newer releases I’ve enjoyed that I think you’d also like.

Warning: I have a bias when it comes to management and leadership literature. The books must be engagingly written and be research-based. I want to be able to check the science behind a claim before I embrace an author’s advice.

So, as you shop for others or drop hints for yourself this holiday season, here are several books you might consider.

“The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

Who will like it: Bosses who want to build real motivation and engagement among employees, even in the midst of tough economic times.

Amabile is director of research for the Harvard Business School. Co-author Kramer is a psychologist (and her husband). They persuaded 238 employees in seven different companies, spanning multiple industries, to keep daily diaries about their work. Some 12,000 diary entries later, the researchers crunched the data and found out what set the most successful folks apart from others, and what their bosses did to influence those good outcomes. Their major finding: it was the motivational power of forward motion, or the feeling of progress — even small wins.

The book explains how small setbacks can easily negate small wins, and explores what bosses can do to serve as catalysts for progress. The voices of the employees, excerpted from the diaries, echo throughout the book’s findings and advice. The book is practical, thorough, and impressive. I’ve been quoting from it in my teaching because its lessons are so clear and compelling. I really like it.

“Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People” by Edward Hallowell.

Who will like it: Managers who want to raise the game of underperformers as well as overachievers.

Hallowell is a psychiatrist whose noted work in the field of Attention Deficit Disorder makes him acutely aware of how our brains are wired. His focus in this book is everyday employees. His book offers a five-step process for getting the best from people:

  • Select (match skills to jobs)
  • Connect (build collaborative teams)
  • Play (more important at work than you may think)
  • Grapple and grow (dealing with challenge and pressure)
  • Shine (what types of recognition and reinforcement matter)

“Shine” covers territory similar to “The Progress Principle,” which I liked slightly more. “Shine”‘s “Select” chapter may prove frustrating to budget-challenged bosses who lack opportunities to move underperformers to jobs that are a better fit.  But the chapter on “Play” and its connection to creativity and motivation makes up for that. It’s a good read.

“StandOut” by Marcus Buckingham

Who will like it: Managers looking for an interesting tool to assess their top skills or those of their employees, especially as they relate to  leadership, management, sales and client service.

Buckingham is best known for his work with the Gallup organization’s breakthrough book, “First, Break All the Rules.” It got bosses talking about playing to peoples’ strengths. He later helped people identify them through the Strengthsfinder online assessment, which Buckingham says more than 5 million people have taken.

“StandOut,” according to Buckingham, is better because people who take it don’t just describe what they prefer to do. Instead, its online exercises describe common workplace scenarios and offer multiple responses, all of them good possibilities. You have only 45 seconds to choose what you’d do. The pattern of your choices determines how you rank among 9 different “strengths roles“: Advisor, Connector, Creator, Equalizer, Influencer, Pioneer, Provider, Stimulator, and Teacher.

The book provides a code for taking the StandOut assessment online. The results come as a “strengths list” in your personalized rank order, with your top two as a key focus. You get advice on how to leverage your strengths and watch out for their downsides. (My report: I’m a Provider/Equalizer; someone others come to for guidance in doing the right thing, good at rewarding and recognizing, but also capable of tough feedback and prone to fight for the underdog.)

“Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It” by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel

Who will like it: People at any level of an organization who want to protect against bias and bad decisions.

Bazerman and Tenbrunsel are professors of business ethics at Harvard and Notre Dame, respectively. Their goal in this book is to sound a clear and urgent warning: we’re not as ethical as we think we are and the ethics training we receive in the workplace is insufficient. They back up their assertion with research from the field of behavioral ethics, which examines why we often act in direct conflict to our expressed values.

The book explores concepts like “bounded awareness,” “bounded ethicality,” “ethical fading” and our “want” and “need” selves to alert us that we can take a workplace ethics workshop, filled with the intention of doing the right thing, and still mess up. It tackles our personal decision-making and the way whole organizations can develop blind spots.

I enjoyed this book and think it is ideal for a team of managers to read together. Knowing how common it is for individuals to miss seeing a conflict or bias, colleagues could commit to challenging each other with candor and care. Even as I recommend “Blind Spots,” I wish were as good at offering a broad array of remedies as it is at describing and deconstructing dangers. Expanded tips for a variety of ethics traps would make this important book even stronger.

“The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” by Atul Gawande

Who will like it: Managers who want to improve systems, quality, communication and teamwork.

Gawande is a surgeon and one heck of a writer. Although “The Checklist Manifesto looks at how something as simple as a checklist saves lives in aviation and medicine, its lessons apply to organizations of all kinds. That’s because there’s an art to checklists, which he investigates. But more importantly, the simple introduction of lists often challenges organizational cultures and hierarchies. They also drive communication and shatter old assumptions.

It’s hard not to be drawn in to Gawande’s international adventures on behalf of the World Health Organization, as he cautiously and carefully works with medical professionals to examine which checklists might improve surgical outcomes country by country. He also takes readers into airplane simulators and high-rise buildings under construction to demonstrate how checklists support quality and safety.

If you want a sample of Gawande’s approach to storytelling for leaders, check out his recent piece in the New Yorker, “Personal Best.” He tells the story of his quest to improve his already sharp skills as a surgeon by working with a coach. It makes the solid case that even top performers benefit from feedback and coaching.

* * *

Those are my top five suggestions — but permit me to add a personal post script.

There’s another book I hope you’ll soon enjoy.  It’s coming out in June of 2012 but already available at Amazon and elsewhere for pre-orders.

“Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” by Jill Geisler

Who will like it: Everyone who has asked me for years to suggest one book, just one book that will help them become a better manager and leader in a variety of areas: communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, motivation, performance management, emotional intelligence, managing the boss — and having fun at work. I couldn’t pin down just one, so I wrote it!

People who’ve taken part in our Poynter leadership training at the Institute or my workshops on the road have asked for help in building on that learning and bringing it to others in their organizations. So, this is the workshop-in-a-book, designed to transform workplaces by helping managers become great bosses. It’s designed for leaders at any level of an organization, even aspiring managers.

I’ll share a little more in this podcast about “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” and the other books I’ve recommended:

And please add your favorite management titles in the comments section. I’d love to get a conversation going about helpful books for bosses.


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