5 books you need to read now if you want a better career in 2021

The year 2020 had its share of surprises in store for us all, but one thing that kept me grounded through it all were great books. Five of my favorite business books this year cut across different types of leaders and various industries. But one thing they all had in common  was sage advice on how to both perform better and enjoy the process, leading to greater career satisfaction.

No Rules Rules: NETFLIX and the Culture of Reinvention

Coauthors Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer are, by all accounts, polar opposites. One’s a Silicon Valley tech founder, a self-professed numbers nerd (AKA engineer). The other is an author and professor of cross-cultural management. If you choose to consume this book on audio, the contrast of their personas is delightful; it frames up the counterintuitive advice on culture nicely.

Hastings stumbled upon the roots of his corporate culture after he had to layoff many employees in 2001. The aftermath was shocking. At the start of the workday, people were delighted to step foot into the building. Morale was at an all-time high. By making hard decisions and eliminating all employees that weren’t outstanding, he’d maximized the talent density–a fundamental principle to the NETFLIX culture.

Hastings and Meyer frame up how to give your people freedom and responsibility while demanding that everyone be a “stunning colleague.” The advice flies against all the psychological safety research, but it’s been true for the NETFLIX team. I’d recommend this book not just to leaders trying to retain top talent, though, because it’s an insightful look into why any professional might be looking for a better work environment.

Read it now.

Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers and Create Success on Your Own Terms

Before I could even frame my first impressions about a title that seemed to ooze hustle culture, Shellye Archambeau begins the book with an incredibly moving personal story.

She won me over in the first two pages, showing me that this wouldn’t be another account of pushing until it hurts, at the cost of all other aspects of your life. Instead, I was introduced to a woman in the months after she lost her husband to cancer.

As a black female, she doesn’t fit the traditional mold for tech CEO, but she set her sights on being one and strategically planned her way there. She learned from a young age that she was different than many of her classmates and neighbors and that life just wasn’t fair. But rather than focus on things that could not be changed, her parents taught her to focus on what she could control.

Archambeau lays out a system that she developed for intentionally planning the career (and life) you want and making choices to get there. She planned on being a wife, mother, CEO, and board member and accomplished all her goals. Her book is relatable and required reading on how to overcome common challenges in pursuit of your dream career, like:

  • Overcoming imposter syndrome
  • Planning to be a working parent
  • Knitting together personal and professional support systems

Read it here.

Authentic Confidence: The Secret to Loving Your Work and Leading an Unstoppable Career

The premise of Ben Fauske’s book is simple: Confidence issues are at the root of most workplace issues. He frames the concept quite well because I think most of us have come across these behaviors that stem from confidence issues:

  • Gossip
  • I’m-better-than-you posturing
  • Complete disengagement

Fauske’s book is short, approaches the topic of confidence differently, and uses a tone of voice that is refreshingly blunt and easy to follow. In preparation for writing this book, he researched hundreds of leaders and business moguls only to find that they all had contradicting advice for how to love your work. That is until he started researching recording artists. Trends began to emerge. He discovered that artists continued to love their work and learned to walk the line between too much ego and the shrinking violet in order to have what he coins “authentic confidence.”

If you’re a fan of personality types and quizzes (i.e. if you know your Enneagram number off the top of your head), you’re going to love this book. Fauske has a matrix of different workplace personality types, and a quiz on his website helps you determine your type. Examples include Friend Makers, Inquisitor, and Negotiator. You can have your whole team take the quiz and read the book, so you’ll know what makes each of you feel good at work.

Read it here.

Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say–and What You Don’t

The title of this book caught my eye right away, and I was surprised to learn that the author was a retired US Navy Captain. But as I began to read, it all came together as he shared his own experiences aboard nuclear submarines and a case study on a large container ship lost at sea. Marquet admits his own leadership faux pas early on in his career, as he was driven to perform above all else, thinking this led to better morale. But he learned the hard way that it’s the other way around. 

The book is structured into six plays, just as a football coach has a carefully curated set of playbooks. He presents each play first as the one we’re all programmed to perform; you know, the one passed down from the industrialized age where leadership was actually coercion and workers needed to conform to produce goods in a factory setting. Then, each of those plays is transformed into the one we need for today’s workplace. And, you guessed it, it all comes back to language.

If you’re a numbers person, bear with me on this one. A Navy Captain isn’t going to present you with fluffy concepts that are hard to prove. Instead, he puts hard numbers behind soft skills. For example, the team language coefficient measures how evenly each person contributes to the conversation, and it’s an accurate predictor of successful teams. In this case, the data shows that leaders need to speak less to let others feel free to contribute more. The book is very relatable, easy to read, and talks about workplace communication in a way that will have you thinking: “So, that’s why I felt that way…”

Read it here.

The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-first Century

The most, shall we say, academic of the bunch I saved for last. If you loved studying economics in college, this one’s for you. It’s a dense read for sure, but before you write it off, consider simply skipping the first couple of chapters that cover the history of the American economy over the last century. Then, the book gets interesting.

Adam Davidson presents a series of case studies detailing what he calls the Passion Economy, where anyone can find a way to sell something unique and do work on their own terms. In essence, it’s the opposite of the widget economy, the very same industrial age that Marquet writes about in his book.

It’s also a timely read because it reinforces how important small businesses are to the current economy. In fact, 67% of new hires are for small businesses and not the Silicon Valley darlings and multi-million dollar behemoths. 

While this book is a stellar read for anyone looking to start a side hustle, the author does a great job of applying the lessons to employees. Davidson goes deep on strategy, which he defines as not just matching market conditions and appropriately delivering value, but also accounting for your ideal workflow.

By understanding what it takes to be successful in today’s economy, you’ll know when your company is on the right track (or not). Another bonus you’ll get while reading this book is learning to negotiate your salary by better understanding product/service value and pricing conversations.

Read it here.