Must-Reads for Managers in the 21st Century

Despite many similarities to “normal” craftsmanship, Management is a very special field of knowledge. It primarily deals with the effectiveness and efficiency of working with people, and being responsible for the results these people produce. Yet, despite thousands of books (of which I assume I read probably more than 100), the “one way” to do it right is probably wishful thinking.

Having said that, there is a lot of things to learn out there and we can see that in fact managers become indeed more effective and efficient by studying them. This is my personal list of absolute “must-reads” for managers (especially managers working on digital products or in the software industry):

  • What Makes Great Leaders Great (by Frank Arnold): If I could only recommend one single book on management, this would probably be it. First published in german (“Management – Von den Besten lernen…”), Frank Arnold has made a remarkable job to collect the essence of management wisdom in an interesting, yet powerful format.
  • Management 3.0 (by Jurgen Appelo): While the title of this book is complete crap (and frankly, I wouldn’t have bought it under normal circumstances), it is actually one of the best books about managing software development teams. Without going into too much details, the book explains many principles and practices of modern management, focused on handling the complexity that is created by setting up a team of humans. Great read, despite the title.
  • Managing – Performing – Living (by Fredmund Malik): Malik is indeed one of the best management thinkers of our time. Having been in several of his seminars, I admire the way he has assembled knowledge and presents it in a very clear and concise way. His book (also published first in German) has just been released in a new edition, and while I sometimes think he could be a little bit more humble in interviews instead of always expressing that he knew many things a along, I have to admit: In regards to many topics around management, he actually nailed it.
  • Making It All Work (by David Allen): While many people swear on “Getting Things Done” (including myself), this book does not only include the GTD methodology, it goes even beyond that. Everyone should read GTD, however, for managers, that’s just not enough. Management is not only about one’s own effectiveness, it is also about giving priorities and direction to the people being managed – and that’s where Making It All Work brings a lot of tools and insights.
  • Making Things Happen (by Scott Berkun): Who would have thought that the first book I ever read about Project Management would remain one of – if not the – best I would ever touch. Making Things Happen is more or less the most practical book you can ever read about management – it avoids a lot of the mumbo jumbo that can be found in the “methodologies” and “get certified” literature (such as PRINCE2, PMP, IPMA, and so…). Of course these methodologies have their place, too, but if you really would like to learn how to actually do a project, you should read Scott’s book first.
  • The Courage to Lead (“Mut zur Führung” – an interview with Helmut Schmidt): Many books about leadership are written by people that studied great leaders. This book is an interview with one of the most respected German leaders of all times, former chancellor Helmut Schmidt. It’s not an interpretation of how managers and leaders worked and why they did it – these are the actual words by someone who led one of the most successful countries of the world for years in various government positions. Helmut Schmidt is a great man, an authority on statesmanship, a brilliant mind, and one of the few great leaders of our time.
  • The First 90 Days / Your Next Move (by Michael Watkins): It is true what Michael stated in many interviews – managing job transitions is one of the most neglected areas of management reality, training and literature – with the results that someone at McDonalds moving from making Hamburgers to selling them on the counter gets actually more training for his new assignment than the average “manager”. Unfortunately, it is also true that it is critical to get transitions right, because managers make transitions all the time (at least if they are successful). That’s where this book shines.
  • Manage It! (by Johanna Rothman): This is again a book much more focused on managing software projects than “other kinds of projects”. Nevertheless, it is one of the best books about iterative, incremental, emerging management in general. The human nature to “predict” things (and actually fail and fail again) is one of the biggest obstacles to modern, results-centric management approaches. Johanna explains the reasons for that, and provides the advice how to implement it.
  • The Back of the Napkin (by Dan Roam): Management is – among a few other things – about synchronizing people’s minds and providing direction. For nearly all people I know, visualization is a crucial ingredient in this process. Many managers have a tendency towards PowerPoint – and even worse, they often start there before thinking about what they actually want to put across. Unfortunately, artificial boundaries (like those imposed by Office software) have a very negative impact on creativity and clarity alike. Reading The Back of the Napkin helps managers to break free of these boundaries.
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (by Steven Covey): I know, I know, I know. It’s the book everyone recommends. And yes, the author was a mormon. And sure, the book is old. All of that is true… however, what is also true, is the fact that there are probably not many books of that caliber that provide indeed universal principles on how to deal with one’s own inner world as well as with the people that share our lives. It’s probably best if you read it yourself, and form your opinion afterwards.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People (by Dale Carnegie): Another very old book, another really bad title, but also one of the most important books you will ever read. Manager (and other kinds of leaders) must help other people to achieve great things – that’s there job. However, there are many ways of doing that, all involving to have a lot of interactions with them. This book provides timeless (and I don’t say that lightly) guidance on how to approach them, how to treat them and how to form a productive relationship with them.
  • First, Break All the Rules (by Marcus Buckingham): While I said in the beginning of this post that there is no such thing as “the way” of doing management, there was (and hopefully no longer is) something like a universal “treat everyone equal” approach to management that poisoned the minds of a lot of people. This book is about what you should do instead: Treat everyone differently, and according to his/her personality, his/her strengths, his/her talents, and his/her unique way of “drive”.
  • Good to Great (by Jim Collins)
  • What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (by Marshall Goldsmith)

That’s it (for now).

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