This has been a surprisingly good year for business books, despite the complications publishing houses faced with the pandemic. Most of the books were written before COVID-19 struck, although some managed to thread in references. But given how much we obsessed about the effect of the coronavirus and accompanying economic downturn, it was a relief to return to other topics through books, which you might appreciate over the holidays as you carve out time to read, relax and reflect. To help, here are the 10 best books of 2020:


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  1. The Catalyst by Jonah Berger: Every day, perhaps even every hour, we find ourselves at work trying to persuade someone to adopt our ideas, which often involves getting them to change their mind. The Wharton School professor shows how our instinct is to do it in the wrong way, pummelling them with arguments. Instead, in this book laced with practical steps, supporting research and engrossing storytelling, Prof. Berger suggests offering a better approach, removing key roadblocks to acceptance.
  2. No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer: Netflix has a unique management and operating philosophy, with few rules and policies. It’s not for everyone. But it’s worth understanding and considering where the ideas about talent density, feedback and, more broadly, the notion of “freedom and responsibility” might apply to your operation. The combination of the two authors – the company chief executive officer and a management professor – could have been clunky but is smooth and neatly balanced, and both have a flair for memorable anecdotes.
  3. Time To Lead by Jan-Benedict Steenkamp: The University of North Carolina marketing professor gives life to seven leadership styles – adaptive, persuasive, directive, disruptive, authentic, servant and charismatic – as well as philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog-fox delineation through profiles of 16 leaders, some familiar and others relatively unknown. The writing is dry but the analysis substantive, helping readers understand the styles and sort through their own approach.
  4. Inclusify by Stefanie Johnson: Diversity and inclusion gathered momentum as an issue this year, and a number of well-timed books offered guidance. Here the professor of organizational leadership at the University of Colorado helps you to shift from unconscious bias to conscious bias, and then explains the hurdles you need to move past to achieve inclusion and belonging for your staff as what she calls an “inclusifyer.” There’s a good mix of research and practical advice that will challenge your preconceptions.
  5. You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake by Olivier Sibony: There were a slew of books this year on improving decision-making but this one by a professor at HEC Paris was the best, with a good handle on the emerging behavioural research studies on the topic and also 40 solid techniques for avoiding a terrible mistake.
  6. Making Conversation by Fred Dust: The former global managing director at IDEO shares seven key elements to conversations, with lots of practical advice on how to improve the design of conversations. Given how many conversations you have in an average work day, it makes sense to enrich them.
  7. Ask for More by Alexandra Carter: The Columbia University law professor offers 10 questions to consider as you develop your strategy for an important negotiation, five about yourself and five about the other party. It prompts you to probe what each side needs, how you have handled such negotiations successfully in the past to boost confidence and unlock inner wisdom, and the first step required in the forthcoming discussions to encourage progress.
  8. Evidence-based Recruiting by Atta Tarki: Recruiting has become more scientific over the years with assessments, behavioural interviewing and scoring systems, but we have barely scratched the surface. The CEO of executive search firm ECA shares loads of data: Did you know, for example, how powerful the general mental ability test is for determining success and how your predictive ability improves by 20 per cent when you add integrity tests to it? He also explains how to develop your own data from your organization’s efforts.
  9. Good Guys by David Smith and Brad Johnson: A profoundly important call by two professors at United States naval colleges for men to help women in overcoming workplace inequity – recognizing the problem as a leadership issue, not a woman’s issue – as well as guidance on how to do that as respectful allies rather than blundering, aggressive White Knights.
  10. Time Smart by Ashley Whillans: If you feel time-pressed – and most of us do – the Canadian-born Harvard Business School professor explains how it might relate to whether you value time over money or money over time. That’s more important than you might expect since people who value time over money are happier, healthier and more productive. She then shows techniques to change or offset your time poverty instincts.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

  • You might want to use the holiday season to reflect on reflection. It’s vital and in Step Back Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco will help you understand the process, reassure you that the rushed reflection you fit into the cracks and crevices of your day is fine, but also shows how to dig even deeper.
  • Advance is an eclectic, insightful guide to your career from someone who has had a successful one in talent development, Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.
  • Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, looks at how our obsession with economic efficiency may be backfiring, particularly for those not in the top wealth brackets, and offers solutions for manager, educators and political leaders in When More is Not Better.
  • You’ve probably never heard of Simulmatics Corp. but in its brief existence it contributed through its political opinion probes to John F. Kennedy’s election, was an integral part of the disastrous U.S. hearts and minds program in Vietnam, and to some extent laid the groundwork for today’s libertarian internet ethos and the data gathering techniques of social media giants and political campaigns in our era. In If Then, Jill Lepore, who doubles as a professor of history at Harvard University and staff writer at The New Yorker, tells the story – and while it is not a book that will change your workplace or the world, it’s easy, enlightening holiday reading.


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