If you want to launch your career, you have come to the right place.
Luckily, career strategy books abound.
Unluckily, many of them are based on either embellished biographies, or based on what I call the “utopian workplace“, such as the non-existent workplace that only rewards merit and contribution.
Here are the best ones:
Jack Welch knows a thing or two about having a good career.
He’s had a legendary career himself, he promoted lots of people into great careers, and he also destroyed a few people’s careers.
The biggest takeaway from Jack Welch? Embrace change.
It’s the senior management and the CEO who want that change. When you refuse change, you are bucking the most powerful people in your organization.
Embrace change, instead, and the most powerful people might take you upward in their powerful embrace.
Quote: Don’t just pay for hands when you can also have brains – for free
10. The 48 Laws of Power
The 48 Laws of Power is not strictly aimed at career success, but it will help you to start thinking in terms of power dynamics, strategies, and realpolitik.
Quote: Keep your friends for friendship, but work with the skilled and competent
9. Bad Blood
The people who seek power are invariably the least suited to hold it
I don’t think that’s “invariably” true, but it’s at least sometimes true.
Certainly in the case of Theranos, the company Elizabeth Holmes founded.
It’s a good case study on looking beyond the PR, the corporate communication, the company slogans, and the media hype.
And if you look well, you will find a completely different reality behind those curtains.
In the case of Theranos, the disconnect between PR and reality was entertainingly extreme -that’s what happens when you get a smart, power-hungry sociopath to fill the media’s dream for a billionaire female founder-.
But it’s a good cautionary tale that applies to most normal companies as well: don’t believe the hype and the slogans, but learn the true power dynamics that govern boardrooms and careers’ trajectories.
Staying on the topic of sociopaths in business, also good:
Quote: (Holmes has) One of the most mature and well-honed sense of ethics
P.S.: this quote is sarcastic
8. What Color Is Your Parachute
If you’re looking for employment, this might be the best book.
It will take you from A -finding out what you truly want- to Z -negotiating your salary-.
It’s a minister who originally wrote, but it’s certainly a down-to-earth minister who understood office politics and power dynamics.
There is a lot of great advice, both based on data on what actually works, and on good negotiation skills.
Quote: Employers sometimes feel as though they are a fraternity or sorority. During the interview you want to come across as one who displays courtesy toward all members of that fraternity or sorority.
7. The Secret Handshake
Such an underrated little gem.
The central idea of this book is simple, yet genius as much as it is true.
The “secret handshake theory” is one of the most important unwritten rules of success: to join the successful executives, you must look and behave like you’re a successful executive. And that entails learning all the non-written rules of how to behave like the successful guys, sending the correct messages they want to see.
People at the top only accept cool people within their group. And, ideally, cool people who are like them.
That’s the “secret handshake”.
And I couldn’t agree more.
Quote: Frankly, however, those in the inner circle of most companies are not looking to invite in Nervous Nellie and Jittery Jack, but rather people who can be highly productive while remaining poised, clearheaded, and objective at the same time.
6. Secrets to Winning at Office Politics
Wouldn’t it be nice if you knew how to map and assess the power of the people around?
That might be what I loved most in this book.
I built on McIntyre’s work for the “power mapping guidelines” of Social Power.
Quote: They are sucking up, scheming and manipulating, but we are building relationships, developing strategies, and opening communication channels.
5. Hardball for Women
Don’t let that title fool you.
Yes, it might be written and marketed for women. But trust me, anyone is going to learn hugely from this one.
Pat Heim writes “Hardball for Women” to teach women how to function and win in a male-dominated culture. But since she’s talking about the ambitious, executive-level male culture, this is almost a mandatory read for anyone who wants to make it to the top.
Finally, there is also much to learn here on gender differences and inter-gender dynamics.
I definitely took out a lot of wisdom for Social Power.
Quote: Simply stated, power is the ability to get things done. If you don’t have power, you’re going to be ineffectual at work.
4. Stealing the Corner Office
Brendan Reid is a level-headed writer.
Some of his views might sound extreme if you have never questioned corporate slogans before.
He says, for example, that focusing on results is the biggest mistake people make when it comes to their career.
I don’t fully agree with that, but he is right in many respects. Once you step out of the organization, your results matter little -or nothing-.
Your job title, the salary you received, your networks, and your soft skills… Those remain.
You should read “Stealing the Corner Office” right after you’ve read your run-of-the-mill career advice book, just as preventive medicine against the “just do a great job” type of advice.
Quote: Results orientation is one of the most universally accepted business mantras, but it serves everyone’s interest other than your own
3. Workplace Poker
I truly wasn’t sure whether to give this spot to Dan Rust, or to Brendan Reid.
They both deserve it, but in the end, I went for “Workplace Poker” because I particularly enjoyed the psychological analysis of “high in emotional intelligence”, VS “thick-skinned, rhino type” of players.
Dan Rust says that to make it to the top, you must be more on the rhino type.
I’m not sure you need to be a rhino, but as Pfeiffer, the current holder of the #2 spot on this list says, you at least need to be able to push aside your ego and personal grudges when push comes to shove.
Quote: It may not seem fair or right. Shouldn’t doing an exceptional job be enough? Unfortunately, it’s not
Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer enters into the second spot of this list because it’s a great mix:
- Theoretical foundations on power and power dynamics
- Encouraging (but non-naive) self-help
- Solid techniques, strategies, and mindsets
Plus, some real-life stories and examples of successes and political failures that will help drive home how important political skills, relationships, and power awareness is for work success (and life success, we’d add).
1. Power University
By Lucio Buffalmano
We’re biased here since this is the flagship course of this website.
However, we believe it deserves the top stop.
One, because Power University takes the best wisdom from each of these books and more, plus tons of research turned into practical strategies, video examples, pictures, and infographics.
And two, because you simply can’t beat video and real-life examples and videos when it becomes to personal self-development and learning crucial skills such as high-power talk, high-power behavior, and that “executive type of behavior” that sub-communicates you deserve the top spot -some would call it “alpha male behavior“-.
If you seek practical strategies for career success, this might be the best investment you can make in yourself.
However, it demands that you invest some time and effort into it.
Watch out for popular career books
Many books teach how to build a good career based on utopian and naive models of “the best ones will advance”.
Even the best-seller of them all “Think and Grow Rich” advises you to put your head down and do great work without ever asking for anything.
Then, there are some truly great books, like “Radical Candor“.
I call these types of books the “enlightened workplace model”.
And that’s all cool and dandy, we should all strive towards an ideal. Who doesn’t want to work in an enlightened workplace, for an enlightened boss?
However, we shouldn’t embrace that ideal while we forget about the real world, about human nature, and about the more selfish, darker side of things.
You need both.
You need to strive for that ideal, while being prepared for how things actually work.
After all, 99% of companies and bosses do not even get close to the ideal workplace.
That’s why, alongside books that teach you the enlightened way, you must also learn career strategies from realpolitik sources.
There aren’t that many great ones, but this list, or Social Power, will get you ready.
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