As in past years, we spent 2023 immersed in books that provided valuable research, insights, and advice for managing yourself and your team. Here are some of our favorite lessons learned from books this year:

Introduce novelty into your workflow for a change in perspective. This might take the form of changing a habitual writing style—switching from the comfort of long paragraphs to short ones, for example—or moving from a laptop to a legal pad. Adding an audience is another way to switch things up, notes record producer Frederick Jay “Rick” Rubin, a former co-president at Columbia Records: “Even if your art is non-performative, such as writing or cooking, it will still likely change with an observer present.” (The Creative Act by Rick Rubin with Neil Strauss)

Live by the “Platinum Rule.” Beyond the Golden Rule of treating others as one wants to be treated, the Platinum Rule is to help others as one wants to be helped, write Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, co-founders of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU Law. Applying this principle in day-to-day interactions “reminds you to take the other person’s preference seriously, whether by asking directly or by carefully reflecting on their needs.”(Say the Right Thing by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow)

Practice reverse onboarding. This involves consciously identifying how you want new employees to change your organization, writes Melissa Swift, formerly the North American transformation leader at Mercer. Also ensure that the new person’s colleagues and managers are receptive to their ideas and prepared to follow through on enacting them. (Work Here Now by Melissa Swift)

Create the conditions for breakthrough ideas. “You need to remove the guardrails in your brain and allow disconnected thoughts to swim together unimpeded, so that they can coalesce into something new,” writes Joanne Lipman, a former top newspaper editor who lectures at Yale and appears on CNBC. The key elements for getting eureka insights are distraction, relaxation, and a positive mood. (Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work by Joanne Lipman)

Ask people to rate your work on a scale of one to 10. Then ask them how you can get closer to 10. Work to get higher marks in priority areas, but accept lower scores for others. Wharton professor Adam Grant shares his book manuscripts with a group of trusted people and keeps revising until every judge gives him at least an eight, and some give nines. (Hidden Potential by Adam Grant)

Use meeting invites as a tool to make work more inclusive. Build your invite list to encompass three types of attendees, writes Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta. The first is the host who leads the meeting. The second is contributors, or people who are doing the work that’s being discussed. The third is observers, or people who are there simply to learn. Tasking an observer with taking notes, and sharing those notes along with their own reflections, is one way to elevate the voice of a more junior colleague. (Reimagine Inclusion by Mita Mallick) 

Consider how you might be “speech gatekeeping.” Observe who you naturally relate to and why, who you trust implicitly and seek out, and what those people may have in common in the way they speak. Podcaster and vocal coach Samara Bay notes the largely unacknowledged discrimination in hiring based on a job candidate’s accent: “Though businesses all around the world have instituted anti-discrimination policies preventing (or at least intended to prevent) biases against prospective employees based on their skin color, ethnicity, or gender, policies preventing accent-related bias simply don’t exist.” (Permission to Speak by Samara Bay)

Don’t rush to turn individual contributors into managers. In a 1986 memo to the team at NeXT, where he was then CEO, Steve Jobs wrote, “if we turn ourselves into managers instead of ‘do-ers,’ both our schedule and the ‘greatness’ of our product will suffer.” He added, “It is better to have fewer people, even if it means doing less.” (Make Something Wonderful by the Steve Jobs Archive)

Create incentives to encourage innovation. “What separates successful companies from unsuccessful ones is often how they deal with failures and how they manage when promising ideas fall flat,” writes Uri Gneezy, a professor of economics and strategic management at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. For example, a Merck research and development head paid bonuses to scientists who stopped failed projects early. Tata Group introduced a “Dare to Try” award for the best failed innovation. (Mixed Signals by Uri Gneezy)

Ask “Why not?” and “What if?” W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, professors at INSEAD, suggest leading with “agency,” your own ability to shape the situation, rather than “structure,” the situation as it is. They cite the example of Mick Ebeling, a Los Angeles entrepreneur who read a story in TIME about a boy in South Sudan who lost his arms to a bomb. Ebeling was so moved that he put aside all of the complications involved in getting involved in a crisis on another continent, learning to 3D print mechanical arms and personally bringing the supplies needed to do so to the boy’s community. (Beyond Disruption by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne)

Choice quotes from this year’s books:

  • “We welcome the democratization of discomfort. It jolts people to wake up to the inequities in their communities and rise to challenge them.” (Say the Right Thing by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, p. 5)
  • “Staying heads-down in too many activities can leave leaders and team members alike perpetually on autopilot, and stuck in endless loops of sameness.” (Work Here Now by Melissa Swift, p. 65)
  • “The good news? It isn’t you; it is the system. The bad news: it isn’t you; it is the system. Even a woman who is getting a salary that could be verified as ‘fair and unbiased’ may still earn less than a comparable man in the same profession if she is unable to put in the longer hours or be on call because of the constraints of family and children.” (Career & Family by Claudia Goldin, p. 186)
  • “Those who ultimately succeed are those who tweak, adjust, and fiddle after every flameout. They don’t give up the whole endeavor and start from scratch. Instead, they embark on the iterative and sometimes painful process of isolating one component at a time.” (Next! The Power of Reinvention in Life and Work by Joanne Lipman, p. 60)
  • “Weak leaders silence voice and shoot the messenger. Strong leaders welcome voice and thank the messenger. Great leaders build systems to amplify voice and elevate the messenger.” (Hidden Potential by Adam Grant, p. 196)
  • “Start by checking tomorrow’s calendar, and ask yourself who is invited to certain meetings and who is not? Have they helped prepare materials for what’s being discussed? Are they a key stakeholder for the topic being discussed? Do they have a stake in the outcome of the meeting? So why aren’t they included?” (Reimagine Inclusion by Mita Mallick, p. 2)
  • “When I work with artists, we make an agreement: We continue the process until reaching the point where we are all happy with the work. This is the ultimate goal of cooperation. If one person loves it but another does not, there’s usually an underlying issue worth paying attention to. It likely means we haven’t gone far enough and the work hasn’t reached its full potential.” (The Creative Act by Rick Rubin with Neil Strauss, p. 372-3)
  • “There have been many different views of the responsibilities of business over the last two centuries, but the belief that the sole purpose of business was to maximize the wealth of shareholders was certainly never widespread.” Jones writes. (Deeply Responsible Business by Geoffrey Jones, p. 302)
  • “There’s always been this myth that really neat, fun people at home all of [a] sudden get very dull and boring and serious when they come to work, and it’s simply not true. So if we can again inject that liberal­-arts spirit into this very serious realm of business, I think it would be a worthwhile contribution.” Make Something Wonderful by the Steve Jobs Archive, p. 28)
  • “Corporations have grown and multiplied and yet they are rarely asked any more to give public-minded reasons for their decisions. Market morality has given way to market efficiency.” (For Profit by William Magnuson, p. 11)
  • “Consider using both individual and team incentives… Pay a bonus to the entire team for winning a game and a bonus to everyone who scores a goal.” (Mixed Signals by Uri Gneezy, p. 89)
  • “View criticism not as a dagger but as a way to stress-test your idea, learn, and strengthen your path forward.” (Beyond Disruption by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, p. 171)

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