The ultimate reading list for project managers

Just because you’ve secured a management role or passed your project management training, it doesn’t mean that your knowledge is complete. It takes years to learn the nitty gritty of how people work, even if you’re just looking into your specific role in your agency or company. Reading can help speed up the learning process. Through books, you can deeply explore single ideas, familiarize yourself with many different case studies, and benefit from the experiences of other managers.

In this extensive roundup, we collect some of the highly rated books that will help project managers step up their game.

 

Leadership

Becoming a manager is relatively simple; becoming a leader is something completely different. Not all managers inspire their teams, improve their performance, or earn their trust. The following books will show you how to upgrade your role from manager to leader:

First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

In this book, authors Buckingham and Coffman reveal what makes a manager a true leader by sharing their in-depth studies of the world’s most effective managers. Surprisingly, they found that these top managers don’t exactly follow conventional wisdom. They hire for talent rather than experience. They focus on improving strengths of individual team members rather than eliminating weaknesses. While the authors don’t claim that there’s a singular way to lead well, they paint a clear picture of the unique traits that allow excellent leaders to emerge from managerial situations.

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The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier

Simply put, the premise of The Coaching Habit is that you can be a more effective leader by doing less work and asking the right questions. Leadership roles are often filled with too much busywork and chit-chat, all of which have minimal impact in the end results. Bungay Stanier proposes that leaders instead ask their team members critical questions like “What’s on your mind?” and “What’s the real challenge here for you?” if they want to get to the bottom of their goals and challenges. The overall aim of the book is to help you make a habit of coaching, so that it’s just second nature for you to lead in this way. A review from Project Management Hacks claims that the book works well as initial coaching training, adding that “While the book is aimed at managers with direct reports, one can apply the principles to other circumstances. Like any new skill or approach, be prepared for some discomfort as you learn the skills.”

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Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader by Herminia Ibarra

This book by Herminia Ibarra focuses on the internal journey of becoming a leader. According to the book, making small tweaks in your habits and networks can improve your leadership ability dramatically. Among the things Ibarra recommends are redefining your leadership role and diversifying your network so you could tap into the expertise of more people. After all, most people in leadership roles don’t have the extra time to formally learn new leadership skills.

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Building your team

One of the challenges of leading creative companies or projects is finding the best people to add to your team. It’s not enough to just look at their work history and set up an interview, there needs to be a stronger strategy that is tied to your goals and culture. These books can show you how to find the best people:

Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street

The first thing Who: The A Method for Hiring addresses are the many hidden biases and mistakes that we tend to make when hiring. These include hiring based on your gut response to a candidate, wasting time on fun but irrelevant interview questions, or relying too much on psychological testing. To get over these hidden obstacles, the authors recommend a strategic process for hiring top performers who would be a good fit for your organization. The book guides you towards making your own candidate scorecards, finding better sources of applicants, fine-tuning your interview process to meet your needs, and, finally, crafting offers that your ideal candidates won’t reject.

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Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock

Lazlo Bock was head of People Operations for Google. He gives readers an inside look into Google, so that we can understand why the company attracts over a million job applications per year. Work Rules covers Google’s HR practices from compensation to recruitment and training. The book’s stories and insights can come in handy if you’re looking to hire the same type of talent that Google attracts.

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Hiring for Attitude: A Revolutionary Approach to Recruiting and Selecting People with Both Tremendous Skills and Superb Attitude by Mark Murphy

If you’re not short on qualified and competent candidates but are having a difficult time finding people with a specific kind of character, then Hiring for Attitude might be for you. You’ll learn how to identify the critical characteristics and attitude that a candidate would need to thrive in your company, and how to look for these traits in your candidates. The book also teaches interview techniques that help you identify a person’s real attitude in the workplace, and not just within the controlled environment of a job interview. According to a review from Project Manager, Hiring for Attitude “would be a very good reference for project managers to assemble an attitude oriented project team.”

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Improving team performance

The effectiveness of a manager is usually judged based on team performance. This is why the primary job of a manager seems to be improving both the quality and quantity of the work of their team. But how can you do that with a group of diverse people with their own skills, quirks, and agendas?

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

Most people in most organizations spend so much time and effort on office politics, including managing their reputation, hiding their weaknesses, and trying to portray themselves in the most positive light. In An Everyone Culture, the authors suggest that these efforts would be better spent in more productive pursuits that benefit both the person and the organization. They propose building “Deliberately Developmental Organisations” (DDOs), organizations that accept the imperfection of their workers and offer them opportunities for personal development. These opportunities are for everyone in the organization, not just top performers, and are about holistic personal development, not solely for improving productivity. Personal development programs also won’t be confined to team building exercises or annual retreats. In fact, it will be part of daily operations. The book also profiles companies that have become DDOs and, according to a review from 800 CEO Read, “The lessons from those companies combined with the theory of Kegan and Lahey provide an exciting portrait of what’s possible, and hopefully what’s coming, in the workplace.”

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Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Since creativity is essential in agency work, encouraging and honing your team’s creativity is an important part of developing the company. This book covers the creative process behind Pixar, the studio behind critically acclaimed films like Inside Out and Toy Story. Readers get a behind-the-scenes look at how the studio generates ideas, conducts meetings, encourages critical feedback, and pushes their creative team to new heights. The book also covers the studio’s mistakes and failures, issues that will resonate with any creative professional. Creativity, Inc. is not just about the Pixar story, it’s about how creative teams can apply Pixar’s lessons and experiences to their own process. According to a review from Management Today, “Part memoir, part management guide, this is a fascinating book about celebrating and sustaining the creativity at the heart of every successful business.”

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Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

When it comes to motivating people, the common approach is to either use the “carrot” or the “stick.” But according to Daniel Pink’s Drive, to achieve high performance, employees need more than incentives and punishment. They also need autonomy, mastery, and a larger purpose. The book goes deep into scientific research that shows these different elements of motivation, so readers will also learn big picture ideas of how their own minds work. Project managers who read this will never motivate their team in the same tired ways again.

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Company culture

While it’s easy to get too wrapped up in ideas of productivity and efficiency, a team’s culture drives many of its decisions and circumstances. Project managers need to understand these hidden influences if they want their team to do well. These books can help you define, understand, and perhaps even change the culture behind your team and company:

Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia

The competitive, profit-driven nature of business can take its toll on culture. Conscious Capitalism offers a solution. Authors Mackey and Sidodia acknowledge that while businesses need to profit, they need a higher purpose to drive their business and motivate both their people and customers. For example, companies like Google, Whole Foods, and Starbucks have beliefs and causes aligned with their brands. As a result, these businesses are more aware of the needs of society at large and go beyond financial considerations when making decisions. More importantly, the book makes the case that these “conscious” businesses outperform others. Author and business leader Bill George has called the book “an invaluable treatise on how to integrate all the company’s constituencies for the long-term benefit of creating sustainable organizations that serve society’s interests simultaneously with their own.”

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The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace by S. Chris Edmonds

The Culture Engine is meant to help leaders codify their team culture, goals, and values into a document called an organizational constitution, which will be used as a “North Star” for guiding decisions and performance. But, unlike vague mission-vision statements or empty announcements, the constitution should have concrete examples of behaviors exemplifying the culture. Why is a document like this essential? Because without it, people on the team might focus too much on the results they want to achieve, while compromising on the team’s values and work environment.

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Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath

When it comes to changing a team’s culture rather than just establishing it, Switch is a good reference. The general premise is that people are driven by two minds, the rational and the emotional. If we know how to use them at the right time, we can change behaviors faster and easier. Throughout the book, authors Chip and Dan Heath cite several studies and stories demonstrating how organizations have changed their habits and performance—no matter how entrenched were their previous practices. Author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers rated it 9/10, saying “Inspiring counterintuitive stories of huge organizational change against all odds. Highly recommended for everyone.”

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General project management

Finally, there are many excellent general project management resources out there, ranging from academic texts to hands-on guides. Here’s a short selection to start:

Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management (Theory in Practice) by Scott Berkun

There are many books that can help lead readers towards project management certification, but Making Things Happen is focused on helping you complete a project rather than learn certified methodologies. In other words, these are the things you’d learn through real-world experience as a project manager, all distilled in a single book. A review from A Girl’s Guide to Project Management praised the book, saying “Making Things Happen is method agnostic—no recourse to PMBOK or the PRINCE2 handbooks—which again, is no bad thing. It makes the techniques easier to adopt as they are about the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘process’ which makes this a very practical, easy-to-read, easy-to-implement book.” Like the more academic books on the subject, Making Things Happen has exercises, diagrams, extensive references, and discussion guides.

Similar reads that are more focused on formal certification or training:

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works by Ash Maurya

Entrepreneurs and managers who are looking to speed up the process of releasing their products have turned to “lean” methodologies for quickly vetting ideas and getting feedback. Running Lean covers all the steps you need to take to finish your next project the lean way. This means rapid problem solving, continuous testing, and coming up with different iterations of the product along the way. As a result of this process, your team won’t waste too much time and effort on building the wrong thing.

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Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager by Kory Kogon, Suzette Blakemore, and James Wood

There are times when a typical team player finds himself or herself the de facto project manager. This can be a nerve wracking experience because without formal training, it might seem like a difficult challenge to go from being just another team member to becoming the team leader. This is why Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager is a practical, short, and accessible guide to help you get started in your unexpected new role. It’s a solid beginner’s guide for when you don’t have the time to get formal training in project management.

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Celine Roque
Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.

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