September 4

Best books on how to manage your career


I wanted to hit myself.

Why hadn’t I found this book when I was 2 years younger? I wouldn’t have made the mistakes that eventually landed me with a Performance Improvement Plan, and later with 150 rejected application, 31 failed interviews, and 0 offers.

You might feel the same.

Managing your career is both an art and a science. As much as we might want to think that those who accelerate in their careers are just ‘lucky’, it doesn’t happen that way.

They actually deliberately manage themselves, and their career, so that they can grow.

You can, too.

For this particular article we didn’t just want to focus on the big and famous authors that everyone knew.

But we dug beneath, to find the authors that people didn’t know much about.

Here’s what we found. But before that, we also want to show how you can find better books to read for yourself, too.

Read the biographies of those in your field

Reading self help books where people tell you what to do can be helpful, but not as helpful as the stories of those who have succeeded in your field.

Learning how they thought and what they did to grow from a nobody to somebody might be much better than you taking time to take the self help advice of those who may not have risen to the top of their field.

For example when I was a social worker, it was helpful to read the stories of Siobhan Maclean, who had risen to the top of her field as a practice educator. Seeing how she took time to grow her craft, through actions like networking, attending conferences, and constantly reading, made me a much better person in the field.

If there is someone in your industry that many know, take time to read that person’s story.

Read outside your field

Expanding your range beyond just direct ‘career management’ books further expands your range of understanding of what makes a career.

Trust me, just getting the tips from a career guru aren’t going to cut it in the daily cut and thrust of a career.

Some books that might be great to read include those on:

  1. Mental models (such as Farnam Street’s great series)
    1. Mental models help you understand where your assumptions come from, and how to make better arguments, or how to present a different (and impressive) perspective to a problem at work.
  2. Money (I recommend Ray Dalio’s “Principles for Dealing with a Changing World Order” though this can be quite dense.)
    1. Much of the world’s businesses are built on money, and understanding how money flows work would help you better impress your boss.

Vault! (John Lim)

This is my book. And when we wrote it, we wanted to figure out

why do some people transit so well to work, whilst others don’t?

What we found was surprising.

Firstly, that those who managed their careers well knew when to stay, and when to go. They tended to find the superboss in the industry, and then take time to learn from them.

They wouldn’t just stay in the company because it was comfortable.

For example, in John’s first job, he had a chance to move to a well-known superboss. But he refused because he wanted to grow where he was at. It was comfortable to just have a 10 minute commute to work.

And slowly he found himself losing interest.

He didn’t grow.

On the contrary, those who managed their careers well were always looking out for opportunities for growth. Take the example of Sascha, the Vice President of Finance in ASEAN for Siemens. He quickly recognised that the opportunities to grow wouldn’t always come by.

And when they did, he had to take it.

Emotions against time, in a company
Emotions against time, in a company

But in this book, John doesn’t just focus on work, but also on emotions. He focuses on how colleagues and bosses can make it difficult for people to get through work.

What’s interesting is how John interviewed researchers like Grace Teo, a lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

The advice is contrary.

If you don’t want to play politics, know enough to get out of the way.

It’s a great book to read, especially if you’re based in Asia.

Much of the advice today tends to be from a Western perspective.

You can get it here.

Bridging the Soft Skill Gap (Bruce Tulgan)

Hands down, this was the book that changed my approach towards handling colleagues at work.

Older workers often complain that younger colleagues lack the soft skills, and end up being a real pain to work with.

If you struggle with the basics of soft skills, you might struggle at progressing your career. This is the small things. Like learning how to make coffee for clients. Or learning how to hold the door. Or how to make small talk.

Just look at the list of soft skills Tulgan gives
Just look at the list of soft skills Tulgan gives

And this graduates into the bigger things, like how to manage conflict, how to put across a point artfully, and how to get work done in a complex organisation.

The 5% Zone (Stephen Krempl)

Stephen Krempl, another Singaporean who has moved to the US, also writes in a relatable way about how we don’t need to just focus on the 50% changes, but the 5% of times. He writes,

Its only 5% of the time that you will meet or call in with someone who is at least two levels above you or higher other than your current boss or supervisor.

This book can change how you get noticed, especially at the lower rungs of the career ladder.

Let’s be honest. When you look at the people who are promoted, they tend not to be the most skilled, but the most visible.

They are the ones who’ve learnt how to get themselves noticed.

The Unspoken Rules (Gorick Ng)

Another Asian author on the list. You can tell that I like Asians, a lot.

Gorick talks about how there are unspoken rules in jobs,

certain ways of doing things that managers expect but don’t explain and that top performers do but don’t realize.

Think about the last time you saw a colleague defer to their manager or handing in a piece of work that took into account everyone’s contributions, and yet also put forth a different point.

Ah, those are the unspoken rules that we often miss out in the process of work.

And those are what Gorick teaches in his book.

The Art of Being Indispensable (Bruce Tulgan)

Go to every workplace, and you would find someone indispensable that the company can’t do without. The question is,

What did they do to get there?

This book teaches you how.

A great book for those looking to become the go-to person in their work.
A great book for those looking to become the go-to person in their work.

3 big lessons.

Firstly, don’t just work hard, but work smart.

The best in the company find some way of systematising what they do, so that others can do it. If there’s a process that is regularly used, they systematise it with a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and then tell everyone how to use it.

Secondly, they know how to fight the overcommitment syndrome. The best ask the bosses what the priorities should be, and then ask,

You want me to do X, but that will come at the expense of Y. Which would you prefer me to do?

When you make it this clear to your boss, you then have a clearer idea of what the boss prioritises, rather than you taking things in your hands, and making both parties unhappy.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you’ve ever felt yourself being pulled in all directions, the best know when to say yes, and when to say no, without compromising the success of the organisation.

Imagine this. You already have a million things to do.

But some other manager comes to you and suddenly asks you to help. Reporting it to your boss will make you look lazy.

What do you do?

The best thing to do is to master the art of saying ‘no’ and refining the ask so that you know what you’re saying ‘yes!’ to.

Don’t just read, apply

Don’t just read these books, apply them.

You will find yourself greatly changed.



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