When we kicked off the second year of Take Back Work’s Culture Catalyst Book Club last January, we had no idea what 2020 had in store for us.

For many readers, that meant participation ebbed and flowed with the realities of surviving a pandemic, learning how to work from home, navigating financial uncertainty, and trying to take care of each other. The good thing is that we’re the kind of book club where you can drop off and pick right back up when you’re ready. No judgment!

So as 2020 comes to a close, we’re ready to bring it for 2021. But before we launch into a whole new year of reading, we’re celebrating the most insightful quotes and snippets from our conversations in this monster of a blog post. Enjoy – and I hope you’ll join us for 2021’s Culture Catalyst Book Club experience!

JANUARY: Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Most of us start out the New Year with big dreams about how this year is going to be different. But do you have an idea of what you want to accomplish this coming year and beyond? That’s why the first stop on our Culture Catalyst journey is Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. I can’t tell you how often I encounter people in their 30s or 40s (and sometimes even 50s!) who tell me they don’t know what they want to be when they “grow up.” What if instead of waiting for this one spark of career inspiration, we approached life as a journey where we could “prototype” and test out different alternatives to see which fit best?

“Building out the three 5-year plans was far more challenging than I would have thought. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been in the same industry for around two decades. The concept of doing “something else” never really crossed my mind. It’s become such a core part of my identity. That said, one of my “ah-ha” moments was stepping back and noticing a common theme across the three plans. That is, no matter what my life looks like five years from now, in every imagined version there was a common set of things I think I would need to do. So why am I not doing those things now? Would they result in a more “well-designed life” if I were to put them into practice? I believe the answer is unequivocally, yes.”Jason T.

FEBRUARY: Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler

There are certain skills that have an outsized influence on our lives at work, and at home. People often shy away from discussing difficult topics, even when it’s obviously necessary. That’s why the second stop on our Culture Catalyst journey is the classic Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. So much can be accomplished through direct, thoughtful conversations. The more skill you develop, the more confident and effective you’ll be!

“The part that struck me was the false option between telling the truth and remaining a friend. Hard to do both. I’ve seen, and heard, too many people be brash and “I just tell it like I see it.” I see lots of parallels to the military, where the desire to win distracts from healthy dialogue. I see superiors attempt to “dialogue” but it’s clear they want you to listen to them and dialogue is their way of making themselves feel like they included me in the “discussion.” I wish I had read this book years ago. Last year, I had a young (7 years in service, almost 40-year-old) platoon sergeant ask for advice dealing with subordinates. I gave her the best advice I could at the time, which after reading this book, was not great. After reading this book, I sent her a copy.” – Harlan K.

MARCH: Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

Next up is another classic – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. The examples may be dated, but the science still hold true. As Cialdini peels back the layers on why people say yes – think about why you have said yes (or no!) in the past. As a Culture Catalyst, you will often find yourself interacting with those who do not share the same ideas about the workplace as you do. Many times, you will have to persuade them to try something new, or at least consider the message you are sharing. Having tried-and-true techniques in your toolbox is key – just use them for good! 

“One of the things I constantly wonder about in our modern world is noise. There’s so, so much of it. How do we become persuasive in a way that can rise above the noise into today’s sound-driven culture? It seems like hyperbole is what sells these days. One of the things I worry about is that great humans with great ideas are hard to actually hear amidst all this noise.” – Lauren G.

APRIL: Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

This book was recommended over and over again by our 2019 Culture Catalyst book club readers – and that’s why it’s on the 2020 list! Even if you don’t have a military background, you’ll appreciate the visceral power of these leadership principles and how they translate from the battlefield to the boardroom. You might have guessed by the title, but the core theme – extreme ownership – is all about how the best leaders take responsibility. It’s easier said than done, which is why a bit of inspiration is in order!

“I do not think bad teams exist–I think tolerance of low standards foster inefficient teams. As a leader, you set the tone and what you accept is what you should expect. If you raise the standard and foster an environment that empowers your team to meet it, you will have a good team. If you fight for the resources you need for execution and work with your team to develop workarounds until those resources are available, you will have a good team. With all that said, there will be a time when that change management has to occur and if members of the team blatantly refuse to “jump on the train” with everyone else, that is where you as a leader will have to ask yourself the question: does this team member provide value or is this team member detrimental to our cause?” – Kaila J.

MAY: Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

When I first watched Brené Brown’s breakout TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability, I was hooked by her storytelling and self-deprecating sense of humor – about topics like shame, no less! Not surprisingly Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead was another recommendation from our readers for 2020.

“I’m reading the part about numbing as a way to protect yourself from feeling foreboding joy — that really resonates with me, especially during quarantine. I don’t trust the feeling that something can be good with no strings attached – so I have often buried myself in work, cooking, organizing, staying busy so I don’t have to worry about the next thing. I didn’t realize this about myself until all the busy-ness was taken away. I think I’ve missed some of the joy in my last few years because I’ve been so worried about “the other shoe dropping.” – Laura F.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations about vulnerability lately and it got me thinking about my past, and the type of person I was when I was younger. I was very closed off and didn’t want many people to know about my life. Looking back on it, I wholeheartedly feel it was one of the reasons I didn’t have a lot of close friends. In more recent years I’ve begun being much more vulnerable with the people around me and letting them into my emotions and into my personal life. It’s honestly been amazing! The relationships I’ve created with people in the last few years have been some of the best of my life.” – Nicholas F.

JUNE: It’s the Manager by Jim Clifton and Jim Harter

One of the things I love about this year’s book club selections is the variety of writing styles. It’s the Manager stands out as a handbook of sorts with 52 blazingly short chapters on topics ranging from onboarding to gig workers. It’s chock-full of statistics gleaned from Gallup’s substantial research on the topic of work, too. The best part? You’ll also get a code to take your CliftonStrengths assessment. This was a game-changer for me – and I hope you’ll find it powerful as well!

Yes, yes, yes. This is the idea I am personally working. How can I be a coach-like leader? The challenge I see is that most leaders don’t understand the differences between coaching and mentoring/consulting. Most leaders have been taught to give information, not draw information out of others. It is well worth learning the skills of coaching and listening with the intent of guiding the growth of the individual. – Amy A.

JULY: Moments of Impact by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon

What if the way you design and plan for key engagements could dramatically influence their success? That’s the argument behind this month’s book Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change. This book builds on everything we’ve learned so far this year, from crucial conversations to influence. It’s an easy read and full of expert wisdom on the subject from practitioners who do this for a living. Better yet, the back third serves as a “starter kit” to help you design your next moment of impact!

I have seen something like this [Setting the Scene with external collaborators] in action and it was amazing. When each person belongs in the group for what they uniquely provide, it really allowed each person to speak to the situation with their own expertise. There was a lack of competition and a lot of collaboration. I think that when I start a firm, this method will be a regular practice.” – Natasha O.

AUGUST: The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins

Transitions are some of life’s most stressful events. But as you take on new (and maybe even bigger and better) roles at work, you don’t just want to survive, you want to thrive! That’s why this month’s book is The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael Watkins. This is yet another practical guide to help prepare you. It’s full of insightful questions, charts, and activities to help you apply the lessons. There’s also a section on assessing the culture of an organization – useful info, because even if you stay within the same organization, there can be subcultures that require some acclimation. 

“Negotiating success was great for me not only in creating a valuable interaction with my future bosses, but also in how I might communicate value with my subordinates. Making sure they have clear lines of effort and understand how I measure success will help them seek autonomy or improve their willingness to ask questions when they need more guidance.” – Stephen O.

SEPTEMBER: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

This month’s book holds a special place in my heart because it’s where my non-fiction reading journey started! When I first read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, I was hooked by his ability to weave stories with science. Not long after that I started an Amazon wish list – and once my cart (and my bookshelves) filled up with recommendations, the rest was history! I hope you’ll find it just as fascinating, especially since so much of what it means to be a “catalyst” involves disruption – delightful disruption, but disruption nonetheless. And now, you’ll be better equipped to start those sparks within your own organizations and communities!

You have to discover who the informal leaders are in the organization. Those who have charismatic authority and the trust of their peers. Their influence will be vital to broader organizational buy-in regarding everything from a new innovation initiative or the organizational mission as a whole. Measuring their level of buy-in & participation and taking stock of their own sense of the same from the organization’s members, will certainly help assess whether changes are being embraced or resisted.” – Dennis P.

OCTOBER: The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

“Culture is not something you are – it’s something you do.”

Have you struggled to describe what makes a great workplace culture, or why it matters? You’re not alone!  That’s why this month’s book is The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle. It’s a foundational guide for understanding the power of culture and how to put it to work for your team. What I love is that it gives us a chance to peek into some of the world’s most interesting organizations to see what drives their success. But we also get to see how culture can contribute to failure – even if it’s unintentional. 

“I’m always drawn towards the vulnerability and empathy conversations because I find more and more often that is truly a pain-point in many of the organizations with which I interact. I also really enjoyed the previous chapter talking about empathetic leaders that unlock peoples’ abilities almost by simply actively listening! Also, the idea of diversity and the need for collisions to occur and create new pathways for solutions rather than the same ol’ always happening.” – Michael H.

NOVEMBER: Originals by Adam Grant

Okay – I’ll admit it – Adam Grant is one of my favorite authors. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that yet another one of his books made it to this year’s list! Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World is perfect for budding Culture Catalysts. It takes courage to challenge the status quo, and for that, we need inspiration. This book is not only full of tales that will move you to action, it’s also packed with techniques to help you succeed.

“Some of my takes from Originals? 1. Have a balanced risk portfolio that respects the corporate mainstream to afford “idiosyncrasy credits” to do the less commonly accepted but important work that needs to be done. 2. We tend to under-communicate our ideas while thinking we’ve said them too much. 3. Like Ray Dalio and Bridgewater, bring problems and maintain an open-issues/severity log, not unlike an agile backlog. 4. Risk preferences can be shifted by just changing a few words. 5. Hire based on cultural contribution, instead of cultural fit. Overall, it was a helpful book to drive culture change, both large and small.” – Paul H.

DECEMBER: Superbosses by Sydney Finkelstein

For our final selection of the year, we featured Sydney Finkelstein’s book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent. Three major lessons emerged: Superbosses create master-apprentice relationships. They encourage people to work well together. And finally, when people do seek out new opportunities, they don’t lose their cool – they celebrate in their success.

“[What resonated with me was]…the idea of being uncompromising and open and simultaneously encouraging of teamwork and competition. I tend to think of extremes as something needing to be tamed but realizing they can work in tandem was <insert celebration emojis here>.” – Melinda S.

Neat to see all these insights in one place, right? There’s just something really special about people from all over the world reading and learning together, and sharing their perspectives from their own lived experiences.

So as we close out the year, here’s a link to the 2020 Culture Catalyst Reading Guide for you to download. Plus, it’s not too late to join us in 2021! Just sign up here and you’ll receive an email with all the information to help you get started, including the new 2021 Culture Catalyst Reading Guide – all it takes is your first name and email address.

Happy reading, Culture Catalysts!