How I Stay Up On The World: Josh Bersin’s Reading List for 2020

Happy holidays everyone, I will soon be publishing my predictions and prescriptions for 2020, but in the meantime I wanted to share something different. In the interest of helping our global community continue to learn, I want to share the most important books I read this year, and tell you why I recommend them.

First, just so you understand, I am a big reader. For some reason I’m wired to “learn by reading” so I find myself reading books, downloading reports, and diving into articles wherever I am. If you could just look at my phone and see what’s on the Kindle and all my other apps you’d see.

Here’s my list, and don’t be intimidated, I don’t read them cover to cover:

The Ride of A Lifetime, by Bob Iger (CEO of Disney)

If you want to learn about what it’s like to build a career, become a CEO, and understand how people and organizations work, read this book. Not only do you learn a lot about the entertainment industry, but this is a fascinating book about people, management, and organizations.

Winners Take All: The Elite Changing of Changing The World, by Anand Giridharadas

Anand is a pretty amazing thinker. He has single-handedly figured out how to explain the big problem with income inequality, and totally debunks the myth that “rich people are the philanthropists that will make the world better.” Baloney, you’ll see why that whole concept is flawed.  My wife loved it too.

The Longevity Economy, Understanding The World’s Most Fast-Growing, Misunderstood Market, by Joseph Coughlin

The world and workforce are getting older. We’re living longer. And the whole concept of “retirement” has to be retired. This book explains why “retirement” even exists, and gives you valuable insights into planning for and taking advantage of the aging workforce we are now a part of.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein

As an L&D or HR person, you have to read this book. It’s a bit long but the essential message is that research now proves that “being a generalist” is your best long term path to success. It explains why the T-Shaped Career makes so much sense and why letting people “fumble around” early in their careers is the best possible path to greatness. I love it because it reminds me of myself, but it also gives you a sense of how to drive career growth in your organization as well in your own personal career.  It really explains why “technical specialization” is not the complete answer to success in life.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

This is a moving and very engaging novel about a young woman and what she goes through in her life. It will probably bring tears to your eyes and will give you a sense of warmth and love that explains how everyone needs a friend. The workplace needs a lot more focus on kindness, generosity, and forgiveness and this book will really bring these concepts right into crisp clarity.

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis (Moneyball) is a great writer. This book will reshape your head because it explains why the US Federal Government is an amazingly important thing. It shows how the Trump administration does not understand or value some of the most important institutions in our lives, like the National Weather Service.  Not a political book but a good education on our own Federal Government.

The Value of Everything, by Mariana Mazzucato

This is a dense economist’s book, but Mariana is an award-winning economist who is trying to rethink how we define “value” in the economy. This is our fundamental problem today: why is it better to drive stock price up and wreck the environment?  Why is it ok to pay people poorly to drive up firm value? Why are wages considered an expense and not an investment?  I want to read more of her books, but they’re dense.  If you like economics, give it a try.

Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, by Caitlin Rosenthal

This book was a weird one but it stuck with me. Caitlin has studied the operational management and talent management of slavery, and has documented their early history with organizational structure, accounting for labor, performance management, and just about everything else we think about in HR and human capital management. What you find out is that slave owners in the 1700s and 1800s were very sophisticated business leaders, and many of our HR practices today are born in this era.  Kind of a shocking book but good for your thinking.

The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, by Tim Wu – and also The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu

When I read Tim’s books they aspire me to be a better writer. These two books are life-changing looks at the advertising industry (Facebook, Google, Twitter) and their history and impact on the economy, and a similar look at monopolies and large companies and how they may, in fact, be bad for the world. He’s a very influential tech thinker and writer and his books are very readable. They will teach you a lot about business and why we have the politics we have today.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham

As an engineer, I could not put this book down. (And I did watch the TV series.) This book will give you an amazing action story about nuclear energy, Russian politics, management, and the future of energy. Really a “must-read” if you want to understand a little history and the risks and opportunities in Nuclear. Plus it will teach you everything you need to know about “groupthink” and “information warfare.”

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohleben

This book will blow your mind. Trees are actually the most humane, kind. collaborative, and advanced population on the face of the earth. If you have a garden (we have many trees in our yard) you’ll love this book. But even if you don’t, this book will give you insights into the way our ecosystem works, from the standpoint of “the tree as an amazing person.” I won’t go further, but you will be amazed at what kinds of teamwork, strategic thinking, and caring Trees have – and it will make you think a lot about how your company operates.

Can American Capitalism Survive: Why Greed Is Not Good, Opportunity Is Not Equal, and Fairness Won’t Make Us Poor, by Steven Pearlstein and Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, by Robert Reich

I’m a capitalist at heart (I loved Atlas Shrugged) and you should re-read Atlas Shrugged to remind you what capitalists think. But then read this book and it will help you “soften” your thinking. Reich’s book really reshaped my head and made me feel a lot better about paying all the taxes I pay.  You have to get smart on these issues because they’re the most important topics of the day.

The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, by Scott Galloway

Scott Galloway, who I hope to meet one day, is the most interesting and “pointy” business professors today. He teaches at NYU, has a great newsletter, and really “tears down” these four companies and teaches you why they’re a drain on society. Absolutely worth reading and maybe you’ll become a Scott Galloway fan like I am.

Hit Refresh, by Satya Nadella

The Microsoft story has been told many times now, but if you want to really “live it’ read Satya’s book. I’ve been doing a lot of work with Microsoft since I left Deloitte and this book is well worth reading. Satya is the “Jack Welch” of our times, without the blustering and bloviation which Welch brought to the business world.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

I love Al Franken, and it’s a shame he was forced from the Senate. His book is an amazing and fascinating story of politics and how he became a senator. I would also read “The Case of Al Franken” in the New Yorker if you want to understand the brutal, angry, back-story world of politics and how this all happened behind the scenes.

Strategy and Structure: Chapters In The History of the American Enterprise by Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.

I know this is an old book, but read it. In today’s world of “agile” and “organizations as a network” and “talent marketplaces,” you have to understand how we got to where we are. This book is the most fascinating history and business books about organizational design.  You should read it.

Trevor Noah: Born a Crime, by John Murray

Believe it or not, Trevor Noah is a brilliant guy. This is a book about his life story and you will not want to put it down. It shows you that some entertainers have truly inspirational life histories, and also teaches you a bit about South Africa.

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and Man’s Fight for Justice, by Bill Browder

I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated by Russia. I went there last year and experienced Moscow. This book tells the back story of Russia’s meddling in US and global politics and reads like a novel showing you how the Russians engage in information warfare, political spying, and other forms of spy games (including poisoning). Well worth reading.

Other Things I Read and Recommend

Despite the political overload, I read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every day. I re-read The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker every few years.

I have learned to love podcasts and downloaded the app Overcast which I love (I could never figure out the podcast app on iOs before). Now I listen to The Daily by NY Times, The Journal by WSJ, The Argument by NY Times Opinion, and a fascinating business podcast called Acquired by Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal. They just tore down TikTok and it will blow your mind.

Every Sunday I watch Fareed Zhakaria on CNN. He has a unique way of really making sense of global politics and the economy without being a “Trump Basher.” (CNN, in general, has become a bit overwhelming for me, but I still watch him. I’m giving up on Meet the Press, which I loved when Tim Russert was alive.)

I love reading Tim O’Reilly’s newsletter on the Future of Work. I follow and love to hear Marianne Williamson (she truly brings the “human side” to politics and I find her ideas very inspirational), and I look out for people like Zanny Minton Beddoes (editor of the Economist).

By the way, I adore The Economist. One of my best friends turned me onto it years ago and it is the most educational, independent voices on what’s going on in the world, plus they have a wry sense of humor which you will learn to appreciate. I believe all HR professionals need a dose of economics.  Try reading it, it’s far more interesting than you realized – and it’s free of the “histrionics” you get in the US media.

I do read print copies of The Atlantic, Fast Company, Fortune, Forbes, Wired, Strategy+Business, and lots of those popular business magazines. They come to my house, I thumb through them, read a few things, and then throw them away. They find amazing stories, case studies, and always give me new ideas about how people are thinking and where the business world is going.

I’ve now come to love the MIT Press, Sloan Management Review, and I get all their tech and business materials. (My dad went to MIT and he adored his Brass Rat Ring so I always had a warm spot in my heart for the place.) I still subscribe to the Harvard Business Review but I don’t find it as forward-thinking as I used to, maybe it’s my age.

Keeping Up Is A Career In Itself

As an analyst, I really consider it my job and responsibility to keep up on things in the world. What I’ve found is that broad interest in many social, economic, and political topics teaches me “why” we face certain challenges. I also think everyone can benefit a bit of history, so I try to read about the past so I can give you context for any advice I give.

As far as real-time news, I follow many people on Twitter, constantly browse stories on LinkedIn (which has done a masterful job of curating news which is relevant to me), and always read books, articles, and emails people send me. By the way, I really appreciate when people send me their manuscripts, I’m always happy to give you feedback.

Finally, I learn a lot by listening. I try to remind myself that every time I have a conversation I”m likely to learn something. So I try to ask lots of open-ended questions and find this the best learning process of all.

Stay tuned for my predictions report and the big HR Technology Market 2020 report coming out soon. Have a wonderful holiday season and I hope you have time to read at least a few of these marvelous books next year!