reading list / self-development as a People leader

reading list / self-development as a People leader

2021, May 13    

Working in the People space is absolutely fascinating because it’s so multidisciplinary. There is such a broad range of skills and disciplines that wrap together to make an exceptional People team.

Because of this, a lot of us feel like we don’t know enough. But when we consider our own development as People practitioners or leaders, the first port of call is usually something like a CIPD qualification, studying HR or employment law. While these can be useful, they are categorically not the ending point of our self-development journeys.

I hope this will be a useful resource for you - a jumping off point to direct your future learning.

What are we for?

Joining early-stage companies as their first people person, I typically spend my first couple of weeks meeting everyone and getting to know the people that form the rest of the company. During these initial conversations, there will be a handful of people who ask me what I’m here for, what falls into my remit - in short, what does “People” do?

And this makes total sense. Some of them will never have interacted with anyone that has the word People in their job title before. Some will be curious about the distinction between People and HR. Others will wonder what HR crises I’ve come in to solve, and whether they should be worried that I’m going to introduce a bunch of rules and restrictions and bureaucracy that makes their working lives harder.

Every time I’m asked this, I lean on an analogy that feels meaningful to my audience:

  • we create infrastructure: systems, tools, processes that individuals, managers and leaders can use to do their jobs in a scalable, consistent way
  • we’re like design and product: we shape and develop the employee journey, the experience of working in this company
  • we’re risk management: we proactively mitigate risks, focussed on the core reasons why people might leave us, choose not to join us, or have a negative impact on the business
  • …and so on.

Every single one of these analogies holds true. We need to understand how each discipline within the business works, so that we effectively support their needs, and we also need to understand how each discipline works so that we can borrow the best parts of their conceptual tools and techniques.

With this in mind, I have taken a deliberately curious generalist approach to developing my knowledge. I want to share what I’ve found useful with other people leaders, in case you’re also looking to develop yourself and your team.

There are four broad categories that my self-directed work-related learning covers (at time of writing).


Not featured on this list! Empathy is a skill we can develop through deliberate practice. One of the best things we can do as People practitioners is learning to de-centre our own needs and experiences. We would benefit from deliberately seeking out stories that revolve around people who are different from us. Read in translation, read outside your local tradition, read by authors who have different life experiences to you, read historical fiction and scifi.

Design and product management

We’re in the business of experience design. There are some great guides to technical learning design, to service design, inclusive design. Thinking about how people experience what we create helps us to deliver much better work to the people that we support. Likewise, understanding how other products are developed means that we can be deliberate about our own work.

Exclusion and inclusion

In our roles, there are so many ways that we can accidentally reinforce the discriminatory unfair structures that exist in society. Anything that digs into this is profoundly useful to understand how we can prevent perpetuating these structures, and how we can be mindful about creating equality and fairness in the systems that we create.

Management and psychology

We spend all day every day thinking about humans. It’s invaluable to spend time reading about how people work, how brains work, how we think and behave and react, what we need. This helps with everything from communication to influencing to understanding and supporting the people around us.

Think I’ve missed something crucial? I’d love to hear what! Book recommendations are my favourite thing. So here are mine:

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