Starting a professional book club
Book clubs can be for so much more than social purposes
We have had an Operations Book Club at Volta Charging the past few years and the program has evolved over time. Our Ops team had eight members when we started and we were a somewhat classic startup that was trying to deal with huge amounts of uncertainty and chaos. With that, we started with tactical reads like The Checklist Manifesto and then moved onto more sophisticated operations topics like The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement and a case study on the Lego company. Broader team dynamics were explored next topics in Team of Teams and some areas of personal reflection in Make Your Bed. We recently read about other startups in That Will Never Work.
As companies grow, one of the most important factors in success is culture and how teams and individuals work with each other. With that in mind our team is now reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.
While each book and accompanying discussion has been helpful, true value has come from the accumulated knowledge and collective team learnings over time.
There are multiple benefits to pursuing a professional book club within your team:
- First, there is an aspect of personal and professional development in dedicating time to reading. A careful chosen title can be a great way to help introduce new ideas and concepts to your team in a relatively short timeframe. Reading and learning from others is a great way to accelerate learnings. Similarly, the right topic and book can serve as ‘cross training for the mind’ and use inspiration from a different area to bring new ideas to your function and team.
- There can also be a huge benefit to team culture by all engaging in reading the same book. I’ve seen great value in developing a ‘common language’ that develops after everyone reads the same book. Members of the Ops team routinely refer to ‘Herbie’ (a key character from The Goal and one you’ll undoubtedly remember if you have read it) and immediately know what the other is referring to when they talk about the ’The Herbie’ in an operational process.
- Finally, as a leader you will need to read a great deal in order to find a title that works for your team. Being on this constant search for a good read has undoubtedly helped me develop as a leader.
Here are key considerations to plan for when starting a professional book club.
Pick the right subject:
- Start with thinking carefully about your organizational maturity level. What are the biggest challenges your team is facing? These could range from very tactical areas to much broader, strategic initiatives. Find the right topic for where your team is and needs to head. The topic has to be meaningful if you are going to ask your team to spend hours reading a book and then come together to discuss.
- Evolve the areas of focus over time. Think about developing a broad portfolio of topics you read about and don’t fall into the trap of reading different books all about the same topic. Tactics, strategy, culture and team interactions…cover them all.
- Along these line, be thoughtful of the frequency of your book club. I’ve found twice a year to be about right, but don’t be beholden to the calendar. Let the state of your team and development needs drive the timing, not the other way around.
Find the right book:
- Just because you want to discuss a topic doesn’t mean there is a worthy book on it. This will require effort and always keeping an eye out for relevant titles.
- Make sure it is ‘readable’. This is a reason why The Goal is a favorite — it has dense content, but is written as a novel and that makes it very easy to digest.
- Confirm there is an audio book version for your road warriors. They can make good use of their ‘windshield time’ by listening as they travel.
- Feel the team may have limited time? Case studies (such as Harvard Business Review) can be another option to consider. There are many great cases and nearly all can be read in an hour or so.
- Give the team time. I’ve found a month is about right from initial notification to discussion. Too short and people won’t be able to fit it into their calendars, too long and it’s harder to have ideas fresh for a solid discussion.
Consider the discussion format:
- Preparation is key. This is not something you can wing and hope comes off well. You need to identify the key themes you want to extract and determine how to bring those to the surface in discussion.
- Send thought-provoking questions in advance. You’ll have a much more rich discussion if the team has time to consider the discussion areas you want to focus on.
- Get the right size groups. We started with an all hands discussion (there were only eight of us) and have evolved to having smaller breakout groups as the core discussion format. Once there are more than 10 individuals it becomes hard to have all equally engaged in the discussion.
- A majority of value will come from repeated referencing of the key themes in what the team read. The initial discussion will be good, but the real value comes from incorporating key book themes into the language and daily operating rhythm of the team.
- Encourage new employees to read older titles. Make sure to list prior selections in your team wiki and enable everyone to discover prior selections.
- You can build on a book club for your entire team and then start one for your managers. There are many topics well-suited for a leadership team to read and discuss. Our Ops leadership team started with It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell.
There are always reasons why “we are too busy now to start something like this”. Teams are engaged ramping up for a big second half of the year. That makes this opportunity even more important than ever. Every leader should make time for personal and professional development and how a team can all optimally work together, and a book club is a great way to work towards that.