How to Start a Culture-Boosting, Career-Enhancing, Lively & Intellectually Stimulating Business Book ClubBy Bob Lee
A book club is a group of people who read and talk about books based on a topic or an agreed-upon reading list. All members read the same book over an agreed period – usually one month – and then meet up to discuss that book with other members. Some book clubs focus exclusively on a certain genre like crime or romance, but most read a wide variety of authors and types, usually chosen a few months in advance through consensus or majority voting.
A Workplace Book Club is – as the name suggests – a book club devoted to reading books broadly related to ‘business’, which, apart from the obvious titles could also include genres such as personal-development, popular psychology, memoirs and auto-biographies. A Workplace Book Club can be formed around any group that shares a common interest such as business in general, or entrepreneurship or management. It can be started – for example – by work-colleagues in-house, or by a group of local business people or by friends who share a common interest in business and entrepreneurship.
My focus in this guide is on starting a book club within an organisation but you can adapt the advice with little effort to cover any other grouping. The basic considerations are the same – who is it for, what will you read, and where and when will you meet?
Why should you bother with business books? Because if you’re serious about your career you must also be serious about your personal development. How else can you keep your knowledge up to date and your skills fresh?
Maybe you’re fortunate enough to receive occasional training in work, but that’s rarely enough. TED Talks, article summaries, and some blogs and other online resources can be very helpful, but finding valuable material among all the click-bait articles is time-consuming and frustrating. (“She Wanted to Motivate Her Team, but Nobody Was Ready for What Happened NEXT”) Yes, you can get plenty online, but much of it is superficial, designed for consumption in a minute or less – and much of the best stuff tends to be given as a taster or a teaser for ‘the real thing’ …. which is usually a book!
Books continue to be the single greatest source of new ideas, insights, analysis, and knowledge available. So, if you’re serious about opening your mind to new ideas and knowledge, you need books. You can and should read on your own, but reading and discussing one book each month as a shared experience provides discipline, valuable extra perspective, and a level of enjoyment that will more than repay your investment of time.
Culture-enhancing? A lively book club, open to all, will boost your workplace culture by creating shared experiences and allowing colleagues to learn from and with each other, while also getting to know other members at a deeper level.
Career-Enhancing? You’re taking the initiative to start the Workplace Book Club, you’re the catalyst that will improve your club members’ knowledge and insights, and you’re getting noticed by the people who can help you to realize your full talents. If that’s not career-enhancing you probably need to go somewhere they’ll appreciate you more!
And Intellectually Stimulating? That will take care of itself. I promise.
This guide will help you to get your Workplace Book Club off the ground and provide you with tips that I hope will enrich, enhance and complement each member’s experiences of the books that you read and discuss together. Happy reading!
Author, Trust Rules: How the World’s Best Managers Create Great Places to Work
PS: Feel free to connect via LinkedIn if you need any advice or suggestions, or to suggest changes or additions to this guide, or even just to let me know how your club is doing. I’d love to hear from you.
TEN DECISIONS AND TEN RECOMMENDATIONS
The purpose of the first meeting is to confirm that there is enough interest in the concept to justify going ahead; decide the basic structure and rules; and introduce the first book.
Decide on the date and time for your first meeting, arrange a suitable room, and get inviting! Don’t be discouraged if your initial numbers fall short of expectations. You can start with just two people if that’s all that show up – the group will expand over time.
When it’s up and running, the club will almost run itself, but first, you need to take some decisions about how the club will operate. Those who attend the first meeting won’t have given any thought to questions such as ‘How often should we meet?’ so it’s far better for you to offer a suggestion for them to either accept or amend. (For example, ‘I think we should meet on the first Tuesday of each month from 1700 to 1830?’ will get a better response than something vague like ‘Does anybody have an opinion on how often we should meet?’)
Here are 10 decisions for you to take, along with my recommendations for each…
1. Who can join, and how will you invite them?
The club should be open to all employees.
If you have more than 10 people interested in joining, split into two or more groups. Options are limitless. You could split the group at random. Or form a group around junior employees whose interests are likely to be different to those of more senior colleagues. It’s a tricky issue, because the more diverse your group is, the richer the discussions will be. On the other hand, the more that members have in common, the greater the scope to learn from similar experiences and challenges faced by the others. Throw it open to the members at the first meeting and let them figure it out.
How to reach them? A combination of general advertising (posters, emails, etc) and personal invitations works best. Invite people who you feel will be interested and will add value. There are some people in every organisation who act as magnets to others – try to get them on board if they will be a good fit. Even if you could hit your numbers through invitation alone, please don’t. An invitation-only club excludes others, and you will hurt feelings, damage morale, and deprive everyone of potentially different and valuable viewpoints.
Recommendation: Open to all employees, combination of personal invitation (to ensure a core of committed members) and general invitation (to ensure that everyone feels genuinely welcome to join).
2. How many members will we have?
Between six and ten members is ideal – any more than that makes good discussions difficult. Every person should have a chance to contribute on each discussion point, but you can’t have the meetings run for hours! A group of six should ensure a variety of insights and opinions while ten is probably the upper limit if everyone is to be allowed a fair opportunity to participate. You always have the option of starting one or more additional groups as interest grows.
Recommendation: 10 is ideal.
3. How Often will we meet?
It’s important to maintain momentum, and if you allow too long between books, some members are likely to lose interest. However, you don’t want the reading to become a chore or a source of pressure or stress for members either, so allow enough time for people to read the book at a reasonable pace so that they get the full enjoyment and full learning from the experience.
Recommendation: Try monthly to start.
4. When and where will we meet?
Agree the day and time that fits best with your members’ schedules. A regular and predictable schedule works best as it helps members to establish a pattern of reading and attendance. Either way, plan at least 6 months in advance and stick to the dates and times. In all but the most extreme circumstances, don’t change the schedule to accommodate individual members. If someone can’t make it, that’s their decision and it should not impact the others. Continually changing dates will weaken commitment and result in falling attendances.
Recommendation: The same day and time every month, you know what will work best in your business (e.g. the last Friday of the month might be a wind-down day in some businesses, but a hectic scramble to hit end-of-month targets in others. You know best.)
5. How long should each meeting last?
It’s not unusual for regular Book Club meetings to run for three hours or more (is it just coincidence that such meetings also often feature a glass or two of wine?), but a Workplace Book Club is usually more restricted (on both time and wine fronts). Workplace Book Clubs typically meet at lunchtime or immediately after work, and the usual commitment is between one and one-and-a-half hours.
Recommendation: 90 minutes
6. Who will lead the meetings?
You should lead the first meeting, and ask for member’s views on this subject. My strong advice is to rotate it. Apart from sharing the load it’s also a valuable personal development opportunity for each member, and greater participation leads to greater commitment.
Recommendation: Rotate the leader, everyone taking a turn
7. What are the rules?
You probably don’t want or need to formally document any rules, but it’s a good idea to get general agreement on expected manners and etiquette before any book discussion takes place. That way, nobody should take offense later at being reminded of the mutually agreed ‘code of conduct’.
Recommendation: Keep it simple.
8. What should we read?
How will you select the books? Let each monthly leader select a book for their specific month? Or set aside one meeting a year to discuss possible choices presented by all the members and select one for each month from the titles that are on the table? Before you start choosing books, discuss some of the specific challenges your members and your business faces. Look for books that solve common challenges.
Each selected book will please most members, but it’s natural that some titles will appeal less to some members than to others. Make sure that everyone understands and accepts this at the outset. Agree that there’s to be no complaining once a selection has been made – all complaints must be saved until after they have read the book! Each member must be committed enough to give the selected book a full reading. One of the benefits of membership of a book club is that we get to read books that we mightn’t normally be drawn towards – reading others’ selections takes us out of our comfort zone and opens new horizons.
Recommendation: Depends on the experience of the group. If at least some members are already enthusiastic readers of business books, you’ll get plenty of suggestions, but a less experienced group mightn’t know where to start. I suggest that you prepare a list of maybe six books for the first meeting, with a short synopsis of each. Ask each member to vote for their top three, collate all votes and then select the three most popular books to get you started.
9. Who will pay?
Ideally, your organisation will pay. The investment of buying a book each month for around 10 employees is modest compared to the cost of sending even one of the members on a day-long training course. So, if you can find a budget to pay for a copy of the book for everyone, do! That will allow you to buy the books in advance and distribute them at the first meeting. If the company won’t bear the full cost, will it make even a small contribution? Or provide coffee and sandwiches? Although members are taking part primarily for their own enjoyment and personal development, the organisation will benefit from their participation and growing knowledge and ability. If necessary, point out to HR (or your CEO, or whoever you’re dealing with) that their sponsorship of the Book Club sends a strong message to all employees about the value that the company places on continuous personal development.
If, despite your best efforts, you can’t secure funding from elsewhere, members will just have to source the books themselves. Local libraries will sometimes buy one or more copies of a book if they believe that it will be popular with other readers. Some book club members – particularly fast readers – pair up to share a single copy of each month’s selection, taking two week’s each to read it. And local bookstores – particularly independent outlets – will almost always give a generous discount for bulk purchases.
Recommendation: Look for company funding but don’t abandon the idea if it’s not forthcoming. Investigate the other approaches outlined above. And if members have no choice but to buy the books themselves it’s still a smart investment in their personal development – a small outlay for a potentially great return.
10. What will we read first?
You (personally) should choose the first book, so that members leave the first meeting knowing that the club is now ‘up and running’, excited to read their first club selection.
Recommendation: Trust Rules – How the World’s Best Managers Create Great Places to Work!
Well, what else would you expect me to say? It’s an ideal first book because it’s short and to the point; everybody can relate to it as it deals with basic human behaviour and attitudes; and it affects everyone, whether they are a manager, a supervisor, or a general employee. Feedback from readers is overwhelmingly positive – they tend to like the practical, down-to-earth approach and the straightforward writing and draw inspiration from its key messages.
Trust Rules is available from Trust Lab Press as a ‘Book Club in a Box’ package which includes 5 copies of Trust Rules, each accompanied by a reading guide which includes the six standard recommended questions, as well as a small poster which you can use to promote the meeting. The box costs €50/$55 plus postage – a saving of €10/$10 on the cost of the books alone.
Order any number of additional books at €10/$11 each.
Trust Rules “Book Club in a Box” – Order at www.trustrules.com
HOW TO ENSURE A PLEASANT EXPERIENCE FOR ALL MEMBERS
You probably don’t want or need to formally document any rules, but you certainly need shared agreements on some basics.
It’s a good idea to get general agreement on expected manners and etiquette before any book discussion takes place. That way, nobody should take offence at being reminded later of the mutually agreed ‘code of conduct’.
Each member reads every book, fully: The first rule of any book club is that members should come to each meeting having read the ENTIRE book. This ensures that everyone contributes – and that everyone benefits equally. Make sure everyone agrees to honour this.
I suggest that this should be your only ‘rule’. Rules are for school and work and society. This is a book club and it should be relaxed and fun for everyone. So, think ‘guidelines’, not ‘rules’.
Keep it Simple, friendly, and informal: Enough said
Interruptions: There will always be a member who breaks in while another person is speaking. Most often, this is because the person is very enthusiastic about the conversation. Try to control interruptions by asking the person to hold the thought until the other speaker has finished his/her thought.
Conversation Monopolisers: Some members are more outgoing than others. Cut short a longwinded member using tact. Make sure that everyone has a chance to contribute to the lively discussion. Engage more reserved members by posing open-ended questions but respect those who don’t want to participate. There is room for all sorts in a good book club.
Side Conversations: There should be only one discussion taking place at a time – discourage splinter discussions.
Keeping on Topic: When members start to wander off the subject, bring them back to the topic at hand. Members should contribute to the flow of the discussion by keeping personal references to a minimum.
Listen: Be open, learn from the thoughts of others and always acknowledge that members will have different opinions about a subject. Everyone should have the opportunity to offer new thoughts.
Cultivate trust: The more your club members get to know each other, the more they’ll trust each other. The book club needs to be a safe environment to share business challenges and offer solutions. When members trust each other (and are trusted), everything works better, and everybody can will get the best benefit of their investment.
HOW TO BEGIN YOUR READING GROUP DISCUSSION
Introduce the book by presenting a short biography of the author and if possible, a brief insight to how or why they chose to write on this topic. You’ll find plenty of information online for many authors, but don’t go to too much trouble – it’s background information, nothing more.
I have found that an effective approach is to share the publisher’s ‘blurb’ and a few salient extracts from reviews, using the structure
• What the Publisher Says….
• What the Critics say….
• And now, have your say….
Six Discussion Questions You Can Use with Any Business Book
I recommend that you use the six questions below as ‘standard’ for at least the first few books that you read together. This approach helps members prepare confidently for the meeting, knowing what questions will be asked, and preparing accordingly.
1. What did you like best about this book?
2. What did you like least about this book?
3. What did you find surprising about the topics introduced in this book?
4. What new things did you learn?
5. What – if anything – will you do differently as a result of reading this book?
6. What questions do you still have?
TEN TIPS FOR BOOK CLUB LEADERS
The meeting leader serves the group, not the reverse. A leader’s job is to:
1. Start on time.
2. Keep the ball rolling, maintain order, and keep the discussion on track.
3. Use active listening.
4. Use the agreed questions but look also for opportunities to probe, to add depth to the dialogue.
5. Encourage conversation about the ideas and concepts introduced, not just how they are treated in the book.
6. Clarify ambiguous responses. If you don’t understand a member’s comments, it’s likely others feel the same way but are hesitant to speak up.
7. Be comfortable with a little silence. It gives people a chance to think an idea through and then express themselves. You can get some thoughtful observations this way.
8. Recognize when the group has become too fixed on one aspect and move the discussion along to another point.
9. Know when to wrap things up.
10. End on time.
MEET BOB LEE
Author of “Trust Rules: How the World’s Best Managers Create Great Places to Work“, Conference Speaker, Specialist in shaping Workplace Culture to drive market-leading business results.
My area of expertise lies in how and why the world’s best employers use great workplace cultures to drive competitive advantage.
I’ve held various senior leadership positions with Great Place to Work Institute including four years as chairman of its Global Advisory Board, and I continue to support global multinational clients in my role as senior consultant with Great Place to Work USA. I hold an MBA from the University College Dublin Smurfit Business School, and I live in Dublin, Ireland with my wife and family.
Trust Rules is my first book, and I’ve recently started working on ‘the difficult second album’. Considering that it took me six years to research and write Trust Rules, the second book should hit the shelves sometime in 2023!
As a professional public speaker, I deliver customised presentations for business leaders and their teams on topics related to how and why to create great workplaces. I’ve developed several talks that focus on the practical ways that managers build trust, with the scope to focus in on individual rules when that’s helpful.
If you’re interested in exploring how I can help your organisation to improve its performance by cultivating a high-trust workplace culture, let’s chat.
INVITE BOB TO JOIN YOUR WORKPLACE BOOK CLUB
Here’s an idea. Invite me to join your meeting when you’re discussing Trust Rules.
I’ll join via Skype and I’ll be delighted to answer questions or offer advice or provide clarification on any topic related to the book; trust in general; or creating a great place to work. Typical questions I get asked at such sessions include
• I’m ready to make some changes in how I manage – where should I start?
• My team are resistant to change – any advice?
• Our budget for this type of stuff is zero – how big a problem is that?
• We all ‘get’ the importance of people – but our CEO is only interested in the bottom line. How can we get her onboard?
• I don’t trust my people because they just aren’t trustworthy. What are my options?
Great Idea – How Much Does It Cost?
I charge €200 / $240 for a 60-minute Skype Call.
I can join a call in virtually any geographic region at any reasonable time. Whenever possible, I join for longer because I learn so much just from listening to the discussion.
This unique investment will add a valuable and exciting dimension to your Workplace Book Club Meeting and will bring Trust Rules alive for your members in a way that’s just not possible with other books. Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org to start the conversation. I’ll be thrilled to join you and your colleagues.