The most successful organisations believe they are on a mission. They encourage the sense that they are creating something larger than the products or services they offer. In an era of employment instability, people are more than ever looking for employers they can believe in, and who provide opportunities for personal growth. General Martin E. Dempsey said: “The most important responsibility of leaders is to make their people feel like they belong" - and business leaders are increasingly turning to book clubs as a way to do it.
Workplace book clubs can create a shared sense of community and encourage continual learning, building cohesive teams that stick together. As part of his personal commitment to continual learning, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg famously began a book club, and chose some weighty tomes — everything from William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience to Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of HumanKind. Emma Watson’s feminist book club (currently reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf) simultaneously raises awareness for a cause she believes in, as well as contributing enormously to her personal brand.
But it’s not just tech titans and entertainment stars that are leveraging the power of communal reading. GGB Bearing Technology, a prosaic maker of mechanical parts, uses a corporate book club to build a shared sense of team and develop future leaders. One of the participants said it was “one of the most natural ways to build community”. At Warby Parker, a socially conscious eyewear retailer, what started as a single book club has grown organically into a speaker series, distributed reading groups inside the company, and even retailing some of the books in their stores, This is powerful brand building, as well as creative organizational development. Some companies (Zappos, for example) have even made reading certain books a requirement for employment.
The act of reading together and discussing books together, builds relationships and shared values. Teams gain a shared perspective on thorny problems. For example, members of the current administration in the United States are reading Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War for perspective on the so-called “Thucydides trap” and the growing potential conflict between America and China. Leaders face the challenge of building relationships with team members that are deeper than the demands of the moment, but rather based on shared values and ideas. They also face the challenge of helping their team gain perspective on the problems they face. Books are a time-tested way of doing that.
The return on investment for work reading groups is also attractive. Corporate development programs might cost hundreds or thousands of pounds; a book is a £10 object that can fundamentally alter your organization. Reading groups take people out of the day-to-day and help them believe they are part of something bigger, for about the cost of lunch. How cool is that?
The idea that book clubs build community won’t be a new one to independent bookstores, who’ve long run clubs in their communities. In an era of deep competition with Amazon, perhaps there is a role for independent bookstores to play in this space, working with companies in their community to pick high quality books and facilitate in-office conversations.
Yet picking the books is often the fun part, and one corporate executives may be loath to delegate. The selection of the right book that’s timely for an organization is tricky, and the right book may not be one of today’s bestsellers. Trying to develop your next generation of leaders? Tides of War by Steven Pressfield and Shogun by James Clavell are both gripping historical fiction and masterclasses in leadership tactics. Trying to build a data-driven organization? Moneyball by Michael Lewis is a wildly entertaining story of how Billy Bean turned the lowest spending baseball team into a contender, by using the power of data. GGB Bearing Technology read Noah Hawley’s novel Before the Fall, using it as a way for team members to empathize more and understand how others think, and how best to communicate.
Work book clubs have their own challenges when compared to normal book clubs. People aren’t always in the same location and can’t always make the meetings. Organizations should give their teams ways to participate digitally as well as in person, creating a place where observations can be shared and recorded outside the meetings. That might be on their corporate intranet or a private Facebook group, or on a new crop of mobile-friendly apps such as Slack designed to facilitate these kinds of conversations.
It’s often said that books change lives. Increasingly people see they have the power to change companies as well. Book people, from marketers to publishers to booksellers, currently have a ripe opportunity to build on this insight.