The Currency Guide to Book Groups in the Workplace
Copyright ©1996 Currency Doubleday
1. Introduction: Out of the Box of the Everyday
2. Currency's Own Reading Group
3. How Do I Start a Reading Group in My Company?
4. Currency's Suggested Reading List
5. For more information
Introduction: Out of the Box of the Everyday
Next time you walk past your conference room at lunchtime, peek in. You might
be surprised to find that the heated discussion didn't stem from a P&L
statement, but from a book in your colleague's hand. Across the country, from
powerhouses like AT&T to small shops along Broadway, companies are modernizing
the art of the reading group and developing safe havens in such unlikely places
as corporate conference rooms to discuss--through books--matters that we take
with us to work and those that confront us at the office.
When hit with unexpected difficulties, companies are turning to the same source
that inspired our world's greatest problem solvers--books. (After reading Adam
Smith's economic concept of the "invisible hand," Charles Darwin applied it to
his theory of evolution; and it is said that Abe Lincoln used the concept of
logical proof which he read about in Euclid's treatise on geometry, in his work
to abolish slavery.) The only sustainable source of competitive advantage that
a company has, explains Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, is the
ability to learn faster than a competitor. With this in mind, companies are
looking for innovative ways to keep their employees on the cutting edge of
knowledge. Some companies have recently discovered a cost-effective,
unconventional training source for their employees--book groups.
Kevin Roche and Rachel Pankow recently developed a reading group for Wilton, an
industrial products manufacturer in Palatine, Illinois, when they realized the
advantages book groups have over other forms of training. For the price of a
book, an employee can study with an expert in any field. And unlike taking a
one-day training course or seminar, a reading group allows its members the
flexibility of choosing how much time to devote to a particular issue or
theory. With the small amount that they invest in these book groups, companies
are getting an incredible return--an increase in productivity, customer
service, and teamwork--that they directly attribute to the book discussions.
Mortimer R. Feinberg, chairman of BFS Psychological Services in New York, has
introduced book groups to some of the corporations he consults and reports that
"Corporate book clubs are a great way of team building and sharing ideas." Dr.
Feinberg describes the experience as an alternative approach to the traditional
Outward Bound program--an outdoor educational retreat to which many companies
send their executives in order to enhance leadership skills and teamwork.
Instead of having the "physical experience" of the outdoors, members of a book
group bond through the "intellectual experience" of discussing ideas and
problems through books. Dr. Feinberg has seen that being part of a reading
group reintroduces many business people to the enjoyment of reading books.
When executives read more, they are more aware of trends that are happening
around them and better able to bring new insights and perspectives to their
At its best, a reading group becomes almost a separate community within a
company, a shared space that encourages new ways of thinking and communicating.
As Walter Carter, vice-president of development at Dollar General, a chain of
retail stores based in Nashville, Tennessee, explains, "These discussions take
us from outside of the box we stay in all day." We all experience the stifling
effect of the "box"--the place where old concepts, old approaches, and old
rules fester. Reading circles eliminate the box and inspire creativity,
risk-taking, and new ways of seeing--habits sometimes lost in traditional
Currency's Own Reading Group
We at Currency began our own reading group several months ago. We
choose unconventional books, like Machiavelli's The Prince and
Shakespeare's Richard III, to find advice and lessons that we can relate
to our professional lives. As we read through Richard III, we
concentrated on the theme of humanity and power, focusing on Richard's
ambition, strategy, and manipulation of others--issues that might also have
been raised through reading a traditional business book on leadership. While
many books deal more directly with leadership, in Shakespeare we actually see,
through his characters, the psychology and circumstances behind a leader's
actions--the extremes to which people will or must go for power. Reading
Shakespeare and other classical texts in a boardroom highlights issues that a
reader might not have been tempted to explore on his or her own.
We began our Richard III discussion with the question, "How much
wrongdoing are people obliged to accept from their leader?" Working within the
framework of a book--discussing its characters--depersonalized our discussion
and created a safe way to examine the risks that one must take to rule
effectively, the moral sacrifices and their inevitable consequences on others
and on oneself. Through a relaxed and safe environment, we felt open to
discuss taboo subjects that would have been difficult to confront in a
traditional corporate environment. If people don't feel free to say exactly
what is on their minds, without fear of being judged or fired, nothing new will
come out of these meetings. Toward the end of our Machiavelli discussion, one
member asked each of us to go around the circle and comment on what power means
to us. Because of the honest and thoughtful responses of the entire
group--both employees and supervisors--a new sense of trust among our members
developed, and it has carried over to the other sessions and into our everyday
dealings with each other.
For each of our meetings, we invite guests from other disciplines to join in
the book discussion. We invited Frederick Turner, a Currency author and
Shakespearean scholar who teaches at the University of Texas, to lead the talk
on Richard III. As a professor, Turner brought a scholarly approach to
reading Shakespeare. Through pointed questions and gentle guidance, Turner was
constantly shifting our way of thinking and introducing us to things we might
not have otherwise seen, like the issues of time and evolution that Shakespeare
buries deep within the text.
We go back to our desks after each meeting feeling rejuvenated. It is as if we
have a whole new set of tools, sharpened and ready to take on the ideas that a
few hours ago seemed to be going stale, and new ways of seeing the goals that
had at one time seemed out of reach. Our reading group has had such an impact
on the way we think and work that we wanted to share the experience with our
This guide will give you all of the information you need on how to start your
own reading group and a list of some unconventional, business-related books
that encourage discussion. We suggest that you also take a look at the
Reader's Companion to David Whyte's The Heart Aroused (also available
here in the Book Group Corner. In his book, Whyte asserts that the split
between our work life and our soul life is the root of much of our current
unhappiness in the corporate world. He challenges us to heal that split, to
bring in the parts of ourselves that don't traditionally belong in the
workplace--our passions, our fears, our desires. Developing a reading group is
a first step in bringing our "other selves" to work, and in finding the
nourishment we crave from our work.
How Do I Start a Reading Group in My Company?
1. Determine the Philosophy of Your Group
You should begin by simply asking yourself why you want to become part of a
reading group and what you hope to gain from one. Understanding what you want
out of the experience will help you determine your group's philosophy, its
members and leader, and the type of books you'll select for your reading
* Fiction: Novels, short stories, and plays afford glimpses into human
nature--why people act the way they do under stress, pressure, and in moral
dilemmas--and allow the readers to relate their own concerns and issues to
those of the characters being examined.
* Poetry: Poets have a unique way of capturing the kernel of important
issues like family, work, war, spirituality, and the everydayness of life. A
poem offers a succinct, rich text for inciting discussion.
* Non-fiction: Business reading groups should turn to the well of great
books of other disciplines. Through research and observations, experts in
science, history, philosophy, politics, and sociology offer business people an
unusual source for inspiration and ideas.
2. Who Should Lead the Group?
Hiring a Professional Leader
A professional leader is someone who is hired from outside the group to lead
and facilitate the discussion. You can find professional leaders wherever you
find books: libraries, bookstores, universities, high schools. Obviously, a
good book group leader is one who has a passion for books, as well as
experience leading other groups or classes. Dr. Feinberg has served as
moderator for several book group discussions and recommends that "the groups
begin by choosing books that are more general in their approach, so that the
first couple of sessions are less threatening. Once members are acquainted
with each other and more comfortable in the discussion, then the group might
want to pick books dealing with the specific issues their companies are
facing." Every member of a group that Dr. Feinberg leads is asked to
participate. "We begin by going around the room, and each person gives a
seven-to-ten minute uninterrupted monologue about what they did or didn't learn
from the book and how it affected them." After everyone has spoken, the last
minutes of the meeting are spent in cross-discussion, challenging or adding to
the ideas that were mentioned.
The member-led group is a group that decides not to have a formally designated
leader, relying rather on the members themselves to keep the conversation on
track. This group must make an extra effort to ensure that everyone has a
chance to talk and that the conversation remains relevant, one in which the
majority of the group wants to participate, either actively or passively. Even
without a designated leader, you'll want one member to take care of the
administrative responsibilities, like ordering the books, scheduling the
meetings, reserving the rooms, etc.
3. It's My Turn to Lead; What Do I Do?
* You might want to start the meeting with some ideas from outside reading
you have done, research into the author's background, literary criticism, etc.;
or by tying the issue to current events in and out of the office
* Ask the members to select one sentence that stood out as unusually
interesting, read it aloud, and react to it in detail
* Ask what the title means
* Ask questions that you don't know the answer to
* Ask those who already know something about the topic to comment on it
* Ask the members if what they have read relates to something from the
textbook of their own lives
* Comment on the writer's style, and on the organization of ideas
4. When Do I Hold the Group Meetings?
Because some of the people in our reading group have a long commute home, we
hold our meetings at lunchtime. Other groups choose to hold their meetings
after work, and each member takes a turn hosting the group at their house or
apartment. If you hold the meeting directly after work, you'll have to decide
about the issue of food. Potluck, brown-bagged, or catered meals are some
options to keep in mind. Most groups choose to meet once a month, which gives
the members enough time to read the selection without seeing it as a burden.
Book groups that hold their meetings on the same day each month, like the first
Wednesday of each month, seem to have the highest attendance rate.
5. Where Can We Find Book Suggestions?
For books about a certain industry, read book reviews and ads placed by
publishers in trade magazines. The New York Times Book Review, Publishers
Weekly magazine, and The American Library Association all provide lists of the
bestselling books of the year and offer reviews of new books. Or, browse
through a university course catalog, find a class that appeals to you, and
write to the professor for the class reading list.
More and more publishers are creating reading companions to their books, which
would certainly be useful to your group. These guides sometimes contain author
interviews or background information on the story's setting, and they always
provide questions for reflection and discussion. David Whyte has included one
such guide in the paperback edition of The Heart Aroused. His book is
written for those who have chosen to live out their lives in corporate America,
and who struggle to keep their humanity in the process. Whyte shows that the
best way to respond to the current call for creativity in business is to
overcome our habitual fear and reticence, and bring more of ourselves into the
office, especially the parts that don't "belong." We thought this book would
be the perfect one to start off your reading group because of its daring
prescription of using poetry and myth to revitalize the soul of corporate
You may choose to start the meeting off with some of the questions suggested in
the in the Reader's Companion to The Heart Aroused, available here in
the Book Group Corner (and also available in the paperback edition of the
Recommended Books for Reading Groups
Don Peppers, co-author of The One-to-One Future and author of
Life's a Pitch...Then You Buy, suggests:
The Loyalty Effect, by Fred Reichheld. The best book (since ours) on
the economics and benefits of customer retention. Reichheld's writing is
lucid; his examples are quick and to the point. Terrific book, top of my list.
Beyond Continuity, by Charles Handy. Handy does it again! Great book on
general chaos permeating business today. Collection of articles, really, but
some wonderful jewels.
Road Warriors, by Dan Burstein. Basically a journalistic tour of
interviews and feedback from the leaders of such aggressive, with-it infobahn
companies as Bell Atlantic (Ray Smith) and TCI (John Malone). Nice stuff; not
a lot of advice, but lots of meat.
Out of Control, by Kevin Kelly. Computers as biological systems,
biological systems as computers. The editor of Wired has crafted a brilliant,
if long, thought piece on what it means to be at the birth of the Age of
Interactivity. Philosophical and provocative.
Inside the Tornado, by Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm.
Though more of a specialist in Silicon Valley competition, Moore nevertheless
offers some interesting thinking about how to ratchet through the very rapid
life cycles of technology-based products.
Fred Turner, author of the upcoming Currency book The Marriage of Love
and Money, suggests:
The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. Teaches how to be guided by the wisdom
of the past, as Dante was by Virgil.
The Bhagavad-Gita. Teaches how to prepare oneself spiritually for
The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare. Teaches how personal
and economic values are interwoven.
The Odyssey, by Homer. Teaches endurance: The successful person gets up
one more time than he is knocked down.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Teaches how to restrain the
selfish emotions with right reason.
Art Kleiner, author of The Age of Heretics, suggests:
Adventures of a Bystander, by Peter Drucker. It is a mistake to think
of "management" issues as divorced from the social movements and personal
struggles of the century. Peter Drucker's autobiography gives you the
opportunity to place your work in the context of your time.
The Knowledge-Creating Company, by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hiro Takeuchi.
One of the great recent synthesizing books for new management ideas (akin in
that respect to Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, which it builds
The Age of Unreason, by Charles Handy. Still the best guide to the way
that the future of corporations is changing.
Money and the Meaning of Life, by Jacob Needleman. A very gripping
starting point on the clutching desire for life that leads to the clutching
desire for material wealth. It would help people accept the twin imperatives
of comfort and meaning.
The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge. A bestseller since 1990, this
pathbreaking book on building "learning organizations" provides the tools and
methods for freeing organizations of their "learning disabilities."
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, by Peter M. Senge, Art Kleiner,
Charlotte Roberts, Rick Ross, and Bryan Smith. Dr. Senge and his coauthors
move from the philosophical to the practical with this participative book of
tools and techniques.
The Age of Heretics, by Art Kleiner. Magisterial cultural history of
the sixties' revolution for freedom, self-expression, and high ideals--as it
occurred not in the streets, but in business.
The Heart Aroused, by David Whyte. Using classic poetry as inspiration,
Whyte proposes transforming the practical need to work into an opportunity for
The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Baltasar Gracián. Timeless advice
on the art of living and the practice of achieving, from Jesuit scholar
A Pocket Mirror for Heroes, by Baltasar Gracián. A book of
strategies for achieving not just success but heroism.
Leadership Is an Art, by Max De Pree. "Like the elegant furniture his
company makes, De Pree's book provides a valuable lesson in grace, style and
the elements of success." --Time
The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz. One of the world's leading
futurists gives you the tools for scenario planning, to help your company
succeed in ever-changing times.
The One-to-One Future, by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers. This radical
business paradigm outlines one-to-one production, marketing, and
communication--one customer at a time, rather than by mass-market pitch.
The Female Advantage, by Sally Helgesen. A provocative study on how the
leadership qualities of women differ from those of men. All executives would
benefit by reading this one.
The Republic of Tea, by Mel Ziegler, Patricia Ziegler, and Bill
Rosenzweig. The story of the creation of a business as told through the
personal letters of its founders. A gem of a book!
You Are the Message, by Roger Ailes with Jon Kraushar. An accomplished
media master reveals the deepest secrets of powerful communication.
The Great Game of Business, by Jack Stack with Bo Burlingham. A
hands-on guide to creating a new kind of business organization based on trust,
democracy, and the universal desire to win.
My Years with General Motors, by Alfred P. Sloan. Business
Week's #1 choice for its "bookshelf of indispensable reading."
For more information on reading groups and how you can start one in
your area, take a look at Doubleday's Book Group Guide,
available here in the Book Group Corner, or contact the Association of Book
Group Readers and Leaders at P.O. Box 885, Highland Park, IL, 60035, Phone/Fax
(847) 266-0431. For more information about Currency, please refer to the
Currency Business Forum.