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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 fields.

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 corporate environments.

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 readers.

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 list.

* 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.

Member-led Groups

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 America.

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 book).

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 agonizing decisions.

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 upon).

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.

On Management

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 spiritual nourishment.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Baltasar Gracián. Timeless advice on the art of living and the practice of achieving, from Jesuit scholar Baltasar Gracián.

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.