When Tilman walked into my office, he was smiling from ear to ear. He was the head of web design at my digital marketing company, and by his smile, I could tell that something had happened.
Tilman is a designer through and through. He sports a big bushy beard around his boyish smile and his uniform is bright, colorful hoodies. He likes colors, playing games, and stimulating the development of his employees. In his team’s office, you would spot a pink stuffed unicorn next to a popcorn machine. Tilman is the easygoing, supportive, and understanding boss that his young employees adored. He’s not the usual numbers guy and would much rather “manage by emotions” than cold hard data. If they would serve a bowl of positive feelings and colorful pixels for breakfast, Tilman would order it.
That’s why I was so astonished by what he showed me next.
Tilman had built a digital process-overview dashboard for his team. The tool’s interface showed how many web-design projects were in each phase of the process, how the stacks had changed in the last days, and where bottlenecks would occur. It measured throughput, calculated estimated completions, and highlighted delays that shouldn’t have happened.
It was the kind of tool a seasoned plant manager in an industrial production company would much more likely have built, instead of my colorful friend Tilman. With the help of the newly visualized data, Tilman and his team could continuously improve the production line and use data to increase quality, output, and speed.
Pretty good work for Mr. Happy-Pixel and his team! I was deeply impressed by the unexpected development.
In the weeks previous to our smiling encounter, my management team and I had read The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt together. The book vividly tells the story of a newly appointed plant manager dealing with production issues and explains the rather dry topic of “The Theory of Constraints” (TOC) in the form of a novel. Seemingly, the book led Tilman to think like a plant manager, rather than a designer.
The book club
Our management team’s book club was a straightforward concept. Every month, we would meet early in a cozy café near our office to enjoy croissants and cappuccinos while discussing the book we were currently reading. One book would be split into sections of 60–100 pages so that it would take us three to four sessions to complete it.
I started the club because I realized that I was personally reading a lot of business books and would naturally bring new ideas to the team. There was resistance, however. Nobody liked the seemingly clever boss who came up with new ideas all the time and expected his team to carry them out. People prefer their own ideas over somebody else’s. So why not read the books together and have the team come up with their own ideas?
Over the years, we would read over 15 business and self-improvement books together. That’s probably way more than any individual on the team would have read on their own. Our group discussions eventually led to the actual implementation of some of the ideas that we learned. Hence, unicorn-tamer Tilman suddenly started building process dashboards.
Nudge them to read. They want to!
In my experience, most young, ambitious, and knowledge-thirsty startup employees resolve to read business books, but few of them actually do it. I saw it as my job as CEO to foster a culture of lifelong learning and constant improvement, and therefore nudge my employees to act on their resolutions. The breakfast dates were my tool to establish a routine and create some social pressure. Nobody wanted to show up to our book club meetings unprepared!
Your own book club
Reading with your team gives you (and them) space to take a step back from daily business and reflect. It can give you new ideas and approaches to your current challenges. It creates a culture of constant improvement and lifelong learning.
If you think about starting a book club in your company, here are some practical suggestions, based on what I’ve learned over the years.
Pick the right people. I started the club with just the four managers who reported to me at the time. Include the most important people, but restrict the group to six or eight people to foster productive discussion.
Do it regularly. Lifelong learning is not a one-time effort but a habit. For us, a monthly interval worked well and left enough time to implement ideas and discuss learnings in one of the next sessions.
Facilitate discussion. I tried not to talk much in the meetings, but instead asked a lot of questions. What did you learn from the chapter? What stood out to you? What do you see differently than the author? How can we apply the knowledge to our specific situation? Like a moderator, I would try to keep everyone engaged in the discussion — in a Socratic way.
Make room for executing takeaways. After the discussion, I tried to reserve the last 15 minutes to determine concrete takeaways and action items. We would write them down and track the execution in the next meeting.
Pick your books right, young Padawan
Spending a couple of hours to read a book and multiple sessions to discuss it is a significant investment. Make sure to have either read the book personally or thoroughly check summaries and reviews to make sure it’s worth your team’s time.
Here are some valuable books from our club as well as suggestions of books I’ve read personally:
I wish you good luck, great insights, and a lot of fun on the lifelong learning journey that starts with being a first-time founder!