In 2012, Xenium’s VP of Human Resources Tana Thomson wanted a program or tool that could elevate employees in their roles and encourage them to learn more about business and develop professionally. The idea for a company book club was born.
What resulted, however, was beyond our original expectations, and the group has become one of the staples of our culture today.
How We Started It
Launching the book group was surprisingly simple. Xenium’s entire strategic leadership team was deeply supportive and instantly endorsed it. Anne Donovan, President at Xenium, insisted that the company sponsor all associated costs, from the cost of the book for each person to time spent in the discussion to the snacks and drinks provided. Having unanimous executive buy-in made the rest easy, because we had a group of leaders in the organization championing and actively encouraging people to take part in the club.
The next step was really finding someone to lead the charge and make sure this program stuck. I volunteered and have continued to organize the group since 2012. And I’ll tell you, it’s not something I ever want to give up—that’s how much passion I have for this group.
We’ve gone about choosing books in several ways over the years. Initially, I took recommendations from people across the company and we voted on the next book to read. I’d usually select the one with the highest number of votes, but sometimes I would make an executive decision if the top book was too similar to a past book we’d read. Other times, we have decided on a book at the end of a book club meeting, which made it really easy to keep the momentum going. But as our group has grown in size, it has become more and more challenging to choose the right book.
When we choose a book, I make an announcement about the new book in our All-Team meeting, via a single email announcement, and in our employee newsletter. The email and newsletter messages drive people to sign up using a Google Form. Once the deadline approaches, I purchase the books in bulk from Amazon.com (some people get physical books and others get Kindle versions, so Amazon.com makes it simple to order for everyone—plus, as a Prime member, we receive the books in a few days). After we receive the books, I distribute the books to everyone and look to the calendar to schedule a discussion. I typically schedule discussions anywhere between 30 days to 60 days out, depending on how many pages there are and what’s going in our business (i.e. I try to avoid company events and other busy times of the year).
Once the discussion is set and everyone has the book in hand, then comes the challenging part. Admittedly, I’m still trying to perfect it. Keeping people engaged in between the day the books are distributed and the date of the discussion is hard to do, but I’ve found that it often happens organically without any direction from me. People frequently chat in the hallways about the book and even tend to bring up ideas from the books we read during team meetings, so I know people are reading and that concepts are resonating with them. I recently created an online book group using the Goodreads application that will hopefully bring some of the discussion digitally.
The day of the discussion is always better than I usually can expect or imagine. The first couple were tough because no one, even myself, knew how to run a book group or really what to expect, so I over prepared and tried to drive too much of the conversation to keep a flow. But that’s not actually how to start a flowing, natural conversation! What I’ve come to find out now is that starting with a couple main points or thought provoking questions based on the ideas in the book is the best way to go, because once people get started and feel comfortable sharing, there’s no stopping the flow of conversation.
In the early days, we had about 5-7 people attend discussions, but recently we had over 15 in the room at once. Smaller groups are easier to jumpstart discussion, but since our group is so comfortable with each other at this point even a group of 15 works for us. If you’re really considering a book group and you have a ton of interest, consider breaking up into smaller groups early on. You could always have a large group discussion instead or additionally once you know what the group is and has become.
What People Say About It
A big takeaway for me is not only the cross-departmental participation, but the multi-level participation. Exchanging ideas with leadership and other coworkers at various levels is rewarding because you realize and have an appreciation for the fact that no matter how far along in our career we are or what our specialty is, we all have similar struggles, aspirations, and can relate to one another personal and professionally. – Katherine Thomas
The book club, to me, is more than just the team building aspect or sense of community you get by participating in such a group; but rather it’s about opening up your thought processes to whole new perspectives. It’s not so much about what a particular book or concept means to me, but what it means to everyone else that makes the book club so rewarding.
– Tyler Meuwissen
I have the opportunity to combine my passion for reading and learning from others in our quarterly book club. I am often reading books I wouldn’t necessarily choose myself which only encourages my development and connects me with my peers. Our discussions are lively and engaging and I always leave energized for our next one! – Nicole Jones
I work in a smaller department and don’t have a chance for frequent collaboration with folks outside my team. I love the book club because it brings people from all corners of our company together and gives us all an opportunity to connect with and learn from each other. The discussions are lively and occasionally get personal. Many times I’ve learned things about my coworkers I would never have known otherwise. – Allison Julander
Participating in the Xenium book club has been really valuable from a professional development standpoint, providing me with exposure to subjects I might not ordinarily seek out on my own. I love the diversity of opinions and viewpoints that emerge during the discussion. I always learn something new and it’s a great opportunity to interact with colleagues I don’t work with regularly. – Eileen Hannigan
The Books We’ve Read
Our group always sticks to books along the spectrum of business, leadership, and self-help. Some of the books we read early on were Smart Trust, Delivering Happiness, Fierce Conversations, and the Four Agreements. Recently, we read Grit, Invisible Influence, How to Say Anything to Anyone, and as of this post, we’re reading Scaling Up. See our book club page for a full list, including links to written reviews and podcast discussions.
Why You Should Consider Creating a Book Club
The “why” is easy for me to write about and I’ll share my beliefs as candidly as I can. If you’re really thinking hard about how to lift up your employees, the book club is a great way to do it. We often have a varied mix of strategic leaders, mid-level managers, and entry level positions participate, but you’d never know it if you were to watch and listen to the discussions. Everyone has a voice in the Xenium book group, and everyone also has two ears to listen to the other group members about some of the things they picked up—it’s a true equalizer. People often tie some of the ideas back to their work and their personal lives, and that opens up the doors of empathy in a way I never would have thought. I just don’t think that organically happens in regular business meetings the way it unfolds in this type of group.
So personal and professional development—for sure, you can count on that happening over time. But what also happens is that people connect across the organization often and they develop great relationships. For example, I don’t often connect with some of our operations, payroll and benefits employees as much I’d like to, but I feel like I know the folks from those departments who participate in the book club really well now. People open up, and what it’s done for our culture is amazing. It’s something I’m really proud of our team for.
How to Get Started
If I were to launch a book group all over again, here are the steps I’d take:
Get buy-in from senior leadership
Determine the purpose of the group and what you intend to get out of it—and then run with that in terms of how you communicate to your people. Don’t hesitate to ask if they’d be willing to sponsor it in terms of time and expenses!
This is where it helps that I’m a marketer inside of an HR company. The HR people, including our senior leaders, initiated this idea and were totally bought in, and this is where my value to the group began since I know how to build an internal brand and effectively communicate to our wider team about the purpose. Every piece of communication is consistent. I had a book club logo created, the language I use in promoting always communicates the purpose and what people can expect to get out of it, and always allow the group members to be the voice since they will be your best advocates.
Create a list of books people want to read
Ask people what they want to read. Scour Goodreads for top titles and also what your employees have marked as “want-to-read.” Develop a short list and jumpstart your group with this, then your group can choose from there. Additionally, find topics that might address a business need or skills gap.
Set a Format
Who is facilitating the discussion—one person every time or do you rotate it? Do you meet before, during, or after work hours? How long is the discussion? Do you follow a specific format or is it free flowing? Determine all of these things in advance to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible.
Communication Before, During, and After
Similar to the section about gaining interest, it’s really important you have a steady flow of communication before, during and after the discussions to keep people engaged and thinking about the book club. That’s also why it’s important to have one or a few people chair this group. As soon as your discussion is over and you’re on to the next book, don’t let too much time pass—strike while iron is hot.
If you’ve gone this far, you’re probably realizing how passionate I am about our Xenium book group. Not only has it helped me personally and professionally, but I have seen what it’s done to our culture and relationships at Xenium. I have personally developed some great friendships because of this book group.
I know it can do the same for you and your organization.
Need help? Contact us and we’ll help you get started.