The tech accelerator Y Combinator is known for producing forward-thinking companies like Airbnb and Dropbox, so when I sat down with a small group of successful startup founders at a panel the organization hosted last year, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this innovative group all agreed on a classic learning tool: books.
The founders had all chosen a favorite leadership book to read and discuss with their teams.
A growing body of research supports the idea that reading is good for you, and in my experience, it can be good for your company, too.
When I joined tech startup Gusto, the company had just finished reading venture capitalist Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which was our CEO Josh Reeves’ favorite book about the startup journey. Horowitz acknowledges that regardless of how much you plan and try to avoid it, screw ups at startups are inevitable. In lunchtime conversations during my first weeks at Gusto, quotes from the book were often bandied about, including gems such as:
“Do you know the best thing about startups?…You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.”
And, “IF YOU ARE GOING TO EAT SHIT, DON’T NIBBLE.”
The book sounded insightful, so I grabbed one of the copies floating around the office and read it. Throughout my years as Gusto’s head of people, these pearls of wisdom enlightened the journey, especially during the time we had to lay off several team members at the same time. I turned to this book and read, “The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.” I read this again, and then again. Logically, the layoffs the right thing for the business, but emotionally, they impacted the company culture through and through. They made us question how to address terminations and double down on avoiding ever having to do something like that again. As Horowitz writes, “Hard things are hard because there are no easy answers or recipes. They are hard because your emotions are at odds with your logic.”
As we grew at Gusto, a passionate employee began running a book club, and the culture of reading extended to a Slack channel called “worth reading” where anyone could share recommendations for articles and books. The most popular piece was an article called, Give Away Your Legos and Other Commandments for Scaling Startups by former Quip COO Molly Graham. It was shared multiple times, and each time, it sparked conversations between leaders and their teams about how to normalize the startup journey and all of the emotions—from euphoria to jealousy to confusion—that come with it. With both the Horowitz book and the Graham article, reading seeded conversations that helped us calm down as we experienced the roller coaster of startup life.
Prior to Gusto, I worked at Khan Academy, an education technology startup with more than 60 million learners globally, and there, too, books shaped our organization. Each new hire received a copy of the sci-fi classic Diamond Age, which describes one girl’s experience with an illustrated primer—a primer that inspired Sal Khan’s vision of a personalized online learning platform.
Have you read?
After reading Creativity Inc, a book about how Pixar engineered innovation, the Khan Academy team was inspired to rethink our approach to innovation internally. While we hosted innovation events like healthy hackathons, we reflected on how to cultivate an even safer environment day-to-day, talking about phrases that might cause folks to shy away from sharing their ideas. For example, inserting the word “obviously” before sharing a suggestion made other solutions immediately less relevant (i.e. “obviously, we need to build it this way”). We also talked about what behaviors could open up safe spaces, like calling out in response, “While that idea has merit, what are other options we might consider before honing in on that one?” We debated the usefulness of a structure that Pixar called “The Brain Trust” (they likened it to an academic peer review for movies). A subset of my colleagues were excited to immediately implement an equivalent forum for tapping into expertise and empathy. Others had questions about the review process’s usefulness outside a movie production setting and whether it might be more distracting than helpful.
These days, when suggesting useful books for discussion, my personal favorites are Liz Wiseman’s Multipliers and Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. In Multipliers, Liz Wiseman outlines leadership behaviors that can enable a team to outperform or underperform collectively. I most enjoy diving into discussions about a term she calls “accidental diminishers.” For me, this term summarizes why I was a crappy first-time manager: I thought I had to have the answers and that if I moved faster, my team would move faster and perform better. Not the case, according to Wiseman. I’ve seen new managers’ eyes widen when they learn that their good intentions could be the root of their team’s underperformance—one even loudly announced “DOHHHHH.” The powerful part of the conversation is talking about what behavior each person can tweak or in some cases, drastically change to avoid diminishing their teams.
In a regular coaching session, a company might have paid thousands of dollars for a leader to come to these conclusions. With a book club, that cost was a mere drop in the bucket. In a similar “aha” fashion, Scott’s Radical Candor drives home why being direct and caring can be the most valuable form of communication in the workplace. Often coworkers are too nice to the point of obscuring the real message, or so blunt that they come across as unempathetic jerks. Employees find it helpful to reflect on where they are on that spectrum and how to shift. After discussing Radical Candor, my team held a session with new managers to increase their self-awareness of where they fell, and gave them a chance to practice speaking either with more empathy or more directly. The session received rave reviews.
Starting a book club is a cost-effective way to build company culture. McKinsey research shows companies with top cultures post a significant increase on shareholder returns, and a recent Gallup poll found that 87% of millennials and 69% of non-millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as important to them in a job. Meanwhile, only 39% of those polled by Gallup cited that they had learned something in the last 30 days at work.
You can certainly pay for training or coaching—leadership development alone has been estimated to be a $14 billion to $50 billion business—but a company book club is both a bargain and, in my opinion, more fun. Besides building camaraderie, it can be an effective way to shift culture, as well as a useful way to suss out employee appetite for certain topics before making bigger investments in learning programs.
I’d recommend honing in on a topic that relates to the company’s mission, values, or goals, or a current challenge or question circling the watercooler. For example, a company going through the throes of scaling might benefit from reading Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog, which provides a revealing look at Nike’s challenging path to success.
After participating in several company book clubs, here is what I’ve learned about making them valuable:
1. Appoint a facilitator to pose thoughtful questions and keep time. Kansas City Public Library has a thoughtful guide for facilitators.
2. Get leadership involved: Find a respected leader in the organization who’s passionate about reading to sponsor the program and facilitate or participate.
3. Lower the cost and time barriers for participants. Companies can subsidize the cost of the books or consider free content (this article on 1-1s or TED talks are a good place to begin). Make discussions easier to join by offering a remote option, multiple sessions, or shareable notes with key highlights.
As with most initiatives, the most important thing is to take action. I tell the teams I work with, “Start scrappy and know that doing something is infinitely better than doing nothing.” So, get going today.