6 Tips for Running a Book Club at your Workplace

January 14, 2011

When I started at FreshBooks, I knew I had a lot to learn about running a Software as a Service (SaaS) business. The team running the company had been doing it for seven years, knew the ins-and-outs of the industry, and had optimized their product and website to the Nth degree. As the newly minted Director of Product Management, I was tasked with building a Design team which could follow already establish principles that were based on some very specific books + a lot of tribal knowledge. Tribal knowledge can be passed down over time, but books can happen right away. Thus the FreshBooks Book Club was born. It has been a success; we’ve read 3 different books with 5 different groups. Here’s some advice to share with anyone trying to run their own book club inside a company.

Choose the book

Sounds like a no-brainer, but lots of people have opinions on which books to read, especially which book to read first. I recommend you decide yourself what book is going to be read by the group, and simply invite them to join. By taking away the “what book should we read” question, you remove any barriers to hurt egos or feelings.

Set a specific time and day of the week and stick to it

I recommend you setup a 30-45 minute meeting twice weekly. Typically, the afternoons around 3pm worked great for my workplace, as it can sometimes be a lull-time for meetings and energy. If someone cannot make that time, run the meeting anyways. There is NEVER A PERFECT TIME for everyone to attend the meetings, so just run it with whoever can show up. I’ve tried re-scheduling them, and it doesn’t work. You lose momentum in the club, and people start falling out.

Send out an invite

Send out an invitation to your company or department telling people about the book, the time, and how many people you will accept. I recommend limiting the club to 10 people, but a few more does not hurt. After the first week, you will have 2-3 people drop out anyways (for various reasons), but don’t feel disheartened… its a natural occurrence in big groups.

Set up the reading schedule

In the meeting invitation you send, include a list of the dates the meeting will occur, as well as what chapters & pages people are expected to read. I like to do at least 2 chapters per week to keep the momentum moving quickly. Anything less, and you might not have enough to talk about in the book club meetings. It can also take too long if you’re reading the book slowly, resulting in a higher drop-out rate of participants.

Spark the conversation

I’ve tried this a few different ways, and I’ll talk several ways you could do it. The first time I ran it, with a small group, I asked the same question every week: What did you find the most surprising or interesting about the chapter? The second time I ran it I added assignments each week, for people to try something from what they learned in the current week’s readings. The final style I’ve landed on, is one whereby I ask each person to choose one passage from that week’s chapter(s) and to read it aloud to the group. With all of these approaches, the idea is to remind people of the contents of the chapter and to discuss its merits/drawbacks. I find this really helps with retention, and helps to spur conversation.

Moderation etiquette

Now that people know what they should be doing at the meeting, you as the moderator are in charge of making sure the Book Club meeting goes smoothly. The best way I have found to do this is to have everyone sit in a circle and simply ask “Who wants to go first?” and then proceed around the circle in a logical order until everyone in the circle has had their chance to speak. Its your job to make sure the conversation is flowing around the circle, and that people are not talking over each other.

I hope you give the Book Club format a try, as I’ve found it to be an incredibly fulfilling at-work experience. Let me know if you have any specific questions – I’d be happy to advise.

What’s your advice for running a learning program at your company?

about the author

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