BOOKS AS COMPOST

As I used to be an organic farmer, I appreciate how compost works.

Take it fresh from the horse and let it lie and develop in what is referred to as a compost pile.

After a year, put that compost stuff on the seeds and baby plants. Behold how it allows the veggies and fruits to mightily grow and develop. You then get to eat the succulent tomatoes and cucumbers – yum.

Books in organizations get good things to happen. Over the years of coaching and annoying companies, it has become clear to this baldy that books have the power to change. Reading specific and special books in organizations is conducive to creating and causing organizational development. When a management group reads the same book, it is like they now have a common language and have had a common experience.

What does that get you? For one thing, it gets executives of the company on the same page when talking about a topic. There is, after everyone reading the same book, a common vocabulary. Group reading allows for an understanding and the acceptance of new ideas. Even when the Leadership team does not agree on the ideas of the book or how those notions should be implemented, the executive team now has parameters from which to debate and explore the issues.

I have seen business teams put together really terrific customer service programs after reading Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard. Heck, after reading that book I have seen teams for the very first time have the notion that having raving fan customers could be a very good thing. Before the reading, they did not have that distinction or interest in having raving fan customer service.

Case in point: One company, after reading this book, put into practice using a survey that asked their customers, “Are you satisfied with our service – Yes or no and why”. Another question was, “Are you our raving fans? Yes or no and why”. This type of survey gave them lots of feedback. It also focused the employees on making their customers raving fans. That step alone for this company was a big step forward and a triumph over the past.

I have seen teams better communicate after reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. After reading Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, some executives actually have a transcendent moment and see God. They then alter how they think about and create their new services and products.

Here is an example of the power of a book. Several years ago, I am working with a company that runs homes and services for the disabled. They are a for-profit company and they are fairly large -$100M. They are an ESOP owned company. For those of you who are not familiar with the term , it means Employee Stock Ownership Plan. It is a way for employees to actually own stock in the company. I am not going to get technical here or engage in a conversation about the benefits or lack thereof ESOP’s. Suffice it to say that this company did market itself as employee owned both in its marketing material and in how they answered the phone.

What disturbed the leadership of this company is that none of the employees could relate to or see how being employee owned benefited them. As I explored this with the Leadership group, it became abundantly clear that no one in the group could relate to or saw any benefit to the ESOP. Whenever the CFO went into the nuances and benefits of the ESOP, everyone promptly went to sleep or rolled their eyes or rolled their eyes as they went to sleep.

I have coached and conducted strategic planning in some very successful ESOP’s. I have seen the value of ESOP’s as a tool to motivate and focus employees. With ESOP’s, when they are working well, the value is that the employees truly see themselves as owners and work as business people to build the value of the company. These employees relate to customers as owners would and take great interest in ensuring that the customers are raving fans and repeat buyers.

After assessing the situation and mulling things through in my genius, I invited this Leadership group to read the book Open Book Management by John Case. Honestly, I did not invite them I made them – well it was assigned and heck they just had to do it. This book is about the various ways that companies have utilized to have everyone in the company embrace being business people and own the financials of the company.

After reading the book, members of the Leadership group got excited because they saw a pathway to engaging employees in owning and being more effective in growing their business. These executives saw how they could make the ESOP relevant. They saw the light and were eager to drink the Kool-Aid.

The most revered and known proponent of Open Book Management is a business leader named Jack Stack. He wrote his own book called The Great Game of Business. This book is about how he and his employees turned around their company, Springfield Manufacturing, which by the way is also an ESOP. A couple of the Leadership groups attended conferences given by Jack Stack and his consulting company. These are called “The Gathering of the Games” and feature many successful ESOP’s.

Open Book Management in this company has now become a movement and a cause célèbre. The CFO began to do research on what the value of the ESOP would be to the Leadership group. A division of the company began to organize games with incentives with their frontline group. They are off and running in exploring how the ESOP can be a powerful organizing focus for the company. All this came from reading a stupid book that costs $20.00 or so. A book. Not bad return for that investment.

Books with large print and preferably pictures are the most appealing to business people. Stories and parables are appreciated. Synopsis at the end of the chapter with cliff notes are also appreciated. If the book is good and at the same time scholarly, you can make the case to read it. At times, this can be a tough sell. The ultimate test for the consuming executive is whether or not the material presented is applicable and useful. The more user friendly the material is the better.

Books as compost allow businesses to do without bloodsucking consultants. In and of themselves, I have seen books transform companies and business culture. I have seen many examples of this. The Leadership group reads the book, talks about it and applies it. Simple and who needs the bloodsucker any way.

Some of our clients start book clubs. “No way,” you say and “way,” I say and this is all before Oprah — astounding. What I have seen is the CEO picks the book and over lunch convenes a session. Typically, this happens monthly. The group will cover a chapter or two. Some CEO’s prepared for the session and others just winged it. They always seem to work. I saw this bring knowledge into the company. It also gave the CEO an avenue to get to know and become related to employees.

Books are also a great way for new employees to get indoctrinated into the company. Over the years, I have seen more than once the new employee has a stack of books that they needed to digest in 30-40 days. This was part of their orientation. In one client, they had to take tests on the book and in another they had to sit and talk with the CEO about the book.

I have also witnessed scenarios where certain books were central to a culture and there was no requirement to read them. It is like there is a language being spoken and while you may think you speak and understand it, you really are missing some of the major nuances. There have been situations in which new executives did not have to read the book and were subsequently lost. When they did read the book, much of the culture then made a lot more sense and their ability to communicate improved.

As an active consultant in business, I have developed a deep appreciation of books as organizational compost. It has surprised me the powerful impact that reading certain books can have on a business culture. As you approach this topic of reading, some business people will howl just like your dog does when you step on their toes. They will claim that they do not have the time to read, let alone make any changes. Do not buy it. Like organic vegetables they are good for you. Just make them read.

So what is the message here? Get your organizations to read and dialogue about the books. Even if they whine, groan, complain, kvetch and drool, have them read and be stimulated. They will be better for it.