Front Line Heroes – Chapter Eleven/Books as Compost

“Knowledge is produced in response to questions.  And new knowledge results from the asking of new questions; quite often new questions about old questions.”

– Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner

I used to be an organic farmer, so I appreciate how compost works.  You take the “raw ingredients” fresh from the horse and let them develop in what is referred to as a “compost pile”.  After a year, you put that compost stuff on your seeds and young plants.  Behold how it makes the veggies and fruits sprout and mightily grow.   When the plants mature and produce, you get to eat succulent tomatoes and cucumbers.  Yum!

Like compost, books allow good things to grow in organizations.  Throughout my years of coaching and annoying companies, it has become clear that books have the power to change beliefs and behavior.  In an organizational setting, reading specific and specially selected books can create an environment conducive to organizational change and development.

Why is that, you ask?  Well, it’s because these books become a topic of conversation within the leadership group, and that is where the action and activity begins.  When a management group reads the same book, they can talk about a common experience with a common language and communicate with one another more effectively.  So, what does that get you?

Generate Alignment the Easy Way

Reading the same book gets company executives on the same page when talking about a topic.  Readers now share a common vocabulary.  Groups reading together enhance understanding and acceptance of new ideas.  It is important to assign a time when everyone will engage in dialogue about the book.

When I work with companies, we typically review books that we are reading at our quarterly “huddle session”.  This is usually a day-long session in which the leadership group meets to review the status of the corporate initiatives and strategic plan.  We use this time as an opportunity to drive executive training and development by reading and talking about business books and articles.  I have also seen reading and discussion groups held at weekly and monthly staff meetings.  The meeting can revolve around discussing assigned chapters or the entire book.  When facilitating the process, ask questions to generate conversation.  For example:

  • What did you agree with and disagree with in this book?
  • What points would you want your company (or department) to take to heart and adopt?
  • What should you and your colleagues take away from the book?
  • Do you want others in the company to read this book?  If so, whom?
  • Is this a “burn it”, “trash it”, or “keep it” read, and why?


As you can see, these questions are not complex, as they are designed to elicit dialogue and inquiry.  Another tact is to just go into open conversation and invite reactions to the reading.  Even when the leadership team does not agree with the book’s ideas, or whether and how those notions should be implemented, they now have an opportunity to debate and explore issues.  This can lead to creating new behaviors and programs within the company.

For example, I have seen business teams put together terrific customer service programs after reading Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard.  The book is written in allegorical style, featuring Charlie the angel.  Frankly, I often hate these types of books, as I find they can be superficial.  Many times, I do not think the story-type of business book gives ample coverage to the business topics they take on.

With that said, this book has worked for a number of our clients.  It is simple; has some real-world examples and great messages; and leadership teams get it.  Heck, after they read that book, I’ve seen teams discover for the first time that having “raving fans” as customers could be a very good thing!  Before, they did not have “raving fans” or even an interest in developing raving fan customer service.  After working with the book, executives can’t wait to actualize some of its lessons.

Case in point:  one company, after reading Raving Fans, began using a survey that asked customers, “Are you satisfied with our service?  Yes or no? and why?”  Another question was, “Are you one of our raving fans? Yes or no? and why?”  This type of survey gave employees lots of feedback.  It also focused them on converting their customers into raving fans.  For this company, that step alone was a leap forward.

At the same time, the great thing about the term “raving fan” is that it gives the customer a different frame of reference.  Typically, customers are asked if the vendor met and satisfied their expectations.  By asking whether or not customers are raving fans of the service, you open up a new world of feedback from people who now realize the possibility of being raving fans.

I have also seen teams communicate better after reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.  After reading this book, leadership groups became more proactive in dealing with and confronting challenges.  I saw the leadership group from a uniform laundry company become energized around taking on flagging sales and poor customer service surveys.  I saw them better able to understand the concept of switching paradigms, and accepting and engaging in an alternative view of something or someone.

After reading Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Can Kim and Renee Mauborgne, some executives actually have a transcendent moment and “see God”.  Inspired by the notion of exploring “competitor-free markets”, they alter how they think about and create new services and products.

For example, after reading this book, a technology company I coach saw the difference between “blue innovation” and incremental “red innovation”.  Blue innovations is innovation that is out of the box and catapults the company into a whole new category.  Take the iPhone or iPad as a case in point.  Red innovation is like a line extension; it is fairly easy for competition to match.  Take, for example, a company that produces shredded cheese beginning to produce Mexican shredded cheese. This is fairly easy for competition to copy…especially if the competition is in Mexico (Ha-ha).  The point is that the clarity my clients have experienced by discussing this book and others is where the value of reading lies.

Awakening to Fresh Possibilities

Here is another example about the power of a book.  Around 2009, I was working with a mid-sized company that runs assisted living homes for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities.  The company also offers employment and educationsl services for the disabled.  The firm has an employee stock-ownership plan (ESOP) that provides a way for employees to own stock in their company.  I’m not going to get technical here, nor engage in a conversation about the benefits of ESOP’s, but both in its marketing material and its relationships with prospective residents, this company marketed itself as “employee-owned”.

The disturbing thing was that few employees could actually relate to being an owner, nor see how being an employee-owned company benefited them.  As I explored this situation, it became clear that no one – not even the leadership group – could see any benefit to the ESOP.  When questioned, they did not know what value they were getting, financially or otherwise, as owners and as part of the ESOP.  Since this was missing for them, they were not particularly good at marketing or promoting the ESOP to their staff.  Whenever the CFO went into the nuances and benefits of the ESOP, everyone promptly rolled their eyes or went to sleep.

Now, 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.  When ESOP’s work well, employees see themselves as owners and think their work as  business people is to build the value of the company.  These employees relate to customers as owners would, taking great interest in ensuring that customers are raving fans and repeat buyers.  The question was how to get my client to this point.

After assessing the situation and mulling things over in my genius brain, I invited this leadership group to read Open-Book Management by John Case.  This book explores various ways companies inspire employees to embrace being effective business people who are responsible for the company’s financial future….and to be honest, I did not “invite” these executives to read the book; I made them read it. (Well, it was assigned, and heck, they just had to do it.)

The Best Possible Return on Investment

The most revered and known proponent of open-book management is a business leader named Jack Stack.  He wrote a book called The Great Game of Business, about how he and his employees turned his company, Springfield Manufacturing Corporation (which, by the way, is also an ESOP), around.  A couple of the leaders at my ESOP client attended conferences given by Jack Stack and his consulting company.  These are called the “Gathering of the Games” and feature many successful ESOP’s.

After reading Open-Book Management and attending these conferences, my client has made the open-book concept a movement and a cause celebre.  The CFO researched what the monetary value of the ESOP is to the individuals on the leadership group, and a division of the company began to organize open-book games with incentives for its front-line employees.  One of the games had to do with saving costs by becoming more effective food buyers.  Through the game, the division found that its assisted living facility was able to eat cheaper and healthier.  Another cost savings game involved fuel consumption.  This was another success in that fuel consumption went down by consolidating trips. There was also a savings in fuel purchasing.  All of this became very relevant as the state this company was in sought to lower and change reimbursement rates.

The company is now off and running in exploring how the ESOP can be a powerful organizing focus tool for the company.  All this came from reading a paperback book that cost $15 or so!  Not a bad return for that investment.

Choosing your Books

Some of our clients have recognized the power of reading so much that they started book clubs.  “No way!” you say.  “Way” I say.  And this was before Oprah’s Book Club – astounding.

In terms of book selection, CEO’s or other top executives will often pick a book and convene a monthly session over lunch.  The group discusses a chapter or two.  Some CEO’s prepare for the session, and others wing it.  Whatever the structure of the book clubs, they always seem to work.  I have seen this approach bring fresh knowledge into companies, and it gives CEO’s an easy avenue to get to know and relate to employees.

Books with large print and, preferably, pictures are the most appealing to business people.  Stories and parables are appreciated.  A synopsis at the end of the chapter with Cliffs Notes-type recaps are also appreciated.  While I’m being (slightly) facetious, the more user-friendly the materials, the better.  If the book is good, applicable, and useful, you can make the case to read it.

Using books as compost allows businesses to do without bloodsucking consultants like me.  In and of themselves, I have seen books transform companies and their business cultures.  The leadership group reads the book, talks about it, and applies it.  It is simple, inexpensive and effective.  Who needs the bloodsucker anyway!

A Powerful Introduction to your Company

Books can also be a great way for new employees to become indoctrinated into the company’s culture.  Over the years, I have seen new employees given a stack of books to read and digest in 30-40 days as part of their orientation.  At one company, new employees had to take a test on the book, and in another, they had to sit and talk with the CEO about it.

I have also witnessed scenarios where certain books were central to a company culture, yet there was no requirement to read them.  Not surprisingly, new executives did not read the critical book.  This created problems when these new execs tried to understand and relate to the company culture.  In cases like this, it’s as if there is a language being spoken, and – while you may think you speak and understand it – you’re missing some major nuances.  When the new execs did read The Book, the culture made a lot more sense, and their ability to communicate within the culture improved.

Just Read It!

As an active consultant in business, I have developed a deep appreciation for books as organizational compost.  However, as you approach the topic of reading, some business people will howl like your dog does when you step on its toes.  They will claim they do not have time to read, let alone make any changes as a result of their reading.  Do not buy it.  Like organic vegetables, books are good for you.  Just make your teams read.  Then engage them in dialogue about those books.  Even if they whine, groan, complain, kvetch, and drool, do not back down.  Executives and business teams will discover new skills and challenge themselves to create and implement new ideas.  They will be better for it, and so will the organization.  You will be a more effective leader.  So read.  Have others around you read and the business world will become a more manageable place.