Niche technology company MBX Systems uses its book club to engage new employees and build leadership skills they will use for their entire career.
In 2016 Kim Becker, talent manager for MBX Systems in Libertyville, Illinois, had a company manager come to her asking for help. “He was struggling with the culture fit and trying to make a lot of changes fast, but it wasn’t working,” she said. She suggested he read a business book she’d recently come across called “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watkins. The book explores challenges that leaders face in times of transition and offers strategies to manage the most common pitfalls that new leaders encounter.
The book had such a profound impact on that manager that he gave it to every member of his team, and soon leaders from across the $100 million supply chain hardware company were requesting the book and asking Becker about it.
With interest so high, she decided to pilot a book club for managers to see if reading the book and talking about it together would help them in their leadership journey. The pilot program was instantly popular, and one participant suggested that all new and transitioning employees should get to join in.
Soon after, MBX Book Club became a permanent fixture of the company’s onboarding program. “It has become a great way to help new employees get acclimated to the company and for us to show them that we care about their development,” Becker said.
Third Time’s a Charm
When a new employee is hired or approved for a promotion, they receive a letter in the mail with a copy of “The First 90 Days” and a description of the book club. “It really made me feel like I made the right choice in joining MBX,” said Lisa Griesser, an account coordinator who was hired in September 2019.
The book club is held once a month and includes employees at every level of the company, from frontline workers to senior executives. The company’s president also attends every book club meeting and openly participates and answers questions.
Each new employee is expected to attend three months in a row and is assigned a different section to discuss for each meeting. The first month they are assigned the introduction through chapter 3; in month two they read chapters 4-7; and in month three they read chapters 8-10.
Because it’s a rolling event, there are always several people ready to discuss each of the three sections. This format also ensures the conversations and connections participants make at each meeting are always different. “A lot of the meat of book club is the perspectives you get from others,” Becker said.
Griesser admits that she was a little overprepared for her first book club. “I brought pages of notes,” she said. She wanted to put her best foot forward, especially in a room full of company managers and the president of the company. But she didn’t need to worry. “It is a very relaxed atmosphere and all of the leaders were so welcoming,” she said. “I didn’t feel intimidated at all.”
To ease new members into the process, Becker starts each meeting with the final chapters that have been assigned to “graduates” who’ve already been to two other meetings. “It eases the trepidation for those who are new to the group and gives them a chance to think about what they will say,” Becker said. Then she moves to the group who read the middle chapters and, finally, the newbies.
Lunch and Learn
None of the discussion that takes place during MBX Book Club is meant to be like a book report or summary. Rather, it is meant to foster casual conversations where groups of employees have a chance to connect over the book, their own experiences and a catered lunch. As the meeting goes on, employees see that it’s OK to push back on ideas and to ask questions. “No one should be afraid to talk,” Becker said.
During the discussions, she encourages employees to share what they found useful in the book and how it relates to their own experiences. For example, Chris Morales, MBX support services coordinator, said he got the most value from the section on making connections and building relationships with leaders in other departments. “I’m in a support role so I deal with everyone in the company,” Morales said. “I’ve found it extremely valuable to be able to identify allies in different departments who I can turn to when situations arise.”
For Griesser, who is returning to work after taking several years off to raise her children, the chapters on the importance of learning the company politics and culture and acknowledging early wins resonated with her. “I’m a person who wants to know everything right away. So I had to wrap my head around celebrating small victories and taking the time to know everyone’s goals,” she said.
The Power of Conversation
Lessons from the book make up only part of the goal of the book club. It’s also an opportunity for new and existing employees to expand their networks and build new relationships with people they might not otherwise get to know.
“It was great to get to hear how each department runs,” said Olivia Stepp, global logistics manager, who was hired in February 2019. Over the three meetings she met several people from across the company, including Morales, who she’s been able to turn to for help and troubleshooting in her own job. “It made it a lot easier to go to him because I knew he had the right experience to help me, and we had already met,” she said. “I don’t think I could have built those kinds of relationships as quickly as I did without the book club.”
Morales has been through book club three times — when he was hired, and after two promotions — and each time it has added value, he said. “It’s helped me paint a clear picture of how to get where I want to go in my career.” As he’s taken on more leadership accountability, the book has become more relevant, teaching him how to guide others and to develop the confidence to lead.
It may sound like a lot of time dedicated to one book, but it’s had a big impact, Becker said. “It shows people that we value them and also that we will hold them accountable.” While employees miss the occasional book club due to a work conflict, no one is allowed to wiggle out. “It’s part of our new hire experience,” she said.
Becker hasn’t quantified the impact of book club, though she surveys participants after their third session and they consistently say it adds value. Many of them cite the opportunity to meet new people in a casual setting as one of the biggest benefits.
She also notices the book is everywhere in the company. “Everyone has it on their desk, and we encourage people to talk about what they learned,” she said. “It’s a nice icebreaker.”
The anecdotal evidence is enough to convince Becker and the leadership team that the book club is helping the company engage new employees and set them on the path to success. “We are in a tight labor market, and as a niche organization communicating our culture is very important,” she said. “It is one more thing we can do to make people feel welcomed.”
Becker believes this model could work for many companies — using “The First 90 Days” or any other book that resonates with leaders and employees as they map their careers. “My advice is to just get started,” she said. “Pilot it with managers, encourage everyone to be open-minded, and if something doesn’t work, tweak it.” The key is to create a space where everyone can contribute, then get out of the way. “The power is in the conversations.”