Lessons from the NHS.UK Leadership Book Club

During the time I was studying my MBA, I had to make a number of decisions about priorities in my life. Most spare moments were spent reading a text book or some journal article and as a result my weight and fitness were significantly impacted. Whilst in the shackles of study I began to put a list together of the things I’d do when I finished. The list got quite big by the time I finished, but the top two were:

  • Launch a book club
  • Improve my fitness and lose some weight

Within a few days of finishing the MBA, I began to play football again. Sadly the gap in playing had made no appreciable impact on my ability, but did initiate the process towards getting fitter and losing a bit of weight. The book club took a couple of months to get underway, but it has now been running for 6 years, with a pretty solid core of 8 people. We’ve read a book a month without fail and I’ve certainly widened my sphere of reading and enjoyed debating anything from Great Expectations, to a history of Tea (yes seriously), via the latest Ian McEwan.

I had the privilege of talking to someone from overseas just before Christmas, and he mentioned in passing that he runs a book club in his company with his management team. We talked some more and I loved the idea of collectively reading something, discussing the pros and cons and then trying to apply it as a management team. The key thing here is about adding accountability. Many of us read books as part of our continuous learning, but I know that for me, a lot of that reading is about my personal development and I’m not always good at sharing it wider or sticking to the things that I want to apply from my learning. That sentiment seemed to resonate with others in our management team. It came at a point where we had already discussed getting into the habit of reading regularly in order to improve yourself personally and professionally, because of the good return on the time investment — a thought echoed by Howard Rees:

“ I’ve reached a point where I believe that reading is, by far, the best “value-added” learning that I am doing at the moment”

So in January 2017 we started our NHS.UK leadership book club, reading the excellent Jurgen Appelo’s Managing for Happiness (here’s a video to spark your interest). We meet (via VC as we are based in Leeds and London) and we’re all feeling the benefits. There’s something important about learning together, about sharing a common language, about reading about techniques or new ideas and discussing how it could or couldn’t be applied in our day-to-day work.

In my view there’s nothing to stop any group of people starting a book club in their organisation — you might set up a group of developers, set up to discuss languages, techniques and beyond. You could be a group of project managers, keen to explore the latest thoughts in the field, the possibilities are endless.

Our experience in NHS.UK is that running a book club:

a) within a programme (rather than within a profession or community of interest) means that we’re collectively trying to apply what we’ve learnt towards the same goal; and

b) a small group of 8–10 people feels like a good size — any bigger and individual voices have the potential to get lost.

Finally, for anyone thinking of starting one, it is a good idea to ensure there is a common understanding on how it works. Here’s the principles we’re using:

  • It is not mandatory to join — only keen contributors wanted! If the group gets too big, we will split the group.
  • Have a theme. Our book group focuses on leadership and management type learning (we will encourage our teams to start groups for their specific areas, but it is important for us to as leaders to be demonstrating behaviours we’d like others to exhibit)
  • We will pick a book to talk about and agree how many chapters to read before the next meeting (currently we’re agreeing to read three chapters, with the aim to discuss two chapters, with the third in reserve)
  • We buy our own copy of the selected book.
  • We read the selected chapters in our own time.
  • We meet/have a VC for 30–60 minutes every 2–3 weeks over lunch. This frequency means the learning is still fresh and means it won’t take over a year to complete a book.
  • Each time we’ll discuss the book, what we’ve learnt from it and what can be applied to our programme/work areas
  • We’ll keep a list of candidate books ready for when we finish a book

So what’s stopping you setting one up in your team? Don’t wait for a manager to suggest it — just get it going!

Husband. Dad to 3 smashing lads. Cub Leader. MAMIL. Group CDIO for Northampton and Kettering Hospitals. Ex NHS Digital. Views own. Always learning.

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