How to Start a Book Club at Work: Key Steps You Should Take + Pitfalls to Avoid

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

You know that thing you’ve been putting off for a long time, but you know is important?

No, not the cover on your TPS report. 

It’s investing in the growth of your team.

It’s so easy to get busy in the day to day of your work and forget about the long term growth and development of your team. 

Yes, learning by experience can help in some cases, but it’s a good idea to supplement that with other forms of learning.

Workplace book clubs are a good way to learn and grow

When you don’t have a lot of time, but you want to make a difference, a book club is an efficient way to move the needle on the skills and abilities of your team. Here's why:

  • Your team learns from reading the book (assuming you choose a good one).
  • Everyone participating will build bonds and learn from each other in your discussions
  • People will get new ideas from the discussions they can apply to their work.
  • Learning is more incremental due to the bite-size nature of reading and discussing the book over time.
  • Book clubs are much cheaper (and less disruptive) than a professional trainer coming in for a day or two.

Yet, even if you know all these benefits, it’s not always easy, nor obvious, how to actually get one started, so today we’re showing you every step you need to know to start a great book club.

How to start a book club at work:

4 Key Steps to Successfully Starting Your Work Book Club

Starting a bookclub can be easier than you think. Here’s how you can get started, so you and your team experience all of the benefits we just discussed. 

Tony Robins about the importance of knowing your goals if you want to start a book club at work

Step 1 to Successfully Run your Workplace Book Club: What are your goals?

When you start your book club, you need to know why you’re doing it. This may sound obvious, but it determines two key things: Who you invite to join the club with you, and what books you’ll choose. 

Book clubs can work just as well for a group of managers building their leadership skills as it can a group of people working on technical skills in engineering or the latest marketing skills for your content team. The only limitation is having at least a handful of people with a shared interest in the topic. 

To define your goals:

  • Think about what you want to achieve. Do you want to improve specific skills, encourage teamwork, or boost creativity?
  • Ask potential book club members what they want to learn. This gets them bought into the group and helps you make sure the books you choose resonate with everyone.
  • Consider your company's objectives and needs. How can the book club support these? This will make people more interested in joining because they want to hit those company goals, too.

No matter what you choose, remember to seek feedback from others. Any initiative will get more buy-in and support when others feel included and heard. They’ll also often have valuable ideas that will help make your book club more appealing to more of your coworkers. 

Further Reading:

  • Getting your team's buy-in isn't the easiest thing, especially if you don't have any experience in it. So to get you covered, we have prepared a special guide on how to get buy in from your team.
How to start a book club at work

Step 2 to Start Your work book club: How do You Rally Your Group?

You can’t have a book club by yourself. That means you need to bring other people together who have both an interest and stand to benefit from studying the same topics you want to cover.

Now, you could try to figure everything out on your own and just tell people you think would like to join that they should show up at a set time and place.

Yet, unless your book club is your direct reports, who you can mandate to participate, that’s not a great way to get started. And even if they are your direct reports, it’s still much more effective to involve them in the process.

To rally your group, try these steps:

  1. Make a list of who you think would be interested and a good fit for the topics you want to read and discuss.
  2. Reach out to them individually (chat, stop by their desk, or in a 1 on 1) to discuss your book club.
  3. Gauge their interest, listen to their concerns or hesitation, and look to build enthusiasm and support. 
  4. Get their feedback on the first few books you have in mind and note their suggestions for other books.

Having these discussions is critical to the success of your book club; by listening to people you want to join, and incorporating some of their ideas, they’ll feel more ownership and interest in your group. 

That’s how you start off on the right foot, and get people excited to attend the first meeting.

Have a great first meeting

Your first meeting should be focused on getting everyone together, helping people get to know each other, and laying the groundwork for future great discussions.

There is a lot more to think through than you may realize, so to make sure you don’t miss anything, think about what you want to do with each of these:

  1. How often do you want to meet? You could meet anywhere from weekly to monthly depending on if your team is very enthusiastic and has the time to read each week. We don’t recommend less frequent than monthly, because you’ll lose too much momentum.
  2. What time do you want to meet? Trying to get a group of people all available at the same time can be a challenge. Choose a time that works for most people, and people feel they can actively participate in such a discussion is your best bet. That’s why many book clubs meet over lunch, towards the end of the day, or even as an early happy hour. 
  3. Where will you meet? Book clubs are more relaxed and open than your average meeting. You can help make these meetings more enjoyable and unique by choosing a space that reflects this. A lounge area in your office, a local restaurant or coffee shop, or (weather permitting) a nearby outdoor area with seating can all create the vibe you’re looking for.

Have a general plan you bring to your first meeting, and then open it for some discussion in your first meeting. This can help you adapt to any feedback participants have and make sure you start on the right foot.

Books for a workplace book club

Step 3 for your book club at work: What are Great Books to choose?

A book club is only as good as the books you choose; a great book can energize people and make them glad to be joining your group, while a poor book will make them struggle to read it, and not want to come to your next book club meeting.

You can make your book club about any topic you want, but it’s best to choose something many in your department or team would be interested in. That means focusing on skills and interest areas that fit the people you have in mind for your group.

If you choose to make your book club for managers at your company, then we can give you some great suggestions, so you start your leadership book club on the right foot:

The Leadership Classics: 

These are some of our all time favorites that many managers have raved about:

  • High Output Management by Andy Grove: This book covers the fundamentals of great management quickly and efficiently. It contains the best wisdom and advice from one of the best leaders of their generation, Andy Grove, cofounder of chip maker, Intel.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: Carnegie's classic offers timeless advice on effectively dealing with people. It's perfect for discussing how to improve workplace relationships and communication.
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey: Managing your time effectively, practicing good values, and building the right habits are critical to the success of any leader. This classic lays out the foundation of being an organized, effective leader.

Good Books for Your Work Book Club about Personal Development:

To be an effective leader, it all starts with your own skills and abilities. These books help with working on yourself.

  • Atomic Habits by James Clear: This book can help you understand how to build new, great habits, and break bad ones. This can improve you and your group’s lives both personally and professionally.
  • The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz: Some of the simplest advice is often the most important. The agreements are simple ideas that can make a big impact on anyone’s life. They also can seed a fantastic group discussion about each of them.

Whether you choose one of our recommended books, or something you and your group prefers, the most important things to remember are that your books:

  1. Cover a topic you all want to learn about
  2. The book lends itself to healthy discussion 

For more good book ideas, consider some of the other books in our post: Best Books for New Managers and Leaders.

A discussion at a workplace book club

Step 4 to becoming a good work book club facilitator: How do you have a great discussion? 

Anyone can read a book, but what makes a book club really work is the discussions you have about it each time you meet. 

As the organizer of the club, you can do a lot to make sure it’s a great discussion every time. Here’s a few tips to get you started: 

1) Start with an ice-breaker question. 

Help everyone get to know each other, transition from their other work, and warm up the conversation by starting with ice-breaking questions. These can be general rapport building questions, social ones, or lighter, friendly questions related to the topic of the book. 

2) Transition to core discussions.

Once your group is warmed up, it’s time to get into the meat of your discussion. That means two key areas:

  • Key concepts: Discuss the main ideas presented in the book section you’re covering this time. Give people time to ask questions about them, too.
  • Applying what you learned: Talk about how these ideas can be applied to your team, company, and situations. More experienced group members can also share past examples. 

Make sure you have time for both; it does no good to rush into talking about the application of concepts in your book if some people in your group don’t understand them. 

3) Foster healthy discussion: 

A good moderator leads with thought-provoking questions. That means you need to prepare a few open ended questions for each part of your discussion. 

  • Try searching for discussion guides on the internet and you might just get lucky. For example, you can find discussions for 7 Habits of Highly Effective People here, and How to Win Friends and Influence People here
  • If you have to come up with your own, remember to use What and How based questions to spark open-ended answers instead of simply yes and no.
  • Work in the occasional poll by asking your group for a show of hands. Then, discuss the two sides if there’s a divide. You may be surprised where your group disagrees.

Remember, your job as moderator is to guide, not control. Let the conversation flow naturally, but if it starts stalling, try asking a question in a different way, or moving onto the next one. 

4) Remember the fundamentals of good moderation:

Being a good moderator is about more than just asking questions. You also need to actively cultivate the discussion, so it grows in the right ways.

Here’s a few tips to get you started: 

  • Praise people for great answers & questions: You get more of what you praise, so be sure to recognize people who give great answers, or bravely ask a good question. 
  • Beware the dominating talker: A common problem groups face is one person who dominates discussions. If this happens in your group, talk to them about the issue and make a concerted effort to call on others first. 
  • Call on everyone to get full participation: Everyone has a different style of engagement and degree of introversion or extroversion. A good moderator recognizes this and works to call on everyone to get them engaged. 
  • Step in when necessary: Don’t let your group get sidetracked by bickering or infighting. Step in to cool things off, change the subject, or stop bad behavior. 

Keep in mind, you don’t have to do this all yourself. Look for ways to have others help you, whether it be rotating moderators, asking someone to take notes for the group, or asking a more senior group member to help you with moderation each week. 

When you follow these fundamental steps, you will be well on your way to creating a successful work book club. 

Books in the office

Pitfalls to Avoid for Your Workplace Book Club

Running a good book club is more than a one-time effort. Choosing a good book, and bringing the right people together are both crucial, but they’re not the only things that matter.

Avoid these pitfalls to ensure your book club is an ongoing success:

  • Busy schedules getting in the way? This is a common hurdle. People are swamped with work and might see the book club as just another task. Try to be flexible with meeting times, and ensure you give everyone enough time to read a section (without losing momentum), or at least listen to the audio book chapter.
  • What if only a few people show up? Don't get discouraged. A small group can have great discussions. Focus on making it valuable for those who do come, and their enthusiasm may attract others over time.
  • Dealing with dominant talkers? Some folks love the sound of their own voice. Gently steer the conversation away from talkers by specifically calling on others, especially those who haven’t participated much, or that seem to what to say something. A way to tell if someone wants to talk is if they raise their hand or put their hand or a finger over their mouth.
  • Facing conflict or disagreement? Lively debate is good, but sometimes things can get heated, especially with controversial topics. Set ground rules early on about respecting different opinions. If things get tense, redirect the conversation to another aspect of the book.
  • Struggling to keep discussions on track? It's easy to veer off into unrelated chat. While that’s good to break the ice and warm up a discussion, you don’t want it to consume all of your discussion time. That’s why it’s important to have a list of questions ready to guide the conversation back to the book when needed.

It’s totally normal to experience some or even all of these issues, so don’t feel bad if your book club faces some of them. 

The key is that you learn, iterate, and improve as you go. That’s how you turn your book club into a regular event you and your coworkers look forward to and enjoy for the long haul.

Final word

Book clubs are a great way to build bonds and help your team or your peers grow together. With the right book, and an engaged group, it can become the highly of your week. 

Yet, your book club is only as good as the foundation you build. 

Your passion, your efforts to get buy in, and your abilities to moderate all play crucial roles in the success of your book club. 

Want an “easy button” for your book club?

Lighthouse Lessons are like a book club, only easier. 

Our bite size, weekly lessons mean that even busy managers can make it through a lesson each week, and our Group Discussion agendas make talking about the lessons so easy you need no prep; simply open the discussion agendas, choose your favorite questions, and you'll lead a great discussion.

Best of all, we have 8 great programs for you to choose from, so we cover all the best topics to help your managers build their skills, while you look like a pro moderating discussions about them each week of the program you choose.

You can learn more and sign up for a free call to discuss your training needs here.  

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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