Organisational growth, a leadership journey, and the tombola book club

Introduction

tombola is going through a fascinating period of growth.  We’re breaking into new markets, we’re expanding our workforce to help us build richer experiences for our customers, and we’re going through some organisational change to help support that evolution.  Our values and goals have always existed, and in a smaller organisation, it was always easy to get to the source of ‘why’ with our work.  As we grow, it’s a challenge for all of us that everyone, from the most junior of members of staff to our senior leaders are all sharing those goals, values, and culture.  Our effectiveness as an organisation pivots around this culture, these values, permeating through the organisation and becoming part of everyone’s DNA.  Elon Musk put it best when he said “Every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors.”.  If you’re lucky enough (as we are) to have incredibly effective people, but they’re all pulling in different directions, you are far less efficient as an organisation.

I’d been doing my best to be an effective part in this growth, and as a software developer/architect, who’d transitioned into leadership some time ago now, initially reluctantly – I’m a geek, and I love to play with code.  I realised that my own effectiveness ceased to be how many great systems I could build or how many features I could write into our software, but instead became absolutely about how best I can support and help grow a team that understands “what” they’re building, and critically, “why” they’re building it.  My effectiveness would be at its peak when my team was building the right things, right, without me needing to steer any of that.  I realised I was woefully under skilled in leadership, communication, and effective support of those people who were solely responsible for building value for our customers.  An ex-tombola colleague who’s gone on to great things in leading said it best – you can be the best software developer in the world, but in transition to leadership you become the most junior of leaders – you’re back to “Day #0”.  You have to actively want to progress those skills that would help make you a better leader in the same way that we all as developers have actively progressed the skills that took us from junior through to the top of our game.

I realised that my own knowledge of “leadership” was still in it’s evolving (as it always will be) – I use the quotes as it’s such a broad gamut – it’s communication, it’s cultural, it’s delivery, it’s support, it’s helping to translate vision, it’s delivery of the ‘why’, it’s serving, it’s growth, and it’s so many other things.  There are so many theories to learn, so many practices to master, that it really is like being a junior developer again.  I decided I needed help, and as with my development career, that help would take the form of reading, watching, and talking – all of those things that I felt could help me become more effective for my team, and more effective for the organisation.

It was at this point, after reading a number of books on various elements of leadership that I felt I wanted to share this with others.  tombola has some really clever people, and in talking to some of them, I realised that others were on this same pathway, and wanted to share this with each other too, so we formed the tombola book club.  The books would be those books that we felt would help us grow as people, to help us, to help our teams, and to help the organisation.

The Book Club

My own hopes for this were to develop as a leader personally, but also to help others within the organisation share that learning and openly and honestly discuss how best to apply those things that we were learning and contribute to our own organisational culture.  Learning organisations are effective agents for delivery and their staff feel ownership, empowerment, and purpose, and I wished the book club to be a small part of the driver towards that.

After initial engagement, there were four of us keen to help co-ordinate this, and a number of others across the organisation who clearly wanted to share in that pathway of learning.  We shortlisted (longlisted!) those books that we all felt would be beneficial or that had influenced us, and we asked the group to vote.  The plan being to read one book per month.  The books currently on the list are below.

The membership of the book club is broad – it covers a diverse range of business areas and representations, and has attendance from the full range of staff from the most junior up to the senior leadership team across all disciplines.  It’s about a 50/50 split between technical and non-technical – again, something I’d hoped to achieve but feel lucky that we have.

Running the book club

We wanted this to be more than just ‘did you enjoy the book’ – we wanted richer communication, and we wanted to understand how what we’d read could be relayed back into tombola.  Having seen this format used before, we went with the ‘lean coffee‘ (a structured, but agenda-less) approach to our monthly meeting – this helped us focus the discussion around the book, and generated a flow based on what people wanted to talk about.  People organically raised and removed questions during the month, and we voted on those that were most important to us.

The meeting was then approximately an hour, and the topics were discussed in priority order, though these weren’t strict, and we ended up discussing around some of them into the wider impact of things within tombola, which was precisely what I hoped to get out of the book club.

 

The first month – ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth Behind What Motivates Us’

The club voted to read Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive’.  I’d already read this as part of my own improvement pathway, but I was glad to read it again.  We supported people in their choice of physical, ebook, or audio book, and we setup a chat room for any points/discussion during the month, and an email list for broader topics if needed.  As a personal aside, for anyone with a commute, I can massively recommend audible – I find reading physical books a little slow, but consuming it via audio book really has been a revelation and I’ve devoured books this year.

Throughout the month, questions came in to our lean coffee board about elements of the book that people wished to raise questions on, and very often, they had a tombola slant on them – ‘how could X work in tombola’, ‘do you relate to Y? Is that really how we operate?’ etc. – this was exactly what we hoped to get out of the club, and aside from having a group of people learning, is having those honest conversations about what we had learned that could help us on the journey the company is on.

I think we voted in a perfect book to start the book club – a lot of it was about self, and about your own views on the world, but it also helped us ask some crucial questions around the application of that in our local context.  The book club members agreed that the conversation around the book was almost as effective as the book for them, so we’ll chalk that one up as a good start!

The future – the good, and the challenges

Month two, and The Phoenix Project was voted in, which I’m massively excited by having read it previously and really feeling that although it’s heavy on the IT (and 50% of the book club are non-IT staff), it’s a book about organisational change, about flow of work, and about how an organisation that struggled with communication, collaboration, and visibility ultimately succeeds by going through change.  Perfect!

There is a challenge now that we hadn’t anticipated though – and that is one of scale – the first month went so well that the word is out, and we have almost another 50% of our current membership in new applicants.  We’ll be talking through this as a group to understand how best to support this, as having people on this pathway with us can only be good for the company, but that small/intimate feel of the group while discussing a book really adds value.  I’m sure there’ll be a solution there, we have clever people who want good outcomes.

In closing

I’d strongly recommend any company going through growth or change, any company where you have new leaders, you have a culture of personal development, or you have a desire for people to talk more setup a book club like this.  Your leaders and your staff are likely already reading these books, they’re learning from them, and they will have views on how each of them could benefit your organisation.  At the very worst, you’ve helped to bring together like minded people who want to help you grow.  At it’s best, tapping into that by supporting your staff and their personal growth while sharing that journey with them could just be the thing that helps all of those vectors within your organisation line up and start pushing in the same direction.

If you have any recommendations for books that ought to be on our list, please let us know.