Can a hairdresser from 1958 teach an alpha male manager in an industrial factory something about leadership today? She can if he’s willing to listen – not just to her, but to his colleagues’ comments about her. A story about a woman and a boy in 1950s Harlem inspired a group of white men in an industrial company in rural Western New York State to begin to trust each other’s attitudes about work.
I facilitated a conversation about Langston Hughes’s short story “Thank You, Ma’am” for Books@Work with a group of a manufacturing plant’s employees. The group included floor employees and members of upper management. In Hughes’s story, a boy attempts to snatch a woman’s purse. The woman deftly wrestles him to the ground, brings him home, feeds him and, just as deftly, schools him. This very short story reveals a back story about the woman – Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones – who, in trusting the boy, teaches him to trust, and to respect himself and others.
Today’s interview features Karyn Newton, a three-time participant in Case Western Reserve University’s Books@Work programs. CWRU delivers Books@Work as part of a wellness initiative to encourage community and social connection between faculty and staff on campus. Karyn works in the Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity. She is also pursuing her master’s degree in World Literature at the university.
We ask Karyn about her Books@Work experience – and why discussing books and short stories is a valuable use of company time.
Today, we’re featuring an interview with Benne Hutson, the Director, Environmental and Deputy General Counsel for EnPro Industries, a global manufacturing company. Benne participates in Books@Work alongside leaders and staff from various departments in the corporate office. Together, the ongoing group has read and discussed over 15 short stories and counting.
When we asked Benne to share a little bit about his fellow Books@work participants, he said, “There were people from the legal department, internal audit, the payroll department, the tax department, the treasury department. So it was people that I would work with on a project every once in a while, but not on a day-to-day basis. Even if I worked with them regularly, I’m not sure I would’ve known them as a person in the way that you get to know them through Books@Work.”
Last week, we explored the purpose of poetry and examined three essential questions spurred by Megan Gillespie’s poem “Cheers.” Today, we’re thrilled to feature an interview with author, academic and literary critic Clare Morgan. Clare is the founder and director of Oxford University’s creative writing program and is the author of several books of fiction. Her book What Poetry Brings to Business examines the “deep but unexpected connections between business and poetry.” She recently facilitated a Books@Work session with HR leaders in the UK.
We are thrilled to feature an interview today with Jon Schmitz, the Archivist and Historian for the Chautauqua Institution and a six-time Books@Work participant.
Tell us a little about yourself. What kind of work do you do on a day-to-day basis at Chautauqua?
I am responsible for acquiring, preserving and providing access to the records that document the Chautauqua Institution and Movement. I answer inquiries from the public, assist researchers, support staff and various Institution programs. I offer advice and support regarding archival practice to groups both on and off the grounds. I teach classes in archival practice which are open to the public and oversee educational internships. I also organize a lecture series and speak about Chautauqua’s history at the Institution, in the local area and around the country.
We recently had the chance to speak with Guido Isekenmeier about his experience as a Books@Work facilitator discussing Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” in German with German participants. Guido is an Assistant Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. His research and teaching focus on the history of description in narrative fiction and the relations of postmodernist literature and visual culture.
“I’m doing all kinds of classes: undergraduate, graduate, lectures, seminars,” Guido said of his current course load. “Unlike some of my colleagues in the United States, we have to cover the whole field from the beginning to the present, including literary, historical, theoretical stuff. We’re also doing English and American literature.”
We recently had the chance to speak to Professor Michelle S. Hite about her experience as a facilitator with Books@Work. Michelle is an Assistant Professor of English at Spelman College. Her research and teaching focus on death and mourning in African American culture.
How is your role as a Books@Work facilitator different from your role in teaching in the university?
“What’s markedly different is that for Books@Work, I’m not committed to student learning outcomes, and I’m not committed to the professional obligations of preparing students to be responsible for certain standards. I don’t have to sit in judgment.
So I try to draw on other models that I have for interacting with people over ideas. I grew up with a front porch where people shared ideas and that typically is the metaphor that I often work with. That’s what I’m trying to do – extend my front porch and create a space where people can share ideas. We can think about things together and see where they go. The whole point is just to build community around our thinking. What I like about Books@Work is that it gives me that opportunity to just wonder with people.”
This week, we are thrilled to share insights and reflections from Erin Ulrich, a senior English major at Oberlin College who recently completed a month-long internship with Books@Work.
My internship with Books@Work has focused primarily on data-analysis and listening to interview responses from program participants. While the nature of this work may seem mundane at first, it has offered me a first-hand glimpse into how exactly Books@Work works. While the impact of the program improving colleague relationships and promoting a fruitful, healthy and productive work environment are obvious from the company interviews, I have been particularly moved by the community interviews.
“In your career, you’ve worked with numerous companies on cultural transformation. Is there anything about Books@Work that is new for you? Is there anything different in how the program nurtures individuals and the community?”
There are several dimensions that are different. In my McKinsey days, the cultural transformation was always embedded in a business transformation and a performance imperative. We would ask what role culture played in achieving tangible business goals, whether that is sales growth, cost reduction, responsiveness, whatever it is.
I was initially skeptical about Books@Work because it did not tie directly to a business outcome. How would I know that I was actually making progress?