Nurturing a Culture of Growth at Work

Nurturing a Culture of Growth at Work

Today on our blog, we are thrilled to feature an interview with Books@Work board chair and a Director Emeritus of McKinsey & Company Felix Brueck. Felix led McKinsey’s Manufacturing Practice in the Americas, building up a lean manufacturing capability. He co-founded the Firm’s Performance Transformation Practice and led the Organizational Effectiveness Practice in the Americas, where he worked with colleagues to develop methodologies to excite people to embrace fundamental change and shifts in mindsets and behaviors. He retired in 2012.

We talk a lot about individual and collective growth at Books@Work. How are the two connected? Can an organization grow collectively without growth at the individual level?

You cannot have collective growth without individual growth. But individual growth needs to be nurtured at all levels of an organization in order to make an impact. Over and over again in my career at McKinsey, I’ve seen companies take individuals out on leadership training programs where people would learn new ways of interacting: how to be more reflective, how to show vulnerability, how to be more collaborative and not as assertive, how to better listeners, etc. And yet they come back to their everyday work environment which is cutthroat, where whoever has the fastest answer has the right answer. So their colleagues will look at them funny and say, “What’s wrong with you?” They almost lose credibility over it because the company is not ready for it. The environment is not ready for this new way of thinking.

So how can a company create a hospitable environment for new ways of thinking and individual growth? What would that look like in action?

Sooner or later, you need to get to the leadership and have them experience individual growth firsthand through carefully chosen interventions. This is actually quite similar to how we think about Books@Work. We often start with a pilot program, but then we say to a senior leader, “You and your leadership team need to experience Books@Work so that you can embrace it and model the new behavior that comes out of it.” Otherwise employees think it’s just goofing off from work for an hour, and the leadership is not able to articulate why Books@Work is actually a critical element to change the way we are communally interacting and growing as individuals.

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? But with Books@Work, you’re creating options for people to go on a journey, and that will eventually lead to business results. We keep our costs down so that companies can deploy our “workshops” all the way to the front line. Let’s take our client Fairbanks Morse Engine, for example: while I cannot say overall how much benefit Books@Work created at FME, I can say that one team created an enormous financial impact that the organization believes it would not have seen without the connections and learning environment created by their Books@Work experience. When you have one team in a hundred with such impact, it pays for all the cost and opportunity cost for the entire organization. Fortunately, our experience is that the probability of translating into positive work outcomes is significant, although not always as easy to quantify.

Let’s say I’m a CEO who’s deciding what kind of learning program I want to roll out in my company. I want to improve culture. I want to develop deeper relationships across hierarchy and departments, and I want to improve collaboration and psychological safety. I want to create an environment in which individual and collective growth can occur without hindrance. Can you convince me why reading & discussing literature together with Books@Work will help do that?

Absolutely. First, I like the way you framed the question because as a leader, you need to be convinced that good things will happen to your business if you can create an environment of collaboration, mutual respect and dialogue. Once you believe that, we can start talking to you about Books@Work.

Martiros Sarian, Portrait of John Steinbeck, 1963, [Fair Use] via

I want to go back to a very simple observation offered by a machinist from the FME team I mentioned previously. We asked the machinist if he thought Books@Work had anything to do with the team’s productivity and the ensuing economic impact. His answer? It had everything to do with it. When we asked why, he said, “I could answer why, but I’d rather let Steinbeck answer it: Steinbeck said, ‘You can’t hate a man once you know him.’ Since we know each other, we can solve any problem together.” This is in essence why Books@Work works. When you read and discuss literature together, you get to know each other as human beings with all your hopes and fears and different perspectives. You suddenly look at your colleagues in a new light. You learn to respect them. When others speak up in the workplace, your first reaction will be to listen.

Books@Work also creates a risk-free environment for this transformation to happen. This is something we learn over and over again, especially for very senior leaders. You need to give people a low-risk environment to practice new skills. If you give them a high-risk environment, they will shy away from it. We create a safe place where people can speak up and share their opinions about the text and learn from others. There is no downside. They learn in this risk-free environment how powerful it is to say, “Maybe I’m totally wrong.”

It opens up new areas of exploration. People feel very comfortable. They are among themselves. There’s no chance for embarrassment. They’re willing to ask questions. They’re willing to take risks. They occasionally make mistakes. They laugh about it. They learn and they grow. And then, they can take it back to their work.

Image: Kazuo Nakamura, Three Plants, [Fair Use] via

Learn More About Books@Work or Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.