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June 03, 2016 | Joan Fulton
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Reading for Knowledge, Ideas … and Good Management

How encouraging your employees to read can lead to a smarter workplace

Reading is an invaluable way to get information, spark new ideas and build mental acuity. Some experts have said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead,” and “reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body!” As a busy owner or manager of a feed and grain business, your time is limited, and you have to spend it on those tasks you feel will give you the highest return. We make the case in this issue’s column that reading is a useful and necessary component to becoming a well-rounded and productive manager. We will suggest some ideas on how to garner and follow up on reading material, and how to possibly engage with your colleagues and your workforce in a productive venture of reading and idea exchange.

Shared experience

While reading is primarily an individual experience — we typically do it alone — it is possible to make it a productive shared experience. As university professors, we cite the “Common Read” concept which many higher education institutions utilize. In this model, a book is selected which promotes a communitywide intellectual experience around a topic of relevance. The book is assigned reading for all incoming freshman. Faculty then incorporate ideas and themes from the book into their courses. Thus the book is not only the focus, but it also allows for engaging discussions on a variety of topics that emerge from the book.

This approach can be employed in your feed and grain business. Why not engage managers of other feed and grain businesses (or other colleagues you interact with on various social media sites) in all reading a common book. You can follow up with online discussions or arrange a breakfast or lunch meeting to share insights and evaluate ideas further.

In a similar manner you could select a book for you and your employees to read. You might start by providing some discussion questions as everyone starts to read the book. Then when everyone has finished the assigned reading, you could have a special meeting, a breakfast or lunch event to share ideas learned. An appropriate management book can be selected and concepts found therein discussed amongst senior management and employees. Such an approach can generate fertile discussion on the pros and cons of a particular hiring practice, expansion strategy or marketing approach, or other topics of interest to your business or community.

Incentivize your employees

If you feel that reading might be good for folks in your grain and feed business, it might be worth trying a reading event once or twice a year. You could run such an experience similar to the library summer reading program many local libraries run. You could offer prizes for completion of the “assigned” book and/or for the largest number of books read. Why sponsor a program like this? As we discuss below, reading is good for the mind, it helps people to brainstorm new ideas or ways of doing things, and it is a great shared experience.

Sources of reading material

What do you read? Do you make your reading purposeful, or is it just to keep abreast of current events? (Both purposes are good.) While many folks work hard to keep up-to-date on ongoing community and business issues through the newspaper and magazines (and more frequently via websites such as LinkedIn and news apps for your smartphone), it can be valuable to challenge yourself to read beyond these sources. Sources for such “outside” reading may be colleagues, family and friends. Ask them what they are reading — and why. We have found that such an approach can generate both good conversation (as discussed earlier), and can also be the source of good reading material. These people know who you are (i.e., your position), and very often can articulate why they are suggesting the book for your consideration, and how it might be valuable for you.

While the traditional books, newspapers and magazines mentioned earlier are certainly great traditional forms of reading material, we would also recommend you not overlook up-and-coming forms and sources. Some of you have likely tried a Kindle or similar electronic reader. We will not wade into the debates of “it’s nice to hold a book,” or “you’ll put publishers out of business.” However, there is some appeal to an electronic reader. It is easy to download books and articles, and one could argue the approach is more sustainable than the use of paper (and for good or ill, it is a bit of a “disruptive technology”). In addition, Kindle has an “app” available in the app store in both iPhone and Droid formats. One of us (Foltz) has read more than 10 books on his smartphone: “I have it with me all the time, and it is more convenient than you might anticipate.”

Another useful book format is books on tape. These are a convenient form for times and places where a regular book doesn’t work. Perhaps the best situation for books on tape is for driving time, but they can also be used when flying. If you spend much time traveling, they are a great resource.

Tools for assistance

One way to accomplish more reading is to keep a reading list. Some may find this a useful way to “track” your progress over the years. But more than that, it allows you to share and trade with others. One of us (Foltz), keeps an ongoing list, which is broken down by the following topics (with an example included from each category):

1. Management Books — The Carrot Principle

2. Philosophical — Atlas Shrugged

3. University Freshmen Read — All the Light We Cannot See

4. Popular — Guns, Germs and Steel

5. Science Fiction — The Martian

6. Thriller Fiction — The DaVanci Code

7. Historical Fiction — Issac’s Storm

In researching reading, we came across a potentially useful tool called “zotero,” see www.zotero.org. It is a free tool to help you collect, organize and share your readings and sources (geared a bit for the academic, but can be useful for the business manager as well). 

Zotero collects things in a single, searchable interface. You can add pdfs, images, audio snapshots of Web pages and other items. The program then indexes the content of your library and allows you to find things you are looking for with a few keystrokes.

Build those synapses

There is a growing body of work which suggests that keeping mentally active stretches and improves our cognitive abilities and can help to keep our brains “younger,” and in better working order. In fact, the Harvard School of Medicine lists mentally stimulating activities such as reading as No. 1 on their list of “12 Ways to Keep Your Brain Young.” They state that “through research … doctors suspect that brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, developing neurological “plasticity” and building up a functional reserve that provides a hedge against future cell loss.”

Lana Winter-Hébert, from the website Lifehack.org, states that reading forces you to remember things — whether you read for pleasure or for business purposes. With pleasure reading it may be characters in the book, plots and sub-plots; in the case of business reading, it is remembering ideas, concepts and how you might apply these thoughts to your business. Every new memory forges new synapses (brain pathways) and strengthens existing ones. Thus, as discussed above, reading contributes to “brain health!” You have heard of “well-read” people. Reading helps you become one of those people! One of the great things about reading is that you can fit it in when you are flying on an airplane, perhaps before you go to bed at night (giving your subconscious some great fodder to work on), or other times when you have a bit of “down time” — they don’t call the bathroom the “reading room” for nothing.

Additional benefits of reading

In addition to the positive points of reading outlined above, reading also does a number of other valuable and cool things. Reading enhances your vocabulary by exposing you to new words. Reading also assists in making you a better writer. While writing may not be a large part of your job as a feed and grain business manager, written communication is certainly important. Reading helps by improving your vocabulary, and exposing you to different writing styles, word usage and sentence construction. Additionally, subconsciously we tend to analyze our reading which will “rub off” on you related to meaning, themes and the ultimate message of what you read — which can assist your communication styles. Finally, reading is relaxing — and finding relaxation in our busy lives is important, particularly for the manager facing a variety of time-related pressures.

Reading has also been shown to develop stronger analytical thinking skills. As you read, your brain analyzes details in the written words — critiquing the plot of a novel, determining whether the author developed a well-written piece; and as we mention above — analyzing how management strategies suggested by experts or authors might be utilized in your feed and grain business.

In our multitasking world, reading helps improve your ability to concentrate your attention. Psychologists and management experts alike have found that multitasking — while often a necessity in our busy work-a-day world — actually lowers productivity. Reading helps to improve your ability to focus, and this can be extremely beneficial to your role as manager. There are many tasks which require your complete and undivided attention for maximum benefit, and reading helps to hone this skill.

Finally, reading makes you interesting! Maybe not the most “Interesting Man (or woman) in the World” like the beer commercial, but the more you read, the more you have to talk about with peers and colleagues, friends, and your spouse or partner. Reading gives you a rich warehouse of ideas and knowledge you can share with others.

Self-disciplined

You may also find that committing to more reading is a good way to discipline yourself to greater achievement. Reading has many of the right attributes for building and improving your skill set as a manager. It provides you with new ideas, it allows you to focus, it gives you a “barometer” by which to measure your progress. What’s not to like? You just have to decide if the opportunity cost (time that you could spend doing something else) is worth it. We argue that it is.

Ways to accomplish more reading include the following suggestions: 1.) Choose books and genres that interest you — this will encourage your reading habit. 2.) Set a time. If you set aside a given time to read, it will more likely happen. 3.) A potentially radical suggestion is to cancel your cable or satellite TV subscription — your brain may thank you. We are sure you can come up with additional methods for self-motivation to increase time devoted to reading.

Here’s to good reading

We would encourage you not to be like the majority of Americans. Poll results released by the Associated Press and Ipsos (a leading market research firm) show that one in four Americans don’t read books at all, and half of Americans read fewer than four books per year. We hope that by reading (caught you!) this column, we have provided some positive attributes and benefits of expanding your time spent and scope of reading. A parting reading list we recommend, is the Yale Management Recommended Reading List, found at: http://www.yale.edu/hronline/managingatyale/documents/ RecommendedReadingList.pdf

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