How a Reading Rewards Program Transforms Company Culture

Arnie Malham of Better Book Club explores how books have the power to positively impact your company.

We recent­ly had a chance to chat with Arnie Mal­ham. Arnie spent many years build­ing var­i­ous com­pa­nies and a com­mon link between those exits and what he’s doing now is read­ing. In fact, a busi­ness that was cre­at­ed at one of his last com­pa­nies that he carved out and kept after the exit, is Bet​ter​Book​Club​.com.

What Doesn’t Work

Arnie used to do some­thing he thinks a lot of busi­ness own­ers will relate to: he’d read a book that real­ly res­onat­ed, buy a cou­ple of dozen copies, and pass them out to his team mem­bers. The inten­tion was great. The results? Not so much. 

A third of the employ­ees would read the book, because they were told to read it.

A third of the employ­ees would not read the book, because nobody tells them what to read!

A third of the employ­ees would skim the book, split­ting the dif­fer­ence between the read­ers and the boycotters.

This wasn’t a win­ning strategy.

Arnie went back to why he want­ed his team mem­bers to read.

He want­ed them to grow, because that’s what he felt like he was doing when he read.

So if read­ing equals growth, Arnie rea­soned that he should encour­age read­ing books in gen­er­al rather than spe­cif­ic books. That read­ing, if con­sis­tent, would become a habit. That habit could make his employ­ees not just bet­ter team mem­bers but bet­ter spous­es, par­ents, sib­lings, and mem­bers of the community.

And that’s how Bet­ter Book Club was born, as an inter­nal com­pa­ny ini­tia­tive to get employ­ees read­ing (and con­se­quent­ly, growing!).

Rewards and Community

It wasn’t enough to have peo­ple read­ing in pri­vate. Arnie want­ed peo­ple to share what they were read­ing so as to encour­age and push oth­ers to do the same. So it was impor­tant for every­one in the com­pa­ny to be able to see that read­ing activ­i­ty; a ris­ing tide lifts all boats.

Once employ­ees shared a book they had read, they would sub­mit a report and, once it was approved, they would get a small addi­tion to their pay­check. These days, with the com­pa­ny oper­at­ing as a ser­vice that any busi­ness can use, every­thing is auto­mat­ed using gift cards that are deliv­ered via email.

Arnie and his team have also picked up on the aspect of gam­i­fi­ca­tion, allow­ing peo­ple to earn badges and reward­ing peo­ple with­in the plat­form for fol­low­ing oth­er peo­ple and read­ing more. A noti­fi­ca­tion might read, Con­grat­u­la­tions Omar, you’re the sev­enth per­son in the com­pa­ny to read The Thank You Econ­o­my. Keep going!”

Final­ly, all this activ­i­ty is streamed into Slack or Teams so that there’s addi­tion­al engage­ment and an oppor­tu­ni­ty for oth­ers to jump on the band­wag­on or share more. 

What Does Work

Arnie men­tioned that a corol­lary to his old habit of buy­ing the same book for every­one was dron­ing on about books he was read­ing or had read recent­ly. But just like the books he gave out, that wasn’t a way to get engage­ment. And lead­ers don’t need to hear the sound of their own voic­es. They need to hear the voic­es of oth­ers to bet­ter engage with them.

So Arnie stopped lead­ing by talk­ing about the books that he was read­ing and began ask­ing oth­ers what they were read­ing. This gave him insight into how oth­ers thought and a chance to sug­gest books to com­ple­ment what they were read­ing. But it also gave him sug­ges­tions for books he could read!

Arnie point­ed out that at some top com­pa­nies in the world, it’s unlike­ly that their teams are read­ing, on aver­age, two books per year, so if you’re able to get your team mem­bers to read just one book a quar­ter, you’re a world-class com­pa­ny by that metric.

And it’s not a van­i­ty met­ric, either. Arnie says that half a dozen books a year and one good con­fer­ence are far bet­ter for per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al growth than a whole slew of pro­fes­sion­al events. That’s become even clear­er in a post-pan­dem­ic world when com­pa­nies are eval­u­at­ing and audit­ing trav­el and edu­ca­tion­al expenses.

Culture Reflects Leadership

It was at a con­fer­ence that Arnie heard a phrase that became trans­for­ma­tion­al for him in his lead­er­ship jour­ney: cul­ture reflects leadership.

He admits he was only half-lis­ten­ing at the time but that phrase hit him so hard that he stopped every­thing else and pon­dered it.

The cul­ture he had at his busi­ness was his fault. Not his clients’, not his people’s, it was his responsibility.

Every com­pa­ny has the cul­ture it deserves, because the cul­ture reflects the leadership.

If lead­er­ship can’t change, nei­ther can the culture.

But lead­er­ship can change, par­tic­u­lar­ly if it’s hum­ble enough to grow through some­thing as sim­ple as reading.

It was this real­iza­tion, along with men­tor­ship from EO, that allowed Arnie to make the changes that would become trans­for­ma­tion­al in his companies.

Give Programs Time

These changes didn’t hap­pen overnight. Arnie points out that every pro­gram needs time to be suc­cess­ful. That doesn’t mean days or weeks, but more like months and some­times years.

This doesn’t mean that every pro­gram will work, but it will def­i­nite­ly NOT work if you don’t give it enough time to take root and grow.

There needs to be a per­son over­see­ing that growth — a cham­pi­on — and that per­son can’t be you all the time. You need to find lead­ers in your orga­ni­za­tion to be cham­pi­ons of ini­tia­tives and pro­grams so that good ideas don’t just with­er for lack of advocacy.

That cham­pi­on needs to be giv­en a check­list to accom­plish cer­tain things to prop­er­ly grow and advo­cate for a pro­gram. Cham­pi­ons can’t be left to just fend for themselves.

Even if only one in three pro­grams suc­ceeds — due to a cham­pi­on and prop­er time to grow — that’s still a success.

Packaged Lessons

It wouldn’t be a help­ful arti­cle about the pow­er of books if we didn’t share one at the end, right? Thank­ful­ly, Arnie’s got us cov­ered there. If you want the director’s cut” of the jour­ney Arnie shared with us, pick up his book Worth Doing Wrong.

In the book, Arnie offers exe­cutable strate­gies and real-world tac­tics to help you cre­ate a cul­ture that you and your team mem­bers will love.

And the title? He said he’s done it wrong often enough to final­ly get it right. And that humil­i­ty makes the mes­sage res­onate even more.

Check Out the Full Episode

You can learn more from our dis­cus­sion with Arnie by lis­ten­ing to the pod­cast on Apple or Spo­ti­fy. Arnie dis­cuss­es his own lead­er­ship jour­ney and the role that books played in help­ing him to devel­op. Part of what dri­ves him is get­ting to know oth­ers through what they think and those con­ver­sa­tions are often dri­ven by ask­ing oth­ers about the books that they’ve recent­ly read.

Look­ing to build your own Brag­Wor­thy Cul­ture? Fringe can help. Fringe is the num­ber one lifestyle ben­e­fits plat­form. Give your peo­ple the pow­er of choice and save a ton of admin­is­tra­tive headaches by con­sol­i­dat­ing exist­ing ven­dors and pro­grams into a sim­ple, auto­mat­ed plat­form. Talk to our team to get started.