Being a manager can be extremely hard, it can feel isolating at times especially if you don’t have a good support network of peers. But how do you cultivate this team of peers when your days are filled with 1:1s, meetings, code reviews and other things you need to get done?

Earlier this year I was struggling with this question. I needed to expand and nurture my peer group but was too busy with the day to day tasks of leading multiple teams to do anything regularly. That’s when I found this excellent post on starting an engineering manager book club by Daniel Na. I asked my peers if they’d be interested in starting a book club for engineering managers. They said yes and I got started thinking about what it could look like.

I wanted the book club to, first and foremost, be a place where we could help one another with challenges in our day to day jobs. Sometimes helping someone is as simple as listening to their problems. Sometimes you have experience and can offer more targeted advice and sometimes people just need to vent. I wanted a place where this could happen freely. I also wanted us to grow as a team, learning new ways to manage our engineers, new techniques to motivate and help grow people’s careers. Having now led a few of these I thought I’d share some tips that have worked well.

1. Keep it small, 8 people or less

One of the goals is to allow everyone a chance to discuss the book and talk about how that’s impacting their day to day challenges. If the group is too big it can make it difficult for a couple of reasons. One reason, logistically speaking, is that it’ll be hard to get everyone a chance to talk in the allotted time. The other problem is a little more nuanced. As the group grows people can be worried about sharing their opinion with a large audience. You may also have someone who dominates the conversation. It’s the job of the moderator to keep the loud ones from talking too much and to get the quiet ones to share their opinions. Keeping the group smaller helps with both of these.

2. Choose the book together

It can be easier to want to read your favourite management book. You know it’s great and will help others just like it helped you. It’s important to choose the book as a group though because it broadens the potential list of books and gives everyone an opportunity to suggest their favourite book. I asked for people’s favourite management books and then did a Slack poll allowing people to vote for their top three. We then read the most voted on the book. This helped ensure the majority of people were actually interested in the book club and helped with attendance.

3. Schedule every meeting from the start

One of the things that worked really well was scheduling every meeting in advance. I planned out every chapter that we’d be reading and scheduled it for the same time every week. We all have busy calendars and planning in advance made it easier to carve out a chunk in everyone’s day. It also helped me plan for days that didn’t work for the majority and allowed me to not have to skip a week because I couldn’t find a time slot that worked.

4. Have the meeting early in the morning

This one is very team and timezone dependent. We found that early mornings before the rush of the day started worked best. People were less likely to have conflicts or meetings that went long and it helped set the tone for the day. I always felt refreshed after the book club, feeling like I could be a better manager to my team.

5. Keep it manageable each week (1 or 2 chapters)

This one is very book dependent. Some books throw a lot of discussable content into each chapter. Some books have very short chapters with themes that span multiple chapters. Plan the book to read 30-60 pages a week.

6. Have some prepared questions but allow the conversation to flow

The goal of a moderator is to guide the conversation. Sometimes that means letting people go where they need to go and sometimes that means guiding the conversation with specific questions. I usually find 3 or 4 questions is the right number for an hour-long discussion with <8 people. Icebreakers are a good way to get everyone comfortable talking. I like asking questions like “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?” or “What’s the most pressing decision you need to make right now”. Sometimes these icebreakers take the entire meeting and that’s ok! If you’re looking for some good icebreakers Vanessa Van Edwards has a great article on them.

It’s also ok to have periods of silence. Silence is a tactic you can use to empower others to participate, to drive home an important answer or just to figure out what you want to say next.

7. Call on the quiet people

Not everyone is comfortable sharing. Some people take longer to warm up than others and some people feel like they have nothing valuable to share. Every manager has a unique perspective on things and when they contribute the whole group grows. It’s the job of the moderator to know who’s participating and who isn’t and call on the quiet ones to provide their opinion.

8. Vegas Rules

What happens in the book club stays in the book club. One of the most important rules of running a book club is creating psychological safety. If people don’t feel safe in sharing their management challenges then the discussion will never move past superficial conversation. If the group commits to open and honest conversation that stays within the walls of the book club you can really make something great.

9. Know when to quit a book

Not every book is a winner. You and your book club don’t have to power through a book that isn’t working for you. After the first few meetings, it’s a good idea to check in on everyone and see how they’re enjoying the book. If it feels like you’re trying to pull teeth getting people to share it may be time to move on to another book.

These are the things that helped our group have a successful book club. I hope you all can level up your peer group with your own book club and I’d love to hear how it goes.