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UCL academic creates reading clubs for business executives

Book clubs are a cultural phenomenon. Why not adopt the model to support managers' personal development and performance? That's just what Dr Zachary Walker does with the business group London First.

Books spread out on a table

13 January 2021

UCL Innovation & Enterprise helped establish this new business-academic partnership. The collaboration has resulted in an ingenious platform for learning and development.

Connecting education and business

Dr Zachary Walker is an Associate Professor with the Department of Psychology and Human Development in the UCL Institute of Education (IOE). The IOE is consistently ranked number one in the world for research and teaching in education and social science. 

Zachary has a PhD in Education, an MBA in International Business, an MA in English Language Learning and a BSc in Human Development. Drawing on this broad experience, he now focuses on innovative teaching and learning, inclusive leadership and neuroscience.

London First is a professional association with around 200 members. It campaigns to keep London at the forefront of global business, working with, and for, the entire UK. London First has advocated for the creation of the office of London Mayor, Transport for London and congestion charging. It also incubated Teach First and created the UK's largest careers fair for school leavers.

Zachary and London First were introduced by Michael Reynier, who works in UCL Innovation & Enterprise's Business & Innovation Partnerships team. He connected them in 2019 when the organisation wanted a speaker for a skills agenda event. Zachary presented on Generation Z and the needs of an incoming workforce.

London First's executive reading club was launched in January 2020, led by Zachary.

Making time to learn

An avid reader himself, Zachary emphasises the importance of the act of reading. He states: "The science is very clear that reading heightens brain connectivity, reduces stress, leads to improved attention, working memory, sensory integration, creativity, and it increases our fluid reasoning and brain plasticity. In short, taking the time to read provides a competitive advantage by leading to better individual and organisational performance."

But it's the notion of scheduling time to learn that underpins the reading clubs. Leaders often think they don't have time to read business books. Zachary counters this by listing Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama - the highest achievers who make time to read and credit it with their success.

Zachary came up with the idea of an executive reading group. It takes place for one hour, on a monthly or quarterly basis, over a lunchtime. He works with leadership to select reading material in advance and facilitates the discussion. 

The reading clubs promote critical thought and enable challenging conversations. Zachary adds: "It creates a common language when everybody on your senior management team has read a certain book or article. People will then refer back to the concepts. It can help build your teams and increase the fluency of communication. No matter your background, you are reading and discussing together, and that's really enjoyable in addition to the performance benefits."

The London First reading group

London First's staff book club began in person, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it moved online. Mark Hilton (London First's Executive Director, People) said: "Zachary has been brilliant, we switched from physical to virtual sessions very easily and feedback from the business has been incredibly positive."

Zachary uses books, articles or reports as a springboard to valuable discussions on key topics for the business. Themes so far have included teamwork, change, negotiation skills, diversity and the future of work.

One employee gave feedback on a session on racial fluency: "I thought it was very helpful that he [Zachary] gave us practical strategies for dealing with racism. I always get really uncomfortable talking about race at work, but he made it a very relaxed and open setting". 

London First and Zachary are looking forward to continuing their work together in the new year. They also hope to do a version of the reading club for London First members.

UCL is a longstanding member of London First. Membership of the association provides a pathway for UCL’s academic expertise to reach and help organisations in London.

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Photo by Slidebean on Unsplash

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