Executive Director, Ann Kowal Smith's Innovative Approach Towards Fostering Workplace Collaboration

" I think the land of opportunity is in the space between the people.”


Welcome back to the 1st Floor Conversations Podcast, where the view at the top is only as good as the foundation which preserves it. On Episode 50, we were joined by Ann Kowal Smith, founder and executive director of Books@Work. This nine-year-old nonprofit organization develops and deploys one of the most innovative strategies in the marketplace for facilitating workforce discussions that foster collaboration, development, and integration.

About the Founder & How She Got Started

While Cleveland, Ohio, is her home-base, Ann's organization spans globally.

Before we dive into her success with Books at Work, let's take a look at the foundation she built. Ann spent several years working in other fields and earning various degrees before founding Book at Work.

Ann quickly recognized her passion for learning. After her original undergraduate pursuit of Art History, she became a legal advisor spending 13 years as a lawyer in corporate securities before taking a quick break and working as a middle school humanities teacher. Ann moved on to work at McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm that provides strategic management advice to some of the world's leading businesses and organizations.

Ann's time spent working in both law and consulting gave her helpful experience in a few key verticals - understanding risk mitigation, the strategy of looking at growth integration, and how to develop a company. Two trends in Ann's past are important to note: she was being driven by opportunities that allowed and required her to be continually learning, and she fully invested in the 'people business' in all avenues she pursued.

It may be shocking to some, but being a lawyer is quite similar to being a business person; each builds a case and helps people make competent decisions. Each becomes a part of your internal framework as a decision-maker. Ann used her experience as a lawyer, went back to school for a Doctorate in Organizational Learning, and eventually used her knowledge to found Books@Work.

Changes in the Market of Company Operations

When reflecting on changes in the market, Ann brings us back to 1986. During this time, she recalls, law was very much a profession. When the bottom fell out of the market in 1990, Ann noticed that law firms shifted from trade to business.

She was drawn to successful leaders who moved away from the role of black and white decision-makers and engaged in their part to bring meaning and value to the world. There was an essential shift from 'it's all about work' to 'it's all about continuing to learn so that we can work in more appropriate ways,' and that was a large part of Ann's journey.

The Power of Teams

I'm sure we have all encountered teamwork situations that were either very enlightening or very frustrating. Understanding both possible outcomes and the contributing factors enabled Ann to create Books@Work.

Ineffective team building is brutal. Teams that are not cohesive experience a decrease in engagement and retention. Thankfully for Ann, her time at McKinsey & Company highlighted the benefits of high-functioning groups. It allowed her to take a step back and see what made a capable team: a way to share information to leverage the whole team to make it collectively better than the sum of the parts.

Teamwork is even more critical in the age of information. With access to unlimited data, people have shifted from synthesizers of information to constant gatherers without ever stopping to process. Working in teams brings all of that information together to be integrated into something actionable.

Inspiration Comes to Life

There are so many ways for people of different backgrounds to interpret and utilize available information. Ann recognized that all people have something important to contribute, regardless of their circumstances.

Ann wanted to find an exciting way to bring people together across different educational levels, backgrounds, races, cultures, and roles. She believes that together, as human beings, we can create leverage in successful and stimulating ways.

The Result: A Model Created

Ann deemed literature seminars as the most potent form of learning she had previously encountered. When everyone reads the same story or book and gathers around a round table to discuss, many different perspectives, interpretations, and points of view are uncovered.

Ann was inspired to pilot this kind of a program and did so with food service workers at a local college. They all read the same story, and in between mealtimes, they would gather with the guidance of a college professor and discuss what they read.

The participants were exposed to collogues unique perspectives and began to realize what others could bring to the table based on past experiences, which led to better navigation of the workplace and more effective communication.

The Genesis of Books@Work: Facilitations

Books@Work facilitates story-based conversations that deepen trust and support creative collaboration. They do this through in-person and virtual programming, fostering openness and inclusion within and across geographies. Bringing Books@Work to life utilized a network of people that already existed: people with innate curiosity and desire to learn, such as teachers and professors. These people share a genuine interest in helping others unlock their potential.

These people, educators with a passion for public humanities, become a community of folks that facilitated ideas presented by Books@Work. Excellent facilitators model the kinds of questions, listening, curiosity, and reflection that the entire group will eventually pick up for themselves. It is a collective skill-building experience, and it results in what is referred to as, psychological safety.

Through example, set by facilitators, teams develop open communication that makes them feel safe. They develop the capability to separate themselves from their ideas. Your team's ability to have an approach shot down and not take it personally is a giant step in forming a capable team.

How Do We Build an Effective Organization with These Types of Strategy?

Let's quickly define three types of organizations.

First, there are organizations with relatively static growth. They don't hire much, the company isn’t growing rapidly, and there isn’t vertical growth potential for staff.

Next, there are growth-oriented organizations that are rapidly expanding.

Additionally, some companies are merging, and two separate cultures must become one cohesive third culture.

Ann explained the strategies of Books@Work could be used to build a more effective organization in each of the three types. It doesn't matter about the size, turnover rate, or growth rate of a company; what matters is the space between the people in the company.

Investing in the relationship between your people through healthy conversations will expand their ability and the organization's ability to grow. If people are familiar with who to lean on, they will be ready for situations in any paced environment.

Similarly, providing your people with the opportunity to communicate during mergers is essential. To overcome the nuances that each original company had, people need opportunities to mingle, share ideas, and find commonalities.

The Importance of Great Dialogue

Great dialogue requires two skills: listening and communicating. In Ann's model, listening holds a profound amount of weight. There are two types of listening. The best kind of listening is when a person is genuinely interested and humble, and they want to understand and value the speaker's perspective. The less productive variant is listening while forming responses to shove opinions into the conversation.

Listen without needing to speak. Communication is vital but is only beneficial when it comes from a place of genuine listening and understanding.

Don't listen with the intent to change someone's mind. Understand underlying values. Allow them to articulate their concerns. Discover what makes them uncomfortable or afraid. Figure out how to nurture and support their growth and development to help them move forward.

The Wrap Up

Open communication between coworkers creates a high-functioning team. Now more than ever, it is vital to focus on integrations and inclusion.

People go to work to feel valued, feel like they're contributing, feel productive, and feel a sense of belonging. Books@Work facilitates the discussions to meet employee needs.

Organizations have worked hard to create a level of connectivity, and to maintain it; they need to recreate that connectivity in the intangible spaces between their people. Books@Work aims to create that space and fill it with the necessary collaboration and trust to move people and their organizations forward. They'd love to work with you, the listener, the reader, the individual who values the people in the organization, to help you make it more successful.

We hope you enjoyed your time here today with the inspiring and enlightening Ann Kowal Smith. Thank you for joining us on 1st Floor Conversations, where the view at the top is only as good as the foundation which preserves it.