• March 2013

The Power of Book Clubs: Bond, Learn, Inspire

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author
The Essential HR Handbook

I am very fortunate to belong to a business book club. We’ve been meeting for a long time, and the group is made up of interesting, smart, opinionated women—which is exactly what you want in a book club.

We started reading books primarily on leadership and management topics and, over time, we’ve branched out to include a book on a powerful woman that we discuss during March—Woman’s History Month.

During the rest of the year, we will all read the same book and discuss it but for the March meeting, we don’t pick a book—we pick a woman. Each of us then finds a book on that particular woman and brings that perspective to the group. Many times several people read the same book!

There are many similarities to the life stories of these incredible women, and what strikes me the most is how courageous they all have been. Many of these women defied their families and friends to take a stand for something they believed in. They each also had a burning passion to help others.

So I take my hiring hat off to these ladies, and encourage HR departments around the country to take on this challenge: Develop a book club for your employees and let them pick a theme for the books to read. Not only will it be a great team-building experience, reading a series of books will inspire interesting conversations, and develop a corporate culture dedicated to learning and personal growth.

Here’s to seizing the power!

Looking for some great woman leaders to learn more about? Try some of these tomes:

Abigail Adams: A Biography, by Phyllis Lee Levin

We started by reading about this great First Lady, who was the wife of one president and mother of another. Abigail Adams was an extraordinary woman living at an extraordinary time in American history. A tireless letter writer and diarist, her penetrating and often caustic impressions of most of the major persons of her day—including Ben Franklin, George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and King George III, among others—provide one of the best firsthand accounts of the American Revolution. This biography, researched and written over a 14-year period, is a fascinating portrait of a brilliant woman at the center of the founding of the American republic.

We considered staying with books on “First Ladies,” but decided instead to move onto other powerful women who broke free from tradition.

Jane Addams, A Biography, by James Weber Linn and Anne Firor Scott

Jane Addams is most widely remembered as a founder of Hull House, but her social vision extended far beyond Chicago’s Halsted Street.

The first real adventurer in the unexplored territory of social amelioration in America, Addams worked tirelessly on behalf of a multitude of social causes, including industrial and educational reform, drug laws, sanitation, disaster relief, and food purity. In 1931 she won the Nobel Prize for Peace, a tribute to the decades of energy and eloquence she devoted to eradicating intolerance and elevating human life to a more humane standard.

This was one of the most interesting books we read, because she was an amazing, powerful woman, and an American hero. It was fitting that she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, by Karen Karbo

A more contemporary amazing woman, this trendsetter had an incredible influence on fashion, and in so many other ways as well. My favorite fact about her is that this renowned French fashion designer was born in 1883 in a poorhouse in southern France to unmarried parents. She was raised in a convent after her mother died when she was 6 and her father abandoned her. The nuns taught her to sew, and while working as a café singer in the early 1900s, she began designing hats for fun. Her lovers included a wealthy English industrialist, who helped her set up her own millinery shop and steered his society friends her way.

Chanel grew up to be the woman who not only gave us the little black dress and boxy jackets, but also popularized pants for women and easy, practical clothes that allowed women a chic freedom they’d never known before. Clearly, individuality, confidence, and determination can take you far!

As I think the March Be Inkandescent theme of Women in Power, I can’t help but reflect on my mother, who has had a tremendous influence on my life.

An amazing person, who had a much broader reach than she realized, she was born in Scotland and came to America as a young child. She was the first person in her family to own a car, and she and her women friends took trips all over the country before she married my father.

In the 1930s, women didn’t go off on their own much, but she did and loved it! During the Depression, she worked for Prudential Insurance Company at a time when women couldn’t be married and work. She told us stories of how her boss had kept her marriage secret for three years so that she could keep her job!

She volunteered at nursing homes—and I don’t mean the upscale assisted-living places we see today, but at the places people went when they had nowhere else to go. She would ask at the front desk which of the residents hadn’t had a visitor in a while and then go see that person.

Even after she grew older and became legally blind from macular degeneration and had limited hearing, she still volunteered. When asked why, she said, “I listen to people who have no one else to talk to.” I am sure that sometimes she couldn’t hear the person in the bed, and they may not have been able to hear her, but she could sit by a bedside and hold a hand and listen in her own sweet way.

She continued to volunteer and visit, in her words, “old people” until she was well into her 90s (and, believe me, she didn’t see herself as old—ever!).

There isn’t a book about Anne Keith Mitchell for my book club to read, but when I think of powerful women, she certainly meets the definition. With her ready smile and easy laugh, she brought some joy to people who didn’t have much to look forward to. She touched a lot of lives.

Maybe I’ll write her story someday!


About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors and has consulted for a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human-resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Her books include The Essential HR Handbook, and The Big Book of HR. Click here to buy the book.

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