libraryI’m a big believer in providing continuing education for our team here at Palo Alto Software.

Investing in furthering the professional growth of our team is by far one of the best things we can do to grow internal capacity, generate new ideas, and question old ideas. Providing educational opportunities that spark new questions and debate, build curiosity and help our team continue to develop and learn grows the productivity of our team better than anything else we’ve done.

But, as a small business owner, how do you provide continuing education opportunities without racking up big bills for expensive off-site education programs? When you’re watching every dollar that comes in and out of the business, what tools can you use to further your team members’ careers without breaking the bank?

To solve this problem and encourage continuing education and learning here at Palo Alto Software, we’ve done two things – both related to books and reading.

First, we have a book purchase program. Anyone can buy any books that they want, as long as they are related, even tangentially, to their work. The budget is unlimited. If there’s a book you want to buy, you just order it on Amazon and then turn in your receipt.

In our years of doing this, we’ve never had any abuse of the unlimited budget. At most, someone might spend $20 a month on books, and the way I look at it, I’m positive that I am getting way more than that $20 back in additional knowledge, curiosity and productivity. Helping a team member grow professionally is only going to help the company be more efficient and spark new ideas for growth.

Our second (and my favorite) continuing education initiative is our book club. Once every six weeks or so, we choose a book, read it on our own time, and then meet during lunch on Friday to discuss the book. The company buys the books and lunch. This is an optional program and about half of the company participates (Maybe it’s just for the free lunch, but I hope it’s because we choose interesting books!).

Often, we spend the book club lunch talking about what we found most interesting in the book, what we disagreed with, and how we can leverage what we learned in our own company. The discussion is always interesting, thought provoking, and has brought new innovations to the company.

A great example of improving our business comes from Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. We recently changed our customer service team’s focus from closing an issue to staying on the phone as long as necessary to ensure a customer hangs up happy. As a result, we’ve had increased customer satisfaction and increased sales from improved customer referrals.

This month, we’re reading Linchpin by Seth Godin and I’m looking forward to our discussion in a few weeks.

And if you’re curious about what we’ve been reading recently, a short list is below. I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments for other books that we should be reading. I’m also curious to learn about any innovative methods you’ve tried for bringing continuing education into your company.

  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
  • The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything by Guy Kawasaki
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries
  • Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh
  • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath
  • Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer [note: We read this book before the factual inaccuracies were discovered. I can unfortunately no longer recommend this book.]

Library image by Ellen Forsyth

AvatarNoah Parsons

Noah is currently the COO at Palo Alto Software, makers of the online business plan app LivePlan. You can follow Noah on Twitter.