Peek inside an Authentic Organization: Blogging at Berrett-Koehler

by cv harquail on July 14, 2009

Years of following industries that create culture have left me with a special fondness for book publishers. Year after year, season after season, page after page, book publishers create objects that convey what I love most — great ideas. Increasingly, book publishers do this in an embattled industry, towards a customer base with a dwindling interest in books per se and especially in books that challenge them.

Every book publisher as struggled to cope with the changing marketplace, some by consolidating and/or dropping imprints, others by dropping categories and genres of writing, and still others by seeking bestsellers instead of ‘important works’ for influential yet small groups of readers.

And then…

And then there are the brave publishers, the publishing companies with their own agendas. The publishers that are out there to change the world. The publishers like Berrett-Koehler.

200907141052.jpgBerrett-Koehler has always been a publisher that I’ve admired. One of the first books Berrett-Koehler published was written by my dissertation adviser Taylor Cox (then a mere assistant professor), on a topic that was obscure  at the time: Cultural Diversity in Organizations.

While the book was in its final revisions, I had the chance to sit in on a meeting between Taylor and Steve Piersanti, the founder of Berrett-Koehler. I was impressed by the way they were collaborating to resolve various issues around not only the content but also the promotion plans for the book. It was as surprise to me, since I’d expected the conversation to be more adversarial. Instead, it was completely win-win.200907141100.jpg

Ever since, I’ve admired Berrett-Koehler for the increasing ‘daringness’ of their ‘list’.

They were one of the first publishing firms to take on the task of creating a market for books about making the world a better place through business. They took (and still take) a very different approach to their work, trying to create a process that works fairly for all stakeholders– authors, publishers, readers, publicists & booksellers.

A few years ago at the Academy of Management meeting I had a long conversation with the B-K employee in charge of their booth in the exhibition hall. I’d noticed on display a new book by one of my OD colleagues from my years at P&G, and I asked the staffer about it. She told me that they’d just had the author in the San Francisco office to give a workshop for all of the Berrett-Koehler staff. Berrett-Koehler believed in the author, her message and her tactics so much that they wanted their own staff to have the benefit of the author’s consulting.

This struck me as a real mark of authenticity.
It’s behavior often called “eating your own dog food.”

Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for more ways that Berrett-Koehler eats its own dog food, and puts into practice the very ideas that it promotes in the books it publishes. And just last week, I literally stumbled on a great inside source: One of Berrett-Koehler’s summer interns is blogging about what it’s like to work there, and what she’s actually doing within the firm.

Rachel Kador is a summer intern at Berrett-Koehler, whose responsibilities range from creating data bases to reviewing book proposals. As interns are promised but seldom experience, Rachel has real opportunities not only to look inside the publishing business but also to participate in it. From Rachel’s blog, I’ve learned about one practice that is both small and significant at the same time. (Like something with a beta of 0.036, and an R2 of .79, for you non-qualitative types).

Rachel Kador writes about one responsibility she’s been given that demonstrates in many ways that Berrett-Koehler lives out its values. Rachel is responsible for telephoning authors who have sent in unsolicited book proposals to tell them that their proposals are not being accepted. Rachel is expected to give each author specific information about why their book is not right for Berrett-Koehler and to offer helpful suggestions where she can.

To get a sense of how this matters, think about the number of people who want to write business books. Think about the number of book proposals they send out, and to how many different publishers. Think about how deep the pile is of unsolicited book proposals, and consider how many end up in the recycling pile, most often without even a cursory trip home in any editor’s NPR totebag.200907141057.jpg

Why is this interesting? Think of how rare this behavior is, at so many levels:

Berrett-Koehler is reaching out to people who have without invitation given the firm more work to do. Like the other publishers to whom these proposals have been sent, B-K has no relationship with these authors and no obligation to them. However, Berrett-Koehler  feels compelled to respond. As Rachel explains:

Certainly it would be easier to send a form letter (or no letter at all) but that kind of action doesn’t fit into the Berrett-Koehler mission of community building.

Berrett-Koehler asks Rachel to give the potential authors real feedback specific to their proposal. She’s not to execute a simple brush off, or drone on and on from a scripted explanation. She is to tell them something unique and real.

Moreover, Rachel is expected to make a person-to-person connection with the hopeful author, and to engage in a two-way conversation that shares not only information but also shares emotions ranging from politeness to empathy.

And, Rachel is given the authority to deliver the information without supervision.

Sure, you could say “yeah, they dumped that dirty job on the summer intern.”  And at the same time, you can also see what a learning opportunity it could be for her. Rachel has to explain her own rationale for rejecting the proposal, to the very person whose work is being rejected. It is a learning opportunity for her as a potential editor and business person. And, it is an expression of Berrett-Koehler’s confidence in their intern.

This responsibility to contact hopeful authors is explained to Rachel as something important to the firm and to its mission. She has been asked to represent the firm and to demonstrate what distinguishes B-K from other publishers.

200907141052.jpgBut the most important things is that this action, by Rachel or any other employee of Berrett-Koehler, puts into practice one of the reasons why this firm was begun. As Rachel describes in a post about her onboarding conversation with Steve:

(Steve’s) goal in founding this company was to creating a publishing company with balance among its employees, authors, stakeholder groups, and customers.

Not only is the relationship between permanent staff and volunteer intern staff ‘balanced’ so that responsibility and learning is shared, but also the power dynamic between the firm and their potential authors/clients is balanced, so that both parties feel recognized and respected.

The same outcome that I saw 20 years ago (with a book and author that profoundly shifted diversity scholarship and went on to win awards) is being achieved, over and over, every time a proposal is rejected.

Berrett-Koehler’s identity and values are being demonstrated every time,

… not because the CEO believes in them, or because the intern believes in them, but because the organization puts them into practice by its very way of doing business.

If you get caring, personal feedback when your book proposal is rejected by Berrett-Koehler, just imagine what it might be like when a proposal is accepted…?


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