To remain fully effective, managers can usually turn to a variety of sources for personal and professional growth – courses, conferences, networking, discussions, professional associations, workshops, and so on. But of all these avenues, research shows that independent reading of professional books and journals continues to be efficient, reliable, accessible, and indispensable. Leaders simply must be readers…

1. Accept this fact: If you’re not reading, you shouldn’t be leading.

Leaders must be readers. The American Association of School Administrators supports this message…

‘Reading is the most fundamental, reliable, and efficient resource for leaders. It is the purpose of professional reading to equip the leader for independent creative thinking. It is through the literature that executives live, learn, and think about their swiftly moving and complex profession.’

2. Set aside time to read.

The problem for busy executives is not finding something to read; it’s finding the time! The key is to discipline yourself: set aside a specific part of each day for concentrated reading – say 10 or 20 minutes. In this way you’re saying: ‘I value reading. There’s a time and place for everything. This time belongs to reading.’ Alternatively, develop the productive habit of reading in snatches – on the train, between meetings, before breakfast. (Evangelist John Wesley did most of his reading on horseback.) Use precious time wisely by becoming a more efficient reader…

3. Become more selective in what you read.

For busy managers, the secret to tackling professional reading is to do less, better, rather than to do more faster. If you can’t find enough time to read, you must eliminate all the unwanted and unnecessary reading matter that swamps the marketplace. Reduce your reading load by determining the areas in which you must keep up to date; and select only those books and journals that currently best serve your particular areas of interest.

4. Adopt reading strategies that work for you.

To get value from your reading time, consider the following strategies:

  • Always scan a book before spending time on it – the jacket, table of contents, preface, index, author’s credentials, content, and structure. Weigh up these features, know what you want from the book; and only then decide whether it’s worth spending valuable time on it.
  • Always read with a purpose. Go in and find the meaning. Search for answers and key ideas. Feel free to skip irrelevant sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.
  • Resist the temptation to flick through the pages of a journal if time is of the essence; you’ll inevitably be distracted by the advertisements and peripheral material. Work from the contents page.
  • Learn to skim. Peruse the first one or two sentences of a paragraph to see whether the information in the paragraph is pertinent to your immediate quest. If not, pass on.
  • Pause to reflect. After each session, sit back for a few minutes to reflect on, criticise, or summarise the author’s message. By so doing, you substantially increase your comprehension and retention.
  • Use what you have read. The reason for reading is to recall a useful idea later, when you need it. Underline; make notes in the margin; jot usable ideas on index cards; start a file of valuable points or articles. Impress your colleagues: be able to cite one or two key points from each item you’ve read.
  • Develop a sound working relationship with a good professional library – such as the local Institute of Management.
  • Consider speed-reading courses. These can significantly improve the reading effectiveness of some people.
  • Set yourself an achievable goal for the year. Try beginning with a modest one book and two journals per month – that alone becomes an impressive 12 books and 24 journals annually!

5. Don’t allow your reading to accumulate.

Professional literature can very quickly choke your in-basket. Resolve to read material by a certain date – or discard it. Keeping informed or up to date doesn’t mean reading last year’s or last month’s journal today. As Michael LeBoeuf advises in ‘Working Smart’: “Think of professional reading material much as you would think of a movie playing at a local theatre. After a certain date it’s gone, but if it’s truly spectacular it will be around again.”

6. Delegate reading when appropriate.

Reading can be delegated to your staff if you yourself don’t have enough time to read. They in turn can underline key points, summarise, or make brief presentations to staff meetings, thus keeping you and themselves informed.

7. Don’t feel guilty about reading.

Many managers feel guilty if they spend ten minutes at their desks reading professional journals: they erroneously feel they are not ‘doing something’, and fear others may think they are not being productive. This is short-term thinking. As J.J.McCarthy reminds us in ‘Why Managers Fail’:

“Managers must realise that their organisation’s continued progress will be based, in part, on their ability, and that of their colleagues to increase their knowledge and skills and to keep pace with progress and change – through the professional literature!”

Be assertive. Promote the importance of reading professional literature at staff meetings and by example.

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