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Nurturing Entrepreneurship at Every Level

Jane Hileman, CEO, American Reading Company

After being an educator for nearly three decades, Jane Hileman expected the transition to business to be rough but quickly found that not to be the case at all.

Founder and CEO of American Reading Company, Hileman says, “Essentially, people are the same. In schools, you work to find a match between students and opportunities. That’s the same thing a CEO does in a business—match employees with opportunities and then fosters a path for growth.”

Driving human motivation is what Hileman calls the cornerstone of American Reading Company. She believes it is her responsibility, as well as society’s in general, to ensure we make our collective lives progressively better, and her reading program plays a big part in accomplishing that with young people. But this collective responsibility plays a huge role in how Hileman runs her business as well.

Daily Goal Setting with Every Employee Involved in the Process

Hileman’s company has grown from a few passionate teachers working together ten years ago to a group of 111 determined employees who strive everyday to make the world a better place. Customer-financed from the beginning, American Reading Company’s product is to provide books and reading goals for students in order to encourage a love of reading as well as to get kids reading at or above their grade level.

But Hileman’s business philosophy is centered on goal-setting as well. Every day, department heads meet with Hileman for ten minutes to discuss goals for the day. From there, department heads meet with work teams for ten minutes to discuss their strategies for achieving the day’s goals. Within the first hour of the day, every one of American Reading Company’s staff has participated in a goal-setting meeting, and enters the workday motivated to think like an entrepreneur to reach those goals.

“We involve everyone in the process,” says Hileman. “This kind of daily collaboration focuses our thinking, builds our team motivation, and fosters creativity, all of which help us reach our daily goals.”

Hileman refers to this goal-setting model as a “living business plan” and says it is largely what drives the company. But this model is not just driven by professional goal setting but by personal goal setting as well. Every week managers meet individually with staff not just to talk about their achievements toward work goals, but on the attainment of personal goals as well. “This is key to personal empowerment,” says Hileman. “We motivate for goal planning and success on every level. Every day, we challenge our employees to express their genius and build their portfolio to ensure they’re contributing to their own life plan.”

The Life Plan of the CEO

Hileman taught in the classroom for twenty-eight years before making the move to business. She developed the 100 Book Challenge for her use in her own classroom, and word of the program and its success quickly spread. Today her program is used in more than 129 school districts in twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia.

Hileman attributes the company’s success to hiring smart people and then empowering them through her goal-driven model. But she also has three business goals for herself that all employees play a part in achieving:

  • Revenue growth: With revenue growing 65-70 percent annually, Hileman’s focus is on slowing revenue growth down to 25 percent next year.
  • Profitability: For years the focus was on developing market share; today Hileman has shifted that focus to profit. The company has been experiencing a 2 to 4 percent net profit, but Hileman’s new target is to raise that to 10 to 12 percent. Her main reason: “No margin, no mission.” The things Hileman wants to put in place for her employees, such as on-site childcare and performance incentives, can’t happen until profit margins increase.
  • Success: “Our own success is determined by our customers’ success,” says Hileman. In the past, American Reading Company sold the product but did not track success. Today that tracking is in place with a goal of 50 percent of participating students making the targeted goal of reading one hundred hours.

Offering Challenge and Freedom—In the Classroom, in the Workplace

Hileman says that sometimes people misunderstand her organization and think it to be all about freedom and fun. But employees know it is serious business. “It’s about how decisions are made—who’s invested thought into the processes. I want staff in the warehouse challenged to determine how our warehouse is set up,” she says. “It’s not enough for me to care about lowering the costs of assigning books to basket bins in our warehouse—the warehouse person needs to care about that as well.”

In this, Hileman calls herself very “Theory Y”—create a system in which employees have control over success and they will be successful—it’s the same model used in schools. Her staff, as with students in the classroom, are learning power and responsibility.

The building atmosphere is unstructured and Hileman intends to keep it that way. Three “company dogs” roam the workplace. Yoga classes are offered twice a week. The company softball team is one of the best in their community. Flex time and family first are rules of the day. As a result, staff grow into empowered achievers, and employee turnover is limited. Additionally, employees share in the company’s success and are offered stock options and 10 percent of profits before taxes based on their salary.

Just recently, the same reading program that is such a success in schools is now in use by Hileman’s staff. Hileman had employees whose goal was to improve their English and reading skills. It’s a goal for Hileman too—if warehouse staff can’t read title of books, that can’t process orders efficiently. So, for fifteen minutes every day, interested staff can spend their break time reading from the books used in the program. Each staff reader has a peer coach.

To Hileman, the results have been phenomenal. Friendships formed across cultures and age. When they reach the same goals in place in the student program, they earn medals, just as the students do. When a team hits twenty-five hours of reading, both reader and coach get a half day off with pay. Hileman recently expanded the program to include children of employees—when their kids reach the twenty-five hour reading mark, they get the reward of a half day with pay. And it’s grown further—one employee is working with eight neighborhood students who are all working toward their reading goals.

“We can and should be entrepreneurial in everything we do,” says Hileman, “Whether it’s running a business or classroom teaching twenty plus young people to be the entrepreneurs of their own lives, once we embrace this thinking, the real fun begins.”

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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