The ace in the hole of a company

The expression “the ace in the hole” comes from poker. In a few versions of poker, some cards are dealt face up for everyone to see, while one is dealt face down or in the hole, visible only to the player receiving the cards. Since the ace is the highest card in the game, an ace in the hole can mean a winning hand. Study groups, the ones you’ll find operating behind the scenes at Northwestern Mutual, are just as effective in contributing to lasting business success.

By hidden side, I mean that the more than three dozen study groups you’ll find at Northwestern Mutual today weren’t started by CEO executive order or some other company-led initiative. Instead, they were born in the field. In 1946, shortly after Al Granum returned from World War II and joined the company’s office in Amery, Wisconsin, he started a group called The Top O’ The Mornin’ Study Group. Granum thought life insurance agents might be in business for themselves, but they didn’t need to be in business alone. He knew everyone would earn more if they did it together. Hailed by colleagues as a tireless learner and generous contributor to the success of countless fellow professionals, Granum didn’t wait for the twilight of his career to give back; he did it from the start.

Over the years, other study groups have sprouted organically across the country. Group members share best practices, exchange feedback, build deeper relationships, and include spouses in social gatherings. These groups of 12 to 15 members are self-governing, with a set of written rules about membership, participation, and conduct at monthly meetings. Some groups are more general in scope, while others are more specific, such as the Customer Builders Study Group or the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Study Group. Regardless of their load, they provide a learning and growth mechanism that doesn’t exist in most businesses today, helping individuals hone their skills and become more effective team contributors. Additionally, when members retire, they are usually granted emeritus status within the group.

Follow a tradition of peer-to-peer learning

Early in American history, Benjamin Franklin organized a group of twelve friends called the Junto who engaged in ongoing forums designed to allow for structured discussion. Early members of the group included printers, surveyors, cabinetmaker, shoemaker, clerk, and merchant. They met on Friday evenings to talk about morals, politics and natural philosophy. Franklin once said, “Our proceedings should be under the direction of a President and conducted in a sincere spirit of seeking truth, without inclination to argument or desire for victory…”.

In business, Napoleon Hill’s book, You have to think to become rich, describes the rise of the “mastermind” group and how Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford credit their mastermind groups with much of their success. Hill considered these groups “the secret of the success of all great men” and “the cornerstone of all outstanding personal achievement”.

Communities of Practice

In 1991, Etienne Wenger-Trayner and Jean Lave coined the term communities of practice, which was described a decade later as: “Groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems or a passion for a subject, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis”. The structural characteristics of a community of practice include having a domain that involves a common knowledge base, a community willing to collaborate, and practice with a shared goal. All these elements come together in a study group.

Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, who are active researchers, consultants and authorities on the subject today, explained that communities of practice have existed since the dawn of human existence. Yet until they had a common name and language, it was difficult for people to talk about them.

While studying apprenticeship in Africa with Jean Lave, Etienne recalls: “Initially, we were studying apprenticeship as a way to rethink apprenticeship. We have found that an apprenticeship is often not simply a relationship between a teacher and a student. We noticed all this community around the master who acts as an apprenticeship course for the apprentice. A lot of learning interactions were not with the teacher, they were with each other. Nobody taught these people that’s what they were supposed to do. This is how we behave as human beings. This is essentially where the term communities of practice comes from.

In an article that Etienne co-authored with William Snyder for harvard business review in 2000, they noted that communities of practice were common in classical Greece, where “corporations” of artisans had both a social purpose and a commercial function. Members trained each other and worked together to share innovations. In the Middle Ages, guilds offered a similar resource to artisans.

Work of study groups

It is unclear whether Al Granum was inspired by classical Greece or Ben Franklin’s Junto. All we know is that among the many contributions made by Granum to business and industry, the study groups became Northwestern Mutual’s longtime ace in the hole. While no one in the company can speak to their specific impact on overall performance, or even tell you the exact number of study groups that exist today, consider this:

When you look at the company’s top twenty finance reps, each of them happens to be, or was, a member of the study group. I don’t think it’s a coincidence; that’s what Granum understood was possible from the start – everyone wins more when they do it together. As for the Top O’ The Morning Study Group, the members recently celebrated their 75and anniversary. How’s that for a winning hand?

Written by Leo Bottary.
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