The beginning of a movement

There’s a video that shows, in 3 minutes, how movements are often built. Maybe you’ve seen it.

The beginning of a movementDuring the Sasquatch Music festival in 2009 festival, people are just laying on blankets, listening to music, until one guy gets up and starts to dance. He’s lanky and not a particularly good dancer. It’s awkward to watch. Then, a second dancer joins him. Then a third.

What happens next is incredible to me even though I’ve watched the video dozens of times.

This week, I felt like that awkward guy who’s been doing a goofy dance for a while. I can almost feel what’s about to happen next.

Different people, different dances

The dance I’m doing is writing a book called Working Out Loud and enabling people to form their own peer support circles. The idea is to help people, through actual practice, learn how to build a network of relationships that can help them with any goal, including discovering more meaning and fulfillment in work and life.

I’ve been doing this dance for about three years. Sometimes, I’m sure it’s been painful to watch. Just this week though, something changed.

Author and bloggerUnbeknownst to me, an organization with 130,000 members made this wonderful video about how they work out loud. They even cited me as “author and blogger,” the first time I was described that way.

Then, the first circle formed that didn’t include me or someone I coached. A woman I didn’t know but had read the blog simply decided she wanted to invest in herself.

A division at work held a career development event where I spoke about how people could take more control of their career and lives. People signed up for five more circles.

NHS Working Out LoudI was notified by some wonderful people in Australia that they’ll be forming circles in Sydney and Melbourne, the first circles comprised solely of people from other firms.

Then, via Twitter, I saw how some smart, creative people at the NHS (National Health Service) in the UK are proposing to form circles there, too.

 

What happens at the end of the video

Watch the video now if you can. See how that second and third dancer made it feel like a group, something others could more readily be a part of. That’s how I felt last week.

After that, more and more people join, each doing their own dance, each attracting yet more people. By the end of the 3-minute video, people are racing from all directions to become part of it. There are hundreds of people, dancing and screaming, and it’s become a movement. You can’t even see the first dancer any more.

That’s exactly the kind of movement I’m hoping for. If I was trying to make money or become famous, then I would spoil it by being selfish or too self-conscious. Instead, I’m just trying to spread an idea that helps people access possibilities for meaning and fulfillment.

Here’s to dancing like nobody’s watching.

Working out loud when you don’t want to be visible

Are you visible?When I talk about working out loud, some people will give voice to an objection I suspect is quite common:

“Thanks, but I just don’t want to be visible.”

They’re surprised when I tell them they can still work in a way that’s open, generous, and connected – and realize many of the benefits resulting from that – without ever posting a blog or tweet.

Here’s how.

What 9 year olds do that’s worth billions to corporations

Making your work visible is just one of the five elements of working out loud. The others – relationships, generosity, a focus on getting better, and purpose – can often be more important depending on your goal.

A few months ago, I wrote about how my 9 year daughter approaches problems. She doesn’t post anything online related to what she’s doing, but she expects that others have done so already. So her first step in achieving a goal – solving a Rubik’s cube, perfecting her golf swing, improving at cello – is to look online for information that can help her. Then she’ll make note of who published that content and look for other things they contributed.

In that process, she’s building a network and getting better without ever posting anything herself. Then, in person, she exchanges information with classmates and teachers interested in her goal so she can improve even more, discovering things she hadn’t found herself. If my daughter did post things online, if she was more visible, she would further increase her chances of finding useful people and knowledge. But she gets plenty of benefits even without doing so.

Celebrating the “Invisibles”

InvisiblesThere’s an entire book written on Invisibles. (HT to Omar Reece for pointing this out.) It makes the point that people in certain jobs such as anesthesiology and structural engineering are invisible when they do their jobs perfectly and “they’re fine with remaining anonymous.” Here’s an excerpt from the book’s website:

“What has been lost amid the noise of self-promotion today is that not everyone can, or should, or even wants to be in the spotlight. This inspiring and illuminating book shows that recognition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and invisibility can be viewed as a mark of honor and a source of a truly rich life.”

The book makes an important point that “hidden professionals can reap deep fulfillment by relishing the challenges their work presents.” You’t needn’t seek recognition to like your job.

How even a private person can work out loud

Yet while it’s natural that everyone won’t seek the spotlight, being anonymous and invisible is an unhealthy extreme. There is another alternative.

When you work out loud, your goal isn’t to promote yourself or to be visible to as many people as possible. It’s to be visible to the right people so you can become more effective and discover other possibilities.

The anesthesiologists and structural engineers don’t need to be popular or engage a big audience. But I certainly hope they’re not anonymous. I hope they work out loud at least as much as 9 year olds do, seeking to become better at what they do and actively looking for other experts in their field to learn from them.

A woman in one of our early working out loud circles considered herself a “lurker.” She didn’t want to be visible. Yet after a few weeks she said, “thinking about people and networks and just simple possibilities in a different way is already making me more open at and about work.”

She may still limit her use of the Internet to just looking for information. She may limit her exchange of ideas to in-person talks over coffee. But now she’ll be “open at and about work.” She’s realized that private and open needn’t be opposites, and that mental shift alone will greatly increase her chances of reaching her goals.

The worst performance review I ever had

The bad egg detector: How do they know?

 

Even before I opened the email, I knew it was bad news. Subject: year-end review.

“He needs to speak with you,” his assistant wrote. Though the deadline for reviews had passed months before, she seemed almost frantic, trying to schedule a call before the end of the week. He was in another city, and it was after 10pm there when he spoke to me on my mobile.

This is a true story. I write it not to solicit sympathy or embarrass anyone. Instead, my purpose is to show how management processes, however well-intended, have devolved into lotteries of a kind. Some win, most lose.

It was only years later that I learned I could change the game.

The set-up

In every firm I’ve worked in, there’s a similar process. You agree on objectives with your manager, review progress in the middle of the year, and get a formal review at the end of the year. To ensure the firm pays top performers and gets rid of low performers, the year-end ratings have to fit a curve. On the surface, it all seems reasonable, systematic, and fair.

In practice, though, behind all the spreadsheets and numbers, there’s an intensely human calculus. I’ve had years where I performed poorly but had powerful sponsors and got good reviews. It’s when your connection to your manager is weak, or the network you have isn’t powerful, that you’re at risk.

A friend compared this style of management to a wolf-pack, with leaders picking on the weak, allowing the other wolves to keep going, happy it wasn’t them who was sacrificed.

The conversation

I happened to be the weak one that year. The person I had been reporting to had left earlier in the year and our team’s fate was now uncertain. We used the word “exposed.” One colleague resigned right away. Referring to rats leaving a sinking ship, he told me “This rat can swim.” Others, like me, stayed on board.

The reason for the late-night review via telephone was that the next day was when our compensation would be announced. I presume someone needed to tick a box, perhaps afraid of a lawsuit. I imagine a person in HR exhorting managers “Did you communicate to all your poor performers?” I imagine she kept a list.

The conversation didn’t last long. He was earnest, saying he wanted me to succeed. But what was success? Was he even aware of what I did? How did my work compare to others? Why single me out this year and not others?

I never asked those questions. I never asked him about the objectives I was ostensibly being rated against. I knew it was pointless.

It was years ago, but I still remember hating the firm and the system. I remember feeling ashamed.

The lesson

Ironically, not many years after my bad review, it was my boss’ turn to be the weak one after he got a new manager. I wonder if he had a similar conversation, if he felt it was unfair.

It’s only now that I see the futility of taking it all so personally. My boss, my colleagues, and I were all trapped by processes that promoted internal competition, politicized the environment, and systematically propagated mediocrity and unfairness. It’s why PwC, a major consultancy regarding HR practices in large organizations wrote:

“There’s a growing school of thought that our traditional tools for managing employee performance are outdated and in need of a radical reboot.”

You could wait for firms to change their practices. Or you could work in such a way that you build a better network now, one that gives you access to people and possibilities without having to ask for permission from your boss.

If I get a poor review in the future, I won’t be angry and I certainly won’t be ashamed. I’ll acknowledge the setback, reach out to my network, and keep going. Never again will I cede the power over my career and my happiness to someone else. You don’t have to either.

“Working Out Loud changed my life”

Those could be my words but they’re not. They’re from Barbara in Germany, one of the first people to go through the 12-week coaching program for working out loud.

Barbara and I first met via an enterprise social network we use at our firm. Only after we started coaching via telephone did we get the chance to meet in person and become good friends. Working with her shaped the ideas in the book and led to forming working out loud circles.

Here’s her working out loud story.

Her purpose

BarbaraBarbara grew up near the Baltic Sea in Lübeck, Germany. One of four kids, she was the one with the traveling bug, spending nine months at a university in Texas and taking jobs in places like Milan and Brussels. When I met her, she was working in a group responsible for the firm’s books and records where she spent a lot of time analyzing large, complicated spreadsheets.

In our first session we tried to figure out what her purpose would be. More money or recognition at work? A different job in finance? She mentioned she enjoyed helping people with taxes. Could exploring that be her purpose? None of these were appealing. It turned out that Barbara didn’t consider herself a finance person. She was good at it, particularly the detailed analysis, but it wasn’t her. After university, she sort of stumbled into a finance track and didn’t know how or when to change.

After some deliberation, she decided her purpose was simply “to see what else is out there.”

Exploring & connecting

That’s when we started to talk about her other interests, and the one she was most animated about was genealogy. While I think of genealogy as simply charting a family tree, Barbara took it much further. Both for her own family and for historical figures and dates, she would pore through old church and government records. If she hit a dead end, she would call archivists for possible leads. She was also writing about it regularly.

Her first step was to look for other people like her, including other bloggers, people who organized genealogy conferences, and firms that specialized in family tree research. She followed them online and exchanged tweets and email. Within a few weeks, she had her content featured on major genealogy sites, including a lovely profile story focused on her.

That’s when she discovered something. She found that people did genealogy for companies too. She learned that people made a living producing corporate histories – books, documentaries, online content. Her favorite example was a beautiful online history for a company in her hometown so she connected with the person in charge. She discovered our own firm had a corporate historical society too.

Discovering possibilities

The more she looked, the more she found. It was like discovering a whole new world. For the first time, she started wondering if she could somehow connect her passion for genealogy to her work inside a large firm. Maybe, for example, she could help the firm’s corporate historical society engage more people inside the company. She reached out to them via email, describing her appreciation for their work. That led to other interactions including organizing a corporate history event and working to promote their content on our firm’s enterprise social network.

Just had my call from the historical society. And it was amazing! Again I have this huge grin on my face ;) He directly asked me for my opinions regarding the examples he sent me and if I have other ideas…

The results

Before she started working out loud, Barbara was already smart, charming, and articulate. Working out loud just amplified her positive qualities and increased the chances she’d come into contact with interesting people and work she might find fulfilling. She achieved her near-term goal of “seeing what else is out there.” Here’s how she described her results:

I’m more visible because of my blog. I’m often asked to provide input for other bloggers. I got profiled by myheritage. I found a new topic of interest which is corporate history. I have a regular exchange with historians (inside and outside of my company). I started the history group on our internal collaboration platform to bring my whole self to work.

 

I don’t want to sound too pathetic, but WOL really changed my life. How I approach work and life. How I do things. I’ve always been a connector of people and topics. But this coaching took me to the next level. Now I do it with a purpose…not only for me, but for others too. I think even more about “who could participate in this” or “who could benefit out of it.

Barbara’s story is an example of job crafting. That’s where you make adjustments to both your job and your approach so you tap into intrinsic motivators: autonomy, control, purpose, connectedness. It’s how you can make almost any job fulfilling and meaningful.

Barbara’s still at the same firm but now she has greater control of her learning and her network. She’s routinely discovering other people, ideas, and possibilities. She feels, as she wrote, like she can bring her whole self to work.

Imagine if everyone felt that way.

How to discover a job you’ll love: the story of Sandi Ball

Musical Note nails by cute polishMaybe you know someone who’s bored, frustrated, or angry at work. Maybe they feel like a monkey trapped in some experiment. Maybe that someone is you.

The good news is that the world of work has splintered into an ever-expanding set of opportunities. The bad news is that the traditional steps for finding work are  designed for matching you to traditional jobs, not for connecting you to opportunities you’ll love.

To make the most of the wider range of possibilities, you can learn a lot from a 25 year-old woman in Canada who has a passion for nail polish.

Jobs from Abbot to Zymurgist 

You used to be able to name all the occupations. Farmer, doctor, lawyer. It was only in the 1930s that the concept of a white-collar worker even arose. Knowledge worker came about in the late 1950s. But since then, the sheer diversity of what people call work has changed dramatically.

In an in-depth study called The Changing Nature of Work, the National Research Council described the increasing heterogeneity of workers, work, and the workplace:

  1. there is increased diversity in the workforce and within occupations
  2. traditional occupational boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, 
  3. the range of choices open to human resources managers and other decision makers about how to structure work appears to be increasing

It’s not a small change. In the 1950 US Census, for example, there were only 287 kinds of jobs. By the year 2000, before many of the Internet tools we use today even existed, that number nearly doubled to 543 and it continues to rise.

As the number of different kinds of jobs increases, so do the odds that you can find works that suits your particular aptitudes and passions. But how would you find those jobs? How would they find you?

The story of cutepolish

As a young girl growing up in Alberta, Canada, Sandi Ball was fascinated with nail polish. Her mother would often help her decorate her nails. Then, when Sandi turned 12, her mother gave her a collection of 50 different bottles of polish. Sandi was hooked. Ten years later when she was a 22 year old student and part-time teacher, people would frequently compliment her on the way her nails looked. They also said it looked too difficult for them to ever do.

So Sandi started a YouTube channel. Wanting to keep work and her hobby separate, she didn’t reveal her name and called the channel cutepolish. Originally she saw it as a creative outlet. She could combine her “passions in art, technology, and teaching…to film and edit instructional videos to show girls all over the world how fun and easy nail art could be.”

She could have worked in a salon, or become a teacher or videographer. All fine jobs with familiar labels. Instead, she started making contributions that combined her different passions and might lead to more interesting possibilities.

Now, four years later, her videos have been viewed more than 240 million times and her channel has more than two million subscribers. She connects with thousands of fans on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and her popularity led to an invitation to appear at VidCon, “the world’s premier gathering of people who make online video” where over 12,000 people attended to meet and learn from successful video makers like Sandi. There, the audience included YouTube producers and other influencers who could open doors she’d never have dreamed about growing up in Alberta, Canada.

Last month, as if finally embracing her success, she revealed her name in this charming Q&A video.

What you can do

Was Sandi Ball lucky? My mother would say she made her own luck.

Her first video was a simple 4-minute video with a combination of still shots, text, and bits of video overlaid with low background music. More than fours years and hundreds of videos later, her latest contribution is professional and stylish, including her own narration and product placements from the cosmetics company Sephora. As one fan commented on the original video: “she has come a LONG LONG LONG LONG LONG way.”

Sandi never heard of working out loud but that’s exactly what she has been doing. She made her work visible, framed it as a contribution, built a purposeful network, and increased her chances of finding meaning and fulfillment.