“Holy ****. That is awesome.”

Working Out Loud CirclesThat’s a reaction from someone in one of our working out loud circles. It’s an unconventional testimonial, perhaps, but captures both the surprise and joy people feel when a circle member is successful in building a network, taking control of their career and their life.

Here’s the short story behind that reaction that demonstrates how circles work in practice.

We were in week 6

Circles usually form for 12 weeks and this was our sixth meeting. At the beginning of each meeting, before talking about a set of slightly more advanced techniques and exercises, we quickly recap the progress each person made with their plan from the week before. One woman described an event she attended and some of the influential people there who could help her grow her business. Our circle helped her choose the specific people she should add to her relationship list.

“What should I say?” she asked us, and we spent a few minutes suggesting ways to frame an email about the event as a contribution. We wanted her to start with appreciation but to also reference her own work in a way that would be helpful to the person receiving the note. It was a short practice in email empathy that Dale Carnegie would have approved of.

At the end of the circle meeting, we all described the steps we would take before the next session and encouraged each other to reach out if we needed help. Our friend said she would send that email.

“Oh my god. What now?”

Two days later, we all got forwarded an email with a short question from our friend: “Oh my god. What now?” The influential person she was nervous about reaching out to had already responded – thanking her for such a nice note, showing an interest in her work, and alluding to possible collaborations.

The people in our circle quickly offered suggestions for a reply, and the rest of the mail thread was a virtual high-fiving, celebrating our friend’s new connection. She sent the reply that day.

The really important thing that happened

Our friend has been working her lists for a few weeks now and has read a draft of the book. So she knows how to make her work visible, how to frame it as a contribution, how to build a network and be empathetic in her communications. But she still doesn’t have the habit of doing all of it.

So the important thing that happened this week wasn’t that our friend sent an email, made a connection with an influential person, or even that she created a possibility for collaboration where none existed before.

The important thing was that she practiced. She exercised the techniques she has learned so far, got positive reinforcement from both her network and our group, and is more prepared – and more likely – to take the next step and practice again. Gradually, she’s developing the habit of working in an open, generous, connected way.

The working out loud circle gives her emotional support, coaching, advice, and a sense of shared accountability that helps her develop her new habits. Over our remaining time together, as that habit grows stronger, she’ll be equipped to work out loud towards any goal.

“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.

Accelerated intimacy at work (without a call from HR)

Even during some of the worst times in my life, I’ve responded to How are you? with Everything’s great!  I thought by showing people that I didn’t need help, that I was always happy, I could somehow make them like me more.

It’s a mistake I still make. Now though, I know it actually distances people. I’ve seen how the lack of intimacy leads to shallow relationships, to bonds that are easily broken.

Thankfully, I’m gradually learning some ways to get closer to people – and let them get closer to me – at work and in the rest of my life.

A strange & beautiful business dinner

A strange & beautiful dinnerAfter walking down a long, twisting corridor, through a wine cellar and then an undersized entryway, I stepped into a gorgeous, candlelit private dining room where there was one long table and 16 lavish place settings. Most of the people arriving had never met before, so you can imagine the small talk before dinner. What do you do? Do you live in the city? Such a lovely room.

Like most business dinners, I anticipated leaving with a full stomach but emotionally empty.

At this one event, though, the host wanted us to remember the evening and to genuinely get to know each other. So after a brief introduction about the purpose of the evening, he asked us to talk with our neighbors about something we were struggling with. Then he went first.

He told us how he had recently adopted a teenaged son who was having emotional issues. There had been a problem at the house. Police had to come. He shared how he loved his son but was unsure whether they should continue to live together.

The room was dead silent. No one talked or checked email. We were all focused on our host and his story – and we cared. Then the host again asked us to share our own current struggles with the people sitting next to us. We formed groups of three and started talking about things we’d have never considered sharing just a few minutes earlier.

I’ll never forget that dinner.

Making it safe

The host of that party gave us permission to be vulnerable. He made it okay for us to share a weakness or a struggle. He encouraged us to offer help if we could or at least our full attention if we couldn’t.

That made all the difference. Instead of my usual Everything’s great! I could be myself. Instead of trying to size up the people around me so they fit in neat little boxes, I saw them as real human beings.

Intimacy at work

When Dale Carnegie wrote about how to make people like you, he didn’t say Tell them everything is great! or Talk about the same trivial things everyone else talks about. Instead, two of his principles were Become genuinely interested in other people and Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.

You needn’t respond to each greeting in the elevator with probing questions  or a list of your challenges. But even a slight shift from professional to personal can make work more meaningful and fulfilling.

On an individual level, for example, I try to show that I care more about the person than the role they play. For me, that means I replace What do you do?  with

What are you excited about?

What would you love to learn?

What could you use help with?

I’ll offer up my own short example so they feel they have permission to share. When I let them know I’m genuinely interested in them, the almost universal reaction is surprise. That’s often followed by an intensely personal conversation that forges a connection between us.

In our Working Out Loud Circles, a kind of purposeful peer support group for careers, one of the first things we do is to share an intimate story about ourselves and our goals. In the initial meeting of a new circle  just this week, I learned things about friends and strangers in our group that made me care more. That bond will increase our desire to help each other and collaborate throughout the next 11 weeks we’ll be working together.

Even on a corporate level, we’ve encouraged intimacy using our enterprise social network. Though the majority of contributions are directly related to work, I’ve shared my own failures and personal challenges so others know they can, too. People from around the world have shared poignant stories about work and family that – amidst all the inhuman trappings of a modern global corporation – help people care about each other. Their stories help us realize we’re not just cogs in a machine but human beings connected by the work we do and potentially much more.

It took me a long time but I’ve learned that greater intimacy, while not always comfortable or safe, makes work and life better.

The best peer support group for your career?

Peer SupportI’ve got a problem and I’m hoping you can help me.

I know that working out loud – working in an open, generous, connected way – increases your chances of finding meaning and fulfillment in your work and life. I also know I can teach anyone the necessary ideas and techniques, and I can coach individuals to gradually develop new habits to do it regularly.

But how would you help millions of people to work out loud?

Part of the answer, it seems, is a self-organizing peer support system for people’s careers. So we’re setting out to create one.

When peer support works & when it doesn’t

I’ve been in exactly one successful peer support group. It was part of Keith Ferrazzi’s Relationship Masters Academy and everyone in the class was part of a 4-6 person group. Some worked and some didn’t. Our group was effective because we got to know and trust each other quickly, we had specific things to do, and we had a schedule for meeting in person. When any of those things broke down, so did our group.

There is a wide range of peer support programs. People who want to lose weight, to become better speakers, to be happier. It’s easier than ever to form groups but as hard as ever to maintain them or have them actually achieve something.

One program in particular has most of the elements I’d want in a support system for working out loud.

A great peer support group

When Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, it wasn’t for the money but for the movement. She wanted to genuinely help women (and men) develop new habits and new mindsets related to everyday work and to their overall career. 

 The book and her TED talks are important in raising awareness. But to help people actually change, she created a distributed peer support system called Lean In Circles.

Lean In Circles

Today, there are over 14,000 Lean In Circles and the available support is excellent.

  • It’s easy to join an existing group or form your own.
  • There’s a moderator role to help keep things organized, positive, and productive.
  • A rich FAQ provides answers to common questions.
  • Circle Kits provide clear instructions for running meetings & simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • There’s a range of additional online resources on a beautiful website, including video lectures for developing specific skills.

No wonder so many groups formed. The book inspired many people and Lean In Circles provide an easy way to build on that and help people put the ideas into action.

Working Out Loud Circles

There’s a lot to learn from Lean In Circles and much to emulate. Washington Post writer felt it was the Circles, not the book, that would define the legacy of Sheryl Sandberg’s movement. But their mission is somewhat different from mine.  After spending time with 6 different Circles, the Post writer described them this way:

I found the Lean In Circles to be more like Alcoholics Anonymous fused with Girl Scouts — a support group built around a social movement.

That may be both appropriate and effective given Sheryl Sandberg’s book – often called a “feminist manifesto” – and her goals. Working Out Loud is not a manifesto. It’s based on my experience with the 12-week coaching program. In addition to having people support each other, I want the groups to develop specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

So while aspiring to achieve the best of Lean In Circles, I’d do three things differently:

Limit the groups to 4-5 people including the moderator. More than that and there’s too much free-form discussion and not enough time for detailed feedback on individual’s goals and progress.

Meet for 12 weeks only. After an initial meeting to get to know the other people and their goals, groups members would be asked to commit to 11 additional meetings. It’s hard for support groups that meet indefinitely to maintain their early enthusiasm and momentum. People tend to view meetings as optional and come and go as they feel they need them. Instead, we’ll seek to build a sense of shared commitment – “emotional communion” – over a finite period. That will focus people’s attention and greatly increase the odds they’ll make progress.

Provide a more structured curriculum. The 12 weeks are meant to be a guided mastery program. The more specific the exercises and the more tangible the results in terms of artifacts and feedback, the more likely that people can develop new habits that stick.

What’s one thing we could do better?

We’re starting small. Some very good friends in London already launched the first Working Out Loud Circle. I’ll moderate a circle in New York starting next week and a small group at work in Barcelona just decided they’d form a circle.

It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. There’s so much to do and learn. I don’t dare propose I can help as many people as Sheryl Sandberg but I dare to dream it. When the doubts arise as they always do, I’ll just do the work and ask people who care about it for honest feedback.

So please contribute your opinions in the comments. Does the idea of forming Working Out Loud Circles make sense to you? Have you ever been part of a peer support group? What worked and what didn’t?

To help millions of people work out loud, what’s one thing we could do better?

Approaching people who are smarter, busier, and more important than you

Approaching the Wizard

Approaching the Wizard

One of the reasons many of us don’t have larger networks is we’re uncomfortable approaching people we don’t know. Here, for example, is a comment on last week’s post about relationships:

“It may sound stupid but the biggest impediment to my reaching out to experts I admire comes from a set of tapes in my head that they are too important, busy and clever to have time for a stranger. I think it’s an age and female thing – as my Millennial colleagues have no problem reaching out to anyone.”

Well, I’ve had that same fear, too. “Why would they want to talk with me?” In the coaching I do I find it’s a feeling almost all of us share – and one we can easily overcome.

What are we afraid of?

Part of my own problem was my sense of what traditional networking involved. Even excellent books on networking like “Never Eat Alone” contained chapters like “The Genius of Audacity”, “Warming the Cold Call”, and how to “Be a Conference Commando”.

The chapter headings alone made me uncomfortable.

There could be deeper reasons, too. Perhaps the commenter and I have self-esteem problems. Or we fear rejection so much we avoid making contact all together. Or we’re guilty of a fundamental attribution error that causes us to attribute superpowers to people we don’t know.

3 things to practice

Whatever the root cause, I’ve found being mindful of 3 questions changes how I feel when I approach someone.

  1. What would my reaction be if I were them?
  2. Why should they care?
  3. Why am I doing this?

The first question leads to empathy. It makes more mindful of the actions I take and the words I use. As Henry Ford observed almost 100 years ago:

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

The second question leads to generosity. What is it I have to offer this person? The gift should be genuine and appropriate for the level of our relationship. Before approaching someone for the first time, I always check if they have an online presence or have published something I could read since genuine appreciation of someone’s work is a simple gift everyone likes receiving.

The third question leads to confidence. Examining my motives helps me avoid being manipulative, insincere, or otherwise avoid doing something I’m uncomfortable with. Seth Godin described “the sound of confidence”:

“It’s a blend of two things. “I’d really like to help you,” and, “If this isn’t for you, that’s okay, there are others it might be a better match for.”

Generosity, not arrogance. Problem-solving, not desperation. Helpfulness, not selfishness.”

When I’ve done my best to put myself in the other person’s position and I know my gift is genuine, I can be confident instead of afraid. Yes, they may not reply and might even reject me outright. But, as Seth Godin also says:

“It’s arrogant to assume that you’ve made something so extraordinary that everyone everywhere should embrace it…Finding the humility to happily walk away from those that don’t get it unlocks our ability to do great work.”

“Geeze, it works”

I’m coaching a woman in Germany and I could sense her trepidation on the phone as we were going through her list of people she wanted to know. She’s smart, creative, and charming yet the mere idea of contacting a stranger made her anxious.

But with those 3 questions in mind, she sent a note to someone and  was happy and surprised when she got a response right away. It even included a warm thank you. “Geeze, it works ;)” she wrote me, “And I was so nervous to just approach them unasked..”

It was only in my mid-forties when I started realizing that the person behind the curtain is just a person. No matter how smart, busy, or important they may seem, they have needs and wants like everyone else. When you lead with empathy and generosity that’s free of attachment, your fear melts away and you can approach anyone.