When the road ahead isn’t clear

In 2012, I was sitting in my office at Deutsche Bank, dispirited and disillusioned, wondering what I could possibly do to alter the downward trajectory of my career.

I had a few ideas. I toyed with a startup idea, had begun exploring a topic called “working out loud”, and recently started a blog. 

But what should I do next? Should I try to make the most of my job? Quit and try something new? Do some other kind of work on the side? 

I didn’t know.

Climbing the hill (with your head up)

Around that time I was reading a book called Running Lean aimed at helping startups deal with uncertainty. (The idea for a Lean Canvas comes from that book, and I’m re-reading it now for reasons you’ll see below.)

The book contains a rather arcane reference to a search algorithm that can apply to startups—and also to careers. I dog-eared the page with this text box.

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The author’s conclusion underneath helped me see what I should do next.

While there is no way to completely avoid the local maxima problem, you raise your odds for finding a better solution when you are initially open to exploring and even testing multiple models in parallel.

Making it through the fog

That was it! Instead of just “climbing the hill” at Deutsche Bank, or risking everything to leap onto another hill, the key was to follow multiple paths and remain open to possibilities. So, while I tried “local optimization” in my current job, I also did small experiments with other topics and kinds of work. 

Some of those experiments (like designing an app) turned out to be dead ends. But they didn’t cost much and I learned a lot, so they were still good investments. The experiments related to Working Out Loud led to a book, tens of thousands of people in WOL Circles, and a new fulfilling chapter in my life.

A practical way forward 

Just today, someone wrote me to say that he’s challenged by a situation similar to the one I faced eight years ago. He said he’s looking for a clear path ahead for his career and doesn’t see one.

But do any of us see a clear path ahead, especially now? 

I replied that I still don’t know exactly where I’m heading (which is why I’m re-reading that book). The best we can do is to think of our aspirations and intentions as a kind of compass, not a map. You take a small step, look around and explore and learn, re-check your compass, then decide on a next step. 

The person who wrote to me is in a Circle now, and my hope is that the structure, shared accountability, and support in that Circle will help him to get moving—to take more steps and learn from others who are traveling similar paths.

I hope the road ahead takes him, and you, to some wonderful places. 

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How much is it worth?

I can only imagine what she felt like. A new job in a new country, thousands of miles away. And as soon as she arrives she’s forced into lockdown, alone and isolated.

This week’s story shows how, as much as Working Out Loud helps with business objectives, it goes far beyond that. It nurtures feelings of connection and confidence. It helps people thrive, even now.

Usually, when someone asks me about the value of Working Out Loud, I offer benchmarks and use cases and Net Promoter Scores. Now I will also talk about Maria Fernanda and the personal transformation she experienced in her Circle. I am grateful she shared her story with me, and allowed me to share it with you.

“How much is it worth for an employee to feel connected & empowered?”

“What’s the value of a happier, more confident person?”

***

“Hi John,

My name is Maria Fernanda and I am a first generation Mexican immigrant in the UK. I arrived, 24 years old, my first formal job contract, 2 bags and my cell phone on March 2020 to Heathrow airport, met my co-workers for 1 week, and then entered lockdown.

Even though I tried to train myself with all the vast material on the internet, I felt lost. Cultural work shock (imagine arriving to a new country and trying to understand the work culture via SKYPE), new methods of working for everyone, not knowing how to show my potential or how I could contribute to the team. 3 months passed like that and I couldn’t even unmute myself in conference calls without trembling.

But one day, a co-worker told me about a WOL circle, and that it might help us to connect and talk with more people. I joined because I was curious and craved for connection, but I didn’t expect to be touched the way I did. 

Apart from the fact that I was in a circle with truly remarkable women (5 of us), it was the highlight of our lockdown weeks. We all came from different places and different backgrounds, but all of that seemed to disappear, along with the worries of everything. It appeared like magic, a safe space; with time we realized we had deeply connected, we truly cared for each other and we could support our goals even though we are so different and we had never met in person. It helped us identify and concentrate in what we care about with all our hearts and how to track it in the middle of all the uncertainty and fear.

I was so scared to not be accepted the way I am, or to be rejected in a foreign country were I didn’t know anyone, but the WOL circle and the women that shared it with me made it go away with kindness. In the WOL circle I was accepted for who I am and that gave me the strength to show my abilities at work and in my personal life. The way the guides were written made me feel like I had a true friend that knew how to guide me, and I feel truly grateful. I now have the tools to make my life better John, and I promise I will make a difference with them, even a small one. I felt I was so alone in quarantine but I know I am not alone anymore.

Also, I can unmute myself and present powerpoints in conference calls which is a great step :-)

I hope you have been okay these last few months, and I wish you the best with all my heart. Everything will be better :-)

PS. My goal is to become a writer someday :-) so if life is kind, we might connect one day too. Thank you for all the hope and the support.”

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The Goal Clinic

The first members of the WOL Membership Network signed up this weekend, and it’s already an amazing mix of people.

Creating this new network opens up possibilities for individuals as well as companies of all sizes. Here’s one of the first things we’ll do together, and the kinds of people who will benefit from it.

The Goal Clinic

All the Circle methods, including WOL Mindfulness, begin with a goal of some kind. It helps you orient your activities throughout your Circle and tap into your intrinsic motivation.

But what should you choose? Though there are instructions in Week 1, I’ve seen how people benefit from getting some coaching to help them choose or refine their goal.

That’s what happens in the Goal Clinic. Before our new membership Circles even form, we will give people the chance to share their goals, listen to others, and explore tips and possibilities with me and others in the network. That will help them get off to a great start with a meaningful goal they can make progress towards.

We’ve been doing this with our biggest corporate customers, and now we can do it for everyone in the new network. Even better, we can offer ways for members with similar goals to continue to connect and exchange throughout their membership, expanding our chances for learning and growing together.

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Five Kinds of Members

Some of our new members work for themselves and some in big organizations. Some joined as part of their personal development program at work and had their company support their membership. Here are five types of members we’ve seen so far.

Career Builders who want to develop their skills and access more opportunities.

Joining my first Working Out Loud Circle was one of the best decisions I made.

- Lea on her WOL Circle experience

The Curious who are looking to explore new topics and make new connections.

[WOL Mindfulness gave me] a maximum outcome with a minimum investment of time. It helped me to reduce stress and to realize how much good is happening in my life. My new habits have become an integral part of my everyday life.

- Melanie on her WOL Mindfulness experience

Supportive Managers who want to offer their staff personal development and coaching opportunities that are proven, cost-effective, and easy to administer.

Many are simply astonished by the number of opportunities that they were offered while applying their WOL practices.

The employees indicated that WOL has changed the way they approach and value others as well as the way they treat and value themselves." 

- Nadine Skerlavaj, “Why is WOL accepted by employees?” [Bachelor Thesis]

Small Company Executives who would like the kind of employee and culture programs that large companies have, so they too can foster a more agile, collaborative workplace. 

An ideal method to further develop our learning and working culture.

- Dürr Systems AG, sharing their WOL experience on LinkedIn

Working Out Loud can provide some of that “social glue” that enables organizations to move forward cohesively. Whether it’s a virtual team or one physically together.

- Shirley on joining a Circle as a new joiner

Progressive HR Professionals who are looking for new ways to help employees collaborate and feel connected, especially in a time where more people are working remotely. Some are even looking for cross-company networking.

We are 70 leaders on a journey towards better collaboration culture and decided everyone should start a Circle. 

- Sebastian Kolberg, Leading Digital Transformation & Change Projects, Bayer

The future of corporate learning is self-directed and social. WOL is an important part of our learning strategy.

- Laura Krsnik, Head of Global Learning, Merck KGaA

Can you relate to these roles and these quotes? Are you looking for new skills, opportunities, connections, or ideas? The WOL Membership Network makes it easier than ever to invest in yourself. 

Learn more at: signup.www.africanmango-slim.com.

The WOL Membership Network

“For those who’ve felt there could be more to work and life.” That’s who Working Out Loud is dedicated to.

You know you have more to offer, but to whom?

You feel there could be more to work and life, but what?

You believe your company could be more collaborative, but how?

WOL helps you discover answers to these questions. Joining the new WOL Membership Network makes it easy, and gives you access to coaching, support, resources, and new methods you won’t find anywhere else.

Time to Invest in Yourself

For every person who has experienced a WOL Circle, there are dozens more who want to try it but don’t have the time or energy to do everything themselves: finding other Circle members, organizing meetings, registering for materials, and going through the process on their own.

In the new WOL Membership Network, we do it all for you and with you. Once you sign up, we help you get started and get the most from your experience so your time is spent on the most important thing: investing in yourself. 

A Professional, Supported Coaching Experience

Your membership fee gives you access to a professional, supported, curated peer coaching experience. We:

  • Match you with Circle members

  • Get you organized & get you started

  • Offer live coaching sessions

  • Support you along the way.

It’s an annual membership, so for an entire year you can:

  • Join a WOL Circle or the new 8-week WOL Mindfulness Circle

  • Join multiple Circles over the course of your membership

  • Connect with people with similar goals & roles

  • Receive an official certificate for each Circle you complete

The Privileges of Membership 

So far, this kind of coaching and support used to only be available to big companies, with WOL Coaches helping them empower hundreds and even thousands of employees. Now you can experience it for yourself.

Maybe you’re looking for the next steps in your career or small business. Maybe you need coaching and development for your employees. Maybe you want to try WOL before introducing it in your company.

This is an opportunity to take a step you’ve been wanting to take.  

How do you join?

The first Circles will begin in January, including the new WOL Mindfulness Circles. (You can choose which kind of method you’d like to start with.) We will limit the initial group to only 100 people—and I will personally support you along the way.

This is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever worked on. After all that has happened in these past few months, I can’t wait to begin a new year helping 100 people invest in themselves and a better future.

To register your interest and get more details, visit signup.www.africanmango-slim.com?.

“A profound program, the insights & tasks were an inspiring framework to our journey on which

we worked, dreamt & developed all together.”

- Daniela, WOL Circle member in Germany

“We know that for the rest of our lives, all the gains we have achieved through WOL will be with us.

This is more than a 12-week process.”

- G?k?e, WOL Circle member in Turkey

Click on the logo to register for more details

Click on the logo to register for more details

WOL Mindfulness - a new kind of WOL Circle

At the beginning of an online meeting, the moderator asked participants for a single word that described how each person felt. The most common responses? “Tired.” “Stressed.” “Exhausted.” “Busy.”

This was a group with good jobs in a modern company. We were all healthy, educated, able to make a living. And yet…it was hard to see past the challenges we each faced.

That’s why I created WOL Mindfulness. Together with Lukas Fütterer and Sophia R?diger from MountainMinds, we developed completely new materials and just concluded a 60-person program in Europe.

The Goal

When you are mindful—when you have trained yourself to control your attention—you are more aware of what’s happening to you and around you, and you can choose your responses in an intentional way. That helps you to think more clearly and make better decisions. It helps you to be calmer and more resilient. Cultivating the skill of mindfulness can make you more effective, and also healthier and happier.

More and more companies recognize the need to help employees cultivate this skill. In a 2017 survey by the Business Group on Health, 35% of employers were offering mindfulness classes or training to employees, with an additional 26% considering them for the future. WOL Mindfulness can be a part of these and other employee health programs,

The point of WOL Mindfulness isn’t to teach people about mindfulness. It’s to help them practice until they become more more mindful and realize the benefits.

What is WOL Mindfulness?

If you have already been in a WOL Circle, certain aspects of WOL Mindfulness will be familiar to you. You will meet as a group of four or five, and it will be a psychologically safe, confidential space without judgment or competition. You will each pick your own goal (though it will be a different kind of goal than you choose in a WOL Circle), and your Circle can meet in person or via video. 

Beyond that, there are several notable differences. This is not about networking so there is no relationship list. You will meet for eight weeks instead of twelve, and you will use the WOL Mindfulness Journal instead of individual guides. In addition to guides for each meeting, the Journal has short daily exercises to do in between meetings. Over the eight weeks, you experience a wide variety of ways to control your attention and develop the skill and habit of mindfulness (i.e., it’s not just meditation). By the end, you develop your own sustainable practice. 

Melanie’s Story & Results from the First Pilot

An earlier attempt I called “WOL: Self-Care” showed me what worked and didn’t work, and I decided to start over with a completely new approach. 

From the detailed feedback we received in our first pilot led by Lukas and Sophia, the key benefits are the exchanges with Circle members and the development of new habits that make a positive difference. 

Melanie, for example, shared on LinkedIn how she realized “a maximum outcome with a minimum investment of time.” WOL Mindfulness helped her develop habits that enable her “to reduce stress and to realize how much good is happening in my life.” Importantly, those habits “have become an integral part of my everyday life.”  

WOL Mindfulness Programs 

When I first started working on this idea, I thought that Circles could be used to help people develop all kinds of new habits and skills, and that Mindfulness should be the next one.

Hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves. 

What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

We are now organizing WOL Mindfulness programs for companies. To discuss a program for your organization, please contact us:    

mindfulness@www.africanmango-slim.com

UPDATE! Individuals can also experience WOL Mindfulness by joining the new WOL Membership Network.


WOL Healthcare: The first pilot

Bettina first wrote to me about the idea almost two years ago, in November of 2018. She had heard about WOL at an event, started a Circle, and wanted to spread it to nurses in a few dozen medical centers. First, though, she needed a few changes. 

“The guides need to become shorter - the nurses do not have 60 minutes a week left, there is too much text, the examples have to refer to the health sector…”

The list went on. 

The Process

Bettina and I talked about it on a call and later in person at the Frankfurt Airport. Gradually, a team formed. Me and four women who each work in different healthcare organizations but share a passion and commitment for improving their workplaces.

Martina Koch

Bettina Jung

Katharina Nolden

Constanze Zeller

For months we talked and debated and wrote together. Eventually, we created a brand new 8-week WOL Circle format that is specially designed for healthcare workers, including those who may be in a frontline role with no access to the internet. 

The Pilot

The first test of the materials will be run by these four smart, creative, determined women, and they will conduct the free pilot in German using their own translation. Here’s a poignant English description of WOL Healthcare that they wrote for an upcoming workshop to enlist participants:

Who, if not you, can make working in the health and social care industry a little better every day? For you personally, for your colleagues, and for an appropriate appreciation in our society.

Because the current situation in particular shows that our accustomed way of working is not sufficient for the challenges we are facing. Together we have to be flexible, innovative and efficient without increasing the already experienced psychological and physical stress.

Health and social professions need continued visibility in their professionalism - it must not stop at clapping on balconies. WOL Healthcare should help you to meet these challenges

It is a privilege to work with Bettina, Martina, Constanze, and Katharina. To learn more about the pilot, register for the workshop. You can also reach them at a special email address: healthcare@www.africanmango-slim.com

The Future

Will this new format work? I’m not sure. But I am confident we will discover how to improve the WOL Circle method to reach more people in a wider range of jobs. And I am determined to apply our learning to help those in healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and other environments so they too can make more of all they have to offer.


The worst employee orientation experience ever

There’s so much invested in finding, attracting, and retaining good people. Yet the worst employee onboarding experience is happening every day in many of the best companies.

I’m not referring to the usual info session in a bland corporate conference room, overstuffed with uninspired Powerpoint. Nor is it how new joiners are typically discarded after they start, left on their own to figure out how to navigate the company and get things done.

The worst experience is when all the familiar rituals for welcoming and connecting new employees no longer exist. No walk around the floor to meet some colleagues. No socializing in the pantry and cafeteria. No impromptu sessions in front of a whiteboard.

All gone. Replaced with a few video calls and a hope that things will return to normal someday.

But hope is not a strategy for having engaged, productive people in your company. There’s plenty of research showing that employees perform better and stay longer when they have meaningful relationships at work, or feel they can be their “authentic selves” when they join, or are part of a psychologically safe group

Customers who integrate WOL Circles in their on-boarding process give employees the chance to experience all of this, enabling them to feel just like these Circle members:

Our WOL circle is like magic. We started as 5 total strangers with such different backgrounds and last week we met for the first time in real life and it felt like we had been friends for years.”

“Here, in Brazil, we've managed to connect different generations and different social classes. I'd like to thank all people "living" in the WOL universe because it has been a powerful tool to build strong bridges.”

“Through my WOL Circle I have turned “just me” into “us” and it feels great to collaborate with others in my company.”

"It is amazing how life becomes more meaningful when we interact genuinely with people.”

Before the pandemic, onboarding was the most common WOL use case, and the most obviously beneficial. That’s true now more than ever.

do youR new employees Feel connected? Photo by Anna Kate Jordan

“Just a door to take us beyond the superficial”

In 2009, in a nondescript conference room near Wall Street, forty of us listened as Keith Ferrazzi delivered instructions for an exercise that made everyone visibly uncomfortable.

We were the first class of the “Relationship Masters Academy.” Keith was there to teach us how to build meaningful, authentic relationships, beginning with the strangers in the class. 

How to relate to another person

At that time, Keith had recently released a new book about networking. His first one, Never Eat Alone, had already become known as “the bestselling business classic on the power of relationships.” 

In one exercise, he formed us into groups and told us to avoid “the usual professional small talk.” Instead, he instructed us to share something personal, to be more curious about each other, to try and genuinely care. My small group included three investment bankers I never met before, and I quickly assumed what they were like. But, following Keith’s instructions, we shared details of our lives, offering vulnerability and attention.

That changed everything. The strangers in my group turned out to be wildly different from what I imagined and also different from each other. After our short exercise, I found I liked and cared about each of them, and during the course we became friends.

50 facts about you

Many people are uncomfortable with this approach to relationships at work—“I keep my personal and professional lives separate.” “I don’t think it’s appropriate.”—and most of us don’t have a Keith Ferrazzi guiding us through the process.

I wrote Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle (“Make it personal”) to make things easier. One of the exercises is to list 50 facts about yourself and then discuss your lists, looking for connections and surprises. In almost every Circle, this exchange brings the group members closer together. (You can find my own list here.) As Keith writes, seeking common ground is “just a door to take us beyond the superficial,” making it easier to develop a deeper relationship.

Trust + Relatedness = Possibility

There’s plenty of research showing that feelings of trust and relatedness lead to greater information exchange, cooperation, and collaboration.

When it comes to your own work, how do you build that sense of trust and relatedness? How do you go beyond the superficial—especially now—and open doors that can increase a feeling of connection and earn you access to new possibilities?

How do you build trust and a sense of relatedness….especially now?

How do you build trust and a sense of relatedness….especially now?

Cultural differences, real & imagined

“We would love to see an Arabic edition,” he wrote, in response to the upcoming German version of Working Out Loud. “This book is a life changing one. My goal is to spread the word when I go back home to Saudi Arabia.”

“Really?” I thought. “Why? And what about the cultural differences?”

I’ve had several European Circles tell me certain exercises are “too American.” I’ve had people tell me that Japanese and Chinese cultures might reject WOL entirely. (“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” “The bird which doesn’t hide itself gets shot.”) Yet there are many Circles in all of those places.

Sultan, an engineer in the Saudi Armed Forces, educated me about his culture in the comments.

Sultan: “We highly value networks and relationships and they are ingrained in the society, and the reason is that the Middle East and specifically my home country Saudi Arabia is a tribal society where people based their strength on family, clan  and tribe size. On the other hand we like our privacy and we don't show vulnerability because it's a sign of weakness.”  

Me: “Interesting. The Chinese concept of guanxi is similar if I understand it properly. “Working in networks” is common, though those networks tend to be closed and reciprocal. (e.g., I do business with you and you with me). It’s not bad, but it can be limiting. WOL can help with discovery and greater access.”

Sultan: “Spot on.” 

I was thinking of this exchange today as I spoke with a company in the middle of a difficult merger. The cultures are different, they said, and the sense of “Us and Them” has been hard to change.

Is there such a thing as cultural differences? Of course. But we consistently see that such barriers can be overcome. Circles of strangers, for example, often describe themselves as friends by the end of their time together. The Circle helps them discover that even strangers from around the world have much more in common than they may have ever imagined. 

In companies, the Circles help build “human bridges” that span traditional boundaries: locations and departments, even gender and generations. The greater the connectivity in the organization, the more that colleagues see each other as individuals instead of labels, the more “Us and Them” becomes “Us.”

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3 kinds of corporate change agent

When I worked at Deutsche Bank, I liked to think of myself as a kind of change agent, someone fighting the establishment to make a positive difference. 

Yet, for all we accomplished, I fell far short of my ambitions. Now I know why.

I was the second type of change agent.

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The Well-intentioned

This first group of aspiring change agents is the largest and least effective. They talk about the need for change but have little influence or authority. Their complaints and posts are the equivalent of throwing rocks at the corporate machine. They make a small noise, but they don’t make a dent. 

The Connected

The next category is more serious, more committed. They are still volunteers, but they demonstrate passion and persistence over time. Through their contributions they build relationships with others inside and outside the company.

For example, you may be a person who has been in a WOL Circle and wants to spread it in your company. You organize events. You form a community on your intranet. You share your work and connect with others like you spreading WOL in other companies. All of that gives you influence and access that the Well-intentioned never earn.

Some go further and get special training that helps them do all of this. There’s a WOL Mentor training in Basel, Switzerland in early August that I highly recommend, and you can find esteemed alumni talking about their experience (in German) here and here. These individuals, supported by others, are equipped and encouraged to go further.

The Empowered

This final group is the smallest, but has the greatest chances for creating sustainable change. They have combined the passion, persistence, and contributions of the Connected with formal authority. 

In the case of WOL, these individuals have been certified as WOL Mentors by their company. Spreading WOL is in their objectives or job description or learning development plan (or all three). They are empowered by management to be more ambitious and accomplish more. And as a result they make 10x the difference of the Connected. (The two alumni I mentioned above went on to become “empowered” and that enabled them to dramatically expand their efforts.)

For example, there are internal WOL Mentors in Deutsche Bahn Merck, Bosch, and Daimler and in these companies alone there are more than ten thousand employees in Circles.

That’s meaningful change; scalable, sustainable change. 

Which kind of change agent are you? Which kind would you like to be?