Anja’s Story (from the new edition of Working Out Loud)

This story is from the first chapter of Working Out Loud. (Which is now available for pre-order in German too.)

Like other stories in the book, and thousands more in WOL Circles globally, it is about the power of making contributions and connections, earning you access to more possibilities. It’s about self-determination, exploring ways to make more of all you have to offer and realize more of your potential.

I hope you enjoy it, and that you will use Working Out Loud to write your own story.

Click on Anja’s photo to see her LinkedIn profile

Click on Anja’s photo to see her LinkedIn profile

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Anja earns access to more possibilities

Anja grew up in a picturesque small town of fewer than fifteen thousand people. Upon graduation from the local high school, she applied for an internship at a savings bank about fifteen minutes away. She got the job. 

After four years, Anja knew she wanted more from work but didn’t think she could get very far without a university degree. So she enrolled in a college with an evening program, and for several years she juggled working during the day with going to classes and studying at night. Meanwhile, as it became clear that a career in a local bank wasn’t going to be enough for her, she moved to a large company in a nearby city and got an entry-level job as a clerk in the Purchasing Department. 

When she finally graduated, though, after all those nights and weekends of extra work, she was offered a role as a secretary. It was disappointing. She said, “All that effort to get a degree just to sit there in the end and stick receipts on my boss’s expense report made me more and more frustrated every single day.” Then she paused and slowly repeated that last phrase, as if reliving it: “Every. Single. Day.”

It wasn’t that she thought being a secretary was beneath her or was necessarily a bad job. She just felt she could contribute more. “I wanted a job where I could bring in my passion, where my talents could be seen, and where they would be useful for the company at the same time.” Although her new company had many, many jobs that might be more meaningful or fulfilling, she had no idea how to show she was qualified for them, or to get any extra experience she might need. Although Anja was only in her early twenties, she began to feel stuck.  

Being a secretary is usually a behind-the-scenes kind of job, where few people other than your manager know what you do, how well you do it, and what else you’re capable of. But Anja figured out a way to make herself and her work visible. She had seen that the company was promoting their internal collaboration tools and that a “digital transformation” was part of the corporate strategy. So, she started a blog and called it “How to work digitally as a secretary.”

She began by writing about the tools and techniques she used to be more efficient and effective. The point wasn’t to show off, but to be genuinely helpful. A few people read her first posts, then a few more.

She started to get comments thanking her for the tips she was sharing, and wanting to know more about her approach and how she handled her work. Gradually, her writing began to attract thousands of views, and was shared by colleagues she didn’t know. Her network started to grow. “People started to consider me an expert,” she said. One of the people who took notice of what Anja had to offer was her boss, who offered her a different role.

Anja moved from being an assistant in the Purchasing Department to being a community manager for two online groups in the division. From there she took on the title of “agile coach,” conducting training, coaching individuals, and facilitating workshops. Now she regularly acts as a mentor for teams, departments, and leaders, and she actively promotes digital collaboration and networking throughout the division. Recently, she organized a huge cross-company conference, and shared the stage with two board members. 

“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But it was worth it. I can now show my talents, and live my passion, in my new job.” Anja no longer feels stuck or invisible. Instead, she has found a way to realize more of her potential, and it feels like a new beginning.

Anja is on the far right, together with board members and other managers from Bosch & Daimler, celebrating the WOL Conference she co-organized.

The story of Pinkspektrum

Nicole is a software quality engineer. She’s smart, creative, funny. Born in Dusseldorf and now living in Switzerland, she speaks several languages. She also happens to have autism. 

This is her Working Out Loud story.

A small step

I first heard from Nicole more than two years ago, when she wrote to me (“Guten abend, Herr Stepper”) to tell me her company had started to form WOL Circles and that she was one of the first participants.

She had been diagnosed with autism in her early 30s. That diagnosis explained many of the challenges she faced, and also gave her insights into how to deal with them. 

She told me she joined a Circle to help her with her new goal: “to advocate and educate for autism spectrum disorders.” 

Emboldened

Gradually, Nicole began talking more openly about her condition, both with her Circle and her colleagues, and eventually with her boss at Ypsomed. The support and encouragement she received gave her the confidence to try new things. 

She was uncomfortable being “visible” but small posts on Instagram helped her experiment and also learn what others found useful. Positive feedback on those posts inspired her to be bolder, and she shared her first story on LinkedIn (translated as “Boss, I’m autistic!”).

In that post she announced a new website: pinkspektrum.ch

“With this website I would like to help you to understand autistic perception and to recognize the potentials & strengths. Because autistic people have a lot of it, as long as you manage to create the right environment.

Therefore it is a matter of my heart to educate about autism spectrum disorders, so that even more autistic people have the opportunity to ‘blossom.’"

Nicole kept exploring. Earlier this year, she spoke with a German newspaper who has seen her website and wanted to feature her in a story. Then she launched a pinkspektrum YouTube channel. Nicole said she is “finding her voice” as she also discovers new friendships, support, and cooperation with other YouTubers and Instagrammers. 

A bigger world

With each step, Nicole’s confidence grows and so do her aspirations. When we spoke on the phone last week, she described how raising awareness might help kids get diagnosed earlier, and help parents, teachers, and employers create environments where autistic people can thrive. 

When I asked her what’s next for her, we talked about a TED talk, maybe a television show. She laughed. But why not? Nicole is much, much more than a diagnosis or label. She is an inspiration, and the steps she’s taking are helping her realize more of her potential, more of all she has to offer. 

Nicole on Instagram: “I have autism” versus “I am autistic”

Nicole on Instagram: “I have autism” versus “I am autistic”

Saumya’s Story

Saumya is an engineer at Daimler in Bangalore, in a WOL Circle there. She joined at the insistence of a colleague, uncertain of what to expect or what her goal might be. But something surprising happened along the way.

A need and a goal emerges

On her commute to work, Saumya often passed by a street vendor selling coconut water. It’s a hard way to make a living, setting up a stand by the side of the road in the hot sun, hoping for thirsty passersby. But the pandemic and subsequent lockdown made an already challenging job impossible, and the next time Saumya saw the vendor, he was begging.

Saumya knew many people affected by the pandemic of course, but most of them had access to savings they could tap into in case of emergencies. Before, she hadn’t thought much about having a bank account or the savings plans at work. But, seeing the coconut vendor, she realized he probably didn’t have any of those things or access to information on what to do with them.

Steps, skills, and possibilities

She decided she wanted to help, but what would she do? With the encouragement of her Circle she made it her goal to find a way.

Week by week, she searched and connected, learning about “zero balance accounts” and practical concerns of those she was trying to help. (“Can my husband access my account?”) The idea that emerged was to have a simple savings method that would allow even the poorest to put some money aside for emergencies whenever they could.

She wrote about it, calling it “The Daily Wager Piggy Bank.” (A “daily wager” is someone who depends on their daily pay for food and other necessities.) She created a Facebook page. And now she’s bringing the idea to life. 

What’s next

I saw Saumya mention her story on LinkedIn and asked if we could talk on the phone. Her colleague, Shilpa, who prompted her to join a Circle and who works in Human Resources, also joined us.

Saumya talked about the project and what she learned during her Circle. “The biggest lesson,” she said, “was that if you care, don’t wait.” Maybe Saumya helps 2 people or 200 or 2000. Who knows? But she received a benefit, too. Daring to put her ideas into action has given her a sense of empowerment, of self-efficacy, that she can now apply to any goal. 

Her HR colleague, Shilpa, talked about how these skills would be useful for her company and beyond, and how that’s her goal in her Circle. So far, she has connected with colleagues across Daimler and with companies across India. She wants to spread the feeling of empowerment that Saumya has, to give people a voice and the confidence to act. 

In Week 12 of her Circle, Saumya shared a photo of the group, and the news that she successfully helped her first “customer” start saving. I wonder what she will do next.

“Look inside” - A story from the all-new edition of Working Out Loud

I was laid off in May of 2016, three weeks after turning 52 years old. 

Working Out Loud starts off eight years earlier, with a meeting where my boss tells me, “John, we have to make a change.”

The first thing he said when I sat down was that my area was being reorganized. “If you can find a new role in the next sixty days . . .” He didn’t need to finish that sentence. I sat there, stunned.….Eventually, I wound up finding another assignment elsewhere in my department, one with less responsibility, less status, and less pay. 

I still remember what I was feeling back then. Shame. Anger. Humiliation. In the all-new edition of Working Out Loud, I tell a story about a similar meeting with an even worse outcome, but after which I felt very, very different. (You can also use Amazon’s “Look inside” feature to read it, as well as other stories.) 

A setback and a way forward 

Eight years after that meeting with my boss, a different manager told me my job was “restructured,” a clinical way to say I was being laid off. The bank where I worked had been struggling on many fronts, and someone decided I was no longer needed. After nineteen years with the company, my grand exit was a few minutes in a conference room with someone from Human Resources. My manager dialed in via speakerphone. 

This time, though, my reaction was different, because I had been Working Out Loud. 

I had gradually developed relationships with people around the world who knew me and my work and were interested in what I was doing. These relationships gave me a sense of connection and purpose. They also gave me access to knowledge and opportunities. Just a month before I got my severance letter, I had the chance to deliver a TEDx talk about WOL. A few weeks after I packed up my office, I was at Bosch, in Stuttgart, giving a presentation to a global audience—my first bit of revenue as a one-person start-up. Following that were talks at Daimler, Siemens, and BMW. The elements of Working Out Loud led me to more opportunities. I felt, perhaps for the first time, that I wasn’t playing career roulette anymore.

In a word, I was empowered. Even after being laid off, I felt—no, I knew—that I had something to offer that others would value. Instead of relying on chance or hoping to be chosen, I could choose myself. 

So many stories

Part of why I wrote an all-new edition of the book is because there are so many more stories to share. People realizing more of their potential, feeling more confident, and going on to do things they never expected they were capable of (including trying to change the culture of their company).

The paperback and e-book are now available for pre-order. I hope you enjoy it, and that you use Working Out Loud to write your own story. 

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Note: We had planned to celebrate the WOL Community & the new edition with a big event on March 26th. But recently there is too much uncertainty and unease around such gatherings.

So, we will still celebrate, but in a different, virtual way. Here’s a registration link for a video webinar on March 26th where we’ll share more stories from the book and the community. I hope you will join us. 

“Why not me?”

I didn’t mean to judge her, but when she told me her goal it seemed like an uninspired choice. Given all her experience and skills, surely she could aim higher? I know her well enough that I asked her, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

She sighed. Then, in almost a whisper, she described an aspiration that would be challenging and fulfilling. But as soon as she gave voice to it, she gave up on it.

“Perhaps in a future life,” she said. 

1000 reasons not to try

Five years ago, I was working in Deutsche Bank and my career was in a long, slow death spiral. I had joined a WOL Circle with two friends who had started multiple companies, and in one of our meetings they asked me, “Why don't you do this Working Out Loud thing full-time?” I immediately started listing the reasons. 

I’m too old. 

I have five kids. 

I’m too conservative.

I’m not like you.

I’m not that kind of person.

Step by step, though, with the help of many people, I gradually wore down my resistance to the idea, and I began erasing the labels and limits I placed on myself. Two years later I was on my own. Three years after that I enrolled in Start-up School. Today, I am (finally) comfortable saying, “I’m building my own business.” 

2020 vision

As this year draws to a close and we anticipate another, it’s a good time for taking stock of what we’ve done and what we have yet to try. 

For many of us, the saddest words can be “What might have been…” Do not wait for “a future life.” Reflect on what might give you a sense of greater purpose and fulfillment, and dare to ask yourself, “Why not me? Why not now?”

What ever happened to the piano teacher?

More than three years ago, I told the story of Mari, a piano teacher, in a TEDx talk about Working Out Loud. What she experienced back then was wonderful. What she’s done since is remarkable.

Click to view the TEDx talk. Mari’s story starts at 04m:24s

Click to view the TEDx talk. Mari’s story starts at 04m:24s

3 Years Ago

Mari is a piano teacher in New York City, and she’s extremely good with children. She’s also an extraordinarily talented musician. Yet one night as a group of us were talking about work, she shared something that surprised us.

“My world is too small.”

How could that be? The students adore her, and she seems to enjoy her work so much. But she told us she yearned for interactions with people beyond the same families she met each week. What she most enjoyed doing, she said, was composing, and she wanted to do more of it. As much as she liked teaching, she wanted to have people hear her own music. I suggested she join a WOL Circle. 

Mari wasn’t comfortable with being visible or talking about her work. She was shy and felt her English wasn’t good enough. (Her native language is Japanese.) The prospect of writing a blog post or starting a YouTube channel was too foreign to her, and she felt she “wasn’t that kind of person.”

In our Circle, she started with small steps, writing down the names of people from music school she had lost touch with and re-connecting with some of them. She played Internet detective, searching for people who might be interested in her music. 

That’s how she discovered independent filmmakers who needed musical scores. It took her several weeks to work up the courage to reach out to a particular director via email, sharing a piece she created. “I’ve enjoyed your films, and I thought this music I composed might be useful.” That led to an email exchange, and then to working together. I was with her when she got the news, and she lit up.

“You made my world bigger,” Mari told me, and that’s how I ended her story in the TEDx talk.

Now

For Mari, progress in her first Circle was being able to voice a goal she cared about and take small steps toward it. In the years after our Circle ended, those small steps made other, bigger steps, possible. 

She created a website - marikotskyy.com - and began experimenting with recording and publishing her music using iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, and other tools. She released an album online, and submitted her music to different competitions and publishers. One of her pieces, a trio for piano, was performed by a youth group in Boston. A solo piece won an international composition contest for “The contemporary piano.” Yet another has been selected by RMN Classical to be included in a new compilation album.

I asked Mari if I could write about her, and she replied right away:

“OF COURSE!!! WOL is amazing. I used the method you taught me, and now I have many connections with other composers and musicians."

More than just building a network, she shaped her identity. She is still a piano teacher, but she is not defined or limited by that label. If you search for “Mari Kotskyy” today, you’ll find “Composer,” “Pianist,” and “Musical Artist.” Sometimes all it takes is a small step to set people in motion, and set them free.

Mari’s music is beautiful. Click on the image to play.

Mari’s music is beautiful. Click on the image to play.


“Back in the game”

I almost passed over it because it was in Italian. But I clicked on the translation button, and even the mechanically generated prose was beautiful.

Marcello had participated in a Working Out Loud Circle in Bologna, organized by the same group that produced the Italian translation of the Circle Guides. He had put together a short video describing what the experience meant for him, and someone shared an excerpted quote of his.

“…an opportunity to put me back in the game, rediscover some skills that I had inside me, reconnect relationships, reactivate myself with a new enthusiasm to realize projects I care about…”

We could all use that kind of “reactivation” sometimes. Maybe your company is re-organizing again. Or you took time off for parental leave. Or you need to find a new job. These can be challenging times. Your confidence and even your sense of identity can be impacted.

Your inclination might be to withdraw, to wait for something better to turn up. But a better approach can be to do the opposite. To purposefully connect with people and create your own web of support and encouragement. Your network can be a lifeboat in a sea of change, helping you explore opportunities you would never reach otherwise. It can be a source of confidence, emotional support, and friendship. 

Marcello found all of that in his WOL Circle. It’s not the only way, of course. But small steps in a safe, confidential space can often be just what you need in times of change. Your Circle members, even when they’re complete strangers, can show you things about yourself you’ve stopped seeing or believing. They can also show you possibilities you haven’t considered. Week after week, as your network grows, so do you.

If you want more out of work and life, waiting on the sidelines is no place for you to be.

INTERVISTA A MARCELLO FINI BIBLIOTECARIO ARCHIGINNASIO BO

When the CEO isn’t enough

I was sitting in the audience as the divisional CEO delivered his talk to over 500 people. He was encouraging them to try new ways of working, to experiment more, connect across silos, and continuously learn. Not only would it be better for them as individuals, he told them, but the company needed this kind of culture and attitude. The enthusiasm was palpable.

Then he opened the floor to questions from the audience, and a hand went up.

“But what do I tell my manager?”

Fear and control

The employee's concern was understandable. Despite exhortations from top management, the new values posted on the walls, the cultural change program, it still didn’t feel safe to do things differently. Too many other people got into trouble doing that, so why take the risk?

Without a sense of psychological safety - "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" - most people will wait until a critical mass has changed behavior before making a change themselves.

How many people have to say “yes”?

After the question there was an awkward pause. The CEO replied that it was better in this case not to ask permission. "You should just do it,” he said, explaining that the personal benefits were worth the risk. 

The head of the Works Council was also there, and he pointed out that even in the most stringent environments, employees had times when they could choose for themselves what to do. “If your boss doesn’t like what you’re trying, do it on your lunch hour, or outside of work.” 

The audience didn’t seem satisfied. They wanted to do things differently, but they felt stuck. As happy as they were with visible support from top management, they knew the CEO wouldn’t be there if their boss doled out consequences.

The permission you’ve been waiting for

One way out of this conundrum is for you to take a series of small steps rather than a big leap. There’s plenty of research to show that even small changes to tasks, relationships, and perceptions can make you happier and more effective. (It’s call “job crafting” and you can read more about it here.)

You may have to experience it for yourself before you believe it, like my friend Stefan who, after 12 weeks in a WOL Circle, said

Every day you have some control over who you interact with and what you do. Every day you have complete control over how you interact with others and how you approach the work you need to do. 

You can choose to experiment in small ways at work, to learn and explore more, to relate to others with generosity and kindness, to actively look for purpose and meaning in what you do. You can be a leader in one of the most important ways possible - by example.

For that, the only person you’ll need permission from is you. 

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Happy New Year! Announcing WOL Circle Guides v4.5?

In a New Year’s post five years ago, I wrote that one of the best resolutions you could make is to invest in yourself, to give yourself the time and the space - the permission - to develop relationships and skills that matter.  

Since then, I’ve been developing Working Out Loud Circles as a method for doing that, and Circles have spread to over 40 countries. Today, I’m publishing a new and improved version of the WOL Circle Guides to make the method even easier and more effective. 

What’s new?

Thanks to the feedback from people who have already been in a Circle, I’ve been able to refine the guides and make this version the best one so far.  The biggest changes include moving the exercises related to habit development earlier in the process, providing better examples, and updating several of the exercises and additional reading. There are also improvements to the flow, the writing, and the formatting. 

Despite the changes, Circles already in progress should be able to use the new guides right away. Also, a German translation should be ready over the next few weeks.

Customizing WOL Circles for your organization

The WOL Circle Guides are free, and are issued under a license called the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.  (It means you can use the material and share it as-is, but you can’t change it or offer it as part of any for-fee product or service without explicit written permission.) Being free makes it easy for individuals and organizations to experiment and experience the benefits for themselves. Yet as Circles spread in an organization, or as the method is integrated into existing programs like on-boarding and talent development, many organizations want to tailor the guides.

Now there’s an additional license, available for a fixed fee, that allows you to do this. In the past year, I've worked with customers who want to include their own goals, technology, examples, and brand into the guides. So if, say, you’re using WOL Circles to help new joiners be more connected and productive, custom guides can make it easy for those new employees to learn your digital tools while they discover people and content related to their job. If you’re interested in customizing the guides, contact me at john.stepper@www.africanmango-slim.com.

Other ways to make it easier

In addition to upgrading the Circle Guides, I’m working on a WOL Video Coaching Series and Circle Journal that will be available in the coming months. The video series gives you convenient access to all that’s in the guides plus coaching tips to help ensure you make progress. The Journal gives you a single place to do the exercises and capture your learning throughout the process, making it easier to reflect on how far you’ve come.

I welcome and appreciate your feedback on any of these materials and ideas, and will use it to keep improving the method. I hope you join a Circle this year. Here’s some gentle encouragement from another New Year's resolution post I wrote two years ago called “This Year I Will…”

“One way to make a difference this year is to form a Working Out Loud Circle. I’m getting more and more mail from people about how their Circle empowered them, liberated them. Just this week, a woman told me her circle "had an enormous impact on my life.”
Yet it’s such a simple process. You write down a goal, share it with a small trusted group, and take a few steps over 12 weeks to build relationships with people who can help you.
Deciding to form a Circle might just be the best New Year’s resolution you ever made. What’s holding you back that you might be able to change?
Where might you go?"
Happy 2018.jpg

What empowerment looks like: Daniella's story

I loved reading Daniella's story for many reasons: her desire to help young children get exposed to science and technology, the photos of her and the “inspired little scientists with shining eyes,” the article in the German newspaper.

I was inspired by how she turned an idea into reality, using her Working Out Loud Circle to create a possibility she hadn’t imagined before. When she started, she had the same doubts and fears we all have. But by taking small steps over time, with feedback and peer support along the way, she made something wonderful emerge.

Here’s the beginning of Daniella’s post on LinkedIn. (You can read it in full by clicking on the image below.) As you read it, think of how empowered you would feel if you could bring ideas to life like that. Think of what your organization would be like if more people approached issues and opportunities like Daniella -  with generosity, creativity, and persistence. It’s an approach you can learn - and spread. 

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

Click on this image to read the entire article on LinkedIn

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