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”

A great way to start the year (or Why I just joined my 10th WOL Circle)

Four years ago, in a short post called “This year I will…”, I referred to a WOL Circle as “the best New Year’s resolution you could make.”

This year, I’m taking my own advice.

Why?

You would think that, when it comes to Working Out Loud, I would know what to do by now. Yet I struggle as much as anyone with making progress toward goals, especially when they’re challenging or ambitious. I joined a Circle because I knew I would benefit from the structure, shared accountability, and support of others working toward their goals along with me. 

How we met

I was in Hamburg in November, facilitating a WOL workshop at Beiersdorf on the final day of their New Work Festival. The emcee for the event was Michael Trautmann, cohost of the popular podcast, “On the Way to New Work,” and a founder of the innovative sports company hyrox.com. I had met Michael once before and, to my surprise, he participated in the workshop. Afterwards, he came up to tell me he decided to join a Circle with two people who work at Beiersdorf, Christina Henschen and Kathrin Erbar, who I met for the first time that day. 

I had been struggling to make much progress on a new goal, and thought about joining a Circle, so this seemed like a golden opportunity. Yet I was daunted by Michael’s success and fame. Unsure of the best way to invite myself, I just asked: “Would it be okay I join you?” and the three of them said yes.

Making it easy to get started

As soon as the crowd thinned, we huddled right there in the auditorium and looked at our calendars. Every Circle knows how challenging it can be to schedule 12 meetings, and we decided to start a month ahead of time when things weren’t already so busy. In less than five minutes, we picked a dozen dates and times, and created a WhatsApp group for communicating between meetings. (Michael took a selfie of us and uploaded it right then too.) Now we use that group for our video calls as well.

My goal

Someone asked me if it doesn’t get boring joining another Circle and going through the same exercises. I said it feels different each time because my goal is different and the Circle members are different. The new people bring new energy, and I find the small steps help me make progress toward my goal every time.

In my current Circle, my goal is to learn from others who have built scalable businesses based on methods they’ve developed. On my relationship list , for example, are the authors of Designing Your Life, Getting Things Done, and Business Model Generation.

What happened so far

Though we only met once so far, something important has already happened. Week 1 helped me “break the ice” and finally take some steps, and now I find myself thinking of my goal throughout the day. More importantly, I feel genuinely close to these three people I barely know. With just one meeting and a few exchanges on WhatsApp, I’ve come to experience that they’re all kind, smart, and encouraging, and that we’re all eager to help each other. 

What a great way to start the year. 

My awesome NEW WOL Circle: Michael, me, Christina, and Kathrin

The Marriage Retreat

My childhood memories of my parents are mostly of them arguing. They each had their own stresses - not enough money, too much work, unfulfilled dreams - and it often erupted in disagreements and downright meanness to each other. 

Then, when my sister, brother, and I were a bit older, they went to a marriage retreat. 

The Happy Couple

The retreat was, quite literally, an escape from their day-to-day stresses. Guided by skilled, encouraging professionals, they had a chance to learn and experience a better way of relating to each other. When they came home, they were like a different couple. Sweet words. Small kindnesses. The anxiety we often felt was replaced with warmth and love. It was like magic.

In less than a week, though, the first argument appeared, then another, and soon things became “normal” again. 

I hadn’t thought about the retreat for more than thirty years. But over the next 6 weeks I’m participating in a string of events and conferences and meet-ups. Like the retreat, they’re uplifting and they often leave participants inspired and full of hope. But then everyone goes home. The music and the memories fade. Without a next step - the hard work of deliberate practice over time - the effects are short-lived. Our habits and our environments are almost always too powerful to be changed by a one-off event.

We each have our own version of a retreat in work and life. They can be important and restorative. And yet it’s the steps you’ll take after the retreat that make a sustainable difference possible. That’s where the real magic happens. 

Who approved this?!

When my new bosses arrived in New York, one from Frankfurt and one from London, I was on a list of people they wanted to see. I didn’t know what to expect.

It was after yet another reorganization in the bank’s IT department, in which my team and I had been dispatched to Communications. In our meeting, I described what we did - driving adoption of modern collaboration tools - and how we built the largest internal social network in financial services. I shared some of the many stories of value and employee engagement.

After a few minutes, the expressions on their faces went from friendly to neutral to incredulous. “Anyone can post something?” they asked, making clear the recklessness of what we had done. “Who approved this?!”

In that moment, I knew my career in Communications would be short-lived. The managers across the table did not seem to know or care about innovations in communications. What mattered more to them was maintaining monopoly control over the information employees received and how they received it. 

But how could this be? After all, one of our cultural values was “innovation.” There was a Communications campaign with posters to remind us. The company had innovation hubs in Berlin and Palo Alto and there were annual pilgrimages to Silicon Valley. We were repeatedly told we needed to be more agile and entrepreneurial. Why wasn’t our innovation celebrated?

Years later, I now realize the problem wasn’t with my new managers but with the culture. At my company and at almost every corporation I work with, employees are treated like young children or worse: Do as you’re told. Always ask permission. Speak when spoken to. 

The people I meet across companies and countries - well-educated, responsible adults - tell me how they are subject to the whims and moods of their manager. How they have to account for each hour. How they have to speak only to the appropriate level or risk being scolded. Despite all the sound and fury regarding the need for innovation and failure and continuous learning. etc, etc. there remains a sea of managers desperate for control and a sense of self-worth, waiting to ask: “Who approved this?”

I could have quit my job, or I could have quit trying. Instead, I spent my time in the Communications Department purposefully building a network of people inside and outside the company who found value in what I did. That gave me power my bosses couldn’t take away. It also gave me options and helped me feel better each day.

What is it you need approval for at work? What will you do when you don’t get it?

Treated like a child at work (or worse)

Treated like a child at work (or worse)


The first thing we must all do to be free

Everybody deserves to be somebody. Yet at every workplace I visit - all of them modern companies in developed countries - I see limits that prevent people from realizing this basic right. 

Some of the limits are at a corporate level. We preach innovation, collaboration, and purpose - “We must change the culture!” - yet the need for control and allocation of power makes it unsafe for those who seek to actually change the status quo. 

Some of the limits are at an individual level. We share universal needs and wants: respect, recognition, the opportunity to contribute. Yet we also share a heightened sensitivity to our status in an organization (and the world at large), and most of us hold back until we know it’s safe.

It isn’t always safe, of course, and so even the simplest of acts are questioned. Can I approach that person? Can I say this? Can I write that? You quickly learn there are unwritten protocols for who gets to say and do what they think is best, for who matters.

Reflecting on this made me search for a speech from fifty years ago, of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. The recording was only discovered recently. I listened to it multiple times. 

No matter where people are assembled…. The cry is always the same: "We want to be free.” I would like to suggest some of the things you must do in order to be truly free. The first thing we must do is to develop within ourselves a deep sense of somebody-ness. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody. Because the minute one feels that way he is incapable of rising to his full maturity as a person. 

He was speaking to an audience that faced oppression more severe than anything at a modern workplace, more than anything I can imagine. Yet even in those dire, unsafe circumstances he told them not to wait for change but to realize more of their potential now, through action, with whatever was available to them. 

We must make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess. We must not wait for the day of full emancipation before we set out to achieve certain basic developments in our lives.

Quoting a poem by Douglas Malloch, King exhorted the students to “be the best of whatever you are.” That advice applies to each of us now as it did then. Yes, the people and environment around you may not make it easy. But don’t let anybody - even yourself - make you feel that you are nobody.