The best book I read this summer

Seven years ago, I was a self-described change agent in a big company, failing to make the kind of difference I wanted to make. I even wrote a post titled, “If you’re trying to change how your company works, you probably won’t”. One reader thought I was depressed. 

Later that year, though, I read The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, and her story inspired me to persist. I tried to incorporate her 5 lessons for driving change into my own work.

This summer, when I saw she released Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, I ordered it right away. 

5 stars. Click on the image to order a copy.

5 stars. Click on the image to order a copy.

I devoured the book. 

I had assumed from the title that it might be a somewhat abstract presentation of principles, but it is much, much more than that. Instead of just telling us what should be done, she shows what can be accomplished through many examples of successful change agents around the world. She shares how they brought their ideas to life, including their many missteps and setbacks, and how some of them managed to scale their efforts to provide meaningful benefits to millions of people. 

Story after story after story, Jacqueline Novogratz shows you different paths for making a difference. And she does so with candor and personal humility that is endearing and motivating.

After reading it, you can't help but be inspired. And just like I did with the Blue Sweater seven years ago, I ordered a copy for my kids to read in the hope that they may be inspired too.

“Whoever you are and whatever you do, the world needs you to lead. There will be time when happiness may feel elusive and the horizon impossible to reach. But remember that each we wake up to another chance to renew the world.”

***

p.s. As much as I already liked the book & author, I became an even bigger fan after she liked my review on goodreads.com. :-)


If someone you know is looking for a job

We first talked about “WOL for job hunters” over breakfast. It was February, and he needed to catch the last flight to Zurich before the US closed its borders.

The experiment we discussed ended this month. Here’s what we learned.

The basic idea

Christoph Lindinger’s company, skillsgarden, helps individuals with their careers and helps companies with innovation, leadership, and culture. He wrote to me about using WOL Circles to assist people finding new roles. That led to our meeting where we agreed on how it would work.

Christoph said he would bring together a diverse group, at least half of whom would have the goal of finding a new role. He would meet with the group along the way and collect feedback.  

Each week, I would send them the new Circle Guides via email and include examples related to their goals. I grew to feel like I was a part of their journey, giving them support and a gentle nudge each Sunday.

Feedback from the participants

After their Circle ended, I met the group for the first time. On the video call was a delicious buffet of accents: Italian, Finnish, Sri Lankan, Welsh, German, Swiss.

I knew the skills they worked on in their Circle would help them access more opportunities. After all, purposefully building your network and shaping your reputation through visible work are fundamental to any job search

What I underestimated was how they would feel.

For those looking for a job, the Circle gave them a sense of psychological safety and connection. The support, shared accountability, and structure of their Circle helped them make progress and feel good while they did it. Just as important, they felt they were more than their goal, more than just a label like “unemployed” or “laid off.” 

As other Circles experienced, they started as strangers and became friends by the end.

Using a Circle to find a job

There are many good courses to improve your interviewing skills, LinkedIn profile, resume, etc.  If you have been laid off, there are outplacement companies like Lee Hecht Harrison that are paid to help you. (One of the Circle members actually worked with them.)

But what do you do when those courses and services end? 

If someone you know is looking for a job, encourage them to join a WOL Circle to complement the traditional job search offerings. You’ll be helping them develop skills and increase their odds while they strengthen their confidence and sense of self-determination.

That’s a wonderful way to support someone looking for the next step in their career.

I’ve felt uncertainty, anxiety, and worse when leaving one job & looking for the next. A WOL Circle can help.

I’ve felt uncertainty, anxiety, and worse when leaving one job & looking for the next. A WOL Circle can help.


WOL Podcasts, Interviews, and Events

“Please say yes!” she said, offering me both encouragement and a rebuke at the same time.

It was my publisher, Trena White at Page Two, talking about marketing the new edition of Working Out Loud that came out in May, and the German edition available for pre-order now.  

I had been reluctant to do interviews and podcasts, but Trena made it clear that needed to change. So, I’m saying “yes” a lot more these days, including four times in the past two weeks. (Click on each title to learn more.)

  • Learning Uncut: A conversation with Michelle Ockers & Katharina Krentz. Michelle read one of the earliest drafts of the book and Katha is featured in chapter 21 on “Changing the Culture of Your Company.”

  • The Messiah Community: Although I never expected to be invited to participate in such a community, the host Micheal Lorin is so charming and gracious that our talk is one of my favorites.

  • Lernen In Geil: A video blog with Jennifer Withelm, who is not only a Learning & Development expert but, after Week 5 of a WOL Circle, shared her “50 Facts About Me” in a beautiful post this week.

  • LIVE EVENT TODAY - Xing/New Work Experience: A talk with me and two friends, Michael Trautmann (“On the Way to New Work” podcaster and member of my latest WOL Circle) and Katharina Krentz. You can register for free here

I hope you enjoy one or more of these and find them useful. And if you think Working Out Loud is suitable for your audience, please send me an email at john.stepper@www.africanmango-slim.com. I will be happy to say “Yes!” :-)

Click on the image to register for the free live event

Click on the image to register for the free live event

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”

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.”

Cultural differences(?).001.jpeg

The German edition of Working Out Loud

Finally, all the many German-speaking people who Work Out Loud can read the book in their own language. It starts shipping on September 30th, and I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hands. 

Although I don’t read German, I did notice that the subtitle is different, and the way the translation tools render it strikes me as quite beautiful:

Working Out Loud

So that solidarity, trust and community can grow

(“Damit Verbundenheit, Vertrauen und Gemeinschaft wachsen k?nnen”)

My deepest appreciation goes to the team at Vahlen for all their work in bringing the German edition to life.

Herzlichen Dank aus NYC. (I try. :-))

The top challenges of the L&D department

You might think their biggest problem is a shrinking HR budget. Or the difficulty of holding traditional in-person workshops. 

But while those things are challenging, they’re not what Learning & Development managers mention first. Instead, they consistently talk about these three areas.

#1 - Remote Work

While working remotely “works” for many jobs, something is missing. In an interview with Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft (which sells the tools most companies use for remote work), he warned companies to “be on the lookout for what is lost.” And so L&D is looking for ways to help employees continue to feel engaged and collaborate even as many of them work from home.

#2 - Crossing Silos

This is an old connectivity problem, and we haven’t made much of a dent in it. The repeated reorganizations that break down silos only cause new ones to form. So L&D is still looking for ways for employees to build connections across departments & locations. There is a general recognition that all the attempts so far—from job rotations to employees resource groups to “lunch roulette”—are not nearly enough.

#3 - Sharing Knowledge

The third most common challenge is more of a culture problem. Again, not much has changed in the last thirty years. Though we have technology that makes it much easier to share and find what we need to get things done, most companies don’t have the culture of doing it. So a global organization of a 100,000 employees can feel and operate more like a 1000 companies of a hundred people each, with innovation and agility suffering as a result. 

What to do? The Future of Corporate Learning

When I spoke to Laura Krsnik, the Head of Global Learning at Merck KGaA, she shared her strategy with me.

“The future of corporate learning is more self-directed and social,” she told me, and she’s changing the company’s learning offerings to reflect that. She’s making them more efficient and effective while providing more choices in more learning formats, including peer coaching. “Working Out Loud,” she said, “is an important part of our learning strategy.”

If you’re in L&D, what are your top challenges? What do you think about the future of learning?

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.

Three kinds of corporate change agent.001.jpeg

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?