Working out loud: my own story

I am...working out loud “You should tell that story more.”

I was having lunch with a friend, talking about how I wound up in my current role. I describe my job as “making work more effective and fulfilling”. But there was no such job description at my firm and no one asked me to do it.

I discovered my job by working out loud. Though it’s just one example of how working out loud opens up possibilities, I hope my story can help others experience the benefits for themselves.

Career roulette

Relying on luck and hope

I never expected to work in banks (I’ve worked in 3 of them). I had studied computer science and my first job was in Bell Labs. Then, one day, someone in a bank came across my resume, liked something they saw, and thought I could help them. I started working on trading systems almost 20 years ago. And things worked out reasonably well for about the next 15 years.

It was my own version of career roulette. The ball dropped, I bounced around a bit, and fairly soon I fell into a slot and stayed there. Until somebody decided the game was over.

In 2008, my area was re-organized and, with most of my sponsors gone, I needed to do something different - either inside or outside of my firm. I felt I was entering a career death spiral. Fear of losing job/status/money leading to more defensive behavior leading to less remarkable performance leading to more fear.

Although I’d worked in banks for a long time, I had remarkably few meaningful connections that could help me. I did find another project internally but my position, and my career, felt unstable and out of my control.

My first blog post

Shape your reputationAround that time, I started an internal blog at my firm. Writing blog posts was therapeutic. It provided a way to show people what I knew while helping me develop a useful skill.

I only wrote a half dozen posts that year but, looking back, I see all the posts were about collaboration tools or practices. When one of those posts attracted over 1000 comments (it was about a pilot to use GMail at work), I was able to experience how a simple post on a social platform could spark a movement. Those initial blog posts showed me how I could shape my reputation and provide access to things I may never have known about otherwise.

Learning the networking “secret”

Build a purposeful networkIn 2009, still conscious of my lack of helpful connections, I enrolled in a year-long course called the “Relationship Masters Academy” (now an online offering). The course was taught by Keith Ferrazzi, author of  “Never Eat Alone” and “Who’s Got Your Back?”.

Before that course, I’d have never associated words like generosity, empathy, vulnerability, authenticity, and intimacy with networking. Yet Ferrazzi demonstrated how you could be generous while still being purposeful. And the more I researched and applied his ideas, the more obvious it became that these mindsets enabled a more fulfilling, more effective approach to relationships.

Now, I started to view my writing as a purposeful contribution. By my 10th post or so, I started to take it more seriously and asked a friend, an author and former journalist, for help. He improved my writing (mercilessly) and inspired me to write on a regular basis.

I still had a day job. And on weekends I experimented with some entrepreneurial ideas (“I can build Facebook apps!”). But it was working out loud that attracted the notice of other people in the firm interested in collaboration. That made it possible to get involved in interesting pilots and make other useful connections. Each time, I’d write about the experience, further shaping my reputation.

A sense of purpose

A sense of purposeNow, in 2010, I was writing every week, developing a skill of shipping on a schedule. Making work better became a mission instead of a hobby. And my learning accelerated as it became more purposeful. I started reading more books and blogs. Watching more talks. Meeting more people at conferences and at other firms.

I blogged about some of that learning and I spent more time writing about the possibilities, including the power of an enterprise social platform. My early proposals to implement such a platform across the firm were rejected for not being commercial enough, but I channeled that setback into more research, learning, and writing about commercial value.

Over time, the portfolio of written work I’d built up (70+ posts largely on using social tools and practices) secured my reputation as an expert internally and my new proposal to implement a social platform across the firm was accepted. My new full-time job was to help organizations across our firm use it to make work better.

A positive cycle for me and my firm

Keep shippingBy mid-2011, I had completely changed my attitude towards work. My writing was leading to more connections which was leading to more learning and yet more writing. Instead of a death spiral, I was more skilled, more focused, and more engaged than ever.

Still, I saw how all that could change with another re-org or manager change. My role was - and is - still tenuous. (Using social platforms for work is new and there are a few decades of bad management practices to overcome.) Although the odds were a little better, I was still playing roulette.

So I started writing publicly and applying to speak at conferences, something I'd rarely done. It was uncomfortable. Maybe a few dozen people read my first post. And talks to small, semi-interested audiences would be dispiriting. But, aided by Seth Godin’s daily exhortations, I’d keep shipping. (This is now public blog post #92 and I’m speaking at 7 conferences this year.) Week by week, I’m gradually developing my skills and my confidence along with my reputation and a purposeful network.

What’s next?

I could be at my firm another 15 years or, through my work, I could discover some other possibility. In either case, I’ll keep applying the lessons I learned - about reputation, purposeful networks, and the value of shipping. They helped make work and life more meaningful and fulfilling. (And they made possible a new writing project that might open up yet more possibilities.)

I only started working out loud in my 40s and I’ve been slowly developing my skills since then. My hope is you can start earlier and learn more quickly than me.

If you have a story to tell about how working out loud has helped you, I’d love to hear it.