Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it

I was going through a stack of old books, re-reading things I had highlighted, when I found this parable in Happiness at Work by Srikumar Rao. He was describing how a shift in your thinking, in how you choose to see the world, can change everything.

“The abbot of a once-famous Buddhist monastery that had fallen into decline was deeply troubled. Monks were lax in their practice, novices were leaving, and lay supporters were deserting to other centers. He traveled far to see a sage and recounted his tale of woe, saying how much he wanted to transform his monastery to the flourishing haven it had been in days of yore. The sage looked him in the eye and said, “The reason your monastery has languished is that the Buddha is living among you in disguise, and you have not honored him.
The abbot hurried back, his mind in turmoil. The Selfless One was at his monastery! Who could he be? Brother Hua? No, he was full of sloth. Brother Po? No, he was too dull. But then the Tathagata was in disguise. What better disguise than sloth or dull-wittedness? He called his monks together and revealed the sage’s words. They too were taken aback and looked at each other with suspicion and awe. Which one of them was the Chosen One? The disguise was perfect. Not knowing who he was, they took to treating everyone with the respect due the Buddha. Their faces started shining with an inner radiance that attracted novices and then lay supporters. In no time at all, the monastery far surpassed its previous glory.”

There's a natural tendency to label people and file them into categories and boxes. It makes life simpler in some ways, but also poorer. 

What if, instead, we remained open to the possibility that each person has something precious inside them? What if we looked deeply for the gifts they have to offer? What if we listened carefully for the stories they have to tell?

What are you looking for.png

Who’s Working Out Loud? (Some statistics)

A recent look at Google Analytics gave me a sense for who’s visiting workingoutloud.com. Roughly 45,000 people have spent time on the site, and growth has been accelerating. Some of the numbers were surprising to me, so I figured I would share them.

Gender

The gender split is remarkably even. I would have assumed the percentage of women would be higher, as I personally see more women joining Working Out Loud Circles, but I would have been wrong.

Country

Though I’m based in New York City, I was still surprised to see the US as the location of most visitors. It feels to me like Germany is more active, but again the data doesn’t support that. I do know there are more German companies spreading WOL Circles. Once WOL is spreading inside a company, people tend to get all the WOL resources they need (like the Circle Guides) on their intranet instead of workingoutloud.com.

Age

I often say WOL isn’t just for the young or for people who like social media, and this chart seems to support that, in part at least. It feels reasonably representative of the workforce.  

Computer

More than a third of the people visiting workingoutloud.com do so from from a phone or tablet, and I expect that to increase. The data also shows that people spend less time viewing material on mobile devices.

Other data & a conclusion

There’s one more thing I’d like to know but can’t: How many people have experienced a WOL Circle? 

The reason I can't figure this out is that, as I alluded to earlier, most Circles are inside companies, and most companies put the free guides on their intranet or work with me to create custom versions. So while I can track downloads from workingoutloud.com, it’s a fraction of the total. My guess is that approximately 10,000 people have joined a Circle. 

My takeaway from all this data is that Working Out Loud is gradually spreading, reaching more people in more places. It’s a good start, and yet there’s a lot to do to make the kind of difference we want to make. 

What do you think? What else would you like to know?

If you care about diversity at work

When I worked in a big company, some of the best communities on our social intranet were related to diversity. The people leading them cared deeply about the different topics. Community members were creative and generous, and they brought a welcome sense of shared humanity to our workplace. It was inspiring.

Yet as good as they were, they were missing something.

Two kinds of extraordinary contributions

The focus of these communities tended to be on raising awareness. With their small budgets, they would host events with inspiring speakers followed by wine and networking. It might be a female executive talking about careers and offering advice, or an external speaker talking about their organization and how it makes a difference. A lot of work went into planning these events, and people liked them.

Campaigns were also popular. One of the most successful ones I remember was for Spirit Day in which people wear purple in support of the LGBTQ community. When that day came, I remember looking on our social network and seeing my feed awash in purple. There were photos from offices all over the world, people wearing purple dresses, shirts, ties, scarves, socks. People taking selfies and people formed in large groups, sharing heartfelt comments expressing their support and commitment. I remember how proud I felt that day, proud of my company and of the people in it.

When the music stops

Events and campaigns can be fun and inspiring. But when they end, participants are typically unsure of what to do next except wait for another event. Last week, I talked with people from universities across the U.S. about trying something different. It was a webinar for a Diversity & Inclusion group.

The group is pursuing a wide range of projects, and they sent me a list of them. One from an educator in Missouri jumped out at me.

“Using the Working Out Loud framework by John Stepper to develop improved skills in improving civil discourse in every day life of Extension educators working in their communities.”

Not only was she interested in being more effective herself, she was trying to change how people relate to each other and help them be more effective too. 

Something to try at your next event

At the end of the call with the universities, people signed up to join Working Out Loud Circles. The first step was to experience the benefits themselves, so they could see how best to apply it to their particular community. The next step would be to help their community form their own Circles.

You could do the same thing at your own event in your own company. If you’re in a diversity community, you’ve already discovered a goal you care about. Your relationship list would include people running other programs, potential partners, and those you admire who are making a difference. By Working Out Loud, you would build relationships with them, and get exposed to new ideas, approaches, and collaboration opportunities that would help you make more of a difference.

What you can also do is help your constituents develop those same skills, and apply them towards their own goals. If the systems and polices don’t give people the visibility and access they deserve, you can help them change the odds through the relationships they'll build.

Spreading Working Out Loud Circles is one way to empower yourself and the people you serve. 

A stranger in a strange land

The story, written in 1959, takes place in an Ibo village Nigeria. I read it while traveling in Germany, where I’m working with new clients. I finished it today on a train to Köln. My experiences on my trip and the experiences in the book could not be more different. Yet I was surprised that some of my reactions were similar.

A portal to another time and place

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, follows the life of Okonkwo and his clan. It’s a world completely foreign to me. Besides the words and names I couldn’t pronounce, everything was unfamiliar to me, from the food and customs to how they related to each other and their view of the world.

Each time I came across something new, I found my instinct was to judge it, to take comfort in labels. Their gods were “ridiculous.” Their food “disgusting.” Their ideas and customs “primitive.” It was a riveting story, and yet I felt the need to rationalize the differences.

Things Fall Apart

A modern business trip

My reactions were extreme because the differences were extreme. Yet on my trip I noticed the same need to label and value things. Good or bad. I like it or don’t like it.

Traveling in Western countries, the contrasts are more muted, and so are my reactions - to the language, the different foods, even to the prevalence of soccer and smoking. I had minor opinions on everything from the architecture to how people drive to how the trains and taxis work.

I have enjoyed meeting so many lovely people here, and had some wonderful experiences. But reading the book made me mindful that I still had a need to deal with the small differences somehow. Though I liked to think of myself as an open person, it was as if putting things in neatly labeled boxes was a strategy for making sense of the world.

IMG_8574

Something to practice

Towards the end of Things Fall Apart, a missionary arrives, trying to change what people believe and how they behave. He’s challenged by a group desperate to maintain the ways of the clan and fighting to keep their distance.

“He does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his. Let him go away.”

When I read that paragraph, I put the book down and thought about my own ways and habits. What if, instead of judging things that weren't familiar, I just accepted things for what they are? Instead of labeling the differences and keeping a safe distance, what if I got closer and asked more questions?

Being more open and curious seems like a better way to live, and something I'm committed to practicing.

A Slice of America

“Where’s your beautiful accent from?” I asked. She told me she was from Mississippi, and I replied that “To a New Yorker, that’s exotic.”

The audience laughed. I was at a meeting in San Antonio with people who worked with universities across the United States. Over the course of the day, I heard a wide range of wonderful accents as I met people from Alabama and Alaska, Nebraska and North Dakota, Texas and Tennessee, and pretty much every other state.

In that one conference hall, it was like a slice of America

America

More than just talk

There were over 300 people there, and the meeting was organized by extension.org, a part of the U.S. Cooperative Extensions system. (Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I until they started experimenting with Working Out Loud circles.)

“Extension provides non-formal education and learning activities to people throughout the country — to farmers and other residents of rural communities as well as to people living in urban areas. It emphasizes taking knowledge gained through research and education and bringing it directly to the people to create positive changes. "

What started over 100 years ago in response to farming issues had grown to cover topics as different as food safety, personal finance, and even “bee health.”

Something special

Perhaps the most striking thing - even more than their accents or their accomplishments - was their attitude. These were some of the nicest, most caring people I had ever met. Not just a few of them. Literally everyone I met was positive and kind and helpful.

Though they’re part of a large organization and all that that can entail, they clearly cared deeply about their work. They all seemed purposeful and committed. Against a backdrop of sameness spreading across America - the same stores, the same bad food, the growing cynicism - here was a chorus of different voices trying to make a difference.

It’s a strange thing to say about a conference, but it made me hopeful.

Learning what diversity really means

"Diversity" growing up in the Bronx

Growing up in an all-Italian neighborhood in The Bronx, my view of diversity was limited to “different degrees of being Italian”. It was the kind of neighborhood where you shopped at salumerias that hung cheeses and meats from the ceiling. Where people made their own wine in the fall and carefully cloaked their olives trees in canvas every winter.

As I became more educated and saw more of the world, my understanding of diversity expanded. Now, decades later, I might finally appreciate what it really means.

Racial diversity

When I was in elementary school, there were no black kids in my class (“African-American” came years later) and very few who weren’t white. If black kids walked into our neighborhood, teenagers would chase them away. And when a neighbor was rumored to be selling his house to a black family, someone set the house on fire.

At 13, when I went to a wonderful high school in Manhattan, I made friends with kids from around the world and we learned that you could and should respect people of any ethnicity. For a long time, that’s what diversity meant to me.

Gender diversity

After college, I started working at Bell Labs, a respectful and ethnically diverse place. And there I was introduced to my first diversity training.

One helpful videotape taught me about the “3-second rule” in which a man shouldn’t touch a woman for more than, well, 3 seconds. A dramatization at another firm showed how it always seemed to be the woman who took notes, opened the conference call, and did other secretarial duties. Though the training sometimes felt forced, the broader message was that you should be mindful of the subtle and not-so-subtle signals of disrespect in the workplace. We learned to treat everyone equally no matter their gender or race, and that was diversity. 

LGBT diversity

More recently, I’ve learned about differences you can’t see. Some of that came from researching what makes for a more humane workplace. And this past year, I became active in our firm’s LGBT community and listened to stories of the challenges people face at work. I was able to take part in events like “Out on the Street” where I could learn more about the issues and what we can do about them.

It seemed clear that diversity really meant being sensitive to what other people might feel. About being respectful of everyone whether you could see their differences or not.

And then, finally...

And then, just this week, my understanding of diversity expanded yet again. I was watching a TED talk filmed in 2003 on the diversity of the world’s indigenous cultures. Wade Davis described how, when most of us were born, there were 6000 languages spoken in our lifetimes but that fully half of those aren't spoken by children and will be extinct within a generation.

“So what?” I thought. “Is that really such a bad thing? Wouldn’t it be simpler if we had fewer differences?”

Simpler, maybe. But poorer. 

In story after story, he described people who were so different from me that just knowing they existed expanded my view of what it means to be human. His talk made me appreciate that it wasn’t just 3000 vocabularies and grammars that were disappearing, but 3000 distinct ways of interacting with the world and each other. “Every language is an old growth forest of the mind,” he said, “a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”  And I came to understand how the extinction of those languages and cultures was, indeed, a loss.

And then he described a choice we have that applies not just to languages and cultures but to all aspects of our lives:

“Do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony? Or do we want to embrace the polychromatic world of diversity?

Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, said before she died that her greatest fear was that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic worldview, not only would we see the entire range of human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought but that we’d awake from a dream one day having forgotten that there were even other possibilities.”

I thought about that. About how a desire for simplicity and sameness can blind you to other possibilities. And I started to appreciate that diversity isn’t just about the differences we see in people or the differences in how they feel. It's also about our different languages, food, and environments. Different experiences, values, and world views. The different ways we think

I started to appreciate that diversity means more than not diminishing others. It means being open to all of the many differences in a “polychromatic world” and how that leads to a much, much richer life.

Towards a more humane workplace

If you want to mistreat someone, it helps to think of them as something other than human. And so, unfortunately, you’ll notice the same tactics used at work as in some of the greatest atrocities against humanity. Yet there’s hope - and evidence - that the social platforms firms are now introducing will make your firm a more humane place.

De-humanizing tactics

“Humanize”, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, makes the compelling case that the mechanistic, industrial model has influenced us to treat each other more like cogs at work than like people. And Seth Godin echoed this in a recent blog post.

But the industrial model has only exacerbated what seems to be a natural tendency.

Some fascinating studies show how easy it is to create an environment where people mistreat each other. For example, the “Robbers’ Cave” experiment, involving 22 eleven-year-old boys in a 3-week summer camp, showed how easily we can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other.

And a study by Albert Bandura (popularized in “Influencer”) showed how subjects in a “training experiment” would deliver significantly different levels of electrical shock depending on a single one-word label applied to the unseen “trainees” (Literally: “They seem nice.” versus “They seem like animals.”)

Bandura found this kind of dehumanizing labeling is one of four strategies - moral justification, dehumanization, minimizing, and displacing responsibility - that “allow individuals to act in ways that are clearly disconnected from their moral compass.”

A self-evident truth

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of selfevidentproject.com

One example of combatting this tendency to label and dehumanize was presented by the artist iO Tillett Wright who recently spoke about gender diversity. In her project, selfevidentproject.com, she decided “to photograph anyone who is not 100% straight” and created 1000s of simple, beautiful portraits that defy labels.

“My goal is to show the humanity that exists in every one of us through the simplicity of a face....I challenge you to look into the faces of these people and tell them they deserve less than any other human being.”

Self-evident truths at work

The problems associated with de-humanizing people aren’t limited to social science experiments and issues of diversity. The authors of “Influencer” described why corporations also need to focus on the issue.

“If you’re a leader attempting to break down silos, encourage collaboration, and engage teamwork across your organization...moral disengagement always accompanies political, combative, and self-centered behavior.”

Part of their advice? “To reengage people morally - and to rehumanize targets that people readily and easily abuse - drop labels and substitute names.”

Evidence & optimism

A social platform

Social collaboration platforms take this idea - moving from labels to names and photos - and makes it a fundamental part of the work environment. And because the platforms are so highly interactive, the benefits go well beyond that.

At my own firm, I find that widespread use of the platform makes it harder to objectify people in 4 ways.

  1. You see faces everywhere - not just in the group directory but every time someone contributes something.
  2. You tend to know more about people. As someone interacts online, you pick up more information about them - “ambient intimacy” - than you’d ever get from a simple profile.
  3. People tend to be helpful. Whether people are having a bad day or a bad project or just have a question, people on line are eager to offer help or at least sympathy. And those simple acts of generosity help build relationships that make collaboration and cooperation easier.
  4. Bullies don’t like sunlight. There will always be bad behavior at work (companies are made up of people, after all), but few at work want their bad behavior to be public. The more employees work out loud and attract public feedback for their contributions, the more difficult it is for someone to unfairly diminish them.

It’s true that the main reason businesses are implementing social platforms is because they’ll generate commercial value. But the cultural side effect - creating a more humane work environment that respects and celebrates individuals - is priceless.

Towards a more humane workplace

If you want to mistreat someone, it helps to think of them as something other than human. And so, unfortunately, you’ll notice the same tactics used at work as in some of the greatest atrocities against humanity. Yet there’s hope - and evidence - that the social platforms firms are now introducing will make your firm a more humane place.

De-humanizing tactics

Humanize, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, makes the compelling case that the mechanistic, industrial model has influenced us to treat each other more like cogs at work than like people. And Seth Godin echoed this in a recent blog post.

But the industrial model has only exacerbated what seems to be a natural tendency.

Some fascinating studies show how easy it is to create an environment where people mistreat each other. For example, the “Robbers’ Cave” experiment, involving 22 eleven-year-old boys in a 3-week summer camp, showed how easily we can be divided into arbitrary groups and drawn into conflict with each other.

And a study by Albert Bandura (popularized in “Influencer”) showed how subjects in a “training experiment” would deliver significantly different levels of electrical shock depending on a single one-word label applied to the unseen “trainees” (Literally: “They seem nice.” versus “They seem like animals.”)

Bandura found this kind of dehumanizing labeling is one of four strategies - moral justification, dehumanization, minimizing, and displacing responsibility - that “allow individuals to act in ways that are clearly disconnected from their moral compass.”

A self-evident truth

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of  selfevidentproject.com

A photo by iO Tillett Wright as part of selfevidentproject.com

One example of combatting this tendency to label and dehumanize was presented by the artist iO Tillett Wright who recently spoke about gender diversity. In her project, selfevidentproject.com, she decided “to photograph anyone who is not 100% straight” and created 1000s of simple, beautiful portraits that defy labels.

“My goal is to show the humanity that exists in every one of us through the simplicity of a face....I challenge you to look into the faces of these people and tell them they deserve less than any other human being.”

Self-evident truths at work

The problems associated with de-humanizing people aren’t limited to social science experiments and issues of diversity. The authors of “Influencer” described why corporations also need to focus on the issue.

“If you’re a leader attempting to break down silos, encourage collaboration, and engage teamwork across your organization...moral disengagement always accompanies political, combative, and self-centered behavior.”

Part of their advice? “To reengage people morally - and to rehumanize targets that people readily and easily abuse - drop labels and substitute names.”

Evidence & optimism

A social platform

A social platform

Social collaboration platforms take this idea - moving from labels to names and photos - and makes it a fundamental part of the work environment. And because the platforms are so highly interactive, the benefits go well beyond that.

At my own firm, I find that widespread use of the platform makes it harder to objectify people in 4 ways.

  1. You see faces everywhere - not just in the group directory but every time someone contributes something.

  2. You tend to know more about people. As someone interacts online, you pick up more information about them - “ambient intimacy” - than you’d ever get from a simple profile.

  3. People tend to be helpful. Whether people are having a bad day or a bad project or just have a question, people on line are eager to offer help or at least sympathy. And those simple acts of generosity help build relationships that make collaboration and cooperation easier.

  4. Bullies don’t like sunlight. There will always be bad behavior at work (companies are made up of people, after all), but few at work want their bad behavior to be public. The more employees work out loud and attract public feedback for their contributions, the more difficult it is for someone to unfairly diminish them.

It’s true that the main reason businesses are implementing social platforms is because they’ll generate commercial value. But the cultural side effect - creating a more humane work environment that respects and celebrates individuals - is priceless.

“Building a purposeful social network” - a course update

If you want to systematically improve diversity, mobility, and employee engagement within your firm, then a good place to start is teaching people how to shape their reputation and build relationships at work. (More on that here and here.) Towards that end, I proposed a course about a year ago that would cover a range of skills:

“Some are basic life skills like writing, speaking, and building relationships. Others are relatively new, like using social tools and practices to engage an audience. The combination of all of these can be extremely powerful.

But you’ll only learn them by doing. And not in a 2-hour corporate diversity workshop.”

Since then, with the support of many people at work, we created and delivered that course - a 3-month course called “Building a purposeful social network.”

Here’s how it went.

What worked

There were no external speakers or offsite venues. Just a few dinners, coffee, and some good snacks. But we proved the basic hypothesis underpinning the course: that “everyone can learn the skills needed to build relationships and shape their reputation.”

Each of the 14 mid-level managers in the class (several of whom were quite skeptical at first) came to understand the concepts, appreciate the potential, and take steps toward building their own purposeful networks.

Results, however, varied wildly.

What didn’t work

Perhaps 1/3 of the class applied the ideas well, 1/3 made some tentative attempts, and 1/3 was still struggling to do something despite knowing they should.

That's okay, but I wanted everyone to make meaningful progress.

The classes themselves - a combination of lecture, supporting media (videos, blog posts) and in-class exercises to actually put the lessons into practice - worked reasonably well.

The biggest mistakes related to what we did between classes. My approach to peer support, for example, was naive. Just lumping people together and calling them a peer group wasn’t adequate. The connections weren’t strong enough to provide meaningful support.

When I noticed the problems with peer support, I tried to make up for it by offering one-on-one coaching. But while the dozen or so sessions we had were useful, the scheduling was too ad hoc for coaching to be effective.

So, in general, we needed more structure between classes. Despite everyone’s best intentions, their regular jobs and routines simply got in the way. To help them change their current work habits and create new ones, we needed to better prepare for and organize any learning outside of the scheduled sessions.

Adjustments to the course outline

The course contents were good - except for one important topic we missed altogether. Here are the 5 main topics I wrote about originally along with some adjustments I’d make next time:

1. Defining your personal goal

This is the most obvious and the most difficult part of the course, helping each person answer “What do you want to achieve?” This part of the course helps people think through and articulate their objectives. Everyone shares their goal with their peer group and discusses it, often asking “Why?” in an effort to ensure the goal will lead to greater engagement and fulfillment.

“Defining your purpose” proved too abstract and frustrating for most people. We quickly made adjustments (that I wrote about here)  to help people shrink the change and gain confidence in applying new ideas and skills.

2. “Leading with generosity” and the basics of building relationships

Perhaps Ferrazzi’s greatest contribution has been to reframe how people think of networking. To make it less about point-to-point transactions and more about leading with generosity to a broad, diverse set of people who can help you reach your goal. This section includes content on generosity, authenticity, and intimacy while also providing techniques and exercises to put those concepts in an enterprise context.

This worked very well. We talked about 5 mindsets - Generosity, Vulnerability, Authenticity, Intimacy, and Empathy. "Leading with generosity” was an approach that resonated with everyone.

3. Listing your assets

To lead with generosity, you need to have something to give. And most people think too narrowly about what they have to give, thereby limiting their interactions. Again, Ferrazzi reframes how people understand the full range of value they can bring to another person. In this part of the course, everyone develops a comprehensive inventory of what they have to offer to others.

4. Your relationship action plan

Armed with a clear sense of purpose, an understanding of how to approach people, and an inventory of what you have to offer, the next step is to identify who can help you - both the kinds of people and specific individuals. You’re not trying to get anything specific from each person other than a closer relationship through authentic, generous behavior. (Again, this is the genius of Ferrazzi.)

The idea is that the sum of these actions over a broad, diverse network will lead to a set of closer relationships that are fulfilling in and of themselves while also yielding more opportunities.

These sections were straightforward and worked well. If I would change anything, I'd shorten them and make more room for the other areas and for in-class implementation of the exercises.

5. Using social platforms

So far, all of this has very little to do with technology. Dale Carnegie could have taught this course in 1936. The last section of the course is to teach people how to use modern social tools and practices. The key difference is that these tools make it easy to publish and get feedback from a wide audience in a public way. Based on all that information, the technology makes it easier to scale the activities in the previous section, to find many more people and to many more opportunities.

In this last section, we learned that people’s familiarity with the tools affected their perception of their effectiveness. So simply explaining and then using the different platforms made a marked difference in people’s perceptions. (More about that here. )

One important section we missed

In the last class, we stumbled onto something we missed and that we should have done at the very beginning: we leveraged the network in the room.

From a few discussions we had in the prior class, I started to notice we could help each other more than I’d imagined. It turns out that, even in a big firm, a group of 15 people  has content and connections that are useful to at least one other person in the room.

So we simply went around the room, person by person, and talked about what help we needed and who could provide that help.  It was the best, most productive session we had. It resulted in more meaningful connections and led to a set of specific contributions from everyone that we’re tracking now.

Next time, even before the first class, we’ll share bios and do more prep work so we can start thinking about the network in the room from the very beginning.

What’s next?

Having identified my mistakes and belatedly discovered the utility of the network in the room, I couldn’t bear to end the inaugural class just yet. So we postponed graduation for another 10 weeks, enough time for everyone to apply what we learned and make more meaningful progress toward our goals.

After this first class ends, I’d like to have another class to see how the adjustments work. And, after we prepare more material and re-structure some things, I’d like to hold classes in other cities and train some other instructors.

Will this approach scale? Is it practical? Well, right now, my goal is simply to help people, a dozen or so at a time, to shape their reputation and take control of their career. To prevent people from stagnating in less-than-fulfilling roles. To help them stop squandering potential - both theirs and the firm’s.

If we can achieve these goals for one small group, then we’ll have something useful we can build on.

“Building a purposeful social network” - a course update

If you want to systematically improve diversity, mobility, and employee engagement within your firm, then a good place to start is teaching people how to shape their reputation and build relationships at work. (More on that here and here.) Towards that end, I proposed a course about a year ago that would cover a range of skills:

“Some are basic life skills like writing, speaking, and building relationships. Others are relatively new, like using social tools and practices to engage an audience. The combination of all of these can be extremely powerful.

But you’ll only learn them by doing. And not in a 2-hour corporate diversity workshop.”

Since then, with the support of many people at work, we created and delivered that course - a 3-month course called “Building a purposeful social network.”

Here’s how it went.

What worked

There were no external speakers or offsite venues. Just a few dinners, coffee, and some good snacks. But we proved the basic hypothesis underpinning the course: that “everyone can learn the skills needed to build relationships and shape their reputation.”

Each of the 14 mid-level managers in the class (several of whom were quite skeptical at first) came to understand the concepts, appreciate the potential, and take steps toward building their own purposeful networks.

Results, however, varied wildly.

What didn’t work

Perhaps 1/3 of the class applied the ideas well, 1/3 made some tentative attempts, and 1/3 was still struggling to do something despite knowing they should.

That's okay, but I wanted everyone to make meaningful progress.

The classes themselves - a combination of lecture, supporting media (videos, blog posts) and in-class exercises to actually put the lessons into practice - worked reasonably well.

The biggest mistakes related to what we did between classes. My approach to peer support, for example, was naive. Just lumping people together and calling them a peer group wasn’t adequate. The connections weren’t strong enough to provide meaningful support.

When I noticed the problems with peer support, I tried to make up for it by offering one-on-one coaching. But while the dozen or so sessions we had were useful, the scheduling was too ad hoc for coaching to be effective.

So, in general, we needed more structure between classes. Despite everyone’s best intentions, their regular jobs and routines simply got in the way. To help them change their current work habits and create new ones, we needed to better prepare for and organize any learning outside of the scheduled sessions.

Adjustments to the course outline

The course contents were good - except for one important topic we missed altogether. Here are the 5 main topics I wrote about originally along with some adjustments I’d make next time:

1. Defining your personal goal

This is the most obvious and the most difficult part of the course, helping each person answer “What do you want to achieve?” This part of the course helps people think through and articulate their objectives. Everyone shares their goal with their peer group and discusses it, often asking “Why?” in an effort to ensure the goal will lead to greater engagement and fulfillment.

“Defining your purpose” proved too abstract and frustrating for most people. We quickly made adjustments (that I wrote about here)  to help people shrink the change and gain confidence in applying new ideas and skills.

2. “Leading with generosity” and the basics of building relationships

Perhaps Ferrazzi’s greatest contribution has been to reframe how people think of networking. To make it less about point-to-point transactions and more about leading with generosity to a broad, diverse set of people who can help you reach your goal. This section includes content on generosity, authenticity, and intimacy while also providing techniques and exercises to put those concepts in an enterprise context.

This worked very well. We talked about 5 mindsets - Generosity, Vulnerability, Authenticity, Intimacy, and Empathy. "Leading with generosity” was an approach that resonated with everyone.

3. Listing your assets

To lead with generosity, you need to have something to give. And most people think too narrowly about what they have to give, thereby limiting their interactions. Again, Ferrazzi reframes how people understand the full range of value they can bring to another person. In this part of the course, everyone develops a comprehensive inventory of what they have to offer to others.

4. Your relationship action plan

Armed with a clear sense of purpose, an understanding of how to approach people, and an inventory of what you have to offer, the next step is to identify who can help you - both the kinds of people and specific individuals. You’re not trying to get anything specific from each person other than a closer relationship through authentic, generous behavior. (Again, this is the genius of Ferrazzi.)

The idea is that the sum of these actions over a broad, diverse network will lead to a set of closer relationships that are fulfilling in and of themselves while also yielding more opportunities.

These sections were straightforward and worked well. If I would change anything, I'd shorten them and make more room for the other areas and for in-class implementation of the exercises.

5. Using social platforms

So far, all of this has very little to do with technology. Dale Carnegie could have taught this course in 1936. The last section of the course is to teach people how to use modern social tools and practices. The key difference is that these tools make it easy to publish and get feedback from a wide audience in a public way. Based on all that information, the technology makes it easier to scale the activities in the previous section, to find many more people and to many more opportunities.

In this last section, we learned that people’s familiarity with the tools affected their perception of their effectiveness. So simply explaining and then using the different platforms made a marked difference in people’s perceptions. (More about that here. )

One important section we missed

In the last class, we stumbled onto something we missed and that we should have done at the very beginning: we leveraged the network in the room.

From a few discussions we had in the prior class, I started to notice we could help each other more than I’d imagined. It turns out that, even in a big firm, a group of 15 people  has content and connections that are useful to at least one other person in the room.

So we simply went around the room, person by person, and talked about what help we needed and who could provide that help.  It was the best, most productive session we had. It resulted in more meaningful connections and led to a set of specific contributions from everyone that we’re tracking now.

Next time, even before the first class, we’ll share bios and do more prep work so we can start thinking about the network in the room from the very beginning.

What’s next?

Having identified my mistakes and belatedly discovered the utility of the network in the room, I couldn’t bear to end the inaugural class just yet. So we postponed graduation for another 10 weeks, enough time for everyone to apply what we learned and make more meaningful progress toward our goals.

After this first class ends, I’d like to have another class to see how the adjustments work. And, after we prepare more material and re-structure some things, I’d like to hold classes in other cities and train some other instructors.

Will this approach scale? Is it practical? Well, right now, my goal is simply to help people, a dozen or so at a time, to shape their reputation and take control of their career. To prevent people from stagnating in less-than-fulfilling roles. To help them stop squandering potential - both theirs and the firm’s.

If we can achieve these goals for one small group, then we’ll have something useful we can build on.