Exhaling on the scale

The first time I noticed it, I smiled and thought, What a strange thing to do. Then I noticed it again the next day, and realized it was an unconscious habit. Every morning, before stepping on the scale, I breath out deeply, as if that will make a difference in the results. 

It doesn’t make any sense. Yet I think I figured out why I do it: it gives me the perception of control without having to do the more challenging work required to affect the outcome. It’s as if I’m telling myself, “Well, I haven’t exercised for the last few days, and I ate and drank too much last night…but I can do this!” Then I slowly blow out a gust of air. Whoooooooosh.

It would be funny except that I do something similar when it comes to work. 

Like many people, I have a fuzzy notion of the important things I’d like to accomplish. Yet there’s usually enough uncertainty or doubt surrounding those things, or they may seem too big, that they trigger anxiety and resistance. To deal with that, I would find myself filling my day with small tasks and activities, chipping away at an infinite todo list. I would feel busy, but all I really accomplished was avoiding the difficult work required to do something meaningful. 

So lately I’m trying something new. Every Monday I have a short call with a friend, and we each share the top three things we need to do during the upcoming week to make progress towards our big goals. We don’t talk about everything we might do or could do. We just list three specific things we will do, work that will move us in the right direction.

On the next call, we’ll talk about what happened in the past week, discuss adjustments we might make, and share our goals for the following week. There’s no judgment or competition. Just learning and encouragement to focus and to keep going. The mutual accountability helps us maintain both motivation and momentum.

A nice phrase to describe what we’re sharing is our “essential intent,” a phrase from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. The phrase is usually applied to longer timeframes, but I’ve found it useful as a way to describe nearer-term goals, too. What is the essential thing you intend to do this week/month/year/life? Think of it as a way to distill the truly important from the sea of possible activities, and to state it in a way that’s both actionable and measurable.

Reflect for a moment on your own big goals for your work and life. Do you know your essential intent for this month or this week? For tomorrow? Are you doing work what matters, or are you exhaling on the scale? 


A better approach to mentoring at work

I had two kinds of mentors when I worked in big organizations. One was assigned to me as part of a mentoring program. He was a direct report of the head of our division, and his secretary would occasionally arrange a lunch appointment for us. Because of his position, I was cautious about what I said to him.

My other mentors weren’t part of any program. They were people I chose, either because they excelled at what they did or because they cared enough about me to listen and provide objective feedback.

Who do you think I learned more from?

Most companies I speak with fully understand the value of good mentoring relationships, yet they’re stuck with traditional programs. Here are two ways they can do better.

Peer mentoring

Part of what makes for a successful mentoring relationship is choice. Preserving both parties’ perception of control will directly increase their motivation. Another part is psychological safety. Even with the presumption of confidentiality, it’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re talking to someone who's directly responsible for your compensation or promotion (or is closely connected to someone who is).

Peer mentoring can help with these issues, especially if it’s a group of peers, and their aggregated knowledge, networks, and experience can be considerable. A Lean In Circle is a good example of such a group. 

Another example is a Working Out Loud Circle. Instead of offering just general support, each person takes specific steps towards a goal they care about, and develops relationship-building skills as they do. Simple guides for each meeting provide structure, and ensure that each person has both something to gain and something to offer. More than a conversation each week, it's a shared experience, one that individuals can repeat with each new goal they pursue.

Reverse mentors

Reverse mentor programs flip the traditional model, with a (generally) younger person providing some kind of coaching or support to a more senior manager. The programs are opt-in, which preserves autonomy on both sides. The topics are usually centered around things younger people would naturally know more about (technology, perhaps, or “what millenials want”). That preserves psychological safety. 

Such a program can provide a safe place for executives to learn about something new, and for the reverse mentor to become more familiar with what managers do and how they do it. But most programs lack the structure to provide meaningful exchanges or experiences, and waste the opportunity. It can become, like the lunches with my mentor, just a series of periodic chats. Nice, but insubstantial.

To solve that problem, there’s a version of Working Out Loud Guides specifically developed for such a program. (You could also use them with executive assistants acting as reverse mentors.) Each week, the guides specify preparation the reverse mentor does before the meeting. Then they offer the manager simple steps for using digital tools to reach and engage people. Through deliberate practice in each session, the executive learns how to search and listen online, to connect with people, and to reinforce desired behaviors. 

An experiment you can try in your organization

Though simple, these lightweight mentoring programs can solve some longstanding problems. 

Take, for example, the use of digital tools by executives. Organizations spend millions on new tools for communicating and collaborating, and yet most of their executives don’t take advantage of them. When I mentioned that to a group of HR professionals this week, the audience responded with a lot of head nodding and nervous laughter. “We have a lot of work to do,” they said. But they also agreed they could easily find ten managers who would participate in a “Digital Leaders” reverse mentoring program. Those ten managers, working in a more visible way, could then inspire the next twenty, and so on.

Another problem I wrote about recently is the on-boarding of employees. Companies put a lot of effort into orientation events that, over a few intense days, may well inspire people. But what happens after that? Those enthusiastic new joiners are left with little or no support for navigating their new organization. As an experiment, you could pick one orientation group and offer them the chance to form Working Out Loud Circles. Then use feedback from that first wave to validate that they’re indeed more productive and connected more quickly.

You know you can do better than the traditional programs. Take a small step and see for yourself.

New Circle Guides Available!

The new guides are based on feedback from hundreds of circles and practitioners around the world. They’re simpler and easier than ever.

If you haven’t formed a circle yet, now is a perfect time to invest in yourself.

What’s changed?

The last version was published in August 2015, and since then circles have spread to 17 countries. (This week alone I heard from people looking to form them in Austria and Israel.) We’ve learned a lot over the past nine months and put that learning into the new guides.

Here are some of the improvements:

  • A simpler progression from week to week that makes each step easier and provides positive reinforcement sooner.
  • A two-page summary of the 12 weeks and a short “What to expect this week” section at the beginning of each guide. 
  • Introduction of “spiral learning” (revisiting core concepts in different ways) to reinforce the fundamental elements of the practice.  
  • No “homework.” The optional exercises and related reading were chosen so you can put in as much or as little effort as feels right for you.
  • New exercises for helping with time challenges.
  • The Facilitator role has been replaced with a simpler “Circle Coordinator” role which can be rotated among members.

How to get help

The guides are designed so anyone can form a circle, download the free guides, and make progress towards a goal they care about while they develop a new habit and mindset.

Yet many people would like help forming a circle and advice on how to handle challenges and issues that come up. Such help can make the difference between success and never making it to the first meeting. 

The best way to get that help is with a new online course we’re piloting

When? Six Thursdays in a row, June 9 through July 14 

How long? 90 minutes via live, interactive video.

What’s included? We’ll place each person in a circle and you’ll go through a condensed version of the 12-week circle process in an hour each week, along with 30 minutes of coaching from me. You'll also have online access to coaches. That will help make your experience a success and better equip you to coach more circles in the future.

Organizations who want additional help have additional options. For example, I’m working with a wide range of companies to customize all the materials and train Circle Coaches. For HR, it’’s a distributed, peer-to-peer development program tailored for their organization.

If you have any questions - about the guides, the course, or helping your organization - contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. You can also join the Facebook community or LinkedIn community and ask for advice from practitioners around the world.

Do you wish you had already spent more time investing in yourself and in your relationships? As the saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

Form a circle or sign up for the course today.

***

p.s. If you’re asking someone to join a circle, the simplest way might be to send them a link to this TEDx talk “Working Out Loud: The making of a movement.” It provides a simple description of circles and how they’re spreading, and the stories of individuals and companies bring it all to life. 

All you need to add is: “Would you like to try this with me?”

New! Working Out Loud circle guides v3.0

The best way to build your network is working out loud, and the best way to actually practice working out loud is to form a Working Out Loud circle. Based on feedback from the first wave of circles, there are new circle guides available today, and the best way just got a bit better.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 2.23.39 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 2.23.39 PM

What’s a WOL circle?

So far, there are over 100 circles where I work, and there will be over 1000 of them across companies in time for WOLWeek in November 2015. (There are circles in 10 countries so far.) Here’s a short description:

A Working Out Loud circle is a small peer support group in which you pick a goal and build a network of relationships that can help you with that goal.

Groups meet for an hour a week for 12 weeks. By the end of your 12 weeks in a circle, you’ll have developed a larger, more diverse network and a set of habits you can apply toward any goal.

Feedback from the first wave of circles

I got the chance to join many circles in their fourth week and after their last meeting, and I asked them what was working and not working. People usually found the experience valuable, offering comments like these:

“After just one WOL Circle meeting, I was already feeling more connected with my colleagues and more encouraged about my career. I believe at the end of 12 weeks, I will be well on my way to new habits to accomplish my goal.”

“We are in our fourth circle week and having a blast. It is clear and concise and motivating…I honestly feel empowered to own my success and not wait for it to come knocking.”

But there was room for improvement. For example, I had originally provided detailed instructions for only the first three weeks. I figured people would make progress at different paces and would be better offer following their own agenda from weeks 4 through 12. I was wrong. Most circle members told me they preferred having clear instructions each week.

I also noticed that I was asking people to do too much too soon, and that made the process less enjoyable for some than it could and should be. After all, circles are based on small steps, practiced over time, with feedback and peer support.

Circle Guides 3.0 (and beyond)

The new guides include a simple set of instructions for each of the 12 weeks. I wanted to balance making the guide stand on its own - even for people who haven’t read Working Out Loud - with keeping each section short and simple. Each part of the guide now includes a clear objective, suggested agenda, exercises, discussion points, and answers to common questions - and it can still fit on 2 double-sided sheets of paper.

I’m publishing the first four parts here and the rest by the end of August 2015, to allow time for feedback (and to finish writing them!).

WOL Circle Guide - A simple overview v3.0

WOL Circle Guide - Week 1 v3.0

WOL Circle Guide - Week 2 v3.0

WOL Circle Guide - Week 3 v3.0

My intent is to keep refining the circle experience to make it ever  simpler and more engaging.

If you want to form a circle…

So far, the circles spread via career events inside organizations and via personal book clubs. We're considering other ways to spread them too - e.g., including circles as part of an outplacement firm’s array of support services, offering an online course, or having a “circle finder” to help match people.

What would make it easier for you to form a circle? Or to spread them at your organization?

Your feedback on the guides and your suggestions help more people access a better career and life. Thank you.

“Holy ****. That is awesome.”

Working Out Loud CirclesThat’s a reaction from someone in one of our working out loud circles. It’s an unconventional testimonial, perhaps, but captures both the surprise and joy people feel when a circle member is successful in building a network, taking control of their career and their life. Here’s the short story behind that reaction that demonstrates how circles work in practice.

We were in week 6

Circles usually form for 12 weeks and this was our sixth meeting. At the beginning of each meeting, before talking about a set of slightly more advanced techniques and exercises, we quickly recap the progress each person made with their plan from the week before. One woman described an event she attended and some of the influential people there who could help her grow her business. Our circle helped her choose the specific people she should add to her relationship list.

“What should I say?” she asked us, and we spent a few minutes suggesting ways to frame an email about the event as a contribution. We wanted her to start with appreciation but to also reference her own work in a way that would be helpful to the person receiving the note. It was a short practice in email empathy that Dale Carnegie would have approved of.

At the end of the circle meeting, we all described the steps we would take before the next session and encouraged each other to reach out if we needed help. Our friend said she would send that email.

“Oh my god. What now?”

Two days later, we all got forwarded an email with a short question from our friend: “Oh my god. What now?” The influential person she was nervous about reaching out to had already responded - thanking her for such a nice note, showing an interest in her work, and alluding to possible collaborations.

The people in our circle quickly offered suggestions for a reply, and the rest of the mail thread was a virtual high-fiving, celebrating our friend’s new connection. She sent the reply that day.

The really important thing that happened

Our friend has been working her lists for a few weeks now and has read a draft of the book. So she knows how to make her work visible, how to frame it as a contribution, how to build a network and be empathetic in her communications. But she still doesn’t have the habit of doing all of it.

So the important thing that happened this week wasn’t that our friend sent an email, made a connection with an influential person, or even that she created a possibility for collaboration where none existed before.

The important thing was that she practiced. She exercised the techniques she has learned so far, got positive reinforcement from both her network and our group, and is more prepared - and more likely - to take the next step and practice again. Gradually, she’s developing the habit of working in an open, generous, connected way.

The working out loud circle gives her emotional support, coaching, advice, and a sense of shared accountability that helps her develop her new habits. Over our remaining time together, as that habit grows stronger, she’ll be equipped to work out loud towards any goal.

“Holy ****. That is awesome.”

Working Out Loud CirclesThat’s a reaction from someone in one of our working out loud circles. It’s an unconventional testimonial, perhaps, but captures both the surprise and joy people feel when a circle member is successful in building a network, taking control of their career and their life. Here’s the short story behind that reaction that demonstrates how circles work in practice.

We were in week 6

Circles usually form for 12 weeks and this was our sixth meeting. At the beginning of each meeting, before talking about a set of slightly more advanced techniques and exercises, we quickly recap the progress each person made with their plan from the week before. One woman described an event she attended and some of the influential people there who could help her grow her business. Our circle helped her choose the specific people she should add to her relationship list.

“What should I say?” she asked us, and we spent a few minutes suggesting ways to frame an email about the event as a contribution. We wanted her to start with appreciation but to also reference her own work in a way that would be helpful to the person receiving the note. It was a short practice in email empathy that Dale Carnegie would have approved of.

At the end of the circle meeting, we all described the steps we would take before the next session and encouraged each other to reach out if we needed help. Our friend said she would send that email.

“Oh my god. What now?”

Two days later, we all got forwarded an email with a short question from our friend: “Oh my god. What now?” The influential person she was nervous about reaching out to had already responded - thanking her for such a nice note, showing an interest in her work, and alluding to possible collaborations.

The people in our circle quickly offered suggestions for a reply, and the rest of the mail thread was a virtual high-fiving, celebrating our friend’s new connection. She sent the reply that day.

The really important thing that happened

Our friend has been working her lists for a few weeks now and has read a draft of the book. So she knows how to make her work visible, how to frame it as a contribution, how to build a network and be empathetic in her communications. But she still doesn’t have the habit of doing all of it.

So the important thing that happened this week wasn’t that our friend sent an email, made a connection with an influential person, or even that she created a possibility for collaboration where none existed before.

The important thing was that she practiced. She exercised the techniques she has learned so far, got positive reinforcement from both her network and our group, and is more prepared - and more likely - to take the next step and practice again. Gradually, she’s developing the habit of working in an open, generous, connected way.

The working out loud circle gives her emotional support, coaching, advice, and a sense of shared accountability that helps her develop her new habits. Over our remaining time together, as that habit grows stronger, she’ll be equipped to work out loud towards any goal.

The best peer support group for your career?

Peer SupportI’ve got a problem and I’m hoping you can help me. I know that working out loud - working in an open, generous, connected way - increases your chances of finding meaning and fulfillment in your work and life. I also know I can teach anyone the necessary ideas and techniques, and I can coach individuals to gradually develop new habits to do it regularly.

But how would you help millions of people to work out loud?

Part of the answer, it seems, is a self-organizing peer support system for people’s careers. So we’re setting out to create one.

When peer support works & when it doesn’t

I’ve been in exactly one successful peer support group. It was part of Keith Ferrazzi’s Relationship Masters Academy and everyone in the class was part of a 4-6 person group. Some worked and some didn’t. Our group was effective because we got to know and trust each other quickly, we had specific things to do, and we had a schedule for meeting in person. When any of those things broke down, so did our group.

There is a wide range of peer support programs. People who want to lose weight, to become better speakers, to be happier. It’s easier than ever to form groups but as hard as ever to maintain them or have them actually achieve something.

One program in particular has most of the elements I’d want in a support system for working out loud.

A great peer support group

When Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, it wasn’t for the money but for the movement. She wanted to genuinely help women (and men) develop new habits and new mindsets related to everyday work and to their overall career. 

 The book and her TED talks are important in raising awareness. But to help people actually change, she created a distributed peer support system called Lean In Circles.

Lean In Circles

Today, there are over 14,000 Lean In Circles and the available support is excellent.

  • It’s easy to join an existing group or form your own.
  • There’s a moderator role to help keep things organized, positive, and productive.
  • A rich FAQ provides answers to common questions.
  • Circle Kits provide clear instructions for running meetings & simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • There’s a range of additional online resources on a beautiful website, including video lectures for developing specific skills.

No wonder so many groups formed. The book inspired many people and Lean In Circles provide an easy way to build on that and help people put the ideas into action.

Working Out Loud Circles

There’s a lot to learn from Lean In Circles and much to emulate. Washington Post writer felt it was the Circles, not the book, that would define the legacy of Sheryl Sandberg's movement. But their mission is somewhat different from mine.  After spending time with 6 different Circles, the Post writer described them this way:

I found the Lean In Circles to be more like Alcoholics Anonymous fused with Girl Scouts — a support group built around a social movement.

That may be both appropriate and effective given Sheryl Sandberg’s book - often called a “feminist manifesto” - and her goals. Working Out Loud is not a manifesto. It's based on my experience with the 12-week coaching program. In addition to having people support each other, I want the groups to develop specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

So while aspiring to achieve the best of Lean In Circles, I’d do three things differently:

Limit the groups to 4-5 people including the moderator. More than that and there’s too much free-form discussion and not enough time for detailed feedback on individual’s goals and progress.

Meet for 12 weeks only. After an initial meeting to get to know the other people and their goals, groups members would be asked to commit to 11 additional meetings. It’s hard for support groups that meet indefinitely to maintain their early enthusiasm and momentum. People tend to view meetings as optional and come and go as they feel they need them. Instead, we’ll seek to build a sense of shared commitment - “emotional communion” - over a finite period. That will focus people’s attention and greatly increase the odds they’ll make progress.

Provide a more structured curriculum. The 12 weeks are meant to be a guided mastery program. The more specific the exercises and the more tangible the results in terms of artifacts and feedback, the more likely that people can develop new habits that stick.

What’s one thing we could do better?

We’re starting small. Some very good friends in London already launched the first Working Out Loud Circle. I’ll moderate a circle in New York starting next week and a small group at work in Barcelona just decided they’d form a circle.

It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. There’s so much to do and learn. I don’t dare propose I can help as many people as Sheryl Sandberg but I dare to dream it. When the doubts arise as they always do, I’ll just do the work and ask people who care about it for honest feedback.

So please contribute your opinions in the comments. Does the idea of forming Working Out Loud Circles make sense to you? Have you ever been part of a peer support group? What worked and what didn’t?

To help millions of people work out loud, what’s one thing we could do better?

The best peer support group for your career?

Peer SupportI’ve got a problem and I’m hoping you can help me. I know that working out loud - working in an open, generous, connected way - increases your chances of finding meaning and fulfillment in your work and life. I also know I can teach anyone the necessary ideas and techniques, and I can coach individuals to gradually develop new habits to do it regularly.

But how would you help millions of people to work out loud?

Part of the answer, it seems, is a self-organizing peer support system for people’s careers. So we’re setting out to create one.

When peer support works & when it doesn’t

I’ve been in exactly one successful peer support group. It was part of Keith Ferrazzi’s Relationship Masters Academy and everyone in the class was part of a 4-6 person group. Some worked and some didn’t. Our group was effective because we got to know and trust each other quickly, we had specific things to do, and we had a schedule for meeting in person. When any of those things broke down, so did our group.

There is a wide range of peer support programs. People who want to lose weight, to become better speakers, to be happier. It’s easier than ever to form groups but as hard as ever to maintain them or have them actually achieve something.

One program in particular has most of the elements I’d want in a support system for working out loud.

A great peer support group

When Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, it wasn’t for the money but for the movement. She wanted to genuinely help women (and men) develop new habits and new mindsets related to everyday work and to their overall career. 

 The book and her TED talks are important in raising awareness. But to help people actually change, she created a distributed peer support system called Lean In Circles.

Lean In Circles

Today, there are over 14,000 Lean In Circles and the available support is excellent.

  • It’s easy to join an existing group or form your own.
  • There’s a moderator role to help keep things organized, positive, and productive.
  • A rich FAQ provides answers to common questions.
  • Circle Kits provide clear instructions for running meetings & simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • There’s a range of additional online resources on a beautiful website, including video lectures for developing specific skills.

No wonder so many groups formed. The book inspired many people and Lean In Circles provide an easy way to build on that and help people put the ideas into action.

Working Out Loud Circles

There’s a lot to learn from Lean In Circles and much to emulate. Washington Post writer felt it was the Circles, not the book, that would define the legacy of Sheryl Sandberg's movement. But their mission is somewhat different from mine.  After spending time with 6 different Circles, the Post writer described them this way:

I found the Lean In Circles to be more like Alcoholics Anonymous fused with Girl Scouts — a support group built around a social movement.

That may be both appropriate and effective given Sheryl Sandberg’s book - often called a “feminist manifesto” - and her goals. Working Out Loud is not a manifesto. It's based on my experience with the 12-week coaching program. In addition to having people support each other, I want the groups to develop specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

So while aspiring to achieve the best of Lean In Circles, I’d do three things differently:

Limit the groups to 4-5 people including the moderator. More than that and there’s too much free-form discussion and not enough time for detailed feedback on individual’s goals and progress.

Meet for 12 weeks only. After an initial meeting to get to know the other people and their goals, groups members would be asked to commit to 11 additional meetings. It’s hard for support groups that meet indefinitely to maintain their early enthusiasm and momentum. People tend to view meetings as optional and come and go as they feel they need them. Instead, we’ll seek to build a sense of shared commitment - “emotional communion” - over a finite period. That will focus people’s attention and greatly increase the odds they’ll make progress.

Provide a more structured curriculum. The 12 weeks are meant to be a guided mastery program. The more specific the exercises and the more tangible the results in terms of artifacts and feedback, the more likely that people can develop new habits that stick.

What’s one thing we could do better?

We’re starting small. Some very good friends in London already launched the first Working Out Loud Circle. I’ll moderate a circle in New York starting next week and a small group at work in Barcelona just decided they’d form a circle.

It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. There’s so much to do and learn. I don’t dare propose I can help as many people as Sheryl Sandberg but I dare to dream it. When the doubts arise as they always do, I’ll just do the work and ask people who care about it for honest feedback.

So please contribute your opinions in the comments. Does the idea of forming Working Out Loud Circles make sense to you? Have you ever been part of a peer support group? What worked and what didn’t?

To help millions of people work out loud, what’s one thing we could do better?