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?

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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19 Responses to The best peer support group for your career?

  1. Stacey Bursch says:

    I love the idea John! I have not been part of a work-oriented peer support network. I have belonged to one around losing weight, not terribly successfully. I think some of the challenges I experienced with that, you’ve covered – 1) keep it small (those meetings were so large, I never made any meaningful connections to other members) and 2) time-box it (no one ever noticed if I missed a week at the other meetings – with a focused time frame, there’s more accountability, plus I wouldn’t feel like I’d signed up for something indefinitely). This is an exciting development, I can’t wait to hear the results. Anything happening on the West Coast?

    • John Stepper says:

      That’s really helpful, Stacey. Thank you. I love that you’re asking if there’s a circle in your area! Something I need to learn is how to train moderators. It seems Lean In Circles discovered the need for this and is instituting a program for moderators this Fall. (Seems like a certification of sorts for people who care more and are willing to take on extra responsibility for a circle.)

  2. gamblesam says:

    John I would be interested in participating in one in Toronto, or setting one up if there is enough interest… I don’t know that I’d want to recruit from my own network necessarily because I think it would be more useful to have the group with people who I didn’t know well already (perhaps with a few exceptions?!)… I’ll think about it, anyways.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Sam, and thank you. I’m ambivalent about the way groups form. I know the groups work better if the people care about and trust each other. Yet some emotional distance helps people to be more objective (and less defensive). My guess is, like Lean In Circles, we’d help people form their own or find a group depending on their preference.

      After we learn from our first attempts at circles and have a good Working Out Loud kit, we’ll help more groups form. (Even the Lean In team is tweaking their model a year and a half after the book came out.)

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  4. Thanks for the article John. I’ve started something with Meetups with other people in our field from across different functions in Learning and Developing. They’re going well. What started off as social informal networking events are now moving towards co-working and learning events although they aren’t as structured as what you’re writing about here. Instead, the conversation flows around what we are doing and working on, what our issues, problems and concerns are and we all offer solutions or show what we have done before. I wrote about our recent co-work experience last week – the only difference is that there’s no onus on anyone to commit to how many events they attend although I do find the wait list is long.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Helen! Yes, I love the kind of co-working meetups you described in your post. I tried that structure (“Working Out Loud Meet-ups”) too. I enjoyed the people & the discussions but we had three problems:
      – sparse and irregular attendance
      – no clear beginning or end
      – no continuity from session to session

      For sharing ideas, that would be okay but for changing habits, it didn’t help at all.

  5. John. I love the idea.

    I believe keeping it small and short is exactly the right move.too.

    My college experience involved a peer support group – we had a “cohort” which consisted of 12 people that all stayed with each other throughout the entire program. That worked well – we supported each other and provided help and encouragement when people were slipping.

    I think you hit it on the head above when you talked about the support for lean in groups with their FAQ and Circle kits. If I were looking to start a group today I’m not sure I would know where to start so those sorts of resources would be very helpful.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello to my favorite future author. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment. It’s very helpful.

      I am really impressed with the Lean In material and it’s a great example for me to follow. They do so many things right. For example, their video library includes great talks about clearly related topics from relevant experts.

      So many possibilities! We’ll start with simple Circle Kits, I think, since getting started is the big hurdle. We can feature famous lecturers later. 🙂

  6. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    Hi John
    This sounds like a great initiative – I am currently running a work related peer support group around a very specific project through our social platform. It has many similarities – but differences too.
    I don’t think anyone would dispute your fantastic formula for the circles
    – time limited and small groups
    – setting definite and tangible outcomes
    – providing a structured curriculum that includes toolkits and an experienced moderator

    You asked for some opinions (☺). Mine are more in the way of questions – as I certainly don’t know all the answers. Like all feedback you can do what you will with it!
    A possible risk (if I may be so bold) given the small size of the groups is that they may not provide the degree of “peer support” you might gain from a larger/wider/more diverse group and they become “project” or “coaching” groups with very specific goals. As there is more emphasis on training and outcomes for each individual there may be less time for discussion and reflection and hence less chance that the new habits will last beyond the confines of the 12 week life cycle of the circle. 12 weeks is a very short time. But that also depends on whether you want them to be coaching groups or actual “peer support” because there might be some differences in expectation between the two.
    SO here are the questions:
    Could one of the “eleven” other meetings committed to, be shared with another circle to widen the experience?
    What happens when the 12 week period is up?
    Is there a follow-up mechanism with the moderator/members of the group?

    Is there a process to “share” the results between the other working out loud circles? How are the circles going to showcase what they have achieved?
    You mention
    “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”.
    Will this be up to each group – or a consistent approach for all of them?

    By sharing and consolidating the information across the groups the members will get the opportunity to realise a bigger picture outside of their own small circle. An opportunity to widen their network ,share experiences and learn with more confidence.

    That in itself would be very supportive going forward from their circles at the end of the 12 weeks. Perhaps the difference between creating individual groups (or circles) and creating a networked community of Working Out Louders ☺

    No doubt you already have this planned out.

    Great post.

    • John Stepper says:

      I love your confidence in me: “No doubt you already have this planned out.” Ha! No, I’m very much still learning as we go.

      I do have some answers or at least responses to your questions. They were helpful in making me think more deeply about what I mean by peer support. Please, never stop commenting and asking questions! I love the way you think.

      Q: Could one of the “eleven” other meetings committed to, be shared with another circle to widen the experience?
      A: No. It’s possible, but the key to the circle working is trust and introducing a new group for a single session won’t have that. I expect to use the blog (or some other online forum) to share inter-group experiences.

      Q: What happens when the 12 week period is up?
      A: Great question. I’d like some kind of ritual at the end – a graduation of sorts – but have not thought enough about it.

      Q: Is there a follow-up mechanism with the moderator/members of the group?
      A: Another great question! I’d like to do tune-up sessions at one month and at three months after the 12 weeks is up.

      Q: Is there a process to “share” the results between the other working out loud circles? How are the circles going to showcase what they have achieved?
      A: The circles don’t have to showcase anything. It’s a private thing for individual benefit, not for me or for some movement. However, I will be looking for stories and aspire to interact with circles to share stories and practices. Lean In Circles do this well.

      Q: You mention “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”. Will this be up to each group – or a consistent approach for all of them?
      A: This will be specific to each individual in the group and not to the group as a whole. I’ll write up common practices though to help future groups.

      Q: By sharing and consolidating the information across the groups the members will get the opportunity to realise a bigger picture outside of their own small circle. An opportunity to widen their network ,share experiences and learn with more confidence.
      A: Yes! Yet I don’t want to give the circles more work to do or some sense of obligation. I like the idea of giving them the option, though.

      You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you, Marie-Louise, for all your thoughtful and insightful contributions here!

      • Marie-Louise Collard says:

        Thank you so much for such a thorough response to my endless list of questions – and your kind words. Apart from giving me a much better understanding of what you are hoping to achieve – hopefully it may go some way to encourage other who may wish to set up your WOL Circles. It’s such a great idea.

        But there is one aspect still leaving me with questions….which you did go some way to address – but not in the direction I imagined. Perhaps it is just too early to even plan or visualise – or perhaps it is simply not your intention? Quite possible!

        As I understand it – the emphasis is very much on the “individual”
        “It’s a private thing for individual benefit, not for me or for some movement…”
        and again
        “This will be specific to each individual in the group ”

        AT the end of the 12 week cycle you mention that you intend to a “tune-up at one month and three month with each Circle.
        Now let us imagine 6 months and 1 year down the line – the group over, the individuals dispersed? Where is their (the individual) point of reference of what they established/learnt/achieved – if there is no “community” that was developed between and across the Circles? What can they go back to should they wish to share and compare? Or more importantly what about the future WOL learners who wish to search what went before ? What will they be able to “see” as the legacy of your Circles? Individuals?
        Isn’t Community (to be distinguished clearly from “movement”) – a sense of shared practice that you can learn from today, tomorrow and in to the future?

        Yes, I do have great confidence in you – and what ever your choices – I’m sure they’ll be great ones! 🙂

        Thank you

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  10. Ryan Tracey says:

    Great idea, John. After we were lucky enough to have Harold Jarche present to us while he was down under recently, I seized the momentum to create a Working Out Loud group on our SharePoint platform. (While we should be working out loud on the enterprise-wide activity feed, this is evidently a bridge too far for our organisational culture – so I’m starting small with a few champions.) Your idea of f2f meetups is something I hadn’t considered for this purpose, so cheers!

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Ryan and thank you. Any start is a good one! The circles address at least three important issues:
      1. making it clear *why* people are working out loud
      2. helping them do it regularly until it becomes a habit
      3. providing micro-coaching along the way (“guided mastery”) so people get help when they need it and don’t get stuck

      Our first few are going well and we’ll create Circle Kits (also a la Lean In Circles) to help more groups help themselves.

      p.s. You met the famous Harold Jarche? Some day I hope to have that privilege! He’s doing a lot of great work and definitely shaped my thinking.

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  12. Irene Johansen says:

    Hi John,
    Great idea! I’ve been struggling at work to find a way to work on-line, collaboratively, on lean thinking (North American adaptation of the Toyota Production System, for all industries) projects, and share principles in general. Our current platform is pretty simplistic. This might provide us with another avenue.

    A couple of comments:

    I really like the questions Marie-Louise Collard asked – many of them are my own, especially follow up after the set time is up.

    Here at CWC PCN, we have a smoking cessation program that is built for follow up. In addition to the shared sessions, there is a series of follow-up phone calls, over quite a period of time. We know that this habit is particularly difficult to change. From the numbers I’m seeing, it’s possible we may have to add more follow-up. It’s meeting with some success, but there’s a lot of room for improvement too. I wonder if offering peer support like this would be helpful. What do you think?

    A lot of this would lend itself to lean improvement projects as well: providing limits on meeting time; clear goals and “homework”; follow up for evaluation. The essential piece in lean, however, is to check in from time to time, and to continue to improve. As Marie-Louise has mentioned, I think an avenue for additional follow-up would be helpful – whether a lean project or not. Habits can slip.

    Finally, you may have already thought of this, but using a platform where documentation, links, documents, and other resources can be effectively shared, organized, and is searchable, would make discussion simpler, wasting less time on making sure everyone is – literally – on the same page. SharePoint is a good platform for this. I know there are others.

    I would be interested in participating in circles here in Calgary, maybe even creating/moderating, depending on how things in the rest of life are going…

    Thanks for a great article!


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