I bumped into a post from the L&D Shakers community on Linkedin and something made me curious. Until then, most conversations I had around learning and development in the context of big companies seemed dull and outdated to me — but not this time.
I decided to join the community, and the way I was welcomed made me realize I was in the right place. Well, being a generalist fueled by diversity I have “a couple of tribes”, but this one is populated by countless people engaged with two of my main areas of interest — learning and reinvention.
I started to have one on one conversations with members and participated in a couple of activities, and immediately noticed how Anamaria, the community founder, and catalyst, “flows through” the community, enabling others to mix, mingle and empower each other. And she’s in excellent company — the leadership team is great and many members are available to help.
Being someone who also loves bringing people together, and bridging different worlds, I got a second curiosity kick. What’s Anamaria’s line of thought? How does she evolve?
In the preparation call for this interview I had with Anamaria, which could have lasted for hours, I realized that I had found the right person to answer some of the hard questions about communities and learning few seem to be able to tackle. And, as you will see, I was right.
If learning and communities are your thing, prepare yourself for a treat. If not, maybe that will change today.
Bird’s Eye View
Can you give us a glimpse of your life story?
I grew up in the Romanian countryside and I left home when I was 18 to study Psychology in Cluj-Napoca. After I graduated from my Master’s in HR and Organizational Health I was determined to work in another country and Germany was at the top of my list. I spent a year doing two internships in Bonn and in Frankfurt, and returned to Romania as an International Recruiter for Bombardier Transportation back then. I always knew that one day I would return to Germany, and surely enough, ten months later, I was back in Frankfurt where I started my HR career in the retail industry. Within three years, I was working as an International HR Manager supporting several European countries, leading big teams and living in Barcelona.
It was back then that I started to take on L&D projects and deliver training and I knew immediately that that’s what I wanted to do. Shortly after, I found my dream job — working as an L&D Manager for a Dutch start-up I admired so much as a customer. It was a dream come true, just like those you see in movies. So I moved to Amsterdam, where I currently live.
After almost one year of moving here, I started a community of practice for L&D professionals and community building came so naturally to me. Being surrounded by like-minded people with whom I could experiment was one of the richest learning experiences of my life. Also, one that brought me my current role: Head of Community at Butter.
How is the experience of living in a different country?
It’s everything you imagine it to be: exciting, enriching, surprising and rewarding. But it can also be lonely, stressful and frustrating. It changed me, it definitively trained my adaptability muscle. It changed my concept of home as well. What I learned is that speaking the local language completely transforms the experience.
What are the main challenges when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the corporate world?
This is such a complex conversation to have and I am by no means an expert. From where I stand, it starts with the lack of common understanding of what being discriminated against really feels like. Half the room tries to imagine it and think that they know, the other half is being greeted with discrimination and microaggression on a regular basis, and from all sides.
Until we will be able to have those uncomfortable conversations, practice deep listening to understand, not to argue, and admit that we are not treated the same in the workplace, we’ll see little change. And once the understanding and the messy conversations happen, we need to see real change, like transparent and equal pay, whistleblower policies, and so on.
Companies need to go through each and every organizational process and cultural aspect with a fine comb TOGETHER with the people they are trying to make a change for. Otherwise, there’s a high risk they start putting out fires using wood.
You’re the founder and catalyst of one of the most vibrant communities I know — L&D Shakers. What’s the story behind it?
L&D Shakers started because I needed people around me that could empathize with my struggles as an L&D professional in a fast-paced startup environment. It started with me approaching L&D Managers working in Amsterdam on LinkedIn and asking them if they would like to get together and share best practices and bounce off ideas. I was relieved to see so many of them coming back to me saying “I have been looking for a group like this and I couldn’t find one”. I wasn’t alone. So I just went for it and I created the LinkedIn group.
Right at the beginning, it was mainly Moniek Suren (Head of Employee Experience at WeTransfer) and myself brainstorming ideas of events we could organize. All meetups were taking place in Amsterdam and I remember we were turning people down from other countries that wanted to join the community. Now it feels crazy to even think about that.
Four months later, COVID hit and everything froze. All I could think of was that I didn’t want to lose momentum. We were around 70–80 people, and the group was slowly starting to get to know each other, to share, and ask for help within the community. I talked to Moniek and we had no doubt that we needed to move shop online, fast. So we took the opportunity to run three workshops during which we would talk about the community and how we would like this space to grow moving forward, all while experimenting with Liberating Structures online. We named those events the Playground — an event format we still run today.
This was a pivotal moment for the community, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without these workshops. We defined the mission and the values of the community together, we brainstormed event ideas and we created the Core Team — a group of seven community members that would drive the vision and strategy forward. Each event had so-called event catalysts who were in charge to make that event happen.
Suddenly we were online, and there were no more boundaries. People started joining us from all over the world. I still remember the feeling I had when we celebrated the 100th member. I couldn’t believe that 100 people were finding that space valuable and were willing to show up, to share, to be generous, to learn, and to ask for help when they needed it.
After that, things escalated very quickly. Dozens of events, ambitious projects, countless collaborations, tangible impact, hundreds of new friends — we are now 1000 L&D Shakers and I still think that’s crazy!
One of the challenges of curating communities is to balance bonding and bridging. What are your thoughts on it?
Absolutely love this question, this is something we find ourselves reflecting upon time and again. Looking back, I think that we’ve moved so fluidly on the spectrum of bonding-bridging. It’s like a dance, you sometimes naturally gravitate towards bonding, and other times towards bridging.
We started as a local community, focused on tight-knit connections, all while accepting members that were not exclusively from L&D (e.g. HR, freelance coaches and trainers, business leaders passionate about learning and so on). We were always very aware of the power that diverse perspectives bring to the table and the value offered by building bridges with people from these other backgrounds.
Then we moved online and it was all about bridging — reaching people from different countries and different levels of expertise. Once we passed 500 members, we felt the need to focus on the bonding more. So the monthly socializing event came to life, as well as bi-weekly random coffee chats in Slack. We are also much more mindful of the potential connections and collaborations people might make within the community and the core team often acts as a catalyst for those to happen.
A healthy community will know how to nurture both. Bonding creates a sense of belonging and enables that ‘hive mind’ while bridging assures we keep being sensitive to different perspectives, and (hopefully) avoid groupthink so that we can continue to challenge the status quo in the L&D field.
My favorite phrase to hear during a meetup is “I’ll play devil’s advocate for a minute here….” because then I know that a great conversation is about to start!
For me, it’s tough to describe the joy of helping to bring people together. Would you care to try?
Ah, I could write a novel about that! :)
Personally, it’s this mix between a selfish “I am learning so much from this collective brain” and an altruistic “I can see people’s professional lives are being positively impacted by what we are doing here”.
The joy of bringing people together takes many shapes and forms. Here are some of my favorite ones:
- When you see people that meet within the community becoming friends and hanging out in their free time.
- When you see members showing up to 90% of the events, since the very beginning.
- When you see people starting to collaborate beyond the community space.
- When you see a generous bunch of coaches offering free coaching sessions to any L&D professional around the world.
- When you see people starting projects from scratch, things they are afraid of doing alone, but daring to take the leap because they are surrounded by a team that supports and cheers for them.
- When someone tells you “I took an idea I found in this community back to my boss and got the green light for a project that was very successful — thank you!”
- Or when you simply see how people are giving up their time, their skill, their best practices, being vulnerable, supporting each other, without expecting anything in return.
This is just a fraction of the joy I feel each time I find myself in a room full of L&D Shakers.
Recently, you accepted an invitation to create Butter’s community. Although it is a different type of community, what are the lessons learned that you’re applying to this new adventure?
Every community is different, but people join them for similar reasons: the need to connect, to gather with like-minded people, to belong, to give back and be useful, to serve others, to learn and grow personally and professionally.
The two big lessons that L&D Shakers have taught me about community building and I am taking with me are: build together with the people (versus for the people), and empower them to take ownership (versus keeping all control for oneself).
Learning and Reinvention
What does learning mean for you? And how do you learn?
Learning is a state we all are in, all the time. I don’t look at it as something you need to stop for a moment and do (the conscious learning if you like); it’s our brains at work, and our brains never stop. It is us looking at the world around us and trying to make sense of it. Constantly questioning, being curious, not settling, remaining open-minded to possibilities, and accepting we are never ‘done’ learning and never ‘experts’ at anything. To keep on learning, I believe we need a certain level of humility accompanied by a healthy dose of curiosity.
I mainly learn when I’m at the borders of my comfort zone. Saying yes to things I haven’t done before, often finding stretch projects I can tackle with a beginner’s mind.
I noticed I have two types of learning: a deliberate one (“I am now sitting here, attention sharp, trying to understand this thing”), and a spontaneous one (“I go about minding my own business until something I see or hear triggers an aha! moment or a new idea”). The learning that holds the power to prompt me to immediate action is the one I call spontaneous. I could be listening to a podcast, watching a documentary, having a conversation with a friend, reading a book, walking in nature completely relaxed, drinking my morning coffee, browsing LinkedIn or Instagram — and I would have these bursts of energy and ideas that I can often just start applying!
One thing I am trying to create is a reflection habit. To have a process that uncovers the learning we are making spontaneously, unconsciously, fluidly — and brings it into the conscious mind where we can distribute it to the corresponding mental models, maybe creating new ones, and expanding the map of the world we are all holding within our own brains.
What are your ideas on empowering people to reinvent themselves?
On a very practical level, what never failed me was having at least one side project, all the time. Something that you don’t “have to do”, something no one is paying you for, something that makes your brain fire and gives you energy.
Find something you like spending time on — one thing you have a strong pull to — and start working on it. Think about it. Develop it. Nurture it. Even if you don’t show it to anyone. Or maybe especially then!
I’ve had so many side-projects: sewing, waving, painting, a blog about all my creative experiments, I researched fashion design, I volunteered with student organizations, I drew the entire human digestive system on a huge canvas while in high school. Some projects never saw the light, others were the best kept secrets and no one knew about them. There is something comforting and empowering in taking time to explore ideas and passions, even if most of the time you know they won’t lead to anything grand. It’s in that secret and slow and extremely passionate process that personal reinvention takes place.
And then one day, one of your “just for fun” projects will turn into something grand and exhilarating. And people will say that you got lucky. But you will know and you will be thankful for the constant work you’ve put into your reinvention.
In a nutshell: just start doing stuff and don’t worry about anything else. The right things will unfold for you in unexpected ways.
Past and Future
Can you share some of the major lessons you’ve learned so far?
Here are two lessons I have learned that I am revising more often than you might think:
- If you stay still, you cannot make mistakes; but you can neither change the world.
- If you’re afraid of something, call it an ‘experiment’, call yourself “a curious person” and then go ahead and do it. It works wonders for me :)
Which big questions do you have on your mind currently?
One of the biggest questions on everyone’s minds right now is how might we create equal opportunities for the people of our world? It is a daunting question, and there’s only one way to even begin answering it: locally and collectively.
Something very personal that occupies my mind lately is the balance between doing and being. Naturally, I am a ‘doing’ person. I am learning to BE more.
How would you answer one of the more traditional and dull questions of the “old world” — where do you see yourself in five years?
Wherever I am and whatever I do, I hope to be surrounded by people that gently challenge me to become better. I hope I get to keep the courage to reinvent myself. And I hope to use my gifts to make a positive impact in the lives of those around me.