With all the uncertainty around what the future of work will look like there is one thing that is certain: in order to thrive you will need the necessary skills and mindset to continually adapt and change.
Jerel Bonner embodies this type of agile learning mindset as he is a walking, talking model of the new knowledge worker. He’s also a TEDx speaker, author of Sharpening China’s Talent, and co-founder of Coralling Chaos, a consulting firm focused on lowering the cost of the workplace through learning agility.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Jeff talks with Jerel about his personal experience as an agile learner and knowledge worker and what it takes to become one.
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[01:35] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Jeff interviews Jerel Bonner, a TEDx speaker, author, and co-founder of Coralling Chaos.
[02:57] – Introduction to Jerel.
It’s also noted that Jeff was able to actually sit down in person with Jerel to do this interview, a first on the Leading Learning podcast.
[04:21] – I think it is important for listeners to know a little bit about your background. Can you give us the backdrop to this conversation and tell us your story? Jerel shares that he started working in IT at IBM in Charlotte, NC and stayed there for seven years—he’s never worked for any company for more than that. He was a first generation internet guy who was there when the bottom fell out in 2001 so he decided to be “a global employee in a global economy” which is why he went to China (initially to teach English) and then ended up staying for 14 years.
08:00 – That takes some guts to go to a completely different country and a lot of people don’t have what it takes to be an agile learner/ new knowledge worker. Why do you think you had that? Is it something in your background or personality that gave you the motivation and will to do something like this? Jerel talks about how he’d read an article that said the 2001 dotcom bust was going to be a unique period of extended layoffs and that this was the time to do something bold. Having learned that it was so easy to get a job in China (when it wasn’t in the US) made it a good option. He believes he is “antifragile” (as in the book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and that it doesn’t matter what life throws at him, he’s built the courage to be able to adapt.
[10:08] – While you were in China you did some things for LinkedIn. Can you talk a little bit about some of the different roles you played there and how that happened? Jerel says he went over there with a goal of becoming a business coach/consultant/corporate trainer and met that goal when he got a job with Volvo about year later. He adds that in the mid-nineties, he also started reading a ton of books, which taught him so much about people and business.
[11:50] – As far as reading goes, are there one or two books that really impacted you the most during that time period? Jerel shares that The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey was a book that really helped him to “sharpen his saw”, learn what he needed to learn, and think with the end in mind. He also wrote a mission statement and added rules to live by. He made a career development document that included a list of how he keeps his skills up to date, something unusual to do, particularly in the nineties. Jeff notes that there are companies out there like Degreed, for example, who have a platform to track all of your informal learning activities, which is a similar idea—check out or interview with Kelly Palmer, CLO of Degreed.
[15:00] –Part of what came out of your efforts was a TEDx talk you did in Shanghai in which you lay out what you think are the key points for being a knowledge worker (drawing on Peter Drucker’s idea of the knowledge worker in the economy we currently live in). I’d like you to walk through each of those, including:
- Continuous Improvement – What I particularly like about how you cover this point is your emphasis on courage. Can you talk a little bit more about the need for courage as part of continuous improvement? Jerel notes there are a lot of people really focused on this and that he’s a big Brené Brown. He says courage is just about having the guts to do it because if you don’t take the risk, you’re not going to get anywhere. He shares some examples of how this has played out in his life.
- Measuring – What are some ways you measure yourself now and how would you encourage people who are learning to measure themselves? Jerel shares that he tracks what and how much time he’s reading/listening to podcasts, etc. What people need to do when it comes to measuring is think of it just like you would going to the gym—if you don’t get on the scale after going at least once or twice a week, you won’t know if you’re losing or gaining weight. You have to be aware of the behaviors that the change is and you have to know what you’re measuring and why. He mentions the concept about transforming habits by James Clear who talks about the “three r’s” and this helped him clarify what he’d been thinking about. First you have to know what you want to change (you need a reminder), you have to know the routine (the practice technique), and finally you need to reward yourself. Jerel shares an example of how to apply this for something you want to change.
- Creating Value – As you concisely sum it up, you say to learn the market, learn yourself, and then fill the gap between the two. As Heather McGowan said, Jerel points out that creating value is the only way you’re going to stay employable in the future of work. An article he says he initially liked by Heather was about how the future isn’t about work but about generating income, which is a philosophy he also had. And if you don’t know what the market wants you won’t know how to develop the skill to have it. He shares an example of this as it relates to his work in China.
- Planning – Jerel says the plan is to know what you’re going to improve, how you’re going to measure it, and the value. He shares some examples of the importance of showing the concrete value you are creating.
- Communicating and Networking – Jerel emphasizes this is so important for the economy today because you can’t effectively network if you don’t communicate your value. Don’t just communicate that you’re looking for a job, but rather you’re looking for an opportunity to create value because that’s what employers want to hear. You have to hear the inbound message of what people want and what they’re willing to pay for it and you have to be able to have the outbound message to say you can do that. In regards to networking, it’s not about how many people you’re reaching—the most important number is how many you’re actually converting. He talks about his own experiences related to the idea of effectively networking by demonstrating value and how with networking, it’s not about quantity but quality.
[40:19] – Our audience is made up mostly of people who are in the business of lifelong learning. What would your advice be to them for how they could better serve adult lifelong learners like you (self-driven and motivated learners)? Jerel suggests those people really think about connecting the dot between what this person is doing today and what could impact their life tomorrow. They need to really help people be able to see economic indicators, especially from a career and life stability point of view. You can’t have life stability if you don’t see where the market trends are going. If you’re not helping customers know their value of what they do and how they do it, then they’re not going to buy from you. Jerel shares an example to illustrate this. He admits he doesn’t have a Bachelor’s degree but talks about he’s been able to pivot and succeed. So you have to be able to see where your client’s industry is going and tell them the value of that change.
[45:50] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education? Jerel says the most powerful learning experience for him had to be when he learned to teach English as a second language because it taught him how to learn a second language—and that’s why and how he learned Chinese so well.
[49:59] – How to connect with Jerel and/or learn more about his work:
- LinkedIn – Jerel Bonner
* If you want Jerel to connect with you, mention that you heard him on the Leading Learning podcast.
[51:13]– Wrap Up
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[53:11] – Sign off