Why We Built a Company-Wide Event That Encourages Discomfort The comfort zone is one of the largest threats to growth.

By Catherine Avendaño

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Learning and development programs are currently seeing increased prioritization at organizations across industries. In the digital age, fast and flexible innovation depends on the quality, quantity and accessibility of information. With this growing need for accumulated knowledge, companies and employees are placing a special emphasis on workplace education. According to a study by PwC, millennials now make up the largest segment of the United States workforce, and they tend to agree that training and development are the most valuable benefits employers can provide. One unique approach I've leveraged is encouraging discomfort to drive employee growth.

During my work at MuleSoft, a San Francisco-based enterprise software company, I've found that the best way to promote ongoing education is to place ourselves in new and unfamiliar situations. I first joined the company as the head of employee services, initially charged with running our global facilities, planning internal events like happy hours and offsites, driving our monthly all hands meeting and owning our annual company conference MeetUp. I had been working for less than two weeks when I was asked to join the project team for a major field sales event that was outside of my job description.

Related: All Business Is Personal: Employees Need Human Connections at Work

The task was to help plan our week-long sales kickoff, in which the entire global field team would be temporarily relocated to the tiny town of Braselton, Ga. The 300-person event was larger than anything I'd ever planned, and we had under a month to pull it together. These challenges, though initially daunting, were incredibly rewarding for my professional development. I tackled the steep learning curve of running production for the general session, built incredibly important relationships with field leaders and executives, and learned a lot about how we produce content and the technical requirements to make it happen. I wholeheartedly believe uncertainty and discomfort are vital in the modern workplace, and in order to grow, these are exactly the kind of stretch opportunities that we need.

Helping run sales kickoff, despite being technically outside of my job description, accelerated my ability to successfully plan our company-wide MeetUp each year. The event runs for a week in San Diego and addresses four main goals: 1) aligning on company strategy, 2) learning new skills, 3) working through issues, and 4) building new relationships. Each of these goals have one thing in common: They embrace challenges beyond the scope of our day-to-day work. It is a demanding week that requires incredible energy and stretch from everyone in the company. Here's how we do it:

Expand social circles.

Though it sounds simple, interacting with new people can be a huge catalyst for both personal and professional development. According to a survey conducted by Globoforce, 89 percent of respondents indicated that work relationships made an impact on their overall quality of life. Breaking outside of our everyday lines of communication helps cultivate empathy and alignment in the workplace.

Related: 4 Tips to Take Struggling Employees to the Top of Their Game

At MuleSoft, we encourage new interactions by stressing the importance of facetime. In our global offices, we utilize an open floor plan where no one has an office and everyone shares common spaces. Our calendar system is also completely public, allowing employees across all teams to view individual schedules and invite colleagues to meet. This commitment to accessibility generates novel social interactions every day.

When planning MeetUp, we drive relationship-building by randomized seating at meals, holding company-wide team building challenges and activities, and even asking Muleys to have roommates! We also try to create ways for people to get to know our wide range of personalities; last year, we conducted a carpool karaoke contest, an 800-person game of "Connections" (like "Assassin" but without the violent undertones), and a host of off-site activities including surfing and indoor skydiving.

After the event, the difference in our workplace dynamic is palpable. Fresh perspectives help employees communicate with colleagues across teams and locations with newfound patience and mutual understanding.

Enforce cross-functional learning.

According to a 2017 report conducted by Gallup, only four in 10 employees agree that in the last year they have had opportunities to learn and grow. Furthermore, only three in 10 agree that there is someone at work who encourages their development. The report states that one significant way to boost engagement is to "challenge employees in positive ways." Stepping outside of their intellectual comfort zones is one of the best ways to learn and grow.

At MuleSoft, we maintain multiple cross-functional teams to promote each other's ongoing learning. It is often easy to settle into siloed functions, solving familiar problems with the same people each day. However, working within these isolated functions will ultimately stagnate team growth.

Related: You're More Likely to Succeed If You Enjoy the Process

When teams are learning from one another, they are able to look at problems more holistically. Throughout the year, we run a series of discussions called Muley Talks, in which department leads are challenged to condense their major initiatives and functions into a 20-minute public presentation. Each talk is followed by an open Q&A. Through Muley Talks, we provide a space for employees to take charge of their own learning and ask questions about different roles within the company.

During MeetUp, we enable cross-function collaboration through employee-led training sessions. Last year, Steven Butt, a senior software engineer, trained the entire global talent team on how to make your own API with a presentation called MuleSoft 101. Vera Wang, a senior corporate communications manager, hosted a media training session for our regional spokespeople. Brian Miller, our VP of business development, had his team facilitate a discussion on the importance of building a partner ecosystem.

When employees push themselves to work and learn alongside other teams, they develop new critical thinking and communication skills.

Encourage ownership.

We want to create an environment where everyone has something new to contribute and where people can proudly own their work. Sometimes, that means providing our employees with the tools and resources necessary for innovation and then letting them take the driver's seat.

The MeetUp Hackathon is one way in which we encourage employee autonomy. Over the course of 36 hours, last year's teams created 33 new and unusual projects using MuleSoft technology. When time was up, our engineers presented their projects to the rest of the company, old-school science-fair style.

Related: 7 Excellent Reasons to Focus on Employee Engagement

Many of the projects showed promise for continued use after MeetUp. For example, one team built a Chrome extension that could quickly evaluate APIs on any customer or prospect website, proving immediately useful for sales teams. Another team built a project that awarded social media interactions to MuleSoft by releasing a piece of candy from a dispenser. This could help the talent team conduct demonstrations at career fairs.

By giving employees the freedom to innovate outside of everyday operations, we can promote both personal and company growth.

The comfort zone is one of the largest threats to growth. When you integrate discomfort and unfamiliarity into your learning and development programs, big things can happen. One of MuleSoft's core values is fearlessness because we believe that challenging the status quo requires courage. If you take the time to foster courage and confidence in your employees, great culture and awesome ideas will follow.

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Catherine Avendaño

Sr. Manager, Learning and Organizational Development at MuleSoft

Catherine Avendaño runs learning and organizational Development at MuleSoft, and building strong teams and culture is her personal and professional mission. Prior to MuleSoft, she worked in customer success and client services for various tech startups as well as led education non-profits in San Francisco and LA.

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