Abe Sorock is changing the world -- he's the resident and runs the Moishe House Beijing, and he's bringing together very talented and amazing people from the worlds of international business, government, and philanthropy. Professionally, he's the founder and director of Atlas China, which providers staffing and consulting in HR throughout China.
To promote his GiveGetWin deal which is a 1-on-1 session about developing leadership and throwing world-class events, he sat down with me to share his exceptional and brilliant thinking and the methods he uses to bring people together -- and perhaps more crucially, how to become the kind of person who takes charge and sees yourself as a leader co-creating the experience of yourself and everyone in your world.
"The Paradigm Shift: Changing The Fabric Of Your World" by Abe Sorock, as told to Sebastian Marshall
The first step in leading people and putting together great groups is to have a paradigm shift in who you are.
The shift happened for me when I was a student at the Hopkins Nanjing Center. I realized -- if I saw myself as a student paying transactional fee and getting a diploma, I'd behave differently than if I saw myself as part of the fabric of an organization who will be looked on by future classes.
It's a blast to think this way, because there's a lot more going than you thought
And it's free. It's all completely free. It's a slightly tweak to how you approach the resources in front of you, but you can multiply exponentially what you're able to accomplish.
I attended Hopkins Nanjing right after the financial crisis. Things were a little low, and there was a slight disconnect. A lot of people were feeling like they weren't getting a great experience. It wasn't the Center's fault -- it was just the global economy.
But the effect on the next class was tough, because first year students learned from returning second year students. Their impressions were based on the previous class, and what happened with job outcomes.
Getting there, and understanding that dynamic at play, it became something impossible to ignore. The experience that we were on track for wasn't the experience we hoped to get out of our time and felt we deserved. If you sat back and just took what was given to you, you weren't getting the best experience because of the timing.
I realized I could sit back and not have a great experience, or I could tinker with the fabric of the experience. So I asked, how can we do things that next year's incoming students will have a great experience? How can I become an active co-producer of my experience?
I worked to become a more active member of the community. I ran for and was elected to the student committee. We didn't do everything right, but we got everything off to a great start and it's been an unparalleled experience in my life.
Wherever you are (and I just happened to be on campus), the environment is not static.
Someone that wants to take initiative can really get outside the current setup of the environment. You can ask, "Why is it like this? What is the narrative being told about what this group is, what this project is, what's happening around us?" And if you don't like the narrative, you can tweak it and make different things happen.
I tried to apply it when I moved here. What bothered me when I came out to Beijing is that there wasn't really a strong community of expats for out here based on anything beyond drinking or going to clubs or bars.
You can understand why things converged towards that, a lowest common denominator, but I didn't find a great platform for people to improve themselves, have a great experience, meet people doing interesting things, and improve their experience here… that didn't exist.
It's worth remembering this -- you're always changing the fabric of the environment you're in; you're doing it whether you think you are or not.
Thinking you have no impact on the environment is a decision, too. It might be the default one, but it's still doing something. How you fit in with the group around you, what you're doing or not doing, has an impact on that. You're not just absorbing the environment, you're a co-producer of the environment.
The shift for me was when I started seeing myself as an active co-producer. Not passive.
That switch got flipped for me back on campus, and I've been trying to do things that are intentional and be valuable for the affinity group and community that the we bring together.
If you want to shift to active co-producer from a passive role, you start by figuring out what you care about, what's bothering you, and what you wish was a different way. After that, it becomes simply a technical question of, "What can I do about it?"
Once you've made the mental leap of daring to ask that question, it's really not much of a barrier to get into the technical side.
After you get started, it becomes easier to do larger projects, and doing projects makes resources come to you.
"What's bothering me?" is definitely the first question to ask, and then, "What's bothering me, and also others?" And then, "What's bothering me, and also others, and others would back me if I took action on it?"
A lot of times, it's all around. It's the collective action problem. You can be sitting on something that's of interest to a lot of people, but if nobody take the first step forwards, then nothing gets done. Putting yourself out there can be scary, it puts your credibility out there, and you pledge your time and make an implicit promise that you're going to do things… that's scary, so often no one steps forwards.
So, the key: figure out what problem that it's not just you that has, and then figure out what the group that has that problem look like.
I think about "Affinity Networks" a lot. What's the theme? It could be an alumni organization from a university. Or it could be 'far from home' for an expat group. Or it could be something as technical and detailed as "Junior HR Professionals from Illinois." Increasingly with the internet and the resources we have at our disposal, it's easy to find topics that are interesting to people and it's easy to bring those people together.
Frankly, as society and individuals, we haven't started to tap into the power of all the new communication and Internet that's available to craft our social groups. 10 years ago, it wasn't possible. But that doesn't mean that now that it is possible, we're doing it. You need to do that initial thinking about it, and then start experimenting.
Step 1 is also, in a way, give yourself credit for being the kind of person that can identify a problem and say "I'm on it." A lot of times, that's what never gets done. If you simply do that -- settle on a problem and commit to solving it -- I really believe the rest will take care of itself.
Once you think of yourself as the kind of person that solves collective problems, you'll start acting like that kind of person. And what that person does is just a series of technical questions.
The beauty of it is it's simple.
This kind of thinking is essential, you can't skip this step. See yourself as the kind of person that solves collective problems, think through what problems you're having, then think through what other people have overlapping problems and would support you if you did something about it. You can think this, or even do this exercise on paper by yourself or with a friend.
If you start trying to do stuff without the grounding, without knowing what you're doing, then you get into things like, 'What am I doing? Why am I doing it?" If you start with operations before thinking about why you're doing it and knowing you're the kind of person who co-produces, you can get into existential questions. But if you know the why to start, the actions become a lot easier to figure out.
The 'what' is a lot easier than the 'why'. When you start with the theme, you've already solved the biggest problem.
When you know why you're doing what you're doing, the rest is just implementation details. It becomes a series of operational details and technical questions. It's more tactics than grand strategy, which is easier. When you need to do strategy at every step, it gets exhausting. And it won't resonate with people if it's piecemeal thing you're doing, that doesn't have solid grounding. You can still do a lot of great stuff that way, and run awesome events, and build a community, but to take it to the next level and carry it to the next level, and get other people as involved as you are, that requires an overarching principal and theme that people like and can buy into.
There's no such thing as a new idea. It's just new executions or a new spin on it. I thought I was doing my own thing at Hopkins Nanjing, but I knew that other people laid the groundwork for me. The important thing I want to communicate, it's never about the individual as the organizer or the leader. The best thing you can do, the real success, is getting much smarter people than you engaged with the issues you're tackling. Give other people a way to develop their skills, build relationships, and have fun building a platform together. This creates a rich ecosystem of activities -- it's not about you. The people with you, before you, and after you come together as a tapestry that everyone benefits from and draws from.
When it becomes about individuals, it becomes stagnant and risks not surviving. Individuals leave, move on, get busy, get married and start a family, go into a different field, whatever. If you're leaning too much on any one person to do anything, your organization is not going to survive. So you as an organizer, you want to keep this in mind. It doesn't do a lot good to be the best person to do this sort of thing for six months, but no one else has bought into it, and you get busy and it dies out.
And that happens all the time.
One thing I do when I get somewhere is look into the history of parallel stories. In Nanjing every few years, you'd have a different group of students at the center. Different personalities, different vision, what wants to happen. And they'd do things, but nothing would really survive after they departed a couple years later.
Same in Beijing. There'd be events and organizations put together that did well, but only as long as a couple charismatic leaders who kept things alive by themselves weren't sustainable and died out.
There's nothing unique to those environments -- the same kind of things happen anywhere that people are getting new activities together.
The coolest part is when others buy-in. Another part of my approach from Hopkins Nanjing, I was fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, and this was my first time being around graduate students or people that worked before, who have done really cool stuff. I wanted to spend more time with them, engage with them, learn from them beyond just seeing them in the halls on the way to class.
It was not about 'What can I do with what I know?' It was more, 'How can I get what these guys know?' If more people think about what they could do in the community, they're going to come up with much better ideas than I could have. If you get a lot of perspectives, everyone can do what they do well. And that's fun for everyone as individuals for bringing their best skills and doing the things they're good at, and good for the community to see really excellent things. It's surprising and very cool when you build a platform up, and then you see the community develop amazing ideas that surprise you.
"What are the first implementation steps?"
Once you've figured out that this is something that you want to do, in terms of getting people together, taking on an active role in whatever role you find yourself, then it becomes a question of, "How do I start?"
It's really important to start small.
It's best if you have a few trusted friends around you, or people you can turn into a few trusted friends. Some of the strongest friendships I have are with people I've worked together on passion projects and volunteering with. By going shoulder to shoulder with someone, you put yourself out there and they put themselves out there, and you catch each other if you start to fall. You test each other's mettle, and you become really good friends. Finding people who are interested in the same stuff as you are, and figuring out how a couple people can start pulling stuff together.
Then it's time to expand a bit, and start serving or pulling together the group that you've identified that's got the problem you want to solve.
This is a great excuse to reach out to anybody. You've got this same problem, you want to talk about how this would look to do it. If you accurately analyzed that this person has the same problem or interest you have, they should be open to talking with you and working with you. It's almost cooler if you don't know the people you'll work with to start, because you'll make great new friends.
If you're not outgoing or if you're a little shy, remember: this is why people let themselves be visibly found.
It couldn't be easier. LinkedIn, send a message. Or if you have their email address or public website. Message them. Reach out to them. The possibilities are endless, there's a million ways to reach out around a problem you've identified.
LinkedIn and Gmail is all you need. If you have mutual friends, ask for an introduction. Find someone who will see your outreach as a boon rather than a burden.
Maybe not everyone will be receptive at first, but if you throw out a few fishing lines, you'll see who is interested. Then you go and sit down and start talking.
Once you've found them and sat down together, you bounce around ideas around of what you want to do together. I like to find people who are broadly part of your affinity group, but at a different level of their career. I like bringing together groups of people who are late 20's, early 30's, and to learn from people much more established in international Chinese business and the international Chinese policy.
It works in all industries -- if you're in real estate, or a veterinarian, there will always be people further along who want to come in.
Vendors are a great choice, if they sell in the space they like meeting young people coming up in a space. Anyone who would have an affinity might want to come in and meet.
Remember that none of this stuff is technically difficult. If you have developed your cause, and some of your peers have expressed they're interested, they will express who they'd like to come in and speak.
Then you go to the speaker and humbly request, and let them know you have a group of people who are interested in hearing from them. They'll either be flattered and say yes, or be flattered and say no. Afterwards, they're likely to suggest more people you should look out to.
The logistics are easy. You get a little venue space. You need to think about how easy it is to get to. This is work, but it's not rocket science. The technical details aren't hard. You just do them.
It's like doing anything. Running events is like anything else. You start out unsophisticated, you just 'do okay.' As you get better, you get more sophisticated. You can add more bells and whistles. Things become easier, the kind of ground level stuff becomes much more a matter of course. The details can be daunting at first, but rapidly become very easy.
If you have the right problem and are solving it for people who care about it, they tend to be rather patient with you. At the end of the day, you're helping them and adding value to them. So you don't have to be a great public speaker or organizer to start with. Especially when you start small, you can develop your skills as an organizer and you'll be comforted and supported by people if you set the groundwork up.
Frankly, too much complicating information is detrimental. It's too much. It's overload. What people need to hear is, GO DO IT. Once you decide to do it, the rest is easy. It's not about the Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. You can find that with a google search. The first principle is thinking of yourself as active co-producer of your environment.
I could go on about certain best practices, but all those come with time anyways. You don't want to be doing hyper-sophisticated stuff at the first event. Don't use the details as an excuse to not get started.
People are going to have good ideas to help with technical details. People are going to come up with a better way to do check-in's, RSVP's, followups, introductions than you could by yourself.
If you want to get a good turnout to your events, there's many ways, but a big way is to get people actively involved. One of the coolest things that we've done here in Beijing is through events featuring alumni clubs and a speaker series. Over the last year, we've basically invited different clubs to run the events. We give them the venue, half the crowd, and the template we normally use, but we let them run it. They have a different perspective on running a great event. And it's going to have a good turnout because they're invested in bringing their people. This makes things novel, current, and less dependent on you personally.
The goal of business is to run like a franchise; the goal of event organizers should be to platform.
There's a few essentials of a platform. A cause, problem, or theme. A certain set of infrastructure, like a good venue. Some best practices, resources, and 'rules' -- but not really rules -- that determine how things preserve themselves. It's a set of rules and practices for its own perpetuation around a theme, a challenge, or a problem. Then you plug other people in, and it's not about the person any more. You keep addressing the problem and it evolves, and it outlives whoever started it.
Your 'manual' only needs to be about two pages. It doesn't need to be hyper-technical. People will put their own spin on it, and they should. 20 days ahead, you do this. 10 days ahead, you do this. 3 days ahead, you do this. The day of the event, you do this.
That infrastructure, the brand, and the contacts are the tangible elements of the platform.
If you have those three, you have a platform and can do a whole lot of cool things with them.
Is it really that simple? Well, why not? You need human beings to incarnate it and execute, who actually believe in it. It's easiest when you're the person who founded it, but it's not required.
People bring their life and energy to animating the infrastructure, brand, and contacts into something that gets people involved.
If you want to get started -- Just do it. Don't wait. Get started. Have fun, it's a lot of fun. It should be personally very enjoyable and illuminating. It gets more interesting than you'd even imagine it could be. It makes you think through so many things. You later get into thinking about the branding, how you do the affinity group, what kind of events you want to hold, what other kind of things you want to do with the platform, it gets to be a lot of decisions and a real responsibility, but it's fun, enriching, and it'll help you grow.
But don't let the details stop you from starting. Do the thinking, don't wait, get started, and have fun.
Abe Sorock is offering a 1-on-1 session with him designed to teach you the ins and outs of throwing world class events, bringing people together, recruiting world-class speakers, and developing your leadership in the process -- while having tons of fun. Due to the charitable nature of the project, the cost is only $40 and there are five spots available -- you can get yours at GiveGetWin.
You can find Abe's consultancy and staffing services at Atlas-China.com and if you're in Beijing, you should definitely look up the Beijing Moishe House to have some life-enhancing experiences with great people.