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How stepping out of your comfort zone can become an eye-opening experience

Written by An Siebens on 29 January 2020 for Tech Professionals

StreetwiZe is a project imbedded in the second year of the Grow Smart Program. Every year, the Exellysts are pushed out of their comfort zone by participating in the StreetwiZe Expedition. During three days, the Exellysts are brought in contact with boys and girls aged 14 to 17 who are living in the closed community institution ‘De Zande’ in Beernem.

The objective of this project is to support the youth who are less fortunate than us but mostly to bridge the gap between people who may never meet in real-life situations and learn from each other’s differences but especially similarities. The co-creation project enables the Exellysts to explore skills such as authentic leadership, compassion, engagement and empowerment in a unique way. We had a chat with Exellyst Katrien Meessens about her expectations and learnings from the StreetwiZe project.

Katrien’s Specs:

  • 26 years old
  • Master’s in business engineering in Management Information Systems at the University of Antwerp
  • Loves fitness, walks in nature, meeting with friends and family
  • Functional Analyst at Belfius Insurance
  • Describes herself as a very driven woman

How stepping out of your comfort zone can become an eye-opening experience

Hi Katrien, can you tell us a little bit about your background with Exellys?

As a student, I was managing the public relations for my student association. Exellys was one of our sponsors. Because I was handling the communication, I was often in contact with Raf [Seymus, Exellys’ Founder & CEO] and Penny [Van Puymboeck, Business Development Manager at Exellys]. When graduation neared in 2016, I started sending out my resumé. I eventually decided to work for Exellys because their passion and dedication to training and coaching really stood out to me.

We’re glad to have you on board! Where are you currently working and what are you doing on a day-to-day basis?

I am a functional analyst at Belfius Insurance. This means that I am the person who facilitates the communication between our business teams and our developers. When the business team requires new functionalities, it is my task to determine what’s exactly needed, to check if it fits in with current projects and to analyze the current and potential new situation. I then sit down with our developers and translate what needs to be done on their end in order to implement the requirements.

You’ve already completed our Start Smart program. What has been your experience with the Grow Smart program in general and what are your key take aways?

In general, I have become better at working together with people and colleagues with different characteristics both on a professional and private level. It made me understand better where some people are coming from and not to assume too much beforehand.

The Exellys training and coaching programs and Grow Smart especially helped me to maintain order in the chaos that a working environment sometimes proves to be, which is especially expected in my position since I am the vessel between teams. When something is unclear within a project, I try to bring teams together and check if everyone knows what the shared goals are and if their respective individual tasks are clear. I have to make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction.

“Grow Smart helped me to maintain order in the chaos that a working environment sometimes proves to be.”

How stepping out of your comfort zone can become an eye-opening experience

Let’s jump into the main topic of this interview: the StreetwiZe project. What were your expectations before the project and were they met during your days at ‘De Zande’?

I must admit that I was rather nervous before the project because I didn’t know what to expect. This was something completely out of my comfort zone and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to connect with the young girls because of our different backgrounds. I also assumed they would kind of rebel against us because of the age difference.

However, I started to let go of those worries when we were given more information about the project. We were thoroughly briefed and could ask our questions during several sessions. All of the Exellysts sat together and we shared our expectations. I realized that An [Siebens, Talent Development Manager at Exellys] and Hans [Lamberts, Trainer at StreetwiZe] would be guiding us enough and that the first activities would be rather casual so that we could get to know each other, before diving into the ‘difficult’ chats.

What topics did you talk about during those sit-down moments and what was your ‘responsibility’?

I was paired with two other Exellysts in a group with three girls from the institution. What struck me, was that they were very honest from the start. They openly shared what they had been through, which made me quite emotional because they have already had really rough lives for girls their age.

How stepping out of your comfort zone can become an eye-opening experience © StreetwiZe

Before those talks, we were advised to focus on their talents and articulate the strengths of the girls to solidify their confidence. This proved to be very easy because all of them had so many talents they were unaware of.

One of the girls even talked to me about her dream job. She was very insecure and was almost certain that she wouldn’t be fit to work in the sector she wanted to be in. We talked about her fears, but mostly about her talents and why she would, in fact, be perfect for that kind of job. After the project, I heard that she inquired with her supervisors about applying, which made me very hopeful.

Were there specific moments, chats or activities that made a special impact on you?

On the last day, the Exellysts had prepared a little ‘speech’ in which we thanked the girls for participating and opening up to us. We mentioned all of their talents and positive characteristics we discovered during those three days. Although some of those girls are thick-skinned and pretend to be though, we could see that they were touched by our words and that they rarely heard these kinds of words.

It was heartwarming to see that the girls had changed – in a positive way – after focusing on their good sides and being surrounded in a positive atmosphere, after only three days. On the first day, they shied away from attention, even when playing games like Pictionary. However, on the third day, some of them volunteered to talk in front of the group. And they spontaneously thanked us for listening and spending time with them at the end of the project.

“It was heartwarming to see that the girls had changed – in a positive way – after only three days.”

How stepping out of your comfort zone can become an eye-opening experience

Which learnings from the StreetwiZe project will be useful for you in your professional setting?

With the girls, we had to communicate differently than we were used to in order to ‘fit into their world’. The project helped me to communicate better and clearer so that every team member is informed in the right way.

I also learned to approach things with more of an open mind and to not make any assumptions right off the bat. This is really helping me to understand why people do things in a certain way.

And finally, what would be your advice for future Exellysts who will be participating in the StreetwiZe project?

Definitely be open-minded and positive. Don’t worry too much about what those three days will entail. This way, you will notice that the boys and girls will positively surprise you, but only if you are open to it.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us, Katrien!

Has Katrien sparked your interest? Do you want to step out of your comfort zone too and learn more about leadership skills through our unique Grow Smart Program? Don’t hesitate to visit our website or contact our Tech Talent Scout Anke and unleash your leadership potential.

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Written by An Siebens Talent Development Manager