What is your community? Your friends, your family? Your work colleagues, your industry? Is there overlap of friends and colleagues? Do you trust everyone? Does everyone trust you?

It should be easy to share information and resources in your community, but sometimes we are afraid of revealing too much, or maybe not enough. I manage an online community of Jewish lay and professional leaders, and it might seem that we should all be eager to share whatever we can however we can. Yes, we are all pursuing a healthy Jewish community, but ego sometimes gets in the way. There is healthy competition, there is suspicion, and sometimes there is fear.

These attributes are not unique to Jewish community leaders, and those feelings of suspicion, ego and fear make me wonder if people are more likely to share in a space they feel is public, or a space they feel is private. I have been thinking about this a lot since visiting Microsoft.

In January 2019, I learned I would become a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, an MVP. According to Microsoft, MVP’s “are technology experts who passionately share their knowledge with the community.”

In order to accept the MVP Award, I had to first sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). As a member of the Microsoft MVP community, certain pre-release product and service information would be shared with me, and I had to promise I would not tell anyone outside of the MVP community the information I now had access to.

I signed the NDA, and immediately I found myself a member of several online communities for MVP’s. I was being invited to attend vendor webinars, conferences and to speak at user group meetings. Because I promised to keep secrets, a whole new world of information was now being made available to me.

Photo courtesy Loryan Strant

Just last week, I attended the MVP Summit, a conference just for Microsoft MVP’s held at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, WA. Even though every single person who attended that conference had signed an NDA in order to even be invited, there were reminders of our commitment to privacy and secrecy everywhere we went.

Signs were in every hallway and every conference room. Reminders were included in every powerpoint presentation, and every speaker reminded us we were “under an NDA agreement” and we could not share what we heard with friends, family or colleagues. Stories swirled around about attendees at previous years’ MVP summits who had tweeted out news and information they had heard, and were immediately sent home with their MVP award rescinded by Microsoft.

1,500 Microsoft MVP’s were visiting the Microsoft campus, and we all knew that we could not talk about the things we saw and heard. We had a common understanding. We had trust amongst ourselves, and we had trust from leaders at Microsoft. And the information began to flow.

The NDA provided a level of comfort and security for the Microsoft team. They weren’t making frontal presentations to us, they were having conversations with us. They were learning from us just as much as we were learning from them. They told us what they were working on (sorry…not going to slip up and tell you), and they asked us what we thought of their ideas. They asked us for our ideas, and they liked a lot of what they heard.

The MVP’s felt more comfortable as well. We all knew that we were there because Microsoft wanted to connect with us. They wanted our feedback, our reflections and our questions. All the feedback for Microsoft was not positive, and as difficult I’m sure as that negative feedback was for the Microsoft team to hear, it will help them create and support the tools the MVP’s need in order to be successful in their work.

There were times during the MVP Summit that Microsoft staff were nowhere to be seen, and this was good, too. This gave the MVP’s a valuable opportunity to reflect together on the news and events of the day, to talk about our work, and to talk about how we could best work with the Microsoft team in support of the products we wanted them to make.

In my work, I advocate for transparency and openness whenever possible, knowing full well that privacy is sometimes necessary. There is comfort and safety to be found in a private space, and it is often in that private space that conversations ignite, that valuable information is shared, and that vital community is created.

In the 1996 movie Mission Impossible, Vanessa Redgrave’s character Max is an international criminal. Nobody knows who she is, and that’s just how she wants it. “Anonymity is like a warm blanket” she says. So is privacy. Privacy helps us to share information. Privacy helps us feel safe in our community. Privacy provides opportunities for learning and growth.

Hopefully, because of the trust Microsoft places in its MVP’s, and because of the way the MVP’s honor that trust, more information will soon be shared with a much wider community, and together that community will learn, will strengthen and will grow. Transparency is important. So is privacy.

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