I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.
Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.
What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.
In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.
Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.
When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.
This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.
This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.
Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.
While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.