Dan on The Year of the Peer Podcast

“It’s almost like there wasn’t really a language around peer groups, there wasn’t a narrative for it, they didn’t know really what it was or how to access it.”

Circles considers Leo Bottary one of our “comrades in arms.” His 2016 book, co-authored with the then CEO of Vistage, offers best practices for harnessing “The Power of Peers.” He declared 2017 “The Year of the Peer” and has been travelling the Globe and recording interviews with leaders who tell their stories about the peer teams that helped them succeed.

Recently, Leo interviewed Circles CEO Dan Hoffman via video conference for an episode of his Year of the Peer podcast. Their conversation went into depth on their shared mission, how to make people present in team meetings, being deliberate about peer support and how they both want to spread the word on peer groups and make them accessible all over the world.

Click here to have a listen to the podcast or watch the video over at leobottary.com.

Below are some of the main points.

How Dan was drawn to the idea of peer groups

“We learn better in circles than we do in rows. When I reflected on my own learning journey I thought about all of the coaches and the consultants and the courses that I had subscribed to and got help from as I learned to be a CEO. My peer group though, and I very fortunately had a YPO peer group for most of that time, was one of the most impactful and most important.”

“The thing that I loved more than anything in .. building a business was the learning journey, both my own, and also creating a culture of learning at work. I set off to start studying learning, working on learning and development, as well as chasing that feeling, and that led to the project at Circles.”

How Leo makes the most out of everyone’s experience

“What I’ve found, and I’ve said many times, when I started not only being a student but also an instructor in graduate school, is that we’ve got all of these these very experienced people in the room. It was really different from the learning experience growing up where you have somebody at the front of the class and they’re just talking at the students … here you’ve got all this intellectual capital in the room and in my view as an instructor, if I’m doing my job well, I’m going try to create the environment where they learn the most from one another, second from the material, and whatever I can add, great.”

Dan’s mission for Circles

“Our mission is to make it easy for people to connect deeply, learn and grow together.”

“Part of my mission has [also] been to take that feeling, that fire that does exist, for about a hundred thousand CEO’s across Vistage, EO, YPO and some of the other groups, and ask the question, why doesn’t everyone in the world have this? Why can’t this circle idea be a structure that really helps people of all walks of life learn together and move forward in their lives?”

How process drives presence

“Everyone’s face is in a circle, and you’re in the middle when the focus is on you. There’s nowhere to hide. You know you’re gonna get called on and it’s producing a very different video meeting experience from what people are used to. There is no multitasking and there’s a focus on being present.”

“Process and the right mix of ingredients for the right case does produce this experience of a deep and safe space and opening up that’s very powerful, and it produces it fairly consistently.”

Why Leo wrote The Power of Peers

“One of the reasons for writing the power of peers, which was published back in 2016, was this idea of how is something that works so unbelievably well for so many people used by so few, when you really look at the broad landscape of it, whether it’s CEOs or business leaders at all different levels.”

“We conducted a number of focus groups where we asked people what the ways they might think about learning. They’d name fifty things -books, executive development programs, go to business school- before they ever got to ‘oh, join a peer group!’ It’s almost like there wasn’t really a language around it, there wasn’t a narrative for it, they didn’t know really what it was or how to access it. It’s so not top of mind.”

Simply by turning up, Dan and Leo are a testament to the power of peer groups. They bonded over their shared passion for peer groups, and here they are, keeping the community alive and helping each other as peers. Thankfully, they did more than just turn up and are spreading the word on how learning with a community trumps going it alone in business and in life.

Leo’s Year of the Peer Podcast and Circles share a common goal; converting non-believers to the power of peers. As Leo remarked, “my hope is that with more conversations like the one we’re having now, people will seek out how to have more circles and how to make sure that the circle they have is the right one for them for helping them in their lives and allowing them to help others.

For more, check out the podcast here.

Show Up, and Open Up

Show up, and open up. It may sound simplistic, but that’s basically the recipe at Circles.

The guided peer groups we run help you explore the challenges you face in life, both personally and professionally, by tapping into what amounts to a universal experience.

“As long as there have been people on this earth, they’ve sat in a circle,” says Jonathan Hefter, the chief guide at Circles. “We’re simply doing it with some great technology and an agenda and a really clear mission.”

Jonathan has spent more than 20 years in business training and learning, drawing on a right-brain, left-brain mix of operations experience and creative peer facilitation. He rattles off the tenets of Circles with an obvious passion, exuding a belief that he’s helping the world become a better place one video conference call at a time.

But he makes it clear that a circle is much more than a conference call. It’s a community, and it’s his job to make sure the people in that community feel safe enough to open up. 

Jonathan, who worked for Circles founder Dan Hoffman years ago, has plenty of experience getting people to open up. He runs wilderness experiences and men’s retreats in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, where men from various backgrounds can sit in a circle and talk about their deepest troubles. Jonathan is now successfully implementing this approach to Circles with one key difference, the technology.

The human element is still at the core of circles meetings though. The key, as Jonathan puts it, is to create a safe space where people can feel like they’re able to share. Just don’t call it group therapy.

“It’s not therapy,” he says. “It’s therapeutic.”

The secret to a great circle is having deeper conversations than most people are used to having at work. People need to feel they are in a psychological space where they can be vulnerable, and vulnerability is crucial to people feeling like they can go deep.

So, how does he do it? One way is by establishing norms, like ensuring each participant starts the circle being willing to open up. Another is ensuring that they cut right to the chase. In the first meeting, for instance, participants don’t go around the circle spouting off their resumes.

“I’d much rather hear about the last time when a deep, meaningful conversation happened in your life,” Jonathan says. “Or, better yet, why are you interested in Circles? Tell me what you want to get out of this.”

The potential number of answers is infinite, and the circle organically follows the discussion where it needs to go, while the guide, and the meeting platform’s timer feature, makes sure everyone gets equal air time.

Granted, Jonathan might not be your guide. But he knows how to pick them, and he has come up with a training program to make sure every guide can help every member get the most out of each circle.

The guides come from a variety of backgrounds — former coaches, a school administrator, a theater teacher — but the standout trait they all share is fundamental for Circles; knowing how to hold space. What that means is, Jonathan can train them on how to keep the circle on track and enforce the norms that have been established. But they all know how to speak from the heart and they all know how to tell a story. They keyword here is empathy. Importantly, they also know how to encourage others to do the same.

Because at its heart, Circles is about how the shared experiences of others can help make your life better. That means sharing stories, not advice. Studies show that sharing your challenge and how you worked through it will be more valuable than any traditional advice you can give someone.

“The question is how do we bring this into corporate America,” Jonathan says. “We have to tap into what all humans want. You want to belong, you want to know you’re not alone. You want safe spaces to get what you need so you don’t go home and pull your hair out.”

For more on how to not go home and yank at your hair, check out how Circles can get you together with your own personal advisory board.

“We all have something to learn, and everyone can teach you something,” Jonathan says. “Your life can be an endless journey of learning. And it’s supposed to be fun.”

Reinventing the Forum Experience

“Are You experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have.” – Jimi Hendrix


Top EO trainer Mo Fathelbab calls “Forum” The Secret Advantage of Successful Leaders. Vistage chairman Leon Shapiro says it’s The Power of Peers. I’ve run into many coaches and leaders who, like me, consider our forum to be the most significant thing we’ve done to improve job performance. We’ve also seen how it changes the lives of hundreds of thousands of leaders and those that work with us.

Verne Harnish, Jeff Snipes, Bob Halperin, Kaley Klemp, Shirzad Chamine, Mo Fathelbab and many others have generously contributed to help create Circles because they are so passionate about forums. And they’re excited to see Circles build something that  “gets everyone in the world into a forum.” (I’ve noticed that’s how they describe what we’re doing when they talk about our work to friends and colleagues.)

What Are the Differences Between What Circles is Building and a Traditional CEO Forum?

Short answer: cheaper. Longer answer: in some ways, better. Here’s a look inside how we’re reinventing the forum experience.

Lower Cost

Circles will be less than 1/10 the $5-15,000/year it costs to participate in a CEO forum. How? First, we’re designing for scale. We replace expensive coaches with purpose-trained guides leveraged with automation. Members don’t need to volunteer and be trained to take on a year-long role as a group “moderator.” But most of all, as David Neeleman described in his strategy to create JetBlue, we aim to give customers what they want and nothing that they do not want. We are not building a network, or running events and in-person universities, or arranging special member discounts from service providers like Fedex. Many CEO’s see a forum as the biggest part of the value they get from YPO or EO, but there’s no “forum-only” plan. Plus, we’re not building a prestige club for CEOs or founders: the Circles platform will serve many types of people.


One of the first things we researched and tested was whether a circle could produce deep, engaging experiences over video. It did! It even worked in our buggy video room prototypes. Not everyone can take the better part of a day out of the office every month, plus one trip a year, like a typical forum experience. Forums over video are a lot more convenient.

But it’s true that in-person forums really are exceptional. Everyone with the time, money and proximity to a group should join one. But Circles is not just stopping at being a 10x cheaper and easier version of a forum. In some dimensions, we’re going to be better and here’s how:


Almost every forum I know of is comprised of new members that randomly walked in the door of their local chapter around the same time. With the constraint of geography removed, we can sort deliberately. We can carefully balance forums for peer level, maximum diversity, and interests. With scale, social media, and a little data science … shouldn’t we be able to exceed “random?”


While studying the ideas behind “learning to learn”, I realized there’s something not so great about my CEO forum experience: there’s little follow-up – forums identify and explore the most urgent challenges at the time of the meeting. But they lack the structured repetition required to rewire your brain. You need practice. For all that I’ve gained in my other forum with YPO, just like most classes I’ve taken or books I’ve read, I’ve lost much more because of the lack of a continued focus. Circles contains a structure to help maintain a focus on a particular topic for many weeks, and then go back to it just when the learning would otherwise fade. This structure keeps members looking out for and sharing relevant content and ideas. It allows us to curate and serve up relevant material across each circle. Shared issues of any cohort tend to be multiple-choice and not as unique as the members might expect. This insight allows us to track and help participants in a circle with the most common challenges that occur in any group.


Group chat wasn’t around when YPO started in 1950. In my life, “circles” have formed naturally on WhatsApp, Facebook and Slack. These group chats have become an amazing place to stay connected with each other, and share content, challenges, and ideas. Of course, CEO forums can and do establish their own group chats. But we are creating and intentionally fostering a group chat environment to use this tool as an important connective tissue for a circle, between meetings.


In general, our digital platform enables powerful features. One example is timers – something important to ensure “equal air time” during meetings. We can also store secure recordings that can be reviewed at 1.5x speed when you miss a meeting. We’ll track issues, challenges, goals, and follow-up. We can remove some of the friction that comes up during in-person forums: Who presented last time? What’s the agenda? When is our next meeting? We can securely preserve and make accessible important information that even close forum-mates sometimes forget (what’s his kid’s ages again?) We can also automatically analyze forum performance and intervene if necessary. We can use audio and video to help enhance the meeting experience creatively. Circles is new, so I don’t know which features will have power and which won’t, but it is going to be interesting continuing to experiment.

How Do You Explain Forum To Someone Who Hasn’t Experienced It?

It’s not easy explaining the forum experience to someone who has never tried it. This Q&A on Quora and Peer Resources’ guide are good places to start. You could also read Mo Fathelbab and Leon Shapiro’s books mentioned above. Circles is just one of many participants, along with forum-based organizations like EO and YPO, plus other groups like Lean In, Action Learning, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Aspen Global Leadership Network, AA and Benjamin Franklin’s Junto (See more examples we’ve collected here.) We’ve chosen the massively broad term “circles” to align ourselves simply with a widespread, growing movement and to embrace its many variations. A big part of our approach revolves around one sentence: “We learn better in circles than in rows.”

To sum this up: I love forum.

I want to make it 10x cheaper, 10x easier and 10x better so that it can become accessible to 1,000x the people.