How to Support Your Teams During Tough Times

Amidst slashed budgets and tightened purse strings, Learning & Development and onboarding professionals search for ways to continue supporting and developing their teams. Now more than ever, modern workplace teams–local, hybrid and distributed–need innovative ways to connect and grow so they can effectively collaborate. 

That’s why over the past six years, we’ve built a company focused on bringing inclusive spaces to organizations. Distinct from tactical work, circles often surface the most critical team challenges–things that might otherwise be left unsaid. 

Great leaders know that effective teaming involves more than getting work done. It’s about connection and belonging first. To foster deep ties, they carve out time to create psychological safety, layer in accountability, and fuel shared purpose.

Psychological Safety

Safe spaces in the corporate world are crucial and hard to come by. When psychological safety is present, it provides a level of trust inviting vulnerable interactions without fear of punishment or rejection.

When there’s a breach in psychological safety, LeaderFactor research shows it takes a significant toll on employees:

80% lost time worrying about an incident that occurred.

63% lost time avoiding the offender.

78% said their commitment to the organization declined.

That’s why safety is a key value–and a reported outcome from our participants. When colleagues feel safe with one another, trust grows, and they collaborate more effectively as a result.

“The deep, intimate discussion in circles hits home. I never feel like anyone is trying to fix me; it’s a safe space.” Todd Rivard, DuPont


Circles are designed to function as creative, agile, small groups, not the kind where subordinates follow orders. Every time a participant opens up with a transparent share, it sets the conversational tone–especially if that person has a leadership role in the organization. Vulnerable team interactions remind participants of their common humanity. Standing on that foundation of trust, teams then experience the freedom to grow together, holding each other accountable for that growth. 

“It’s a safe space where people are peers and there’s accountability. I don’t think that type of candor happens naturally in other spaces. Peers should feel empowered to hold their peers accountable to the growth they say they want to see in themselves.” Jasmine Cumberland, JumpCrew

Fuel Shared Purpose

Employees long to feel that their work impacts the organization in a meaningful way.  The day-to-day weeds of a team’s tactical work can leave little room to feel a sense of belonging to something larger, or to have the kind of perspective that can provide a feeling of impact.

When teams get “tuned”, teammates meet on common ground, rooting their conversation in what binds them, while uncovering what’s coming between them.  Great leaders know how to shine the light on commonalities and a shared vision for their collaboration.

Providing spaces like circles will likely help develop and retain employees: McKinsey’s July 2022 report on the great attrition suggests “organizations can make jobs “sticky” by investing in more meaning, more belonging, and stronger team and other relational ties.”


Safety, accountability and shared purpose in circles builds better and better teamwork over time. It’s the X-factor you just can’t get through project management software, another Slack thread or a trip to the ropes course (as valuable as those tools may be).

Because we know this type of high-quality collaboration is in demand, you’re invited to a free demo of tuning your teams today.

What’s up at CEO Update

Over the years, we’ve delivered authentic human connection for circles of school kids, grown-ups, faith-based communities, micro-entrepreneurs, climate activists, universities, medical teams and more. We’ve built a system and technology to support them, with many applications.

Now, we’re focused on simplifying our business model in order to create a sustainable company that can fulfill our mission: providing inclusive spaces where people can connect and grow.

On Building Direct-to-Company Sales

The earliest adopters weren’t specific companies, they were communities that spanned several organizations, such as Harvard Business School, Aspen, Young Presidents Organization and Ken Blanchard Companies. As of this writing, communities (vs. organizations) still account for over half of our revenue.

With or without a campus, we believe community is the future of learning. A recent quote I’ve been pondering suggests that “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual’ (Grace Lee Boggs).

Yet while we love partners that span multiple companies, it was hard to build a fast-growth company without many individual companies or organizations as primary partners.

In 2021, we had a few crushing disappointments as we waited for partners to step on the gas.

In 2022, we sensed that these communities would be even slower in the face of an economic slowdown.

In the meantime, I made some expensive marketing decisions that didn’t pan out. We spun our wheels for a year as a result. I want to celebrate my partner Bart de Vocht who was running operations and then stepped into marketing, saying “I can solve this.” His excellent team, led by Maria Tenberge and Luz García Garona rose to replace him, and Bart created a B2B lead-gen machine. How? By zeroing in on our target prospects within companies, and inviting them into circles with each other.

The answer was under our nose, and it’s a “who” not a what. There’s a new type of leader rising in the business world, who wants to listen to and connect with one another. They believe in relationships over transactions, conversations over presentations. They’re struggling to fight disconnection at work and achieve a sense of belonging together.

And–backed by data from this funnel–we continue narrowing our focus.

We recently simplified our offerings to a menu of concrete, popular programs that add social learning to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Leadership Development, Onboarding and several other applications that our clients have helped us invent over the years.

On Sucking it Up and Rearchitecting our Video Space

We have a cadence of quarterly business reviews, which we weirdly call “offsites” out of longing for our in-person days. In the April ‘22 offsite, we discussed how to develop technology features faster. This is always a sensitive discussion, and finally our development team, led by the sage Bernard Duggan, got fired up. “You want speed? Pay down the Tech Debt!” (Do I need to define?) 

His concern was valid: often, just when you get the features right, the business takes off, and it’s really hard to hit the pause button, take months off from adding new features, and tear it all down. Additionally, some companies build lots of features quickly, producing a tangled spaghetti code.

When Franko and I started, we had many late night discussions about M5 Networks where we both worked, and what we were going to do differently at One thing we agreed on was a move that’s hard to pull off: quickly build a prototype to test ideas, then once we’re clear, tear it down and rebuild the right way. Founding teams struggle with this all the time. Mitch Kapoor of Lotus Notes famously stopped the whole train in the midst of a huge success, to completely rewrite. It was the difference between good and great: Notes went on to become dominant for a decade.

“The customer doesn’t come first” is a cliche sometimes attributed to Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher, and we’ve found it to be true: if you listen to your employees first, they will take care of the customers. So we did–we listened to Bernard and gave our development team 6-9 months to rebuild the video room, our biggest source of tech debt–and our customers in turn experience a much better product. The foundations of this rewrite went live on our alpha environment this week.

On Sustainable Profitability

Last year, having passed most of the typical Series A financial milestones, we started meeting with VCs. I DO want to build a big company fast and have a big impact sooner than later. I had a good experience with the VCs that helped me build M5 and I know a lot of great people in this profession. But, having been through the VC-backed journey, I had reservations. And to be honest, no one was jumping over the table to fund us. My excuses were: I was more interested in running the business, unwilling to play the exaggeration game, maybe much more interested in talking about mission than making better slides. Eventually, I stopped pushing on the VC front, because customers started pulling.

Turning the corner into 2023, we are a beat away from sustainability: able to support growth and a software development team on our own. We’ve had the incredible support and patience of our seed investors. I don’t think my heart is saying no forever; if in the future, the opportunity is clear, the investor is right, and the team is ready we’ll absolutely entertain outside financing. But I have to say, I’m thrilled with how this shook out.

On Circles@circles

My last circles@circles session was weird and wonderful.  What’s circles@circles? It is us drinking our own champagne. We’ve run several “Seasons” of circles programs for our 25-person company: our “community of belonging” program, a custom DEIB journey, Onboarding, A She/Her Circle, and now a more open-ended peer connection design. We’re a time-zone mess, so this ain’t easy. The experience not only connects us fabulously, it reliably delivers insights about what our clients experience.

Back to weird and wonderful: in our circles, we talk about weight loss, burnout, struggles prioritizing, wasted workdays, fear of losing a parent. I noticed some stressy voices in my own head: should we be spending an hour on this at work? Is it ok to be the CEO in this room, or am I in the way? 

And then I realized that these circles are gold. They’ve impacted my connection to my colleagues, who are now influencing me more than ever, and improving my understanding of our company.

This aligns with Microsoft’s recent huge study of hybrid work which led them to stop measuring engagement and start measuring flourishing. Wellness became the measure of how their workforce is doing. It isn’t just about the work. I heard somewhere that your company grows as fast as your people do, and I agree. But the last couple of years have revealed a whole other level to the game. Your company is only as well as your people. And this is EXACTLY what giving space for community at work can help with.

Well, thanks for reading this far into storytime. I’d be curious to hear if you all think this is the right kind of company update.

Our work fighting disconnection has become more urgent as the world sees deepening polarization, a disengaged workforce, kids left years behind, and declining mental health. Many blame technology: social media, distributed work tools, online classrooms. But we’re techno-optimists. Our diagnosis is that it isn’t technology itself, it is the way it is built and structured. Facebook, Zoom and Netflix make it easy to amass huge groups, lined up in rows, facing experts or entertainers, connecting us in a shallow way (or just broadcasting at each other). The Circles System produces a deeper, more authentic human connection, consistently.

There’s a time for rows, and certainly a time to be alone too, but it is out of balance.

What people need more of are circles.

Become a Better Listener: a Four Step Guide

My name means “listener” in Hebrew, and I like to think I’m good at it; in fact, I once confidently named a podcast I hosted Listener.

But occasionally my own husband hints that I’m not listening well, and I think I know what he means. Curious might describe me better than Listener I’m interested enough to pay attention to someone for a while, especially if we just met. Then I get bored when my curiosity is satiated, which is likely what my husband experiences–did I mention we’ve been married 20 years?

My husband isn’t boring–in fact, our ability to converse at length is one of the reasons we married; more likely I’m an out-of-practice listener with the attention span of an Instagram reel.

The most effective listening doesn’t involve curiosity about someone, consuming the most interesting things about them and moving on. That’s self-centered. True listening takes a concentration of will, and a posture oriented entirely towards another person–a selfless act.

A History of Self-Centered Listening

It’s no wonder we often engage in self-centered listening. Consider these popular quotes:

“An appreciative listener is always stimulating” –Agatha Christie (Thanks for listening, I’m stimulated)

“Most of the successful people I know are the ones who do more listening than talking”– Bernard Baruch (I’m listening so I can become more successful)

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” –Ernest Hemingway (I’m listening to learn)

These quotes are examples of comprehensive, critical and appreciative listening. Listening as a way to entertain or better oneself isn’t wrong per se, but it isn’t focused on the person speaking, either. By contrast, empathetic listening means listening entirely for the speaker’s sake, and active listening falls under empathetic listening. 

A Refresher on Empathetic Listening
Frances Kraft of The Aspen Institute’s Weave The People describes a virtual small group she regularly attends as a place where people “Listen to understand, not to respond,” a classic Stephen Covey idea. The experience honed their active listening skills: after initially gathering four times with a set of pre-made agendas, her group has continued meeting in for over a year now, building up enough trust to really see each other and mirror back to one another who they are. Frances admits she doesn’t always feel like attending–they often meet in the evening after work, when energies wane. But she’s always glad she did, because it’s a forced slow-down, a chance to tend to one another. “Circle is so simple, but it can change your life. We are attracting people who want to be relational, not transactional.” When others feel listened to, they lean into being vulnerable and trusting others. From there, learning and growing become more possible.

So what does it take to develop into an others-centered, empathetic, active listener? To listen to someone for their sake–not mine? Let’s review a few key elements:

  1. Focus on the speaker instead of your own thoughts. Incredibly hard to do. I typically want to mentally run down the rabbit trail that opened up in my brain based on something interesting you said. It takes practice to constantly recenter one’s mind onto the speaker.
  1. Make eye contact and lean in. This is the first thing I try to do now when someone speaks to me: I stop unloading the dishwasher and look the teenager in the eye (or rather look at their phone, because they’re showing me another meme).
  1. Avoid distractions and multitasking. Speaking of teens, I’m amazed that mine rarely misplace their phones. I’m also dismayed, because I know the reason they don’t lose their phones is the same reason I never misplace mine–because I’m always gazing at it. Truly listening means putting down my newspaper phone.
  1. Set aside your points of view. In a culture of problem-solving achievers, this may be the most common barrier of all. Just because you think about it, read about it, are an expert in it or have your own story about it doesn’t mean you should share it. Read that sentence again.

Listening to Change Your Relationships, Workplace, World

In the end, by truly employing others-centered listening, you will reap benefits, in your relationships, workplace teams and society at large. It’s a practice in mutuality to become good listeners: everyone wins.

And I expect we could all use a good listener right now, several years into a pandemic in an increasingly polarized society. In the workplace–virtually or otherwise–listening proves paramount: one recent organizational psychology & behavior study confirms that “Listening is associated with, and a likely cause of desired organizational outcomes in numerous areas, including job performance, leadership, quality of relationships (e.g., trust), job knowledge, job attitudes, and well-being.” Online spaces that promote empathetic listening are the HR opportunity of the moment.

For many, work now includes a hybrid of a couple begrudging days in the office before retreating back to our home office wearing yesterday’s athleisure. That forced home office grind might explain how I forgot how to listen to my husband–we’ve worked from home together for two years straight and counting, which is a privilege, and also familiarity breeds contempt. With all the blurred lines between home/office, colleague/family member, it’s no wonder a listening tune-up is in order.

So next time someone stops by your cubicle (in my case, the child currently hovering behind my desk), practice empathetic listening by looking them in the eye. Focus on what they say and not your own thoughts. Resist the urge to check Twitter or Slack. Trust that small actions add up to large-scale transformation.

It just might change the world.