Embracing Equity in Circles not Rows

Women’s History Month celebrates generations of gender equality progress. While many have gone before and much has been accomplished, today’s International Women’s Day theme “Embrace Equity” recognizes a necessary focus on equity. The IWD Community explains embracing equity like this: “Equity-based solutions take into account the diverse lived experiences of individuals and communities, adapting services and policies according to these differences.”

Equitable solutions doesn’t mean leveling the playing field because women are somehow deficient–it simply addresses the fact that over the course of history, men have constructed systems with men in mind.

Traditionally, gender equality efforts in the workplace focused primarily on balance: working to ensure women are equally represented at every organizational level, and for equal pay. A good and valuable place to start, workplace gender equality remains a work in progress. At Circles, for instance, we celebrate the fact that just three years ago, our globally diverse Leadership team consisted of four men spanning four countries, until 2020 when I stepped into the circle as Head of Community Growth, becoming the first woman to sit in the Leadership Circle. Additionally, our Strategy Circle is 40% female. As we pursue gender equality at every level, we’re celebrating that overall, our company is now gender balanced.

A gender-balanced company doesn’t automatically make it equitable, however, and a recent IBM Study warns that the pipeline for women in leadership is anemic; at mid & senior leader levels, women in leadership are opting out. “Biases are still a barrier. To break them down, organizations need to mature their approach to gender parity and create structures and systems that work for women and men.”

It’s hard work to navigate high levels of leadership as one of the only women. It’s not sustainable. Additionally, specific industries like finance still struggle with gender equality, as evidenced by the continued work of companies like 2X Global (formerly GenderSmart), a partner who’s kept gender inequality in front of us for years. 

Designed With Equity in Mind

At Circles, we are on a mission to create spaces that are the building-blocks of equitable and inclusive behaviors. Women in particular quickly recognize the value of gatherings where they’ll have a speaking turn, won’t be interrupted, and are guided by an intentional structure that facilitates safer dialogue. 

Recently, I have had the privilege of gathering women in leadership into Circles to connect over the topic “inclusion in the workplace,” and they’re eager to discuss. Over 500 have journeyed through these sessions to date. In small groups of six-eight, we listen to and learn from each others’ experiences, discuss career highs and lows, and share best practices on belonging and inclusion efforts. 

Over the course of many sessions, two themes have been validated: one, we are not a monolith. Ethnicity, religion, marital status, background and more makes us shine as individuals, and strengthens who we are together. Two: we bond over the breadth of what we carry in society civically, in the workplace, and in the relationships we manage in every sphere. The reality of our intersectionality plus the burden of our responsibilities magnifies the inequities of current corporate structures.

Another major theme is that we agree that we cannot continue carrying the emotional and tactical burdens of domestic and corporate life unseen; otherwise, we’re facing burnout. Burnout is more than a buzzword. Women in our circles use the word often, and research backs it up: “There’s a sizable (and growing) gender gap between women and men on the issue of burnout, with women 32% more likely to experience burnout compared with men.” Remakably, women may be bordering on burnout, but they carve out time for our sessions anyway. The need to be together outweighs the sacrifice of another precious calendar hour. Experts like Joanna Rees agree: “Every company today is trying to figure out how women can thrive in upper leadership. Women’s Leadership Circles are emerging as an essential piece of the answer.

When recent global events resurfaced societal injustice and marginalization, corporate inclusion efforts of all kinds abounded. Companies created and filled diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging positions. Inclusive leaders doubled down on forming and funding employee resource groups. Last year, the women of Circl.es formed our own She/Her Circle. It has been a highlight!  An energizing and connecting way for us to learn with and from each other across functions and cultures, we cover topics like ‘fear setting,’ temperaments, women’s health and microfinancing.

I can’t ignore another major datapoint – When Chief recognized the C-suite gender gap and created an exclusive new space for female executives, membership skyrocketed. In fact, Chief struck a chord so powerfully that its membership exploded to 20,000 in four years. As this bottleneck demonstrates, women leaders want to join forces as they navigate and influence the corporate landscape together.

While Chief’s waiting list balloons, my hope is to democratize the exclusive experience they offer. Flourishing for everyone, not just women, is the ultimate impact: everyone benefits when women and other marginalized groups are platformed (we all know that diverse teams are smarter). Simply put, we are better together. 

Stay tuned for news about our developing Women’s Leadership Circles program for organizations, coming soon!


When women gather together in guided circles over meaningful topics, they’re fueled to keep leading and paving the way for equity and equality, in the workplace and beyond, for future generations of women in leadership–their daughters, sisters, mothers and friends. 

Sheryl Sandberg had the vision that “in the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” Until then, we press on to ensure equitable spaces for everyone.

This International Women’s Day, how will your organization prioritize women in leadership? At Circles, we’re on a mission to change the shape of things; in order to embrace equity, the spaces where we gather and work need changing. Register to experience one of our WIL one-off sessions today, or contact me to learn more about adding inclusive & equitable #circlesnotrows to programs for your organization.

Burnout, Wellness and the Future of Work

Glassdoor along with Indeed recently put out a joint hiring report highlighting workforce trends to watch. Three significant elements from their list include: remote work is here to stay, happiness and wellbeing matter, and the changing workforce is pushing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to the forefront.

In many ways, all three topics are intertwined and at the heart of the current movement to transform company cultures.

What’s at Risk With Hybrid & Remote Work

As the report showed, 2023 workplace hurdles to overcome include disconnected teams. Of course, remote and hybrid work certainly offer advantages. People experiencing marginalization often feel safer working from home, workers sacrifice less time away from family, and commuters and cars are off the roads.

Yet distributed teams isolate employees, and experts agree this breakdown of community increases the chance of burnout. Last month, the New York Times mentioned burnout twice in its list of ten steps to better mental health; at the same time, they cautioned against confusing burnout with depression.

So what exactly is burnout?

Burnout Defined

Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” Most often caused by workplace stress, burnout often stems from a feeling of futility and loss of control.

According to this report, incidents of burnout are on the rise–especially for middle managers, the ones trying to keep teams connected and prioritize wellness for everyone else. These are the very leaders we interact with in our Circles community of practice; indeed, when we asked one L&D leader what to watch for in 2023, she listed ‘burnout’ in her top five.

Prioritizing employee wellness initiatives is likely the best way to mitigate burnout, and employees have come to expect a focus on their wellbeing–in fact, some are taking matters into their own hands. The 2023 version of “quiet quitting” is called “the anti-work movement.”

The Anti-Work Movement

Recently, Ariana Huffington predicted that we will no longer wear burnout as a badge of honor–and the rise of the anti-work movement certainly seems to prove her point. Much like how the misnomer quiet ‘quitting’ circulated 2022 headlines, however, those spearheading the anti-work movement aren’t actually against working–they’re against workaholism. “The anti-work movement often leads to people finding ways to make just enough money to get by. They will have more leisure time, rather than working long hours to earn more money.”

Both movements consist of a groundswell of conscientious young workers banding together, committed to choosing wellness over wealth and burnout. The next generation of workers is signaling to their leaders the importance of prioritizing health and wellness.

Wellness Initiatives to Combat Burnout

To improve the state of the workplace, Gallup suggests both engaging employees and investing in their wellbeing so they can truly thrive, revealing that “Employees who are engaged at work but not thriving have a 61% higher likelihood of ongoing burnout than those who are engaged and thriving.”

Workplace wellness includes everything from expansive healthcare that includes elements like mental health benefits, to Employee Resource Groups, safe spaces where employees can connect with others with whom they have an affinity. According to the leaders in our circles, ERGs are safe spaces employees at all levels, themselves included. Glassdoor gathered their ERGs on our platform for breakouts because of our platform’s safe design and inclusive features.

ERGs remain many companies’ leading inclusion initiative, a focus which resurged during the early days of the pandemic in response to world events and social unrest.

Diversity Equity & Inclusion was not a fad

ERGs and inclusion initiatives like them are not new–they originated during the civil rights movement and have ebbed and flowed with societal influences ever since.

Glassdoor & Indeed’s joint report confirmed: the changing face of the workforce will continue organically and intentionally pushing inclusion to the forefront. “As older workers vacated jobs during the pandemic, their younger counterparts find themselves in a position to demand more when it comes to social justice.”

Due in large part to the changing demographics of the U.S. and its workforce, these initiatives will continue becoming intrinsic to who we are. As the report concludes ”The workforce of tomorrow will care deeply about DEI initiatives and employers will use these programs to continue to differentiate themselves in a continuously competitive labor market. Plus, it’s not only good for workers—it’s good for business and for society.”


Together, companies have the opportunity to reinvent themselves into something better, wiser and healthier for the world, and perhaps we can all benefit from the invitation to check our boundaries and avoid burnout. Everyone wins when we incorporate fresh wisdom from the next generation of workers. With the proper inclusion efforts, corporate spaces can lean into the wellness opportunities this next generation of workers are looking for in the workplace.

Are you looking for inclusive spaces to connect your distributed employees? Need a safe place for your ERGs to gather? Schedule a demo with one of our community growth managers today!

Why I’ll Never Give Up My Rock And Roll Dreams

Picture the scene.

I’m in the standing room area on the floor of Madison Square Garden along with 20,000 new friends.

As Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” hits its stride, the lights go out, and we send up a roar to welcome the night’s featured attraction – U2.

90 seconds later, as “City of Blinding Lights” starts up, Bono is standing two feet in front of me.  And we’re airborne.

Pure theater.  Pure joy. And made more dramatic by the well-planned flow of music – from the time we walked in, until the concert began.

Planned flow and the power of music never goes unnoticed by me – a theater professional, and at the time of the concert, Circles’ future Lead Facilitator. I was similarly struck by the learnings from a piece I heard on This American Life a few years back. It highlighted the absence of an emotional response from parents to their children’s school slideshow – all because there was no soundtrack.

Music sets a mood, infuses energy, and lights a fire.

As a theater director, I give as much thought to the “load-in” music as I do the sound design during the play.  Same for my years handling the studio audience load-in in my previous life in television.  Am I bringing the energy up, or dampening it?  What mood am I creating, intentionally or unintentionally?

We’re emotional beings, fueled by a sense of connectivity and togetherness.  Music can act like dry tinder, adding a suggested emotional connotation to what it means to come together.

I love how our technology makes it super easy to grab your favorite YouTube track and play its audio in the CircleSpace.  Too often, facilitators I train think they need to be the one getting it all done through words.  Great facilitators embody energy, timing, and flow, and nothing jumpstarts intentional energy at the start like the right opening song.  It’s like a great leading question, directing the energy and flow of the session down a pre-planned path.  It’s also an opportunity to embody inclusivity and diversity.  I pay attention to the composition of my group, and work to reflect it in my session’s “soundtrack”.

Music is also a “spark”, our term for content that catalyzes conversation.  As an experience designer, I also find ways to build a thematic experience beginning to end, including during reflection time after a prompt is offered.  Running a session on Being Present?  I like Mason Jennings’ “Be Here Now.”  Gathering CEOs to discuss generating impact on world events?  Matisyahu’s “One Day” gets them talking. Our participants frequently mention the power of a session’s music, sharing everything from “great choice of music–opened the flow of conversation” to “the use of music and poetry to cultivate powerful themes left a strong impression on me.”

Music can be leveraged to brand the experience as well.  It’s a cognitive connotation if participants hear the same track each time they enter the space.  “Oh, I remember what this is.”   It’s like a great walk-on moment from your favorite baseball relief pitcher.  It announces the experience to come. 

Because, though I may not sell out the Garden, I can still rock the house.

Seven Steps to Powering Peer Learning in Circles

Since 2016, studies have shown that when it comes to learning, rather than searching the internet or asking their boss, over half of employees rely on their peers. In 2019 Steve Galeski writing for HBR suggested activating peer learning in L&D efforts. “When you account for the fact that humans tend to learn as they teach, peer learning offers a way to support rapid, just-in-time learning, while strengthening the existing understanding your employees have about concepts.”

Of course, opportunities for standard peer connection plummeted over the past few years. Employees grew increasingly disconnected and dispersed from one another, through necessary lockdowns followed by the rise of remote work and distributed teams.

Yet peer learning continues to prove valuable for modern teams: Contemporary Leadership Advisors’ new white paper on peer learning circles (PLCs) found that employees who reach outside their function learn skills faster, and that they feel more valued at work when they’re asked to share about their own learnings. But the researchers also lament that today, “less than half of organizations institute any kind of formal Peer Learning Program, and one in three don’t have any system in place for employees to share learnings with one another.”

Luckily, peer learning is part of the foundation upon which the Circl.es platform and services were built. Read on to learn how we incorporate CLA’s seven criteria for effective peer learning.

Expert Facilitation. “In our experience, Expert Facilitation is the most important determinant of the PLC’s success.” 

CLA’s finding matches the feedback we receive regularly from our clients: time after time, participants rave about their session facilitators. Gertrude Bibi of the GenderSmart community shared: “Without the facilitator it would be just another webinar–facilitation made it personal, and I will always remember this series of conversations.”

Some circles are led by one of our dozens of Certified Circles Guides, who we’ve trained and badged to contract out to customers.

Additionally, we often train our clients’ employees to facilitate their own circles; as customers add our programs to their toolkit, more facilitators are trained each round, resulting in a growing bench of facilitative leaders inside their organizations.

What supports our facilitators in their guidance is the structured process the Circles platform and services provide.

Structured Process. “The second most common mistake  organizations  make  is  to  allow  PLC  sessions to become freeform discussions.” 

A peer learning circle is more than an unstructured small group. In addition to facilitation, circles sessions include curated agendas to help facilitators guide conversations. Agenda outlines vary, but generally consist of a check-in, discussion based on a ‘spark’, as well as a discussion/reflection time and debrief.

The result is just enough unstructured sharing space balanced within an expertly planned session, a combination that creates a safe environment for peer learning.

Psychological Safety: “The PLC space enables participants to take risks without the fear that they are being judged or evaluated while they learn.” 

Psychological safety emerged as one of the hottest workplace topics of 2022. Safe spaces are a growing employee expectation; people want to come to work as their authentic selves, and circles is a space designed to promote risk-free dialogue.

In fact, one of the top ten words participants used to describe Circles in 2022 was ‘safe,’ due in large part to facilitation, agendas, and equitably designed platform features such as random order generator, timers and hand-raises.

Not only is the experience designed with safety and inclusion in mind, but also: what happens in circles stays in circles. Each session begins with participants agreeing upon norms that include a commitment to group confidentiality. The circles safety motto is that ‘learnings leave and stories stay’.

Safe circles prove especially important as we intentionally diversify sessions.

Diversity: “PLC  groupings  should  maximize participant  diversity (e.g., gender, race), as  well as spread across the organization (e.g., function, business unit).” 

Diversification takes place during our initial sorting process. Whether circles are connecting employees across organizational departments or across companies, diversity is a proven element of excellent teams–and, research shows, it goes hand-in-hand with psychological safety. Diverse teams are only conducive to effective peer learning if they are safe; in fact, diverse teams can be less productive if they are not psychologically safe.

This obviously doesn’t make diversity or safety optional; rather, they must be prioritized together. The result of diverse sessions on a platform providing structure and facilitation is an environment primed for safe reflection and critical thinking.

Reflection and Critical Thinking: “As  part  of  the  peer consultations, participants develop and apply coaching skills (e.g., active listening, powerful inquiry, reframing) that lead to deeper discussion and greater insight.” 

Reflection exercises are recommended to help today’s isolated remote workers cope, and community reflection in Circles sessions proves even more powerful.

Agendas introduce individual reflection time first, followed by a chance to share and process reflections together. Because each participant takes a turn listening and also being heard–and interacting with each others’ reflections–members develop skills that independent reflection can’t touch. This is peer learning in action.

The right environment for safe reflection and critical thinking paves the way for real-world application.

Real-World Application: “Each PLC session comes  with  bite-sized,  curated  content  on  a topic that is highly relevant to participants and the business.”

Each session’s conversation ‘spark’ (an article, poem, video etc.) launches discussions pertaining to common challenges participants face. Inside the structured environment of a facilitated circle, groups can safely set and share action steps–especially after multiple sessions together.

This is due in large part to the human connection people experience in Circles. Participants frequently come away voicing the realization that they’re ‘not alone’. Many describe overcoming imposter syndrome after connection in circles. One executive found their cross-company peer circle to be a humbling experience, “because we shared challenges, difficulties and struggles, and everyone was honest about who they are and how they do their business.” Guards come down through genuine connection, allowing growth through real world application.

Participants bring their peer learnings from safe sessions into the real world, and as a community provide accountability for one another.

Accountability: “Leaders need to hold themselves and one another accountable to attend the sessions and arrive prepared to participate.” 

Two types of accountability ensure the most effective outcomes; the first is simply agreeing to carve out time to show up, despite full schedules and competing commitments. The best groups are the ones with high attendance–consistency helps participants build trust, and often the average value score increases with each session. Like any new habit put in place, the dividends increase over time.

A second type of accountability arises as participants bond and support each other through challenges. They become invested in each other’s growth: following up on previous sessions, celebrating successes along the way, and leaning in with curiosity and support when commitments to take action hit roadblocks.


Circles are inclusive spaces designed to help small groups connect and grow. With these seven proven principles embedded in our Circles platform and services, you’ll easily layer peer learning into programs you’re already running. Contact us to begin implementing the power of peer learning circles into your workplace today!

Keep it Real: Why Authenticity Matters More Than Ever (and how to get it)

The most brilliant being to make the headlines last year wasn’t a human–it was ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence so smart it blew our collective mind and intensified the blurred line between what’s real and what’s fake (I pinky swear it didn’t write this post).

In today’s increasingly artificial world, authenticity matters–and this applies to the workplace, too: Forbes’ list of five ways to show up more authentically at work includes advice like ‘opening up about how you feel’ and ‘sharing personal elements of your life’. But whether you’re an organizational leader or a new hire, bringing your whole self to work involves risk and requires a safe, trusting work environment–especially for those who’ve experienced marginalization.

Here are four tips for creating an authentic workplace culture.

  1. Leaders: Go First. In order to create a safe environment conducive to authenticity, organizational leaders must lead the way shaping company culture. Of course, leaders are people too; to some extent, they’re navigating their own authenticity gauntlet, deciding every day how much of themselves to bring to work. To set the tone for a transparent workplace, they need community and support first for themselves; Executive Coach Dina Denham Smith writing for Harvard Business Review suggests that peer connection in small groups helps provide emotional support for today’s leaders. That’s why this year we’re implementing both Executive and DEI Leader circles where peers can offer and find support with one another.
  2. Support Employee Resource Groups. Actively supporting employee resource groups is a growing strategy to preserve authentic safe spaces. Brie Manakal leads the client solutions team at TikTok, and says the primary way they connect and grow their employees is through ERGs. “ERGs provide us the opportunity to find more work-life balance and show up as our authentic selves at work. That’s why these groups are so important: they speak to who we are as individuals. For instance, I’m very connected with both the Asian Pacific Islander ERG and the Women’s ERG. Beyond that, I also think about ways I can be an ally for colleagues across the company.”  Protecting and promoting ERGs ensures not only a safe space for employees to be themselves, but also a way for them to support each other.
  3. Promote Psychological Safety. Is it OK to make mistakes where you work? How many? Psychological safety doesn’t mean not considering performance–in the end, work has to get done. It simply means there is enough trust and security to fail, voice dissension, and communicate out-of-the-box ideas and opinions. At the very least, ensure there is a system in place for addressing harassment and/or microaggressions–and that employees feel safe enough to use it! In addition to promoting authenticity, this recent Business Leader article describes psychological safety as crucial to high-performing teams, because it creates “an environment where people are willing to share ideas for the collective, rather than individual win.” As it turns out, creating safe work environments contributes to the bottom line!
  4. Provide Diverse Connection Groups. One benefit we’ve seen our facilitated circles providing for customers is the chance for employees at all organizational levels to connect with one another. The potential for a new hire to engage a circle with a mid-level manager–or the president of the company–communicates volumes about authentic company culture. One DuPont employee described his experience like this: “One participant in a recent circle was the VP, GM of Business. His presence didn’t inhibit anyone’s ability to share.” That’s because the circles platform and services promote safety and authenticity, allowing human connection at work.

Does an AI like ChatGPT need a safe space to bring its whole self to work? Time will tell–I’m just figuring out how to get it to write for me. For now, at Circles we’ll continue designing inclusive spaces where human beings can authentically connect and grow.

Top Ten 2022 Circles Outcomes

As the year comes to a close, we’re celebrating all the ways circles have served our customers this year. From safety and inclusion to connection and growth, here are ten customer quotes highlighting some of the top words used to describe Circles in 2022.

1. Connection. Circles’ primary purpose is connecting people together. “The struggles that I am going through in my company were discussed in depth. Connecting in the group helped me realize that the same challenges I face are the same in all parts of the world.” Harvard Business School’s Executive OPM Network

2. Growth. Meeting in Circles has helped JumpCrew identify and develop rising leaders. “I contribute a lot of my professional growth to Circles–I’m so thankful to have grown from a sales rep into a director, and from a participant into a facilitator” Amber Gold, JumpCrew

3. Community. Some of our customers gather professionals into communities from across organizations. “It was the first time in a training where there’s space to exchange with colleagues and interact. We shared the challenges we are facing, and I feel I am part of a community.” Milagros Jimenez, The GenderSmart Community

4. Inclusive. Circles provide inclusive spaces where teams can connect and grow. “Circl.es creates space for inclusive conversation, where people can think and exchange in a different way than the normal day-to-day business transactional conversations.” JP, Canadian Red Cross

5. Safe. Psychological safety must be present in order for people to truly open up. “I do not use the term “safe space” loosely–as a woman of color, I feel safe spaces are hard to come by. There is an immediate welcoming and safety that I feel comes with Circles, and that seems to be consistently stated by any of our colleagues joining a circle for the first time.” Karla Talley, Glassdoor.

6. Learning. “When I look back over the past year I am amazed at how much I have gained and learned through my Executive Growth Alliance circle – way beyond my expectations.” Oystein Bach Novartis, The Executive Growth Alliance Community

7. Facilitate. Our trained facilitators expertly guide circle conversations. “Circle is so simple, but it can change your life. When you have a really good facilitator who sets the tone and the participants settle upon agreements together, people slow down and listen not to respond, but to understand. We are attracting people who want to be relational, not transactional. So it’s a beautiful fit to have a platform and technology that is bringing people together to truly communicate.” Frances Kraft, Weave the People

8. Human. In circles, the design features and agendas enable authentic human connection. “Today’s circle was the best, and so relevant. Hearing that people are feeling how I am feeling is so comforting!” Stryker participant

9 . Listening. The platform and agendas promote growth in active listening skills. “One growth aspect that I appreciated was participants developing empathy non-judgemental listening skills. They were actually listening to people’s needs and emotions without giving advice. The circles agenda really helps–there were different tips on how to handle change and uncertainty.” Georgios Topolos, DuPont

10. Culture. Outsourced marketing firm JumpCrew connects their distributed workforce through circles. “Circles are a great tool to cultivate culture and transform the way that I think of “work” when I leave my house in the morning. To me, work isn’t just a job that I clock in, clock out, and collect money from; work is a place where I feel valued, seen, heard, and equipped with the tools to succeed and contribute to.” Adriana Wright, JumpCrew

Whether learning from peers or growing in active listening skills, facilitated circles change company culture by connecting employees on an authentic, human level. We can’t think of a better gift this holiday season than inclusive spaces to connect and grow in the new year. Contact us to schedule a demo today!

Three Ways Circles Address Leadership Challenges

Even while organizational leaders create belonging for their teams, many are looking for ways to stay connected with other leaders themselves. One thing humans all seem to have in common is a desire for community and connection.

That’s why we started inviting Talent Development & Enablement professionals into connection circles, allowing them to share their most pressing challenges. Many feel the isolation stemming from leadership in the digital era, sometimes leading to loneliness in their work. They’re often battling the weariness that comes from navigating constant change. Yet when they come together, they realize they’re not alone–in fact, they’re all facing similar challenges. And they genuinely want to learn from one another: one leader who joined stated: “I started a role in mid-October for the first time in my career and am keen to learn from tenured practitioners”.

Here’s a window into three topics they’re processing during our sessions, and how Circles can help.

  1. Shaping Culture From a Distance

In today’s digital era, many are still implementing “back to work” strategies in fits and starts, navigating the ever-changing future of work. One major workplace hurdle is the shift to full or partially remote teams–the leaders in our circles face training and retaining an increasingly non-desk workforce. The complexity multiplies for teams distributed globally, requiring content contextualized across multiple countries and languages.

Constant change also has many companies reforming their identities, asking hard questions like: Who are we, and what are we really striving to achieve? They must communicate culture changes in real-time, in an authentic way that outpaces and outlasts buzzwords.

One large consulting firm we partner with has turned to Circles to help solve their global disconnection problem, stating that “As we expand, circles is one of the ways we connect our global, virtual community.” Gathering employees in inclusive circles not only connects employees who work remotely, on-site or somewhere in between–it even connects them across the world, and sends a message about company culture while doing so: there’s space for every voice.

  1. Measuring Inclusion

Because the professionals in our circles have the pulse on the people, they understand uniquely how vital inclusion efforts are. While there’s generally increasing corporate buy-in that inclusion matters, these efforts are sometimes viewed as flash-in-the-pan trends left struggling to survive recession budget cuts. Prioritizing inclusion remains an uphill battle.

Especially in data-driven organizations, inclusion is also difficult to measure. Oftentimes, leaders rely on employee satisfaction tools to determine success of programs. Thriving Employee Resource Groups have been another way to measure inclusion, and some of our customers’ ERGs meet or have breakouts in Circles. Yet the leaders we hear from are still looking for new innovative benchmarks in the diversity, equity and inclusion space. 

That’s why we designed circles as inclusive spaces to connect and grow: implement circles programs and train a growing pool of facilitators, and you’ve added another inclusion metric to your toolkit.

Navigating culture change & buoying inclusion efforts leaves the leaders that participate in our circles on the brink of burnout.

  1. Avoiding Burnout

What’s the best way to navigate fatigue and burnout? Sometimes, it’s simply circling up with other leaders who understand and are walking a similar path. Those attending our circles sessions come from different backgrounds and experiences, and they leave grateful for the common ground found through dialogue and exchange, often equating it with group therapy.

One participant shared: “It’s great to meet in a small intimate session and build connection and relationship with others; I loved the platform, the centering of voices and the connection.”

One of our partner communities, GenderSmart, meets regularly in circles, bringing together finance professionals fighting for gender equity in finance. One participant described her sessions like this: “Circles conversations gave me grounding in terms of better connection–all the people in these conversations are just like me one way or the other. We’re all trying to make the world, just, fair, equitable, just in different ways.” Others mentioned how their sessions were confidence boosters in the battle against imposter syndrome, and how unusual it was to experience intimacy and bonding on a virtual platform.

The belonging these leaders walk away with is exactly what they’re trying to provide for their own employees.

Ongoing Involvement

Circles help leaders avoid burnout and shape an inclusive company culture for the modern workplace. Professionals who participate in one of our circles have multiple connection options going forward: joining our LinkedIn Community, investigating taking Circles into their own organization, and participating in one of our ongoing Leadership Circles.

Do you need a place to connect and grow in the new year? Try one of our circles this month!

The Importance of Facilitative Leadership

As flat as our organizations may become, leadership happens in functional workplaces. The problem is that we’ve all experienced a mixed bag of leadership at work: for every great encounter, we’ve survived not-so-great moments with colleagues (and, if we look honestly in the mirror, each of us can probably identify times we ourselves didn’t lead well). Agile, skilled leaders are hard to find, and becoming one might be hardest of all, especially now in our turbulent world.

Here’s what’s giving us hope at Circles: rising leaders emerging out of circle sessions with a new set of soft skills. These leaders are born by osmosis. As participants, they watched someone facilitate a conversation and caught the vision that a thoughtfully guided small group of 6-8 people produces connection, growth, and transformation. Inspired, they went on to guide circles for others, modeling facilitative leadership for the next round of participants.

We saw this multiplication happening with an enterprise client recently: what started as nine trained facilitators in one curated program multiplied into 36 leaders in the next, culminating with a growing pool of 48. As one of the original participants shared: “I enjoyed my Circles experience and the platform so much that I wanted to facilitate a circle. The proudest moment for me was to see two team members who I had invited into circles decide they want to facilitate circles going forward.”

These champions are developing facilitative leadership, a set of skills that not only transforms company culture more than any lone executive could, but has the potential to extend beyond the office into personal relationships, volunteer settings and more.

“I enjoyed my circles experience and the platform so much that I wanted to facilitate a circle. The proudest moment for me was to see two team members who I had invited into circles decide they want to facilitate circles going forward.”

From top-Down to Grassroots: Redefining Leadership

Like we observed in our enterprise customer, modern-day, effective leadership starts grassroots and spreads organically. It doesn’t flow top-down. It can’t be learned in a webinar or by reading an instruction manual.

Gone are the days of the following leadership traits:

● Pride

● The desire to teach

● The desire to argue, persuade, impose a certain point of view

● An interest in answers rather than questions

● A disposition towards judgmentalism, or pre-judgement

By contrast, facilitative leadership translates into the wisdom to bite one’s tongue or sit in awkward silence. Facilitators develop the attentiveness to take the pulse of a room and respond accordingly. Some qualities of effective facilitation include:

● Humility

● Warmth

● Genuine curiosity, both about ideas and human beings

● Comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty

● Willingness to hold space for discomfort or hard topics

● Openness

● An inclination to ask the challenging questions about what we might need to do


Who wouldn’t want to work with (and emulate) a leader like that?

Facilitative Leadership: Caught, not Taught

Facilitating comes more naturally to some than others, but like anything, it can be learned. I experienced this firsthand: when asked, I was hesitant to lead a circle of peers internally. I’ve read and written enough about circles to understand that facilitation is all about energy, timing and flow, and I know myself too well: when it comes to energy, I’m more of a reflector than someone bringing big energy into a group.

But I’ve participated in many internal facilitated circles. I’ve watched different types of leaders guide Circles conversations. Reading and writing about circles didn’t teach me about facilitative leadership: being facilitated did.

Because I knew I would grow and understand our product better if I stepped up and tried, I said yes. And what I discovered along the way is what our own customers have learned as they step from participant to facilitator: I’m improving in facilitative leadership. What helps is the support of the Circles platform, features and agenda which support a session’s energy, timing and flow.

More than that: I’ve noticed changes in how I interact with others in my everyday life. With my family and friends, I’m slowing down and becoming more intentional about energy, timing and flow–leaving space for others, reading the room, seeking to understand and ask the right question at the right time.

Why it Matters

As the world continues changing quickly, organizations must follow suit. Facilitative leaders can help employees navigate change together. The Systems Thinker recognizes how strategic it is for today’s evolving organizations to develop and maintain a crew of facilitative leaders. “Facilitation, while long associated with individuals leading workshops, planning meetings, or other group processes, actually encompasses a broad mix of consulting and coaching skills that are too critical to be relegated to the domain of a select few.” Implementing Circles programs into any organization and equipping a few champions sets the stage for a growing pool of facilitative leaders.

Circles help people connect and grow. The platform design and agenda content promote social learning and peer connection across companies big and small. But it’s the human element that creates the magic: people bringing their whole selves into the circles fuels transformation. Our data reveals that the shining stars are the facilitators rising up within organizations, employees who begin as participants, witness the power of a facilitated circle, then step up and guide their colleagues through everything from tough transitions to global crises.

So we’re letting our customers define modern, effective leadership, by watching the effect facilitated circles have on their company culture–and the type of leaders they produce. Some choose to go on and engage our booster training, to more formally step into a facilitator role; from there, they can even receive the new Circles Leader badge.

Are you interested in building a pool of facilitative leaders in your own org? Contact us today!

The Secret to Compelling Company Culture: Prioritize People & Create Community

In the wake of both the great resignation and massive layoffs–and with recession looming– organizational culture matters. When the stakes are high, what elements contribute to a compelling company culture?

We asked learning and development leaders how they connect and grow their employees and enhance company culture, all while navigating a global workforce. They all expressed the importance of prioritizing people by creating community across distributed teams.

Prioritizing People

Employee engagement has to be intentional and leaders have to be human first. We want people to let their “human” shine through.” Mary Remillad, HomeLight

Mary Remillard is head of Learning and Development at HomeLight, a real estate technology company with a global employee base. She shared that HomeLight’s founder knows firsthand what cultural elements he wants to avoid. “Since our CEO came from the notoriously toxic culture of Wall Street, he already had a really good idea of what culture shouldn’t be, and wanted better for his own company. When he started HomeLight, he made sure his vision of “people first” was top priority.”

L&D specialist Rachel Wood has worked to develop holistic programs that specifically focus on the people side of Burendo consulting agency. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what role you’re in, or where you are located. If you shout for help at Burendo, people here care and will swarm around to help solve whatever the need might be.”

At French software company Aircall, Global Learning & Talent Development Partner Melissa Strong knows the value of prioritizing people. “Our people are what makes Aircall unique. As a company we have an amazing sense of community. Everyone wants to be a part of something exciting, to learn, grow and achieve something special in a community together. It’s unique and addicting to have this type of supportive environment.”

“People are what makes Aircall unique. It’s addicting to have this type of supportive environment.”  Missy Strong, Aircall

Creating Community Across Distributed Teams

According to recent studies, 61% of employees now identify as hybrid workers–their time is split between in-office and remote work. This forces creative endeavors to keep them connected and growing together. Beyond teams collaborating in Slack and virtual one-on-ones with direct reports, the leaders we spoke with think outside the box to keep distributed teams engaged. Whether it’s mentoring, shared learning opportunities, or inclusion efforts, they’re intent on connecting distributed teams and helping them grow.

With a passion for shared learning structures, Rachel has worked to break down silos and barriers at Burendo for the past 6 years. Her team focuses on decentralized, shared learning structures. “We are built around a community structure and have initiatives like mentoring programs that are linked to a broader collective support strategy. If someone needs help to collaborate, then they can look to the communities to see who can be assigned to a specific role.”

Beyond virtual coffee breaks & wellness programs, Rachel has seen the power of learning in community. “Burendo is a company where people are motivated to learn. We learn best through shared learning experiences that are based around communities.”

Learning in Community

“Burendo is a company where people are motivated to learn.  We learn best through shared learning experiences that are based around communities.” Rachel Wood, Burendo

As AirCall scales quickly, Missy focuses on staying true to their culture of community and collaboration.

Her strategy involves “creating moments for people to share, encourage, and guide one another.” Twice a year, her team hosts Aircall Conversations, inviting experts to present on a topic. Speakers give a keynote speech and then employees break out into smaller teams. “We recently invited a Navy pilot to talk about working through uncertainty, which proved very applicable to both Aircall’s current reality going through a CEO change, and also to the current potential of recession.” The AirCall Conversations have shifted to virtual to keep employees connected across distributed teams. “We made sure that the chat and online discussions were lively, to create an ambiance of inclusion and energy.” 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

“Because we are global, multicultural differences are expected and it is important to learn different communication styles.”  Missy Strong

Leaders recognize inclusion as more than a passing fad—it’s a cultural imperative to any organization navigating globally distributed teams. Furthermore, HBR research shows that developing inclusive leaders “directly enhances performance,” as they grow in cultural intelligence and become aware of their biases.

Inclusive spaces don’t happen by accident. At HomeLight, Mary’s team intentionally celebrates DEI and strives to maintain awareness of their own biases. Her People Team has tackled many projects in an effort to ensure organizational alignment, starting with interview practices and including current team members.

HomeLight’s Employee Resource Groups are employee driven, and model the type of momentum Mary and her team want to leverage. “We are continuing to develop a strategy of equity within our global company, and desire for everyone to have the same opportunity, influence and voice.  We want to make sure that no one feels negatively ‘othered’ because they are based in a country outside of where we are headquartered.”

Rachel describes Burendo’s culture as open and growing, two hallmarks of inclusivity. “Some of our work in inclusivity and culture building is in storytelling. We make a point of understanding traditions and beliefs, beginning with our founders.”

Honing their hiring practices is another part of Burendo’s strategy for shaping an inclusive culture. ‘As we hire, we look at people as a culture add, not a culture fit. We need the variety of skills, knowledge, and strength that people bring as individuals.” By putting people first, these leaders create sticky cultures that will attract and retain the right workforce.

Why Culture Matters

Back in 2020, McKinsey Consulting foresaw the type of workplace realities that would emerge as a result of enormous societal change–and as they reimagined the post-pandemic workforce, their advice was to pay careful attention to organizational norms and culture. Focus on what binds people together. “Your opportunity is to fashion the hybrid virtual model that best fits your company, and let it give birth to a new shared culture for all your employees that provides stability, social cohesion, identity, and belonging, whether your employees are working remotely, on premises, or in some combination of both.”

Rachel believes innovation is key to Burendo’s culture. “If you stop trying new things, then your culture is going to suffer.” HomeLight’s strategy includes attention to the overall employee experience. Mary says: “We try to not stay stagnant at HomeLight.  Every time we’ve surpassed a critical milestone at the company, we’ve taken the time to evaluate what “great culture” means to ensure we evolve alongside our employees’ needs. We make sure there are checkpoints along the way, and strive to be intellectually curious.”

As the new era of distributed work progresses–and teams become increasingly global and multicultural—in our interviews, the opportunity to let the people define and shape the culture shines through. In the most practical sense, it’s also effective for any company’s bottom line. As Missy points out:  “Without people, AirCall doesn’t have culture at all. And relationships are what makes things happen—results are reliant upon it. If they connect and care with the people they work with, then they will succeed.”

“Life is more than just staring at a screen for 8 hours a day.  It can be easy with people being dispersed to let work be just work, but when there is community- humans connect on a human level, and that impacts people’s quality of life for the better.”  Mary Remillad

Fighting for Females in Finance

“I discovered that the people in my GenderSmart circle are just like me, in one way or another. We’re all trying to make the world fair and equitable, just in different ways.” Bibi Gertrude Annoh Quarshie, Director of Operations, African Women’s Development Fund

Financial systems engage with and benefit men and women differently– particularly women of color. That’s why the GenderSmart community works to bring gender balance into finance, in terms of who makes investment decisions, and who gets investment.

Hoping to spark real and lasting global change, GenderSmart works to educate and network senior investment professionals, fostering innovation and collaboration in service of a more equitable world.

What began as a community of 300 investors four years ago has grown to 2,500 women and men across 50 countries, representing the climate crisis, education, health, and human rights. GenderSmart’s next chapter is an upcoming merger with 2x Collaborative: in January 2023, the two organizations will become 2X Global.

Fresh off their 2022 annual Summit, we caught up with co-founder Suzanne Biegel and Head of Programs Stella McKenna to learn how Circles has played a significant role in their community.

Can you share more about GenderSmart’s mission and values?

Suzanne: Our mission is convening people and connecting them together, to build relationships, increase their capacity for investing work, advance their practices and standards, and expand their imaginations.

GenderSmart is collaborative and values-driven. We try to be intentional with who’s in the room–they really need to have a mindset that is committed to this issue, thinking about not only their own organization and progress, but also advancing as a field.

Our team works very hard to create a safe space to connect as humans. We want people to feel like they have a place to commiserate, celebrate one another, and learn from each other–and also identify what’s not working. We work hard to think about where people are coming from and what the next step in their journey could be–to meet people where they are and push them a little bit further.

When so much of the world went virtual–is that when Circles came into the picture?

Suzanne: After Covid happened, we quickly learned how to flip to a virtual organization. I had experienced Circles as a participant as an Aspen Fellow, and brought it to the GenderSmart team because it’s an exciting approach and technology–I thought it could be a really important part of what we do.

For 2022, we planned three months of virtual programming consisting of formal sessions and expert hours, and we added the Circles component so people could connect in a different way and allow for more peer-to-peer sharing.

Stella: I was struck by how Suzanne described the impact of her Circles experience. We had all been online for 18 months at that point, and while people were getting creative on Zoom, Suzanne went through Circles and felt like it offered a next-level connection experience. In a world where people had lots of different virtual communities pulling them in, circles felt like an opportunity to really engage our community in a different way, and deepen those peer-to-peer connections.

Our hypothesis was that if we planned a content-heavy program and ran Circles alongside it so people connected with their peers, those elements would enrich one another, and people would increase their committment.

“It was a humbling experience because we shared challenges, difficulties and struggles, and everyone was honest about who they are and how they do their business.” Cecile Sevrain, Co-founder and Impact & Sustainability Warrior at TIIME – advisor, trainer and public speaker, France

How has Circles helped your community connect and grow?

Stella: We sorted members into groups based on their level of experience, and it really allowed for peer-to-peer connection. In the future, we’d like to try sorting the groups in different ways–thematically, geographically etc.

Suzanne: People just love the platform–how it makes them feel, the way more voices get heard. There’s just something about it that’s really special. 

Stella: I think something that potentially connects a group of people virtually and also in person is amazing. We trained facilitators to run the circles, and I contacted them before our in-person Summit to let them know which members of their circles would be in attendance, so they could also connect in person. 

When I spoke with GenderSmart members who went through Circles, the number one theme that stood out to me was that they felt like they weren’t alone. They really felt the connection was on a human level.

Stella: Yes. One of the standout moments of my year happened in a circle I facilitated. Someone who was a pretty active part of the GenderSmart community, and who I perceive as a well-connected person in the field, said “I’m very much still the gender nerd in the corner. In my organization, people either want something from me–because they’ve been told that they need to think about gender in their process–or they dismiss me as unimportant.”

Participating in circles was a chance for her to be around a table where she didn’t have to justify commitment to gender–everyone was already committed. It was a really good reminder to me that she still really needs that, even as someone who does this every day and is committed and making things happen.

“Sometimes at GenderSmart, we are peers but also competitors. In circles, those barriers come down” Luis Marquez, Director of Advisory Services / Gender Lens Investing, Maputo, Mozambique

I know you said your Summit was a huge success, and I’m so glad–the work you’re doing is so important, to me personally and the entire Circles team. What’s your vision for the future of your community?

Suzanne: First, we’re very much about building the capacity of the sector by connecting people with their peers. Second, we want to advance the standards and practices within the field. Third, to influence the broader market–and to get people seeing that this is just smart investing. We want to influence the financial system overall.

One important component are these communities of practice that are coming together. They will be fundamentally virtual, so using technology as a part of the solution is important. People really love to convene in person, but it’s not practical–we had people from 44 countries at the Summit.

Despite what’s going on in the economy and gender setbacks, at GenderSmart we’re very clear on what our role is in the world.

At Circles, we’re honored to connect and grow communities like GenderSmart. Learn more about the incredible work they’re doing in the world here.

Make human connections.

Complete this form so we can connect with you and share a Circl.es experience.

Make human connections.

Complete this form so we can connect with you and share a Circl.es experience.

In a world of physical distance, circles facilitate authentic human connection.

In a circle, 3-12 participants contribute equally, share openly, and push each other to act.

We spent years with academics and practitioners, honing best practices and building a technology platform. Our circles have helped scale peer learning, sustain manager and leadership development, move live training online, onboard new employees, support career development, teach collaboration, and build community.

We’ve been grateful for the support and the referrals from our large corporate partners, schools, and communities who have been hiring us to help design, facilitate and manage Circles programs.

In order to keep up with the interest in our system and technology, please help us understand your needs by answering a few questions.

Make human connections.

Complete this form so we can connect with you and share a Circl.es experience.