Merakey works to empower communities with innovative care and education solutions. Like many organizations, they weathered pandemic realities like high turnover and virtually onboarding new recruits. Alex Markey, who’s worked in Merakey operations since 2012, has noticed how easily today’s hybrid and remote teams become disjointed and siloed. In an effort to fight workplace disconnection, she and other managers stepped away from their day-to-day responsibilities and joined a four-session Women’s Leadership CircleSpace program. Her response: “I trust that group of leaders now. I learned more about them as people through the sessions, and I feel like in the future, when a workplace issue comes up, we can pick up the phone and talk it through.”
Manager Enablement in Circles
Ali Bolick leads Merakey’s enterprise-wide learning team, and was the first at Merakey to discover CircleSpace. In the midst of rolling out a new manager training program, she joined a one-off session, immediately noticing the psychological safety. “People can be themselves in CircleSpace–they are not afraid to share.” Captivated by her experience, she shifted the remaining new manager program sessions into CircleSpace. The completely redesigned Merakey New Manager Training now incorporates peer circles, providing space to practice, apply and sustain concepts and behaviors. “We’re providing safe spaces for people to be themselves.”
By design, CircleSpace creates unique, trusting team spaces. Ali enjoyed how structured elements like sparks kept meaningful conversations flowing. Betty Boyd, another Merakey leader and participant, described the experience as a unique place to let down one’s guard. “My personality is a bit hesitant and shy–in circles, the small size of the group feels safe, and the features give me time to think before responding.” Alex says she felt calmed by the experience. “Guided by the music and the thinking time, there’s less pressure and more space to think.”
Facilitation also enhanced the group’s experience. Merakey opted for pro-facilitation provided by Circl.es Certified Guide Katy Becker. Participants raved about her, sharing “Katy helped us feel comfortable. She led by example and modeled vulnerability, leaving space for us without rushing us.”
Developing Merakey CircleLeaders
Merakey also sent five of their own team members through a three-session CircleLeader training. One of them, Kristen Smith, is now a Merakey CircleLeader, empowered to design and deliver circles sessions independently. Kristen felt the main takeaways of her CircleLeader training included personal growth, enhanced leadership abilities, and empowerment to help build healthy communities. “I walked away from my cohort having experienced firsthand that truly authentic human connection is achievable in a virtual hybrid workplace.”
Every participant gave the Women’s Leadership Circles glowing feedback. Betty has been with Merakey for 35 years in different capacities, and reflected: “I’ve worked with some of these women for many years, and never had a chance to know them on this level. I have a whole new appreciation of who they are and would like to stay connected and check in.” She also said the group encouraged her to start a book she’s been wanting to write. Alex felt inspired by the group to focus on self-care, vowing to make more time for herself. Participants were quick to point out that any actionable items arose gently and organically. As Alex shared: “When it came to accountability, there was no pressure to report out or meet goals. Yet the experience still created a desire for taking steps towards growth.” The women left strategizing how to stay connected with one another–even Katy, the Circl.es Certified Guide. “By the last session, we were so deeply connected that I wish we could keep meeting. I miss you all already.”
Scaling Trusting Teams at Merakey
Ali’s team began brainstorming how to scale circles throughout Merakey. “In the end, we want to deliver our mission and values internally and externally, and Circles helps us do that.” She’s working with the Circles team to identify where else to apply the Circles magic, asking questions like: What’s not being said? What’s being swept under the rug? How can we create safe spaces for accountability? Ideas for next steps include:
Manager Enablement: Fully customizing a program for new managers that will involve team building, DEI, recruiting, and e-learning on a variety of other topics.
Executive Sponsorship: Working with the executive team to decide what Merakey teams need, then curating a program.
Cross-functional team trust: Gathering peers across departments in circles to foster team trust, bust silos and build relationships.
Today’s companies must solve problems they didn’t have before the pandemic, replacing the mortar between the bricks, the (human) connective tissue that bonds their organization. The solution involves carving out intentional time to come together and attend to relational team dynamics. Circles helps dispersed teams create a cadence of building trust in safe, unique safe spaces. As Ali summarizes so well: “Authentic connection is lacking in the virtual world. Circles recreates the water cooler.”
Are you interested in trying Circles yourself, or with your team? Check out our newest experience, The Team Table. The first session is on us!
20 years ago, Colleen Moen was looking for a career change, and Starbucks Coffee Company hired her–not knowing she was five months pregnant. She says it was the first time she worked for a company that actually lived out the values they had written on the wall.
“Starbucks treated me like a human who mattered more than my work. Ever since then, what has sustained me in my career is finding organizations that align with my values.”
After Starbucks, she invested her Learning & Development career at some of Washington State’s leading companies, including Nordstrom and REI. Colleen recently connected with us through a women’s leadership circle, where we discovered our shared interest in supporting thriving teams. We wanted to shine a spotlight on Colleen and her best practices for building trust on teams throughout her career.
Four Ways to Build Trust on Teams
Structured groups foster team trust. In Colleen’s experience: “Sometimes, we hesitate to put structure in place, but it’s essential for building trust in safe environments.” She recommends focusing on four key elements: group size, norms, icebreakers and facilitation.
Keep Teams Small.
Based on a cohort learning approach, Colleen suggests aiming for no more than 6-8 group members per team. “As a learning professional, I know that keeping teams small is best.” A group needs just enough members for diversity and to account for absentees, and if a team is too large it loses a sense of intimacy and connection. She also realizes the tension between theory and practice, recalling times she’s settled for groups of ten. But as a general rule, when it comes to team size, she’s found capping groups at 8 people produces the best results.
Normalize Group Behaviors, for Safety.
Creating and agreeing to group norms helps participants safely collaborate. One of Colleen’s best practices involves allowing teams to create their own norms, guiding the process and providing examples when needed. She emphasizes norms as especially important for tough conversations predicated on trust, and frames up those conversations strategically: “Today, we’re going to discuss a difficult topic…and here are norms for how we’re going to behave together.” Suggested norms include listening, asking questions without making assumptions, not talking over each other, and raising hands to take turns speaking. Norms act as guardrails, helping ensure a safer environment for deeper conversations.
Take Baby Steps Towards Trust: Use Icebreakers.
Team members feel safer taking vulnerable risks in small groups with established norms, and icebreakers allow them to share snippets of themselves, building trust with each share. As Colleen says, “We don’t want to try and force trust–because you can’t–but even simply asking ‘how are you feeling today?’ and staying fully present for the answer can go a long way towards building team trust.” By taking small risks in a safe environment each session, team trust grows over time.
Train Facilitators–for Their Sake & the Team’s.
As a trained facilitator, Colleen values facilitation as a skill, not only because it contributes to small group trust, but because it doubles as a leadership development tool.
When she built and supported BIPOC mentoring at Nordstrom from the ground up, she ensured each cohort of 6-8 had two BIPOC leaders trained to guide their group. “We gave those leaders facilitation training, because that’s a huge skill: being able to hold space, ask questions, pull out a challenge, and feel comfortable asking ‘what are we NOT saying right now.’” A facilitator modeling and inviting vulnerability can unlock transparency for others in the group. Colleen uses verbiage like this: “I noticed you haven’t shared–would you like to share anything? It’s fine if not, I just wanted to make space for you.” A trained facilitator pulls the other key elements of group size, norms & icebreakers together, creating the ideal environment for maximizing team trust.
Vulnerability Scales Culture
With the right structure in place, facilitators invite teams into vulnerability and trust session by session. How can leaders scale that trust throughout an organization, transforming culture?
Ultimately, top-down vulnerability forms a company’s culture–leaders have to see transparency modeled at the very top. In Colleen’s experience, “That’s often the missing piece. You can offer the best program around culture, but if I leave my team and it’s not reinforced in the greater company environment, then it won’t stick.”
She suggests beginning with onboarding, especially with the move to hybrid work. “My own most recent onboarding experience was virtual, and a very difficult experience. But what if you had new hires in circles with an executive leader present from day one? If you can get leaders to open up with recruits, that changes the culture.”
In the end, everyone wants to work and lead in a trusting organizational culture where humans come first, like Colleen’s initial experience at Starbucks. Modern managers need innovative solutions to keep their hybrid teams connected. We’re working on it!
With many workplaces settling into hybrid work environments, it’s become increasingly difficult for colleagues to connect. This could negatively affect performance: research shows high-performing teams are 25% more likely to connect with teammates over non-work topics. “The best teams aren’t more effective because they work all the time. On the contrary: they invest time connecting in genuine ways, which yields closer friendships and better teamwork later on.” Outside of meetings, where will authentic conversations happen, in the absence of the lunchroom and the watercooler?
Modern leaders must scale culture across time zones, balancing human-centered core values with performance metrics. They cannot rely on old ways of connection while team trust and effectiveness hangs in the balance. Today’s virtual, distributed workplace needs innovative spaces where teams can build trust through openness, accountability, and shared purpose, while ensuring results.
High Trust Equals High Performance
Experts agree: a trusting company culture characterized by human connection ensures high-performing teams and a thriving business. According to Professor Paul J. Zak, compared with people at low-trust companies, at high-trust companies, employees experience:
29% more satisfaction with their lives
40% less burnout
74% less stress
106% more energy at work
In addition to enhancing employee well-being, a trusting workplace culture also increases the bottom line, through:
50% higher productivity
76% more engagement
Connected employees build trust and improve in collaboration, communication & innovation, and a baseline of trust also affects retention. MITSloan research shows that in trusting workplace cultures, not only are employees a whopping 260% more motivated to work, but also 50% less likely to look for another job. Another famous Zappos study reported that company cultures that value employee connections “generate 4 times more revenue than those with substandard company cultures.”
In other words, thriving people build thriving companies. Because trust is proven to affect everything from employee well-being to revenues and retention, leaders must seek out spaces where hybrid teams can connect in authentic ways.
Essential Elements for Team Trust
Human beings have always gathered in circles, and returning to this ancient practice introduces a new way for virtual teams to connect and build trust. We’ve looked to the work of some of our favorite gurus to help us understand exactly how circles magic works, and synthesized multiple theories into our own “3-Dimensional Trust Framework.” The three essential elements include:
X Openness: Vulnerability, psychological safety, sincerity
Y Accountability: Competence, reliability, honoring promises
Z Shared Purpose: Empathy, care, shared values & intentions
We’ve found that facilitated small group circles operate like little trust microwaves, promoting inclusive conversations as participants quickly build relational trust with each other. Although all three elements aren’t necessarily present in each session, openness, accountability and shared purpose teach and reinforce the elements of trust.
Authentic human connection is crucial to building trust. After decades of writing NYT best-sellers on vulnerabililty, research professor Brene Brown concludes “We need to trust to be vulnerable, and we need to be vulnerable in order to build trust.”
Safe by Design: The very shape of a circle levels the playing field, and keeping a group’s size between 5-10 people promotes safety. Participants also feel safer to open up when they agree to confidentiality norms. Random order rounds with timers helps ensure that everyone listens and feels heard.
Guidance: The best circles are guided. During the session flow, facilitators invite openness by drawing out participation. Carefully crafted agendas that include questions breed conversation. Before answering, it’s best to give participants time to pause for reflection, as it results in better listening and deeper shares.
With the right structure in place, facilitated circles invite openness and set the stage for accountability.
Structure: To layer accountability into a circle, gather small groups in recurring sessions, strongly encouraging regular attendance. Starting and ending sessions on time is another simple way to build trust. Finally, reviewing group data and metrics reinforces a group’s track record together.
The Learning Zone: In psychologically safe circles, participants feel comfortable with both openness and accountability. Harvard Business School’s Amy Edumundson, author of The Fearless Organization, postulates a terrific theory about the “learning zone,” which describes striking a powerful balance between openness and accountability. This ‘learning zone’ is the perfect environment for teams to discover shared purpose in a circle.
As teams become accustomed to openness and accountability, they grow in listening to and caring for each other, developing a shared purpose. Sharing struggles often leads to a sense of common challenge, reinforced by dialogue and exchange of help during exploration exercises. Lastly, trusting teams set intentions to follow up and highlight how they fit into the group’s purpose.
A guided, structured small group gathering in a circle inevitably experiences openness, accountability and shared purpose.
CircleSpace: a Safe Space for Hybrid Teams to Build Trust
Our 3D trust model formed as we worked with partners to develop and test CircleSpace over many years, to ensure the openness, accountability, and shared purpose that builds effective teams. CircleSpace includes all the elements for success: facilitators, build-in timers and random order generators, and off-the-shelf agendas and programs designed to build trust. It’s the solution today’s hybrid workers need to stay connected and reach their goals.
Don’t sacrifice the magic of gathering your teams; implement CircleSpace to maximize your investment in an upcoming offsite, or to help you cut costs and go completely virtual. Click here to experience a Circle for yourself!
Embarking on a journey of culture change at scale is no easy feat, but one DuPont division offers an inspiring tale of grassroots transformation. Despite daunting societal forces and internal disruptions, they embraced inclusive Circles experiences, fostering trust and resilience even throughout a merger and acquisition. Leaders emerged and were transformed into cultural ambassadors as they learned facilitation skills. What began as a single program promoting belonging multiplied into a lifeline of programs that profoundly humanized the way DuPonters connect and relate to one another.
In total, five Circles programs developed in partnership with DuPont:
Community of Belonging—Inclusion sessions
Navigating Change Together—Initial M&A processing
Forging the Path Forward—Community focused
Connection Circles—Merging teams
Leader Connect—Peer Circles
Phase One: Community of Belonging
DuPont first discovered Circl.es while searching for ways employees could bring their full selves to work. Initially, they implemented Leadership Circles: A Community of Belonging (COB), a program created by The Aspen Institute in partnership with Circles Learning Labs. The program allows virtual space for leaders at all organizational levels to self-facilitate powerful dialogue–and DuPont employees who engaged the process celebrated differences while discovering commonalities.
Connecting New Hires and Senior Leaders
“Deliberately dedicating time to honest discussions with colleagues was some of the most beneficial time I’ve spent in the last couple of months.” DuPont Pilot Participant
70 employees took part in the COB pilot. A new hire who participated came away praising the experience as a safe, welcoming place: “Beginning my career with this experience has been incredibly valuable to me. It showed me that DuPont has a deep caring for people, and reinforced my decision to come to work here.”
Circles were deliberately sorted to group staff across organizational levels. One participant described feeling surprised by the vulnerable manner in which a senior leader in his group engaged. “It actually helps to have the company leader listening in on the hot issues and experiencing how people might be feeling.” What struck another employee was a specific, caring interaction during a rough day at work. “My boss came to me and said ‘I’m really wondering how I can show you kindness’–he had already been through two of the three Circle sessions. It was so nice to hear that type of comment from the leader of the entire organization.” Circles participants reported that Community of Belonging left them better equipped to have tough conversations with a manager or colleague.
Today’s workforce expects and appreciates avenues to cultivate workplace transparency. In fact, over 90% polled indicated that it’s DuPont’s responsibility as their employer to facilitate conversations. What truly transforms corporate culture is when senior leaders lead the way, engaging in the belonging process.
“My circle was a group of people across the organization, so it was a broad experience of my company rather than an experience with my direct co-workers.”
A New Type of Inclusive Experience
“At DuPont, we understand that we can only truly fulfill our purpose with the full commitment, participation, creativity, energy, and cooperative spirit of a diverse workforce.” Excerpt From DuPont’s Core Values
Although DuPont had run DEIB programs before, employees responded differently to the conversational format of the Leadership Circles sessions. Some indicated that beforehand, they had never considered the importance of inclusive work environments; after completing three 90-minute sessions, however, a stunning 100% agreed or strongly agreed with prioritizing inclusivity. They shared sentiments like “It’s a very open place to interact with colleagues and discuss the tough topics we don’t always talk about.”
Because personal conversations in safe spaces rarely occur at work, listening to others’
experiences revealed some startling realities. For example: previously unheard stories of workplace discrimination surfaced. As a result, the percentage of staff indicating they strongly valued conversations inviting diverse perspectives skyrocketed from 53%-76%.
One woman shared that her group gave her the courage to bring her most authentic, unique self to the space, also noting that “It gives DuPont a competitive edge. This is a win-win.” Human connection in small groups sets Circles programs apart from other belonging experiences.
“The readings, poems, and art were amazing conversation starters!”
Sparking a Movement
DuPont leaders knew they were on the path to culture change when three out of four participants they polled said they would recommend Community of Belonging to their colleagues. Ideas flowed, and opportunities to scale the circles throughout DuPont emerged. Meanwhile, following a long stretch of remote work, DuPont headed into 2022 facing significant change: competitor Celanese was acquiring their Mobility and Materials (M&M) division.
Phase Two: Navigating Change Together
Helping Teams Thrive Through Mergers & Acquisitions
Responding to the merger announcement, a small team of M&M leaders brainstormed how to apply the COB experience to the imminent acquisition. Forming a core team that included Circles team members, they created a customized Circles program Navigating Change Together (NCT) consisting of three new curated, facilitated, 90-minute sessions. After testing with pilot groups, they launched open enrollment over a period of months, inviting team members across regions & functions to process in virtual small groups together.
Participants shared personal motivations for joining:
“We’ve had a lot of change in DuPont in the last five years, and it’s difficult to cope with constant change.”
“Our team keeps getting smaller, so each one of us is more and more critical. We must support each other!”
“I’m looking forward to this unique opportunity to learn and share, from head and heart!”
“It is now more important than ever that we respectfully communicate, trust and support each other.”
NCT gave employees a safe space to share how they felt about the merger. Many processed their fears and insecurities. Their discussions forged strong connections and helped DuPonters build trust and harvest their collective strength. By connecting employees on a deeper level, the program acted as a lifeline buoying them through the organizational changes.
“I think the program is making me more resilient through adversity, and giving me more understanding of others. I heard surprising perspectives I couldn’t have even imagined. Professionally, this type of enrichment is of great benefit, and ultimately beneficial for results at work.”
Building a new Bench of Leaders
“I enjoyed my COB experience and the platform so much that I wanted to facilitate a Navigating Change Together circle; I’ve also contributed as a core planning team member. Circles allowed me to get back to supporting employees in the moment.”
Trained Circle Leaders have an enormous impact on the quality of a session. They’re equipped to allow uncomfortable ambiguity and uncertainty, holding space for discomfort and hard topics, asking challenging questions, and enabling meaningful discussions.
Here’s what participants have shared, praising their Circle Leaders:
“They allowed us to participate without pressing anyone to talk. They just let the conversation flow and helped us build on each other’s thoughts.”
“Our facilitator made a point of including everyone without putting people on the spot”
“Encouraged open sharing and kept the discussion moving; created a welcoming environment for the conversation”
When Paula Tewksbury encountered Circles at DuPont, she recognized its unique potential to connect and grow employees. Her first role at DuPont was as a manufacturing professional in a plant, and evolved over time into a career as a Learning and Development leader. She’d been with DuPont for 30 years when, compelled by her experience as a COB participant, she volunteered as a NCT Circle Leader.
As a long time facilitator who had trained others for years, Paula noticed how Circles makes it easy for anyone to grow in facilitation skills. “By design, the Circles experience helps build skill sets like facilitation that sometimes get overlooked.”
Many COB participants besides Paula volunteered to facilitate a NCT circle, and notably, every single Circle Leader who facilitated in COB went on to lead a NCT circle. As one repeat facilitator shared, “The proudest moment for me was seeing two team members who I had invited into circles decide they wanted to facilitate circles going forward.” According to weekly reports, repeat Circle Leaders were instrumental in the program’s success.
By training over forty employees to become Circle Leaders, DuPont inherited a whole new bench of culture carriers prepared to help guide future organizational change.
Phase Three: Forging the Path Forward
The division continued preparing for the shift to Celanese. Aware of the mixed emotions employees would experience throughout the process, they designed and implemented a third phase of Circles called Forging the Path Forward. Together, participants reflected and prepared for the move: they set objectives to check in, assess M&M culture, and embrace the opportunity to move forward together.
Growing Pool of Seasoned Facilitators
The guidance of the experienced Circle Leaders–many of whom had led sessions since the very first phase–helped preserve the feeling of community and connection among their peers. 68% of NCT Circle Leaders guided circles again, allowing them to draw from prior experience and create meaningful sessions. A record-high facilitation score of 9.67 proved the importance of this seasoned throughline of leaders.
Programs Beyond the M&A
After moving from participant to facilitator, Paula continued seeing new leadership development opportunities for Circles. She and her continuous improvement colleague Lyle designed a Leader Connect program so leaders at the manufacturing level could address common challenges with peers in the same role at different sites. Together with Circles, they developed a program focused on leading with humility, developing people, engaging and asking the right questions, and providing a safe sharing environment. “Manufacturing Plant leaders and middle managers at sites don’t have peers to bounce ideas off of–there’s no one to connect and network with. Circles is a way to bring them together.”
Paula felt she watched culture change happening right before her eyes: accountability between the plant leaders increased, and they performed at a higher level as a result of connecting and growing through Leader Connect. Many participating leaders–some who had been with DuPont for decades–expressed that they had never experienced anything like it in their career.
Another product that emerged out of the M&A was Connection Circles, a program enabling initial employee connections across newly merged teams, beginning with Product Stewardship. One participant said functioning after a merger “feels like a high schoolS dance where boys are on one side and girls on another, and someone has to reach out and start communications between sides.” Circles helped ease the pain of two cultures merging.
The growing pool of Circle Leaders resulting from multiple phases of DuPont programs inspired us at Circles to continue refining our Facilitator Onboarding Journey, in an effort to translate the Circle Leaders experience into other organizations.
The Heart of the Matter
When leaders engage and hold space for human connection, culture changes one session at a time. Many of today’s most pressing workplace challenges factored into DuPont’s Circles journey, and the beating heart of each developed program is the belief that dialogue can build trusting relationships. The results at DuPont revealed the tremendous potential in employees connected with one another through significant organizational change.
90% of Fortune 500 Companies have employee resource groups. ERGs surged in the last two years, but now cost-conscious execs are slashing budgets and staffing. Many of us sense the importance of these spaces, but in times of economic uncertainty, how do you justify the time and money? Fortunately, recent research has bolstered the case that they can yield a strong return on investment.
ERGs Need Funding
The research is in: companies must allocate more funding for ERGs. When Researchers asked respondents what improvements they would like to see in ERG programs, the top answer was more funding (61% percent).
ERG Funding Case Study
Funda Kalemci works in DEI for NielsenIQ, overseeing 30,000 associates in 80 countries.
She says funding ERGs begins with embedding them into a holistic DEI strategy. Her team sits in Human Resources, and relies on metrics to make the case for funding requests. “You have to clarify what problem your initiative solves. Numbers talk: if you have data supporting your request, that will build your case. Utilize yearly data to prove trends.”
For instance: when NielsenIQ HR noticed significant attrition numbers for one particular demographic, Funda’s team brainstormed planning an in-person forum for the representative ERG. “From a retention perspective, the need for that event was dire. I presented the story supported with numbers and secured the forum budget.” In the end, for that one event her team negotiated a forum budget twice the size of their overall DEI budget.
Multiple factors caused them to push the forum event back to 2024, but after the announcement of the program attrition numbers seemed to slow. Funda attributes it to collaboration, and the hope of human connection. Planning the event alongside the ERG communicated respect, care and concern to employees, and they had an in-person offsite to look forward to.
Having worked in DEI for ten years, Funda says budgeting will always be a concern, and cautions against funding ERG strategies like speakers, webinars and seminars. She thinks it’s smart to stay focused on connecting employees together. “What Circles brings to the table is a multifaceted, layered solution.”
Benefiting Employees by Boosting Company Culture
91% of businesses indicated that effective ERGs boost company culture. Here are seven ways employees benefit from ERGs:
DEI initiatives championed.
Employee wellbeing and mental health strengthened.
Improved physical work conditions (think ERGs advocating for gender-neutral restrooms).
Higher visibility of underrepresented groups.
Employees connected with mentors.
High-trust relationships formed as employees flourishin safe spaces.
Leaders identified and developed.
Collaboration solving company-wide challenges.
Avenue for everyone’s voice to be heard.
There’s no doubt about it: ERGs benefit employees by enhancing workplace culture. What’s compelling is that research shows they’re good for business, too.
Benefiting Business by Impacting the Bottom Line
ERGs benefit more than just employees: studies also show they have commercial impact. Salesforce research concluded: “The vast majority of participating businesses found that ERGs support employee retention efforts” and as Funda from our NielsenIQ case study pointed out, “we all know how much it costs to find, hire and keep talent.”
As a company, NielsenIQ provides insights into consumer purchasing trends, and some of their ERGs’ thought leadership pieces have become revenue generating projects. In partnership with a client, their Pride ERG produced an LGBTQ consumer behavior series, a staple thought leadership piece now available for client purchase. Allowing ERGs to lead out on revenue-producing affinity-based projects not only communicates value to underrepresented people groups–it’s good for the bottom line.
Circles partner Chezie resources ERGs, and makes a compelling business case for them. They’ve found that not only do they improve retention and recruiting, they also increase productivity. “More productivity means having a sales team that surpasses its quota or an engineering team that fixes bugs at a faster rate.” They say ERGs also promote equitable product development, citing multiple examples including a company that worked with its Disabilities ERG to make its smart speaker device accessible to those who are deaf or have speech impediments. ERGs are good for business.
Virtual Best Practices
An added complexity today is connecting hybrid and remote workers in ERGs. Camila Ramos Vilchese had a long history of DEI work under her belt before working at Lloyd’s Register, but the recent shift to virtual work left her searching for new ways to connect the Gender Equality Network ERG she sponsors. She launched Safe Harbor Circles to connect global ERG participants, and found the sessions to have an amazing impact connecting female employees and their male allies across the globe.
One Safe Harbor Circles participant commented: “I never knew I could reflect like this with someone across the world. It’s so impressive that I am in Japan, and I can discuss shared struggles with someone in the UK.” Virtual ERGs provide a low-cost, accessible way for global ERGs to connect and grow.
Employees have become key company stakeholders, and providing for their well-being contributes to a company’s long-term success. With innovative funding, virtual tools and attention to best practices, ERGs will continue boosting corporate belonging and inclusion efforts.
A bevy of manufacturing companies and executives have joined our Circles community recently. Why? We went to investigate. It turns out that sector has a head start dealing with trends that are now headlines for other sectors: scarcity of skilled hires, managing rapid change, and distributed work.
Connected to Close the Skills Gap
America Works is a manufacturing industry community that bridges the gap between the widening skills gap and labor supply. According to a Deloitte study, the U.S. manufacturing skills gap could reach 2.1 million by 2030.
Consultants in the community work with manufacturing companies to help them build a more capable, skilled, diverse workforce. Executive Director Matt Fieldman focuses on connecting these consultants to each other and to best practices and resources that can help.
One example of a successful program is TechCred, where “The state of Ohio keeps a list of 400 plus credentials through the TechCred program, where the state reimburses manufacturers for training.” He also organizes FireWorks, an annual conference gathering America Works consultants together. Recently, Matt partnered with Circles to connect Leadership Works participants in peer circles between conferences. “Circles sessions are not tactical; it’s a support network aimed at focusing more on personal challenges. They tend to form deep relationships right off the bat.”
Leadership Works Circles participants shared that they had previously “struggled to meet industry colleagues” and that the sessions provide “a new opportunity to meet with my peers and exchange concerns, ideas and solutions.” Matt’s takeaway is that rapid change and automation only increases the need for connection. “Human connection still matters, and manufacturing professionals need to connect with each other now more than ever.”
Connected During Rapid Change
Automation, offshoring and then supply chain disruptions and a rush back to domestic manufacturing have made rapid change the new normal for many manufacturers. Manoeuvring through constant transition requires skilled leaders at every level. A small team of divisional leaders sparked a grassroots movement to address this at Dupont. They worked with Circl.es to create a custom program titled, “Navigating Change Together.” Individuals invited other team members across regions & functions to process in virtual small groups and journey through three new curated, facilitated, 90-minute sessions.
Participants shared personal motivations for joining:
“It’s been difficult to cope with the constant change in DuPont the last five years.”
“It’s more important than ever that we respectfully communicate, trust and support each other.”
The facilitated NCT discussions forged stronger connections and helped DuPonters harvest their collective strength, build trust and belonging, and find ways to help each other thrive. By connecting on a deeper level, the program acted as a lifeline and buoyed them through the organizational changes.
Building Leaders at Every Level
Most U.S. manufacturing companies are small, family-owned businesses of less than 500 employees, and Pennsylvania’s Electri-cord is one of them. Owner Mitch Samuels has always believed that “learning and leadership are indispensable to one another” and has lived through Young Presidents’ Organization’s (YPO) small group Forum for years. Mitch shares that “Forum has changed my life in so many ways, through networking and peer connection.” His positive Forum experience over many decades prompted him to recently nominate his sons for Key Associates Forum, a program that YPO launched with Circl.es earlier this year. Now, his two sons Jason and Ryan, heads of Business Development and Sales and Marketing, rely on peer connections in Forum powered by Circles to develop the leadership skills they need to handle rapid changes. Jason recalls, “When I was young I remember thinking that my dad’s Forums were just another business meeting. Now I understand firsthand how important it really is.”
Ryan describes Circles as a unique experience that lends itself to forum and open conversation, through a combination of facilitator, platform and program. “KA Forum sessions are two hours long, and I always leave feeling like there was more that we could have said.” Both Jason and Ryan have noticed an impact in the way they think about and lead their respective divisions at work, and consider it an investment in their family business and the manufacturing industry for generations to come.
At the other end of the size scale, Stryker, one of the most respected names in manufacturing, came to a similar conclusion. They partnered with Harvard Business School, (HBS) to support their rising leaders. Like YPO, HBS also partnered with Circl.es to develop the small-group, cohort-based aspect of their development program.
Connected Across Distributed Teams
Paula Tewksbury has worked in manufacturing for 30 years and knows the value of maintaining connections across distributed peer teams. “Change is always happening, and plant managers never get to connect and network with peers, so our middle managers often don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of. I immediately saw how Circles promotes employee engagement.”
Paula participated in a circle, then became a facilitator, and finally helped design sessions for employees. She had previously tried other learning & development tools and training, and noticed Circles was different because it allows leaders to grow and develop in facilitation skills, an area Paula has personally participated in for decades. “By design, Circles helps individuals grow in facilitation, while connecting them to other leaders across silos.” She feels connection in circles will upskill manufacturing employees in strategic ways that will buoy them through rapid industry change.
One reason we’re writing this article is to draw attention to the small group approach as a way for other manufacturers to address their workforce challenges. However, in a world where other sectors face automation, distributed work, and rapid change, this approach is universally applicable. Plants and office buildings may be increasingly “lights out” but humans are required more than ever, and humans are at their best in small groups.
In addition to industry hurdles like automation, the skills gap and upskilling, the real challenge is the disconnection manufacturing employees face at all levels. Whether it’s executives, consultants, plant leaders or manufacturing professionals, the entire industry benefits from human connection in Circles.
Dumebi and Toby Egbuna were two and four years old when their family immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria. After their parents obtained a green card through a one-in-a-million chance lottery, the Egbuna siblings grew up in a small town outside Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
As adults, their identity as black, first generation immigrants shapes how they engage and experience the workplace.
When Toby used to apply for jobs, he would first investigate what it was like to be black in that specific company, searching his online network to see if other black people worked there. Likewise, Dumebi knows that working in corporate America often means being one of the only black people in the room. “I’m a woman, I’m a Nigerian, I’m black, I am an immigrant. There are so many identities that pertain to who I am, and they all affect how I show up in a space.”
Their identities and experiences prompted the Egbuna siblings to co-found Chezie, a diversity, equity, and inclusion company that helps people find belonging in the workplace. “We started Chezie because, as first-gen Nigerian immigrants, we know how important it is to feel like you belong where you work.” Chezie soon spotted the strategic potential of employee resource groups (ERGs), and focused on helping companies become more inclusive by providing an ERG management platform. Toby and Dumbei also host an online community of 700 ERG leaders who collaborate on events and ideas, share best practices, and access valuable resources. To create inclusive spaces for the community’s monthly small group connections, Chezie began developing a partnership with Circles early this year.
Creating ERG Community in Circles
Creating a community for ERG leaders is important to Dumebi, “because ERG work is hard.” When they turned to Circles to host a Black History Month round table in February, 25 black ERG leaders joined the Heritage Month Circle. Dumebi designed the session agenda with a specific vision: “We see companies putting a lot of emphasis on black voices in February, but not year round, so I wanted it to be a space where people could share not only what they’re doing for black history month, but also how they’re holding their organizations accountable the rest of the year. I think that’s where progress is made: not in one moment, but 365 days a year.”
Participants came away praising the Circles experience, scoring it 9.7 out of 10. Dumebi likes how Circles delivers an authentic conversation in a smaller setting. “People were able to share things I’m not sure they would feel comfortable sharing in an open slack of 700 people. Ultimately, it’s a safer extension of that community.” Participants remarked on the intimacy of the session, provided by breakout rooms and other unique platform features. Dumebi feels that Circles promotes belonging, because people are able to show up as their full self and be celebrated for that. “Circles’ unique design provides a space for people to share their voice and be celebrated for their inputs to a conversation.”
The Chezie team plans to host monthly ERG round tables in Circles, allowing leaders across organizations to collaborate and lean on each other. “I can’t even tell you how many people come to us, asking to be connected to other ERG leaders so they can learn from others. So many ERG leaders are passionate about their work but new to their roles, and I think that sense of community and connection to others doing the same work will be beneficial. “I think Circles is going to help bring our community of 6000-7000 ERG leaders together in a smaller space.”
Looking to the Future
As they continue building their product, Toby and Dumebi meet with DEI managers and ERG leaders, staying abreast of what they’re struggling with. Dumebi wants them to know that they’re not doing this work alone. “I’m here to schedule time to talk, and brainstorm about ERGs and resources.” Chezie plans to roll out new features later this year, including a content database providing access to speakers, webinar replays, and event and communication templates.
Toby knows Chezie’s work providing belonging in the workplace is just beginning. “As the world shifts, and more people who don’t fit the white male standard enter the workforce, it’s going to be increasingly important to make sure people belong in the workplace.”
“That’s why we created Chezie, to help people find belonging in the workplace. We’re going to be the duo that solves the problem.”
In 1760, Londoner Edward Lloyd unknowingly founded an organization that would last more than 260 years. At the time, ships were the world’s only reliable transportation option, and Lloyd created a register to record vessel quality for merchants and underwriters.
Today, Lloyd’s Register Group and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation work together to ensure a safe, sustainable, thriving ocean economy, driven by their mission to work together for a safer world.
Their vision for global safety is also reflected internally at Lloyd’s Register (LR), through initiatives from the diversity and inclusion team. While the homogenous white male maritime industry of the late 18th century has evolved, Lloyd’s Register continues to pursue gender equality for their globally dispersed workforce consisting of 70% men and 30% women.
Through a partnership with Circles, LR recently created and implemented Safe Harbor Circles to help bridge the gender gap. By providing psychologically safe spaces for colleagues to connect, share stories, and grow, the sessions have encouraged gender equality innovation and strengthened their global Gender Equality Network.
The Rising Tide of Gender Equality
The Gender Equality Network (GEN) is one of four LR Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). GEN consists of women and their male allies, and efforts include everything from ensuring women have properly fitting PPE equipment designed for them, to access to basic facilities, such as restrooms and changing rooms onboard ships and in shipyards. The choice to mix genders in the ERG was intentional, stemming from the belief that gender equality isn’t merely a women’s issue. LR’s Diversity and Inclusion manager and supporter of GEN Camila Ramos Vilches explains: “Gender stereotypes affect men as well as women, and everyone’s wellbeing matters to us. We can’t do it alone.”
Ginger Garte stepped in to co-lead the GEN ERG in 2021. After working for years onboard ships, ensuring maritime health & safety as a NOAA officer and then transferring this experience to cruise ships, she’s spent the last twelve years as Lloyd’s Environmental & Sustainability Director for the Americas. The safety she brought to the environment during the first decades of her career lends itself to creating safe spaces for gender equality advocacy through GEN. “Women make up only 1.25% of seafaring roles, which is why co-leading GEN is some of the most important work of my career.”
When LR created a Diversity and Inclusion Team in October 2021, the team was tasked with rejuvenating LR’s Colleagues’ Networks. Initially, that meant supporting three ERGs: GEN (formerly women and allies), ethnically diverse colleagues, and LGBTIQ+ Community and allies. It was while partnering with GEN that Camila realized the challenge of virtually connecting LR’s global community. When Circles Community Growth Manager Jami York reached out to invite Cami to a Women in Leadership circle, Cami attended and was fascinated by the experience. Intrigued by the platform’s inclusive design, she invited Ginger to experience a Circle too.
What resulted was a partnership between GEN and Circles, to co-create the tailored Safe Harbor Circles experience.
Safer Seas and Psychologically Safe Circles
The Safe Harbor Circles initiative creates psychologically safe spaces reflecting LR’s value of safety for the oceans and the world. Participants engage questions like “If you could change one thing about our organization to make it more inclusive, what would you choose?” The design team organically develops each session along the way, tailored to what’s happening in the organization. Cami shared: “I can never tell what topic will come up as a result of these sessions–I’m always surprised!”
In an effort to develop their own in-house facilitative leaders, Cami asked LR’s employees to volunteer to lead the Safe Harbor Circles. Many facilitators remarked on how deep the conversations were after even two sessions. Cami watched them grow from unsure in their facilitation skills to empowered guides, reflecting: “We now have a group of people that feel comfortable facilitating conversations and creating safe spaces.”
Cami also noticed how the Circles platform supported her team of developing facilitators along the way. The room features are intuitive and intentionally designed to empower even the novice facilitator, and Circles provides an orientation & resources to equip the LR volunteers. Cami came away convinced that the platform design made all the difference. “I don’t know if I would feel comfortable with this team facilitating on another platform. Clearly other platforms are way more daunting than this one–Circles makes it easy.”
Safe Harbor Stories
Safe Harbor reached people who don’t always feel comfortable sharing in other spaces, and they often reported feeling less lonely. For example: two female naval architects who had both been with LR for over ten years never crossed paths until they met in a Safe Harbor Circle. One reflected, “It would have been so helpful to know each other when we were starting our careers at LR.”
One story that stood out to Ginger involved a session where only one woman was able to attend. The facilitator proceeded with the agenda anyway; as a result of that session, that participant brainstormed an idea to give every LR woman the opportunity to visit onboard a ship. As Cami summarized it: “Circles gave her the space to voice what she thought would help her colleagues that have never stepped into a shipyard. Sometimes the measure of success isn’t the number of people in a circle, but the impact of the session on the attendees, no matter how small.”
Another participant appreciated Safe Harbor Circles as a space to reflect on her own leadership style and recognize commonalities with global colleagues. “I have never thought about some of these topics before, and never knew I could reflect like this with someone across the world. It’s so impressive that I am in Japan, and I can discuss shared struggles with someone in the UK.” The sessions raised her awareness of global gender gap realities while providing a community with a shared sense of purpose.
Participants are halfway through Safe Harbor Circles, and Cami sees the pilot as just the beginning. She has the patience you’d expect from someone with years of experience pioneering diversity and inclusion efforts. As LR is finding new ways of working in a global structure to respond better to their clients, Cami’s sense is that Safe Harbor Circles will be a part of the solution going forward. “For me, it’s a pilot, bringing a sense of community into our organization for the moment we’re going through. Though this initiative is a humble beginning, I’m a friend of the idea that small is beautiful.”
As women’s history month comes to a close, we’re proud to announce our collaboration with The Lauder Institute Alumni Association. In April, over 100 women from around the world will connect for the inaugural session of the Lauder Meridians pilot. Groups will meet regularly for the remainder of 2023 to connect with like-minded-Lauder Women.
We are on the lookout for organizations to pilot the Circl.es Women Leaders Program, inspired by this groundbreaking collaboration with Lauder Alumni. Connect with email@example.com, Head of Community Growth, to learn more about this opportunity.
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.