Companies Need Community: Three Things I got Wrong About Culture is a radically distributed workplace: Brooklyn, Buenos Aires, Saratoga Springs, Portland, Barcelona, London, Auckland, Canberra. Since we’ve grown these last two years, I’ve gone from knowing everyone to not having met most of our team, which can make establishing culture tricky. As a company builder, culture has always been a big deal to me; and, selfishly, important to get right so I can be happy at work. Today I’m seeing flaws in my old ideas about company culture, and also noticing one big missing piece: community.

There’s a ton of proof that culture-forward companies outperform others in sales growth, profitability and stock price. I’ve written a lot about culture, and it’s always helpful to start with a definition. I like Greg Besner’s book, Culture Quotient, in which he lays out ten components of culture. He also talks about Schein’s model, a diagram where cultural artifacts are visible above the surface and beliefs, values, and assumptions appear below the surface. Both help me assess and work on culture, for sure.

But the parts don’t quite add up to the whole. Besner even gives himself a “catch-all category” after describing Schein’s model, adding that “employee engagement is a big part of the answer.” As I reflect back on our award-winning culture at M5 Networks where I used to lead–and what is happening now in and the companies we work with–there’s something that transcends the ten components on this list, something I think was missing from the way I understood and worked with culture. Working without offices has laid this bare.

I have been trying to pin it down. Here’s a few things that have led to my conclusion that companies need community:

1. Culture isn’t merely top-down.
When I led M5, we constantly talked about “alignment.” We repeated our mission and core values in all-hands company meetings, until we were blue. We built company-wide programs to reinforce and work on culture. But as we grew, there was an undertow–a truth that constantly eroded our progress: True culture developed in pockets. The warren of engineers on seven lived a different reality than the sales team on the open floor on five. The team leaders (and certain other leaders on the team) had a much bigger influence–intentional or not–than anything I ever did as CEO. Real culture, it turns out, is circle by circle, team by team–it doesn’t flow down the neat lines of an org chart. Culture guru Stan Slap captures this feeling in the title of his book, Bury My Heart at Conference Room B. A leader’s job in setting culture is to create space for communities to form and flourish, then stay connected to them.

I learned the importance of staying connected while spending time with one of my favorite business thinkers, Pat Lencioni, at his first live conference just before the pandemic. One big takeaway was his simple advice that leaders actively care for their employees; that they ask and care about people’s families and life outside of work. I found this explained in his book The Truth About Employee Engagement: A Fable About Addressing the Three Root Causes of Job Misery, which talks about the power of managers taking a genuine interest in people’s lives, to avoid the damage to engagement caused by the feeling of “anonymity.” 

2. Culture isn’t just about getting work done.
The last two years have exposed this like dirty laundry behind us in a Zoom square. Despite HR’s best efforts to keep things simple and safe, avoidance of personal topics – like politics and health – can build up pressure until they explode (like at Basecamp last year, when a third of the company walked out). I’m not suggesting obliterating privacy, and we all need separation; in fact, this Forbes article asserts that bringing one’s whole self to work is a fad for millennial employees, and Fast Company warns that it’s a trend not accessible to many, warning that “not everyone has access to meaningful and engaging careers.”

“With executive support and enough individuals to engage, peer learning can contribute more than any other force I have seen to building connection and a vibrant, trust-rich community within an organization”

But a recent HBR article entitled “11 trends that will shape work in 2022 and beyond” describes it less as a trend and more as the changing face of the future workplace. One of the trends they list is the rise of the Chief Purpose Officer, because “Issues of politics, culture, and social debate have fully entered the workplace. Employees have been asked to bring their whole self to work as organizations try to create a more and more inclusive and productive work environment. This is fundamentally different than a decade ago when employees were expected to leave their personal perspectives at the door.” One of our longtime partners David Pachter of JumpCrew recently wrote an excellent book called Remote Leadership, where he lays out what he calls the three pillars of great remote organizations–and one of them is peer learning. He claims that “Peer learning is transformative. With executive support and enough individuals to engage, peer learning can contribute more than any other force I have seen to building connection and a vibrant, trust-rich community within an organization.

3. Culture doesn’t form inside routine meetings.
What truly forms culture are the extracurriculars: training and training trips, employee resource groups, drinks out, conferences etc., which are difficult to replicate in our new virtual reality. Just like parents have struggled with the recent loss of their children’s sports and music classes, organizational culture-builders are feeling the effects of these disrupted practices (and the fact that even Zoom trivia-night doesn’t suffice). A recent HR Executive article lists the top three signs 2022 remote culture isn’t working as low meeting engagement, siloed departments and poor employee communication. Psychology Today claims that “virtual communication will never replace face-to-face communication.” But here comes the crisitunity: the silver lining is our chance to reinvent these important connection practices, intentionally, with more impact, equity and inclusiveness. The same Psychology Today article predicts that in 2022, organizations will “invest in technology that allows virtual or hybrid employees to get to know each other better,” exactly what we’re working on with our partners. 

Communities are like concentric circles, with highly engaged people at the heart working on them full-time, and more peripheral members at the edges, involved as they want to be

In summary: Culture isn’t merely top-down driven and involved with getting work done; it’s actually found in the margins, in the communities that form. The best of these communities are organic and fluid; their borders are porous, so it’s easier to think about including part-timers, vendors, customers, even former employees. Communities are like concentric circles, with highly engaged people at the heart working on them full-time, and more peripheral members at the edges, involved as they want to be. They are held together by shared beliefs and human connection, not paychecks and reporting lines. We inherently recognize that communities are tied to our identities, and we feel the gravity of other humans holding us to community standards, ideals, and behaviors. 

There are different kinds of communities, and I am most interested in what I call a “learning community” because I see a knowledge-economy company as a learning machine; as leaders grapple with the shortcomings of their cultures and look for ways to build a community layer, “learning communities” provide a useful framework. 

Lots of people are working on this type of community building: shout out to for their powerful research on learning communities in companies. I recently had the privilege of discussing this with new Connected Commons hire Greg Pryor, on a shiny beach morning in LaJolla, CA; it was his last day at Workday, and he was on his way to join Rob Cross at Connected Commons. After years of being in the heart of cutting-edge HR practices, Greg has concluded that learning communities are the most important and impactful area of work for his next chapter. Michael Arena, also at Connected Commons, wrote a great book, Adaptive Space, which is full of stories and data about the power of “social capital strategies.”

This need to change workplace culture through community building is fueling our growth at Circles, with partners like Glassdoor calling us their “work from home strategy.” Our shared vision with Glassdoor is to use the Circles platform and methodology to help reinforce and scale valued aspects of their culture, like inclusion, teamwork, resilience, and human connection. To highlight another of our partners: Dupont’s M&M division recently scaled up their Circles program, to strengthen their community in the face of the major changes 2022 will bring.

Our ongoing work with partners gives me new insights every day into the cultural power of learning communities. Much of our work now is figuring out exactly what it means to build these communities at work. What’s clear is that community has an important place in the culture conversation, and getting it right has all the same commercial benefits that come from other aspects of organizational health.

Interested to connect and talk more?

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Show Up, and Open Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Lucy, Head of Learning Experience, Joined Circles (And Why She’s Leaving)

Lucy joined Circles looking for something a little different. (And she found it.) Now she’s leaving, but we’ll get into that part later.

Sometimes I interview people and think, “Man, I need to get a podcast going or something, because the passion behind this person’s voice is incredible.”

And I want people to hear that. And that doesn’t always happen, but it definitely happened on the phone with Lucy. I’m hoping that’ll shine through in this interview—because, trust me, when Lucy talks, you can feel it. You don’t just hear her answers, you feel them.

So let’s get into the fiercely passionate woman behind the learning experience at Circles who’s a sucker for mindful living and secretly hates warm avocados. (Weird, right? She gives us a peek into her favorites and not-so-favorites at the end of the interview.)

But before we get into that, in case you’re just joining us at the Circles blog…

What Exactly Is Circles? A Crash Course

Simply put, a Circle is a peer group focused on a common goal.

And it really is that simple. It’s all about inspiring human connection and using technology to do it. So if you’re looking for accountability partners and like-minded peers to group up with and tackle life’s biggest challenges with, you’re in the right place.

Want to join a group of like-minded entrepreneurs who face the same struggles you do? There’s a circle for that.

Want to get better at practicing mindfulness while you’re at your job? There’s a circle for that, too.

Want to start up a crazy cool company about learning, at the center of which lies your unshakeable philosophy on peer growth and human connection? There’s a circle for that. It’s called the Circles team, and Lucy’s been a key part of it.

Introducing Lucy Richards

The gal. The myth. The Circles legend. Let’s hear it for the leading lady herself.

Who Are You, Lucy?

So first, where are you based?

New York City, but I’m from Melbourne, Australia.

What is your role at Circles?

Part of Circles is that we’re building it on a Teal model, which is taken from the book Reinventing Organizations. [MP: Here’s where you can learn more about

But it’s part of a whole broader movement and as part of that we don’t really have titles, as such. But, for the sake of LinkedIn, I’ve called myself Head of Learning Experience. But no one approved that and no one needed to approve that and I do other things beyond that.

There’s lots of big companies that are adopting elements of [the Teal model]. Companies like Patagonia, Southwest Airlines, and Ben & Jerry’s are starting to implement this model.

What exactly do you do at Circles?

I work with Dan, the founder, to support him and his vision to create an amazing scalable experience whenever learners connect to the meeting room. It’s an experience that really enables connection.

The way that I phrase it is that it’s using technology to increase human consciousness. And my role is to use technology to increase human experiences.

We’ve sort of identified the three key skills to increasing connection and consciousness in the world: having a growth mindset, feeling comfortable with being vulnerable, and storytelling.

So that’s my spin on it: Circles is a whole company about increasing human consciousness. From a corporate sense people would be like, “What are you talking about?” But that’s the vision that drives me and that Dan and I talk about in our back room chats. I’m just fascinated with how can technology enable human connection at scale.

What are your day-to-day tasks?

It’s quite varied, but recently I’ve been involved in building up the meeting experience. So thinking what does that feel like? and then putting processes behind that so it can then be used to train guides.

The other part of my role has been actually guiding circles [groups], so experiencing it for myself. And the other part of it is setting up Circles, so welcoming learners, getting them used to the platform, explaining what Circles is, and then I hand over a group of learners to the guides.

Why’d You Join, Lucy?

What drew you to Circles and what made you decide to join the team?

Definitely Dan was a huge part of that. He’s an amazing leader. It sounds kind of weird, but you kind of fall in love with Dan a little bit. I think a lot of people who know him would say, “Oh, yeah, I really love him.”

He’s got this amazing sort of soft leadership, but also very strong leadership at the same time. As part of that, he’s also very open and he’ll always listen, he’ll always want you to speak first, and that’s pretty amazing and encouraging.

And the other part of it is just the overall vision to connect people or to create experiences for people where they feel connected with themselves and others.

What were you looking for, professionally, before you found Circles—and did you find it at Circles?

That’s a great question. Professionally I was looking for some way to learn. I wanted to learn a whole lot of stuff and to have a strong leader lead that learning and to mentor me. And I absolutely found both.

It was awesome because Circles is about learning and I wanted to learn, so I’ve learned and I’ve learned about learning. And Dan has been amazing. And I would also give a shout to Sooz, who’s on the team, because she’s been curating a whole lot of information and articles and stuff. So it’s just like this constant flow of information that you can click through and learn from and it’s all relevant.

How have you evolved over the last year at Circles?

I mean, a lot. I think my biggest takeaway from it—which is so funny, because I’m now speaking in Circles [language], because we do takeaways at the end of each meeting—is about storytelling as opposed to giving advice, and especially in a peer setting how that can really open up the ability to build a relationship and build rapport with someone.

Should We All Join, Too, Lucy?

So what’s the big “why” of Circles—the big, passionate purpose behind it all?

This is my version of the answer, others would say differently—but the why isn’t very sexy. Talking about advancing human consciousness and creating connection is not really sexy in a corporate world.

But one thing that Dan said to me that really stuck out to me—and I think his why is—that it’s about creating learners, and building learners—and that an organization will only grow as fast as its people can.

So if you can, through the Circles experience, shape people so they have a sort of mindset and skills and their resilience to be able to go out into the world, they’re going to be better in the workplace. They’ll have the skills to grow and learn and teach and share—whether that’s in the workplace or with their family and friends.

What value have you witnessed in the circles you’ve led?

The most common takeaway, or common few takeaways, are, “Wow, it’s so nice to realize everyone has the same challenges as I do.” And, “Oh, this is so nice to have people to talk about this stuff.”

A tangible example of that is we had a group that came in and they started doing what is called the Wim Hof method. [MP: Learn more about the

They did that over 12 weeks and then they say, “Okay, what are we going to explore next as a group?” And they decided on mindfulness. Halfway through mindfulness someone in the group said, “I really appreciate all of this, and I’m going to keep going with mindfulness, but I also want to use the group to help me with a big other goal I have which is to get my physical therapy license.”

And it was this turning point of, “Wow, this group of people who were complete strangers have now become friends. And peers—a real support to each other.” And she said, “I’m going to use you to hold me accountable to achieving this goal, which is really big and scary and I’m not going to tell anyone else apart from my partner about this.”

Can anyone benefit from a circle?

We had one learner who was part of a group for entrepreneurs that are less fortunate and she didn’t have a camera on her computer. So she unfortunately couldn’t participate. So, hurdles aside like access hurdles and monetary hurdles – yes, anyone can participate.

Don’t Leave Us, Lucy!

What’s motivating you to leave Circles?

It’s related to the Circles broader vision and my vision for Circles. My mission is to create human connection at scale—increase human consciousness at scale—and I’ve only ever worked in small organizations. So I’ve never worked somewhere big and corporate. And I feel like, “How do I actually know what scale is if I’ve never been in it?”

So I want to go into a big organization to learn all of its slow, annoying processes and how frustrating it can be—but also the good parts of it. So I can then take what I want from that and be able to apply it to another setting.

What changes would you like to see at Circles in the next few years (even if it’s from afar)?

I think just continuing to grow, really. Keep involving the technology in the meeting experience and finding ways to do it at scale.

Do you plan on going back in the future?

I see it as an option, yes! It’s in the back of my mind, absolutely.

Let’s Get Personal: Fast Facts

Because do you ever really know someone until you know the random little things like what food makes them cringe and what their favorite book is?!

What’s one food you can’t stand?

Warm avocado! [MP: It took her a nanosecond to come up with this answer. She had this one READY.] I love normal avocado, like on toast or whatever. But if you put it on a pizza or in like a grilled sandwich, it just becomes a whole other food and it’s so disgusting.

What’s your favorite book?

One of my favorite books of all time is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

What’s your favorite marketing buzzword?

I talk a lot about building an emotional connection with the brand. That’s like my buzzword.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

Lots! I’ve already written them down. I want structure, I want to cook on Sundays, and I want to go to Charleston.

I had a friend of mine decide it was going to be the Year of the Human Being. [MP: If you’re looking for my favorite part of our whole interview, you’ve found it.]

Farewell to Lucy, Hello to The Year of the Human Being

Can you tell it was an absolute joy to get Lucy on the phone and pick her brain? She generously gave me over 45 minutes of her time, so while we had to cut down some of our interview to fit nicely into this blog post—and although she’s left Circles —don’t worry – you’ll get to hear more from her as we continue to dig deep into the team behind Circles.

Interested in signing up for a circle? (Why wouldn’t you be, honestly? I know I am.) Leave a comment below or