Is Your New Year Powered by a Learning Community?

Every January, humans make (and sometimes break) New Year’s resolutions. Much has been written on how to master the process, everything from discerning and focusing on your why, to turning when into actionable calendar items. Results vary as we engage the hard work of change in our personal and professional lives. At, our work focuses on an overlooked but powerful dimension of change, one that might not emerge as readily when making resolutions: the who. How does one’s community augment not only personal growth á la annual resolutions, but also noticeable change in the workplace?

Our clients have experienced the transformation that happens when employees connect and grow together in small groups. Head of Platform at Union Square Ventures, Lauren Young, knows there’s no curriculum robust enough to keep up with the challenges facing executives in USV’s fast-growing portfolio: it’s not necessarily what those leaders need, but who–they need community with each other. As she puts it, “Leaders working at rapidly growing companies are constantly facing challenges that require a quick decision or response. One way we try to support leaders within our portfolio is by connecting them with peers who either have gone through that experience, or can provide a safe space to discuss and brainstorm ways to approach it.”

“Great leaders don’t move people around a board like pawns;
they cultivate conditions for growth”

Lauren practices what General Stan McChrystal refers to as the difference between  “gardening” and “playing chess.” Great leaders don’t move people around a board like pawns; they cultivate conditions for growth. In his video The Leader as Gardener, McChrystal expands the metaphor: “A gardener grows nothing, plants do that–that’s what plants are designed to do, and they’re really good at it. But the gardener’s role is not unimportant…all the things the gardener does to create an environment and ecosystem allows the plants to do what they do, and do it very, very well.” Like plants, humans naturally circle and grow together, provided leaders present the right conditions.

When the pandemic deprived leaders of offices, campuses, and hotel event spaces, it forced intentionality and creativity as they grappled with how to create garden-like spaces where employees can gather and flourish. Priya Parker, in her book The Art of Gathering, discusses the sin of being a “chill” host at a party, “Chill is a miserable attitude when it comes to hosting gatherings … I want to convince you to assume your proper powers as a host.” Thoughtful hosts decide who needs to connect with whom, and with a little forethought, what topics they should discuss. Like a good party host, organizational leaders can use small groups to set the stage for deep connection. Fortuitously, this combats pandemic realities like disconnection, disengagement and loneliness.

“Like a good party host, organizational leaders can use small groups to set the stage for deep connection.”

Leaders increasingly look for learning groups for themselves, many joining professional cross-company learning communities that connect them with others working on similar projects. Despite limited ability to gather in-person, our clients like YPO and Executive Networks reported record growth and renewals this year. New communities like Atlas One for sales professionals and Round for technology leaders emerged. Ryan Fuller, CEO of Round, says that “A vetted community rich with perspective and grounded in shared values provides unparalleled access to knowledge and opportunities from fellow members dedicated to helping each other.”  Degreed upskilling platform has documented this shift from internal connection to connecting professionally between organizations–their data revealed that 62% of executives sought to learn from professional networks in 2019, and we believe the pandemic has accelerated this trend.

This movement is consistent with an approach known as communities of practice, a term Ettiene Wenger-Traynor coined while studying the ancient system of apprenticeship. His studies informed him that many have long misunderstood the role of an apprentice’s master: traditionally, apprentices actually spent very little one-on-one time with masters–like the plants in McChrystal’s garden, apprentices mostly learned from each other. As we heard him say in a recent workshop: “finding the knowledge we need to solve today’s problems starts with coming together in uncertainty and figuring it out. We even saw university presidents form peer groups to figure out Covid.” 

Those of us who have taken a class from an expert or read a book alone have experienced the absence of such a community; we emerge swamped with expertise, yet starved for the practice and peer support that produces true change. Many leaders we work with also describe falling into another trap: while they may successfully group employees or community members together through directories, social media groups, and email newsletters, the results have been lackluster. As pointed out by Gina Bianchini–founder of the community management platform Mighty Networks–these large, flat groups are truly social media–that is, one-way communication that most of us passively consume, making it the junk food of human connection. Actual conversation and connection are vital to transformational small group communities.

“Actual conversation and connection are vital to transformational small group communities.”

In contrast, our partners are proving that small groups, like circles, elevate a community into a learning community, facilitating authentic connections and enabling social learning. The recipe is clear: gather a diverse cross-section of people with a common purpose.  Foster a safe place. Watch as the power of peer connection pressures action, and taps into another great need–the desire to serve something beyond themselves. At this point, the community benefits just as much as the individual, as shared trust and vision compels greater job longevity and performance.  

As February nears and we distill our lists of resolutions–some fade, and the right ones will inevitably rise to the top and stick–consider adding to your list of resolutions something that focuses not on why or how, but on who. Will we actively host our parties, tending the gardens of our companies and communities? We can not only improve the chances of seeing our own resolutions through; we can help create spaces and learning communities where others can thrive and become their fullest selves. 

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Leader as coach with Dan Hoffman

Coaching Perspectives

Sue Stockdale talks to Dan Hoffman, CEO & Founder of They discuss different ways that leaders can empower and coach their people and the benefits of using this type of approach.

Case Study: Cementing Leadership Development through Peer Learning

A world-leading food processing and packaging company runs an annual leadership development program for high-potential employees. The four-month international program aims to address individual leadership challenges to help participants transition into executive roles within five years.

After three iterations of the program, the company decided to try a complementary approach; one that would continue to keep participants engaged after the program, encourage ongoing networking with their peers and inspire them to continue the sessions themselves after the four month program. After some analysis, it became clear that peer learning circles might meet these objectives.

The goals of the circles were:

  • Engagement
    ​ – increase engagement beyond the leadership development program.
  • Relationships
    ​ – sustain meaningful relationships with peers for improved team performance.
  • Self-direction
    ​ – encourage self-directed sessions for continued learning and support.

With the peer learning circles, participants were encouraged to share both organizational ​and​ personal challenges – adding a new depth to the sessions. Building upon existing trust between the participants formed during the initial program, these sessions created a safe space for open and honest discussion, gently addressing specific challenges, and strengthening the team as a whole.

As a result, not only did participants deepen connections with their peers and build a trusted support system, they also understood the power of peer circles and committed to continuing the process beyond the program.

Download the complete case study

You Can Doubt My Opinions, But Not My Experience

I used to love riding along with my wife Kathryn years ago on Saturdays from our tiny apartment on the East Side of Manhattan to her Pilates studio in Connecticut. Saturdays were the busiest days, and I enjoyed sitting at the front desk while she taught client after client, sometimes ten in a row.  She’s better at what she does than anyone I know is at what they do. And, y’know, cause I love her and everything, I was proud to hear her instruction in the next room while I supported her however I could.

There was a part of these trips that I dreaded, though. It was the almost inevitable response she’d get whenever she shared her plans for the business, for our then-new marriage, or, basically anything about herself.  “You know what you should do?…”, her clients would begin, followed by a litany of unsolicited advice.

Now, don’t get me wrong – these are sweet people.  Supportive, kind, generous people who have been key figures in our lives, not to mention they made it possible for us to pay our rent.

Inevitably, though, I would drive home a bit deflated. Feeling like my sweet wife just got turned into a 12-year old in front of my eyes.

Fielding their well-meaning questions opened her up to inspection, comparison with choices they’d made themselves, and – of course – advice.

She navigates this much better than I do (I told you, she’s good at things).  But I’ve seen the light in someone’s eyes dim the minute being vulnerable leads to a lecture.

The thing is – we all have a story.  And, if you haven’t noticed, we each love telling our story.  What’s just as human is to want to know that we’re ok, that the choices we’ve made aren’t wrong.  One of the wounds of giving advice is that it sends the message that what you chose is wrong, and that my way is the right way.  This is what “should” means.  This wounding starts from the moment the conversation goes from listening to telling. From being with someone to teaching. The focus goes from the one sharing their challenge to the one who, apparently, has all the answers.

In that moment, a lot of potential is lost.  The possibility of a deeper connection is gone – at least for that exchange. Nothing kills the will to open up like the unspoken message that what you wanted to share isn’t the focus anymore.

Underneath that, the cut goes even deeper: we make choices based on beliefs, and when we get advice, it sends the message that our beliefs are wrong. For my wife, exposing herself to advice each day made her feel she was doing everything wrong, that she was not enough. And, still, she had to smile.

In a recent podcast interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett, one of Tim Ferriss’s big messages was that “You can doubt my opinions, but not my experience.” Advice-giving creates an unnecessary set of assumptions; our views are rarely identical to those of the person handing us the advice. In contrast, experience is data-driven, first-person sharing, without the need for others to make the same choice you have.

How different Kathryn’s experience would have been if she heard stories from experienced entrepreneurs who had gone into these challenges before her, rather than opinion.

We at Circles love stories. Committed to the belief that everyone has something to share, our structure develops the skill of storytelling, reframing your experience from self-doubt for the listener to an opportunity for a shared learning for the circle.

In our circles, we admit – we’re out for a big result.  We’re doing everything we can to make it possible for people to open up – to WANT to open up and go deeper. Why? Because when someone is vulnerable, we’ve seen again and again that the circle rallies to support them.  That’s the tricky thing – the spirit behind giving advice is good: there’s caring. Wanting the best for someone who’s struggling, or who simply doesn’t have to be in the spot they’re in right now.

We’re asking ourselves all the time – what can we do with our agenda-driven meetings to take those instincts and channel them into even deeper sharing, and supportive content? Our norms make that possible. Our learners make it happen.