Union Square Ventures is a New York based venture capital firm that believes the best way to support their portfolio is by helping them learn and connect with each other. In addition to broadening access to content and community, their team has focused on building strong, trusted leadership networks across their portfolio of 115 active companies around the world. Their Network Lead, Lauren Young noted: “our team’s primary focus is to help our companies build better businesses. One way we do this is by increasing the speed of knowledge shared across the network.
“USV as a firm believes that we are not the experts in the room; rather, leveraging and building upon network effects can be one of the most impactful ways to build successful companies.”
USV as a firm believes that we are not the experts in the room; rather, leveraging and building upon the collective knowledge within our ecosystem can be one of the most impactful ways to help our companies build successful businesses.” Because of Lauren and her team’s proximity to the intense realities facing leaders of growing companies, they continually see the need to keep company leaders connected. “Building a company can be very hard, and today, the pace and intensity of growth and problem solving is never-ending. That’s why we seek out new ways to provide a trusted environment for senior leaders, executives, and founders in our portfolio to connect with industry peers.”
In the fall of 2021, as part of their ongoing efforts to connect leaders across companies, USV in partnership with Circl.es customized a version of Circl.es Foundations; a six -session journey of 90-minute sessions facilitated in curated small groups. Lauren explains how it fits a specific need in their broader learning and development curriculum: “Partnering with Circl.es has enabled us to provide a new layer of support: small group peer connectivity. Over the years, we’ve been asked by countless portfolio leaders for access to a space where they can ask questions and connect with others who are facing similar challenges. The foundation of this program was built from their feedback.”
“Partnering with Circl.es has enabled us to provide the exact layer of support we wanted– which was small group peer connectivity.”
Based on participant feedback, they have focused on two sorting criteria: department and seniority level. “Enabling participants to meet leaders who not only have the same functional expertise, but who are also facing similar leadership opportunities, increases the chances for them to develop stronger, more fruitful relationships.” Lauren shared that one of the reasons they’ve partnered with Circles is to enable the executives in their network to really build a personal advisory board that they can turn to when they’re facing a challenge. Participants validated the importance of the peer element, with quotes like “I’m able to get perspectives on real time issues from peers” and “it’s great to have a place where I can be vulnerable with peers.”
Across the board, Circl.es Foundations yielded a fantastic response from USV participants: 100% of respondents would recommend the experience to a colleague. Overall, the feedback overwhelmingly validated the need for peer small groups in order to lead in the current climate. As one participant shared: “Being able to have a deep-dive session on problem-solving, and having it facilitated through a discussion broken up by certain themes, was very useful.” Participant Emily Bunin–Senior Controller at Kickstarter–shared that “transitioning into leadership as a professional can be challenging, and lonely at times. My USV circle provides a safe and supportive environment for me to face my fears, practice vulnerability, and remember that I’m not alone.” At Dwolla, Director of Finance Alicia Eichmeier mentioned that “it’s great to have a place where I can be vulnerable with peers” and Operations VP Jackie Ward said “it pushes me outside my comfort zone.”
“Transitioning into leadership as a professional can be challenging, and lonely at times. My USV circle provides a safe and supportive environment for me to face my fears, practice vulnerability, and remember that I’m not alone.”
Looking ahead, Lauren plans to continue to integrate participant feedback as well as the overall needs of the portfolio into this program. “Understanding our portfolio’s needs is critical to understanding where we, as a firm, can provide the strongest value proposition for them.” She appreciated the emphasis on strong facilitation, leadership-specific content and peer-led development that Circl.es has prioritized in their product and platform. Together, USV and the Circl.es team will add a layer of social learning into the fabric of the USV Network in 2022, forming new Leadership Squads each quarter, and providing peer learning & growth in a scalable format that reaches leaders one circle at a time.
Circl.es 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 Circl.es 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 www.connectedcommons.com 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 Circl.es 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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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 Circl.es, 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.
We’re here to connect with you.
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To realize any major goal, two heads – or three, or four, or eight to ten, connecting authentically in a circle – are better than one. Steven Krein, CEO & Co-founder of StartUp Health, knows this from personal experience. As he and his partner Unity Stoakes built a company to invest in “Health Moonshots” that strive to improve the health and wellbeing of everyone in the world, he has tried to bring this kind of deep, intentional community support to his portfolio of 350 investments in 26 different countries.
When first designing a peer network for StartUp Health, Krein drew upon his personal experience as a young entrepreneur in the Young Presidents Organization (YPO). There, through monthly meetings with fellow entrepreneurs, he learned that even though everyone has their own exciting projects, they don’t have to navigate challenges alone. “The trust and peer support,” Krein says, “and knowing that I’m going to have dedicated hours every month to do that, has been invaluable to me as an entrepreneur.”
So, when StartUp Health started out almost ten years ago, Krein arranged his founders in groups, based on the YPO model, and brought them together to gather face-to-face. But, as their portfolio grew from local to global companies it was no longer feasible to gather entrepreneurs in a physical space. In shifting to a virtual format, Krein tried using “Zoom, and all of its predecessors” hoping to still parallel the YPO magic the community brought to his career. In short, it just wasn’t the same. “We had been connecting eight to ten entrepreneurs at a time,” Krein says, “but we didn’t have a reliable, dependable, intimate way of doing it that really created the trust and consistency that I thought was needed from what I experienced in YPO.”
Then came 2019: A fellow YPO member asked Krein if he had seen Circl.es. “It was instantly the answer for what I was looking to bring to my community,” Krein says. “To be honest with you, I think it’s made all the difference over the past year for our portfolio. Circl.es gets you off Zoom and makes you feel more connected. There’s a warmth to being in Circl.es.”
“I think it’s made all the difference over the past year for our portfolio. Circl.es gets you off Zoom and makes you feel more connected. There’s a warmth to being in Circl.es.”
Besides recreating a feeling that mimics how individuals connect in a physical space – in circles as opposed to “rows of tiles” – Krein and StartUp Health’s entrepreneurs love Circl.es for its design with best practices on how humans best build relationships in mind. Instead of relying on a hierarchical structure for how sessions are typically hosted in traditional meetings or on webinars, everyone is in the circle and no one is the host; they are all equal, as in the simple yet universal symbol of the circle.
“You can tell Dan [Hoffman, the creator of Circl.es,] is intimately focused on the details of a YPO-like experience,” Krein says, “It shows that it’s not just people working on a product – it’s a product that’s had a lot of thought gone into it.”
To make this warm, thoughtful experience possible, Circl.es collaborated closely with StartUp Health to design Health Transformer Circles and a program that tailored the software to their objectives. They worked together to create 14 circles, with an average attendance of 8-10 per circle, including co-moderators. In just four weeks, Circl.es launched the personalized program, laying the foundations for a culture of belonging and engagement with consistent norms and protocols. As a nod to his inspiration, Krein even integrated YPO members to serve as mentors within each circle giving his entrepreneurs an opportunity to collaborate with additional outside perspectives that also understand the power of surrounding a startup founder with the right network.
“It’s an incredibly useful replication of what happens in person”
Krein especially appreciates a few key features. He says it’s helpful that the presenter goes to the middle of the circle with a timer in the upper-righthand corner to guide. He also loves the virtual representations of raising your hand, giving a thumbs up, or even having everybody’s circle crowd into the center for a virtual hug. Details like incorporating music and changing colors, too, provide a sense of progress and closure, while the agenda lets the group know when it’s falling behind. All of these aspects help recreate the closest version to an in-person meeting as possible, while reminding members that they’re in it together. “It’s an incredibly useful replication of what happens in person,” he says.
Of course, Krein couldn’t love Circl.es if his entrepreneurs and staff didn’t see the value. These entrepreneurs say that it offers a fresh and engaging approach to discussing business and personal issues, while helping them build the deep and value-aligned relationships they need in order to solve complex problems and make the world healthier. And for his staff, there’s been an opportunity to engage further with these entrepreneurs as well and become more embedded in their needs, strengthening the overall company focus and culture within the portfolio.
Now, already in year two of the program, Krein realizes that a hierarchical and cold video conferencing software could never work. In addition, when the pandemic hit, StartUp Health had already embraced a virtual format of their program which eliminated the need to pivot quickly to this approach. All he had to do was remember, from his YPO meetings, the essential role that a reliable, dependable and intimate circle of peers plays in innovation and connection. Krein says, “Circl.es is very much one of the monthly rhythms that all of the entrepreneurs get to participate in.” Now, when StartUp Health’s entrepreneurs feel disconnected or stuck, they look forward to their next session on Circl.es as a reminder of collaboration and inspiration.
“Even though creating communities is hard, Circl.es makes it easier.”
Building the best peer network collaboration opportunities for entrepreneurs has been an ongoing quest at StartUp Health and Krein now rejoices in seeing the entrepreneurs in his portfolio connect, make strides towards their goals, and is reminded that even though creating communities is hard, Circl.es makes it easier.
I have worked as an entrepreneur for the past 20 years, doing my part to build out the Internet. During that time, I’ve been comforted by the idea that helping humans connect is good for the planet.
But mass interconnection has drawbacks. Communication bubbles deepen tribal divisions. Mega-companies, like Amazon, are wiping out local brick-and-mortar shops. Misinformation abounds and we’re increasingly aware of our lack of privacy on the Internet. And, ironically, many of us feel more isolated than ever before.
Thanks to the pandemic, the world of virtual communication has seen a building boom. Clubhouse, an app that lets people gather in audio chat rooms, is one of the newest structures on the market; announcements of its arrival exploded onto front pages and Clubhouse received a $1 billion valuation after just a few months of live service.
Companies like Clubhouse show that virtually, we can build big audiences and communities, and even companies, quickly. But are we architecting thoughtfully? As Winston Churchill said in 1943, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Can we imagine a new way to design these virtual spaces so they reinforce the best of our humanity?
Here’s a small example. Jodie McLean, CEO of EDENS, a real estate owner, operator, and developer, was, like so many other CEOs in 2020, grappling with how to help her newly remote workforce avoid the risk of being divided by this isolation. McLean was also aware that this physical isolation was occurring at the same time that the company needed to come together for conversations about systemic racism perhaps more than ever before. The first thing she tried was a large-format webinar for her 200-person staff. But it didn’t generate real conversation or connection.
The next time, she tried a different virtual structure. Staff were placed in small rooms of ten, faces arranged in a circle. They met for two 90-minute sessions. They had some quiet time to reflect, and then timers and an agenda guided their conversation. They talked about their identities at work and how the issues roiling our country show up in the physical communities EDENS constructs for customers. Staff were apprehensive at first, used to sitting back with cameras off. But after the sessions 95% of the staff raved about their experiences, noting that their conversations were authentic. No professionals facilitated the sessions. At the end of the day, McLean observed, “We’ve never felt more grateful for each other.”
Sitting in circles is a very old idea. When people are in a small group, all facing each other, they feel included. They engage. They offer ideas and share their challenges. Over time, people connect and begin to help each other. Many of our physical spaces are not set up for people to be in circles. Think classrooms, or trading floors, or churches, or auditoriums. These spaces deeply embed ideas of hierarchy and assembly lines and teacher-as-expert. Our move to virtual spaces is a chance to question this.
Double-click on the example of corporate learning and development. From 2000-2012, my previous startup had to grow fast to keep up with an exploding market. We couldn’t hire for new skills fast enough. We needed our people to grow, so our company could grow. I began to focus on what it would take to build a learning culture at work. Unfortunately, the learning tools we had fell short: a corporate “university” filled with out-of-date slide decks, skills training videos, managers coaching subordinates 1:1, a performance management system no one kept up to date, and the occasional one-off workshop. They failed to engage all but a few very self-directed learners.
One thing we tried, though, worked: a “Battle of the Bands,” where about a third of the company took up bass, drums, guitar, keyboards, or singing. Music teachers helped remind people how to learn, how to listen to each other, how to practice. It was an exercise in how important it is to create an engaging experience where learning in teams can push individuals to be their best selves.
Our common corporate learning structures were built for old circumstances. We no longer have to mass-produce workers for assembly-line jobs. Information is no longer scarce, requiring people to gather around an expert. We have the opposite problem: there’s a tsunami of information every day. Our workforce needs highly diverse and flexible creatives that can work together.
Corporate learning and development echoes the education system overall, which is also made of traditional structures and has a similar disengagement problem. While 63% % of kids are served by the four-year college system in the US, 40% of those students do not complete their degree within six years. It makes me think, if more of those students are fully engaged during college would graduation rates increase?
There’s evidence that study groups improve matriculation rates and success, and small groups or “team-based” learning improves the satisfaction of both student and teacher over lectures. The Harkness method, pioneered by Philips Exeter Academy in 1930, in which all classes are conversational and conducted at an oval table, is gaining popularity. Many states now have mandates to use restorative practices, a circles-based approach to community building and repairing at schools, which is proven much more effective than the traditional ways of organizing schools.
In fact, it turns out that many educational approaches draw on the power of circles. They have different names: forum, which is used by organizations such as YPO; communities of practice, which are used across businesses, schools, and in government; text-based dialogue, which is used by the Aspen Institute; and the list goes on. They all have common practices. Harvard Business School programs house their attendees in a living group of eight single rooms around a kitchen, and a coach helps each “living group” jell into a circle that works together on cases and projects.
I’ve personally had some learning experiences in circles that helped me, taught me, and pushed me more than any class or coach or even consultant had done before. In my 30s, I was a first-time leader of a scaling company and my EO and YPO forums, each with 7-8 other CEOs meeting every month, were how I really learned to do that job. When do I reduce staff or leases when the economy was giving out? How do I show up at the office when my dad is slowly passing from ALS at home? How do you negotiate partner differences, is PR worth it, is my public speaking good enough? After exit, I was lucky enough to be picked for the Henry Crown Fellowship, a circle of leaders at similar transition points. In this Fellowship, The Aspen Institute gave me the space to explore values, what I thought was good for society, and next steps. These circles were transformational.
The learning field is bubbling with new ideas, technology, neuroscience, and data science. But quietly one of the oldest ideas is gaining traction with both approaches to learning and how best to work: sitting in a circle.
Almost everything we do at work is performed in a team. Team structure methodologies like Agile (cross-functional teams working sequentially in a structured manner), Scaling up (daily huddles to improve communication), EOS/Traction (working quarterly towards a set of company goals) and Holocracy (employee flexibility to take on tasks in a flat corporate structure) emphasize the importance and power of small teams learning together, quickly. They each have a small-group structured meeting at their heart.
The success of these small group structures relies on teams to collaborate openly. Google’s Aristotle project found that psychological safety – the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions or concerns – was the clearest success factor across hundreds of teams they studied. Circles practices foster this kind of safety, through group conversations where no one dominates the conversation, everyone is made comfortable speaking and feels heard. They help the boss sit alongside you on the team modeling vulnerability, instead of issuing updates and orders from the front of the room.
I spent a lot of energy as CEO trying to produce a consistent corporate culture and alignment throughout the company. But the actual culture that an individual experiences day-to-day has everything to do with their immediate team. We need to learn to lead “teams of teams.” This will help with the ridiculously low level of employee engagement that Gallup reports across our companies year after year. As my Aspen Fellow, now Heineken’s CEO, Dolf van den Brink said to me, “We’ve done a good job of building structure across the global org chart, but not where it matters most: inside teams.”
The idea that led me to found Circles Learning Labs, Inc. (Circl.es) was to help make it easy for people to learn and work in circles. I wondered why everyone in the world doesn’t have a Forum, like I did when I was a new CEO? Or a Fellowship to help them figure out their next career move? I asked myself if I could help solve problems for all the restorative practice leaders or the Holocracy crowd who were increasingly working on this?
When I started experimenting in 2016 I thought that we’d be building a matchmaking service: use LinkedIn to find, for example, eight new marketing leaders at small companies. But it turned out that this part was relatively easy: communities and companies had already collected like-minded peers. We didn’t think we’d have to build a video space at all, but when we experimented with a new interface where people were in a circle instead of a grid, we got incredible reactions. It turned out that all these different kinds of circles have very similar best practices, making it a good candidate for software. It was hard and expensive for companies and communities to set up and run lots of circles – another problem that lent itself to a software solution.
So we’ve set out to build a virtual space where every feature we add or take away fosters authentic human connection and makes it easier to run and scale lots of circles. The outcomes so far leveraging Circl.es with organizations like EDENS, are encouraging:
Harvard Business School struggled for years to find the right way to support executive education students to practice and apply learned skills after leaving campus. Their “Virtual Living Group” program keeps busy CEOs meeting monthly in circles. When Covid hit, we added Circl.es to their virtual campus, reducing truancy in virtual programs to almost zero and “significantly deepening the in-classroom conversation.”
Millennium Schools ran circles of teachers and 89% said it improved their ability to support students, 90% said it boosted their wellness, and 92% said it reduced their sense of isolation.
Ken Blanchard companies found that breakout circles improve workshop outcomes and lead to successful follow-up. “There’s two things that lead to successful learning sustainment – accountability and relationships,” noted Diana Urbina, Head of Coaching Services.
Chris Anderson, TED’s founder, started TED circles to help move his community from inspiration to action. The program has exploded to thousands of circles globally in under a year and is quickly becoming a core part of the TED community.
Jumpcrew, an outsourced revenue company in Nashville, TN, began its Circl.es program before the pandemic. It has continued to grow quickly in a remote working environment as they’ve found that building “circles for our upcoming leaders has reduced employee churn and improved our culture.”
Even more encouraging than the program outcomes are the participant testimonials we receive after a session on Circl.es.
“I love the discussion in each session and navigating real, deep life situations together.” “Circl.es makes space for a high level of open honest communication.”
“So good to hear from others – so many common threads of struggle and celebration which is incredibly encouraging!
“Continuing as a tight-knit group to grow, evolve, learn and gain insight from one another.”
Circles are humanizing. Research suggests that when we feel we can show up more authentically, we are more open to new ideas and feel a greater sense of well-being. It has never been technically easier to form small circles of people from all over the world and run a circle well. Anyone can use Circl.es’ best practices to facilitate the energy, timing, and flow that makes time together in a circle feel packed. The output from a well-run circle in a virtual setting can expose us to true diversity and change the way we think.
Maybe the future of learning and work is a return to the past. Fewer presentations, more conversations. Space and time for small groups to connect, without the torrent of thousands of voices reaching you through your screens. Space to reflect and process, instead of taking in more information second-by-second.
Over the years, we’ve built big, hierarchical structures; now leaders can focus on what happens at the edge, fostering more intimate connections where people can bring their authentic, full selves to conversations and connect as humans. And with a little help from the pandemic, we can take advantage of the fact that many employees aren’t returning to their rows of desks, and change the shape of our reality.
How does a company dedicated to building community achieve this among its own employees?
It’s a question that EDENS, a retail real estate owner, operator, and developer, has set out to answer. For more than 50 years, EDENS’ mission has been “to enrich communities,” said Caroline Davis, EDENS’ Vice President of Employee Engagement. “Peoples’ quality of life is higher when they are able to interact in a place that adds value and meaning to their life.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, put EDENS’ work to the test when communal interaction in public became a health risk, and stay-at-home orders were legally mandated. This was as much a challenge to EDENS’ internal sense of community as it was to its business.
As with so many other companies that went remote in March 2020, EDENS found this change “radically shifted the way we interacted with each other,” as Davis put it, including a “level of fatigue” with standard video platforms used for meetings. “That piece of feeling truly connected was missing,” Davis added.
This physical disconnection also made the equity and inclusion work EDENS had already committed to that much harder. This was most starkly clear over the summer when EDENS hosted an all-staff meeting to discuss Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The entire team used a standard virtual platform in which many people kept their cameras off. Consequently, the conversation failed to reach a desirable level of authenticity and emotional safety, according to Davis.
EDENS CEO Jodie McLean remembered a platform she had used previously that could help her employees connect. After using Circl.es at the Aspen Institute Resnick Aspen Action Forum in her capacity as a Liberty Fellow, McLean decided in October last year to purposely build an opportunity for EDENS to use the platform.
“I’ve never partnered with another vendor who felt more integrated and more supportive than Circl.es”
Circl.es joined forces with EDENS to facilitate a value-based inclusive leadership summit with content inspired by the curriculum the Aspen Institute had created. The process included helping with the logistical challenge of forming groups in the platform and ensuring all groups had consistent experiences. “I’ve never partnered with another vendor who felt more integrated and more supportive than Circl.es,” Davis added. “They felt like an extension of us, and it was incredible.”
Circl.es was game-changing for EDENS for a few key reasons.
First, rather than convening a 200-person staff in a single virtual space, employees were broken up into smaller groups — circles — that allowed each member to have “true equity” as Davis described it. Circl.es accomplished this by keeping all group members on camera and placing them each in individual, equal-sized circles, within a larger circle. Rather than reinforce a hierarchy that sometimes happens in a corporate setting, Circl.es created a space in which every employee had an equal voice — in which they were able to talk to each other rather than talked to.
“Circl.es’ features helped conversations feel less awkward and more authentic,” Davis noted. On other video platforms, participants tend to talk over and interrupt each other, mainly out of the lack of being able to perceive others’ body language or other subtle social cues. Circl.es eliminates this by allowing participants to raise their hands, sort participants into a set order in which to speak, and “making everyone feel like their voice was equally important,” said Davis.
Participants’ ability to give other members in their circle a hug or lend support in the form of a “plus one” also helped facilitate a conversation that was “fluid but purposeful,” according to Davis — especially when it came to discussing difficult topics, like diversity and equity, which was the focus of the readings to which group members responded.
It turned out that breaking apart was exactly what was needed to help the company feel more together.
Circl.es “gave us a chance to hear different perspectives from people who think differently than we do,” one employee reflected. Another shared that the platform “allowed for uncomfortable discussions in an intimate environment” and noted “it was easier to share this way.”
In fact, in a post-discussion survey, while at least 50% of employees reported they did not initially want to come to the meeting, 90% reported that they loved the experience.
What’s more, the staff’s experiences with Circl.es had an immediate impact on how they interacted with each other. While reconvening for a debrief of the Circl.es experience in their normal video platform, employees were “incredibly active” in the chat box, which Davis noted had rarely happened in previous meetings. Employees were “showing support and reaching out to each other and saying how much the day meant,” Davis continued.
Circl.es has since become such an integrated part of EDENS’ communications structure that it’s taken on its own vernacular. “We say, ‘This is something we should get into a circle and discuss’…it’s become this special place for people to meet that feels very safe,” Davis said. Most recently, EDENS used Circl.es to reconvene the same groups who met in October to discuss another Martin Luther King, Jr. piece, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” in February. Though it was a busy time for the company, “people made the time and felt really energized after the conversations,” Davis said.
“We know when we connect with each other, we drive our engagement, which impacts our wellbeing at work,” Davis said. “It helps our productivity and that’s an investment that is well served.”
Not only has Circl.es benefited employees by “elevating” the way they virtually met, but it also helped the company itself. “We know when we connect with each other, we drive our engagement, which impacts our wellbeing at work,” Davis said. “It helps our productivity and that’s an investment that is well served.”
EDENS plans to use Circl.es well beyond the end of the pandemic, because, as Davis said, “EDENS employees now connect with the common language of gratitude for the conversations and connections they have with each other and the ability to be seen. I attribute that to Circl.es giving us the space and the place to do that.”