What Are Lean In Circles and Why Should You Join One?

iStock_000013311579XSmallBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

So you read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and perhaps like our editor liked it more than you expected to. Now what?

The messages in the book are a powerful call to action to do more than just read and move on. The author’s expressed hope at the end of the book is that women will not only keep talking about the ideas that she raises, but will form “Lean In Circles” to facilitate the dialogue.

We interviewed Gabriela Franco Parcella, chairman and CEO of Mellon Capital, on her progress in championing a Lean In Circle at her firm. She explained, “My feeling is that if we can help accelerate the learning curve for women, why not? It took me 18 years of working to learn some of the lessons described in the book. I would like other women to benefit from our experiences so that they can avoid mistakes that we have made.”

What Are Circles?

Lean In Circles are small groups that meet regularly to share and learn together. The Lean In organization describes Circles “like a book club focused on helping members achieve their goals.” If members want extra support and structure for starting a Circle, Lean In provides an online space and Circle Kits to help Circle moderators get organized and stay connected.

Lean In recommends that Circles meet 10 times a year, starting with a Kickoff Meeting [PDF] and then hosting Education Meetings [PDF] and Exploration Meetings [PDF] . Education Meetings involve watching an online lecture developed by Lean In’s education partners, and then discussing the topic. Exploration meetings feature two members sharing personal opportunities, challenges, or decisions, and then hearing feedback from other group members.

The Lean In website provides free online tools for those who are interested in serving as moderators to host Kickoffs, Education Meetings, and Exploration Meetings as well.

Launch Inspirations

One of the women who has started a Lean In Circle is Gabriela Franco Parcella, chairman and CEO of Mellon Capital in San Francisco. Parcella is a member of Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), which partnered with Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In team to create a structure for Lean In Circles. Through YPO, Parcella was asked if she would be willing to champion one or more Lean In Circles. She then read the book and did some research on the messaging behind Lean In. Parcella was impressed that Sandberg partnered with Stanford’s Clayman Institute of Gender Research to explore the issues that women face, and that she put facts and figures behind her messaging.

In explaining why she was inspired to start a Circle, Parcella says that Lean In resonated with her. “Many of the experiences that Sheryl shared were ones that I have also had in my career,” says Parcella.

Parcella adds that she was surprised by some of the negative press surrounding the launch of the book and website, and wanted to raise her hand to help further Lean In’s mission. “After listening to Sheryl speak (she opened her home to us and also invited us to the Facebook campus to talk about the most effective ways to launch Circles), I was sure that this was something that I wanted to be a part of and that I could use my voice to counter some of the unfair press,” says Parcella. “The Lean In official launch was last week and included 30 women from YPO that came in from around the world, not just around the United States. It was inspiring to see how quickly a movement like this could spread around the globe.”

Start-up Mode

For her first Circle, Parcella asked senior managers at Mellon Capital to nominate a woman on their team who could benefit from a Circle experience. She then invited 11 women to join, and 10 accepted. “Although I thought the time commitment was not too much (meeting once a month for 2-2.5 hours), the biggest hesitation women had was that they couldn’t find the time,” says Parcella. “For those with doubts, I counseled them that this was an investment in themselves that they deserve. As women, we tend to take care of everyone else (our spouses, children, parents, and teams) before we focus on ourselves.”

Parcella is using the Circle Kit and other information on the website to help structure her meetings. “The material is very easy to follow and they lay out exactly how to run the meetings and the agenda for the meetings,” says Parcella. “I am very pleased that Lean In has placed all of the material, including the instructional videos, on the public site. No login or password required. It is an incredible opportunity for women (and men) around the world to have access to top quality instructional videos presented by professors and other experts.”

Though Parcella’s Circle is still in its early days having just held a Kickoff meeting, she’s gearing up for the next meeting, where the group will discuss a video called “Power & Influence.” “I think it is great that the website has discussion guides for the educational videos,” says Parcella. “We plan to follow the recommended order of educational topics and alternate between educational and exploratory sessions. And there are more videos on the way.” She adds that the four additional education topics already available on the website are right on point—negotiation, harnessing the power of stories, team dynamics, and creating a level playing field.

Passing the Torch

In considering potential challenges to launching a Circle successfully, Parcella emphasizes that it is important for each participant to recognize the commitment involved. “It is worth spending some time to make sure that you have assembled a group that wants to share and grow,” she says. “One of the goals I set for myself when starting the Circle at Mellon Capital was to establish a network of peers. We all run into work, work really hard so that we can then run home and see our families. That doesn’t leave much time for building relationships at work. I am hopeful that these amazing Mellon Capital women will get to know each other better, be able to relate to each other, celebrate successes, be there for each other when there are challenges, and make each other stronger as a result.”

Other important tips that Parcella recommends to potential Circle starters and participants are to agree on the length of the meeting, and to schedule at least six months out so that everyone knows the dates and can make childcare or other arrangements at home. “This is all new and we are learning as we go,” says Parcella. “One piece of advice that I got from the Lean In team was to get the Circle started and quickly hand off the moderating responsibilities to someone else. That way they can be a self-sustaining group without the CEO’s involvement.” To that end, Parcella’s next meeting will be her last. She will hand off the reigns, continue to act as an advisor, and start thinking about how to launch more Circles.