How could you and your organisation benefit from a Lean In Circle?

How could you and your organisation benefit from a Lean In Circle?

Guest Bloggers | 3 July 2018

Lean In Circles are small groups which meet regularly to learn and grow together. They are dedicated to helping women step outside of their comfort zones and achieve their ambitions.

Here, Emily Petty and Julie Wanstall share their experiences and learning from setting up groups for The Children’s Society and PwC respectively.


What were your observations before setting up a Lean In Circle?

EP: Having worked at The Children’s Society for a couple of years I was promoted into a senior leadership position. I looked around me and realised that all of my colleagues at my level were male and my boss was male. I was really struck by the contrast at this level. I thought that the only way to prove myself was to emulate the men and be like them. When we did the Belbin test, as a team, I got labelled as meticulous, with an attention to detail which surprised me. Nowhere did it say I was creative – which I’d always thought I was. I realised it was because in the context of this new role I wasn’t being myself.

JW: There are a number of challenges within consultancy: matrix management, hot desking and travel meant you rarely worked from the same desk with the same people. Creating and maintaining a sense of team in that environment is challenging.


Why did you feel the need to set up a Lean In circle?

EP: Julie had started a Lean In group at PwC and suggested I consider one. I was aware that women in other directorates were expressing similar feelings, that there was a real need for the group. So I put a proposal together for the senior leadership team which was accepted.

JW: I was an experienced hire into a large consultancy and needed to create my own peer support network. This was important to me and to others as it provided a sense of community in a rapidly changing environment.


What was it about the Lean In model that attracted you?

EP: I really liked the structure of the Lean In model. They provide resources, videos and themes. Lots of materials to give structure to your meetings, to build trust, conversation starters. It’s based on the action learning set model. Check them out at

JW: I credit applying for the job at PwC to the Lean In book by Sheryl Sandberg. I would never have previously considered I could have both worked successfully at a consultancy and have young children. Research shows that we feel more confident and can accomplish more in groups and PwC was very supportive of Lean In circles, offering training to those who wanted to facilitate them. Lean In provides vast amounts of resources on its website, including materials on work/life balance, managing stress, being your own hero, difficult conversations and negotiation.


Tell us about the initial set up of the group.

EP: We made a conscious decision to make it a personal invite and focus on senior managers and Heads of. So to think about who you want to target and how.

JW: It’s important to understand the environment you’re in when you’re setting up a circle so we had informal chats with senior partners and directors in our business unit to achieve buy in. I worked very closely with another colleague, and we reached out to our immediate network of peers and set up a coffee morning to discuss plans for the circle. We went for managers and senior managers – our own peers – as we felt it was important not to have people with a reporting relationship in the same group.


What about the regularity of the meetings and group sizes?

EP: Ten or so people came along to the first meeting. We held them every month for an hour.

JW: Lean In recommend a circle size of about 12 people. We decided to meet every six weeks for 90 minutes.


How important was trust in these meetings?

EP: It really does need a core and consistent group to help build trust and relationships. I would suggest getting some kind of initial commitment and maybe offering a trial period of a couple of sessions to see if they work for people.

JW: Building trust around the table was really important to us. We clarified the need for the three Cs at the beginning of each meeting – confidentiality, commitment and contribution.


What do you think the group changed for people?

EP: Women in leadership roles felt more supported and empowered to be more confident. We were very honest with feedback with each other. We looked out for each other. We talked a lot about behaviour in meetings. We explored what it was we were bringing to the table, to not be apologetic, to approach things in our own unique way rather than emulating the men around us. I like to think that the group helped us to become more effective in our roles, to take on new challenges and ultimately to have a greater impact on the lives of the young people The Children’s Society works with.

JW: For me personally it reframed my expectations. How I looked at my expectations of my marriage – that you are working as a team, parenting and managing careers together. It also encouraged me to consider how I interact with and support other women, both in work and outside of work, how I can talk them up, support them, and be part of a team of cheerleaders for their ideas and achievements.


Is there anything you’d do differently next time?

EP: The organisation went through a period of change. Rightly or wrongly I deprioritised the Lean In group. What it did highlight though was that the group was dependent on me and my colleague. I wouldn’t recommend relying on one or two people. Later, we ensured we delegated to different people and that there was a rotating chair. Ironically my biggest learning from going through change was the need for peer support. So, I’d really recommend making sure the group is set up and can function well despite heavy workloads. The time spent at the Lean In group was always worth investing in. I would also think about how you might measure the impact of the group. This might be important at some point when you are feeding back to the senior leadership team to ensure continued support and buy in.

JW:  I would include men. Unless we have gender equality, we’ll never get to the end of this discussion so we have to include them in the conversation. It’s important to recognise that sometimes the things that hold you back are behaviours which are not always gender specific, but personality driven, or cultural. Some of the transformative power in the education provided by Lean In circles is understanding and identifying gender bias and prejudice, and this is important for both men and women. It could potentially make the group uncomfortable for men but we need to have that difficult conversation. In some sessions, women are understanding for the first time how their behaviours or gender can hold them back; being aware of this can enable you to overcome and remove barriers to progression. I would also do more work around inclusion. So, running big education groups where we explore a particular topic would be good, with smaller action learning groups where people could share a problem or opportunity – that way the learning could be opened up to a much wider group.


About Emily: Over the past 18 years Emily has worked for charities large and small and across fundraising disciplines and managed a team of relationship fundraisers at The Children’s Society. Emily has recently left The Children’s Society to pursue freelance fundraising consultancy. She is passionate about helping charities build a relationship led approach to fundraising and supporting them to look at culture and change.

About Julie: Julie is the Conduct Risk Lead at Pension Insurance Corporation. Previously she worked as a Senior Manager at PwC in its Conduct Team. She took seven years out of financial services to spend time with her two children while they were small before returning to work. She currently shares the school run, doing the morning drop off, with her husband, an actuary, who leaves work early to do the afternoon pick up, thereby taking a very important seat at the kitchen table.


The interview was originally conducted for the Bright Actions Activity Book, produced by Wisdom Fish for the Institute of Fundraising.


Post a comment

Please click the box below to indicate you are a human rather than an automated system completing this form.