Lean In Circles: Women Supporting Each Other at Work

This photograph is the product of nine intelligent, professional women trying to figure out how to operate a camera’s self-timer. This may have been the fourth try on the second (!) camera we attempted to use, so if we look a little wild-eyed, that’s why. Anyway…

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead explores issues of women in the workplace that she initially examined in her 2010 TED Talk “Why we have too few women leaders”. While reading this book I was challenged and disturbed by Sandberg’s analysis of what keeps women from rising to the tops of organizations, and invigorated by her thoughts about what women can do to break through the very real glass ceilings (of both our own and others’ creations) in order to attain career success and recognition.

When I was in college, I was fortunate enough to take several amazing, formative courses on women’s history and women’s roles in society from some very strong female professors. After beginning my actual career, however, and then gliding through my 20s and 30s without much professional angst, I stopped thinking so much about gender and career, as I didn’t see anything that I found particularly disturbing. I’ve started to sit up and pay more attention over the past two years, however, both in my own life and in the world in general. It’s clear that gender biases exist. I’ve been reading more on social media as well as in the traditional media and have been feeling increasingly that there is something I could do to help myself and to connect with other like-minded women.

After I read Lean In, I was hungry for more connection and ended up discovering that an entire foundation has been established to support the Lean In cause! On its website, LeanIn.Org states:

We are committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. If we talk openly about the challenges women face and work together, we can change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.

One important element of LeanIn.Org is Lean In Circles, which are small groups of women committed to career growth, leadership, and maximizing their own potential. Another like-minded colleague and I decided, after a night of cocktails at a departmental party (always a good start to new collaborative efforts!), to create a Lean In Circle at our school. We debated about how best to go about creating a solid group– should we just ask people we already knew and with whom we felt comfortable, or should we open it up to the whole school and see how it shakes out? We ultimately decided on the latter, which ended up being a great decision. We were concerned at first because the Lean In organization advises circles not to have more than twelve people, mainly in order to ensure everyone’s personal investment and commitment to one another, but we trusted that it would ultimately work out. I think we started with almost twenty interested women, but after the first few meetings we ended up with a core group of eleven– the perfect size. We meet once a month for about 2 hours, rotating between members’ homes. We found that Sunday afternoons are best for most people, with a few weekday evenings thrown in every few months. Whoever hosts the meeting provides the food, often with help from one or two others, and then everyone is asked to bring wine. Yes, we do have wine (or sangria, thanks to a few talented mixologist members!). Obviously wine is not necessary, but it does help create a relaxed and social atmosphere, and it also helps differentiate these meetings from typical “work” meetings.

The Lean In website is amazing, because it provides downloadable guides for about twelve ready-made meetings, which have taken us a year to work through. It will also soon have a receptacle of “Create Your Own” meeting resources, which should be helpful as well. Additionally, there is a large library of videos that can be used to spark discussion on a variety of topics. A colleague and I meet a few days before each meeting to read through that week’s guide (meeting themes have included “Connecting”, “Energizing”, “Framing”, etc.) and decide who is going to lead which section. After trying a few different things, we found that printing packets for each group member worked best. That way members could read along with the instructions, write down their thoughts, and complete activities easier than if they did not have the text in front of them.

So those are the logistics of how we hold and plan our meetings, but what about the good stuff? What do we get out of it? SO MUCH. We have women from Elementary, Middle and High School, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-40s. We have women who currently hold leadership positions (though no upper administrators) and women who have not yet held official leadership positions. We have women from North America, South America, Australia, the UK, and even one truly “TCK” (Third Culture Kid). We did not all know each other. We all have different career goals. We have different personalities. AND we all support one another 150%. Our meetings are completely safe spaces, with the explicit understanding that what is said in the meetings stays within the meetings. We share our frustrations at work as well as our successes. But even more than that, we help each other THINK and REFLECT on what these frustrations and successes mean. And while we all acknowledge that getting complaints and frustrations off our chest is important, we also all acknowledge that we don’t wish to rest in our dissatisfaction or frustration. Rather, we help each other to figure out how to navigate our situations, and how to understand that gender issues in the workplace are real and how to work with each other and with our colleagues to make our jobs and our organization a better, stronger, fairer place to work. The tone of all of our meetings is positive, with the ultimate goal being to strengthen our own capacities and to understand not only what we want out of our careers, but also how to form a roadmap to get there.

Also, as I’ve documented in this blog, I’ve just gone through a major, months-long job search. A HUGE, impossible to overestimate, boon to me during this time was the unwavering support I received from my Lean In group. These women regularly checked in, sent me emails of support, took time to listen to my hopes and fears during meetings, and just generally had my back. They’ll never know how much their care meant to me, and I can’t wait to do the same for them someday.

If you’ve got the drive, and are considering starting a Lean In Circle of your own, go for it! Find some women who are interested in leadership and career– even those with whom you have loose connections– and see what you can create. It’s been a transformative and inspiring journey for us. If you need something to get you started, read Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, or How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life by McKinsey consultants Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston.

Good luck, and Lean In!

Can You Make (Professional) Dreams Come True?

moon-478982_1920Two years ago I left a great job, a job that I enjoyed and that had the potential to progress my career in a new direction (educational technology). I left the job because my family had an opportunity to move overseas for a few years, where my husband and I would teach at an international school again and have the wonderful experience of traveling with our daughters, who would be attending the same school in which we would be teaching. I had to resign from this great job without knowing if I would ever have the chance to step back into the forward momentum I had been building toward a career in educational technology (I have been a school librarian for the past twelve years– I realize that there are overlaps between the two, but I have been looking forward to jumping with both feet into ed tech, with the hope of maybe someday being able to merge and lead in both areas).

During my two years at the international school I feared for the impact that my family’s move would have on my career. This in itself was guilt-inducing, as wasn’t it selfish of me to be so concerned about my own career, when my family was having an incredibly meaningful and enriching experience?  This was a struggle that I never really overcame, but did find peace with eventually. I had to accept that our decision could be both positive (overseas travel, family time, working in and having our children attend a great school, wonderful new friends) and negative (the potential impact on my career) at the same time. A little cognitive dissonance never hurt anyone, after all.

This past December, we had to officially declare whether or not we would be returning to the school next year. Partly due to my career goals, we decided to return to the U.S. This meant that my job search was on, and the pressure (much of it self-designed) began to mount. The five months between my first application and today have been a study in patience and in equanimity. During those five months and, really, in the two years since I decided to leave my previous job, I dedicated myself to intentional, continual, self-improvement in ways that would bring me closer to my goal of working in educational technology leadership. Even though it may have seemed strange considering my role as school librarian, I gained Google certifications, volunteered to create and manage the high school’s Twitter account, presented on technology at various conferences and workshops, designed and facilitated an online staff technology professional development program, and continued to read widely and participate frequently in the area of educational technology, particularly online via social media and blogs.

Fast-forward to today, and I’m thrilled to say that I recently got the Job of My Dreams. The one that seemed like an impossibility, especially due to those life and career decisions I made two years ago, which, while positive in may ways, seemed to derail the potential to achieve this dream. I am a testimonial to the fact that Dreams Come True and that it’s worth believing in this– and believing in yourself– even when it seems like you’ve taken a road the path for which is irreversible. I’m currently reading How Remarkable Women Lead by Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston, where I came across the following rather serendipitous passage*:

Many women set out, traveling down academic and career paths, only to discover meaningful work after more than a few turns in the road. The zigs and zags of their career may seem inefficient (surely a straight shot to your goal would seem a better choice). Things are not always what they seem. In most cases, women leaders recall that these zigs taught self-awareness and those zags led them down the path to skills and experiences that opened a door. It was not time wasted. It was their time for discovering what they loved and learning new capabilities (p.23).

I identify with this so strongly because I don’t for one second believe that these past two years, spent in a situation that I thought was actively moving me away from the career direction in which I wanted to go, were wasted time. They obviously were NOT wasted time when it came to family, travel, friends, and new experiences, but neither were they wasted time when it came to my career. This was a lightbulb moment for me. These past two years have confirmed for me the following: that I am ready for a change in career direction; that I do have leadership skills; and that educational technology leadership TRULY is my passion.

I felt a burning need to write this post because for so long people tried to reassure me by saying that it would all turn out alright, and that I could jump back into my career trajectory after this detour, but I DIDN’T BELIEVE THEM. Now I believe. I also wanted to write about this because I have several friends who have similar fears about their own careers, wondering if kids + family have set them back, or if they will ever have the opportunity to break through the ceilings of their own (or others’) creation.

If you’re feeling defeated and directionless, or just wondering how to increase your chances of finding your own Best Job, here’s what I’ve come up with– it’s not rocket science, but it is what ultimately worked for me:

CONTINUAL HARD WORK & GROWTH (Seek additional education and training; present workshops in your area of expertise; find small or large opportunities to get involved; create something new. Seek out anything that will grow your skills and experiences, and try to always have something going on the back burner.)  

MAINTAINING & FORMING NETWORKS (Maintain relationships with people whose careers you admire; who inspire you and from whom you can learn; who support you and your career aspirations; and who could help you with a reference, a phone call, a job posting heads-up, giving career advice, etc. Also seek to form new relationships with people who inspire you; who are leaders in your organization; and who might be able to strengthen and add to your professional networks.)

THE RIGHT FIT (Vital to remember. It’s not always about you. You could be working hard and growing, maintaining relationships and forming new ones, but if the job isn’t the right fit, it will never work. If an opportunity doesn’t work out for you, but you feel that you’ve done everything that you could, examine the reasons why it wasn’t the right fit. The jobs that didn’t work out for me during this time of interviewing and job hunting were for positions that didn’t fit my experiences and skill set, or for which there were already strong internal candidates in mind– aside: never underestimate the power of the internal candidate!! The job that ultimately worked out and was the Dream Job of the bunch? The job where the district’s needs aligned with my strengths and experiences. The same position in a different district may have had completely different needs and therefore would have led to the selection of a completely different candidate. It HAS to be the right fit for you and for them.)

Don’t Give Up. Believe in yourself. It’s out there.

* More serendipitous quotes:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path. – Steve Jobs

The thing that I learned early on is you really need to set goals in your life, both short-term and long-term, just like you do in business. Having that long-term goal will enable you to have a plan on how to achieve it. We apply these skills in business, and yet when it comes to ourselves we rarely apply them. – Denise Morrison, CEO Campbell Soup Co.