You’ve bought and read Lean In. You’ve internalized Sheryl Sandberg’s advice on not taking your foot off the career brake until you’re sure you want to, on the dos and don’ts of working with a mentor, and, of course, on taking a seat at the table. You’ve renewed your commitment to yourself and your career. But have you seriously given thought to creating a Lean In circle, as she suggests?
In 2012—yep, before Sandberg’s book came out—a friend and I formed our own career group of 11 women in order to create a setting where we could share ideas, support, and resources. Our positions and fields are diverse—a partial list includes an entrepreneur, a nurse, a teacher, a creative director, two project managers, an architect, and a lawyer—and we range in age from 28 to 40. Our monthly meetings have helped us navigate salary negotiations, difficult conversations with co-workers, and growing into seniority, among many other topics. It has been an immensely satisfying experience that continues to help all of us as we navigate challenges and successes at our jobs—and one that I’d recommend to anyone.
If you’ve ever thought about starting a career group, here are the most important things I’ve learned in the last 18 months.
1. Go Outside Your Friend Group
Since a friend and I started our group, our first impulse was to invite all of our shared friends to join, too. But we quickly realized that we didn’t want the group to only be friends who already knew each other well, so we extended invitations to friends of friends, acquaintances, and past colleagues. And we’re so glad we did! As we learned, going outside of our immediate friend group helps keep the focus on specific issues or discussions (rather than personal catch up) and also diversifies the collective experience and perspective of the members.
2. Set a Meeting Schedule
During the first few months of forming the group, we would schedule each meeting at a time over email. This worked to some degree, but it meant that meetings were irregularly spaced—anywhere from four to eight weeks apart—and between 11 people, there was always a lot of back and forth about scheduling.
Eventually, we decided that having a set day and time was best, and we picked the second Wednesday of every month. This way, it’s a permanent fixture on everyone’s calendar, making scheduling simpler and ensuring we didn’t accidentally go two months without meeting. We keep meetings to two hours and start and end promptly to be respectful of people’s busy schedules.
3. Have a Plan
In order to make our time together valuable, every meeting is focused around a specific topic and run by one member. The structure of the meeting, and whether there is any assigned activity, homework, or reading, is up to that person. About a week prior, she will email everyone to remind them of the subject, explain what we’ll be doing or reading, and confirm attendance.
A typical meeting might start with a brief round of updates followed by the main discussion. Some discussions are very freewheeling and loose; during others we’ll go around in a circle sharing one by one. Just recently we’ve started to discuss mixing up the format to keep things interesting and cover topics in new ways—for example, breaking up in to small groups to practice presentations or to role play negotiations. At the end of every meeting, we discuss what we want to cover at the next one and agree on who will lead it.
4. Spread Responsibility
When we first started our group, one woman always led the meetings. She did a fantastic job, but it meant that everyone else got to be comfortably passive, letting someone else be in control. Now, we all agree on a topic in advance, but switch who leads the meeting every month. This keeps everyone bought in and engaged with the topics and the larger purpose of the group. It also lets each person exercise her creativity (how do we want to structure the meeting? what reading do we want to ask people to do in advance?) and leadership skills.
5. Keep Personal Updates Moderated
While our group is not composed entirely of close friends, we’ve all come to really like each other, and it’s easy to spend an entire hour—or more!—chatting about things that have happened since the last time we met. And while we love the personal updates, we don’t want them to take up all of our time, so we limit them to around three minutes per person. (We actually have someone watch the clock to keep things more or less on schedule!)
Another option is to have a limited number of people give updates and to give them a little longer to share, switching up who speaks each meeting. In order to satisfy our interest in plain old socializing, we occasionally meet for happy hours or other events separate from our monthly meetings as well.
6. Ask People to Commit
No matter how much we all see the value in our career group, life intervenes—for everybody. Once people stop making most meetings or don’t notify the group if they can’t attend, we tend to lose momentum and have less satisfying discussions.
Initially, we didn’t like the idea of taking attendance, but in order for the group to work, we have found that it works best to check in with group members every six months to a year. For people who just don’t have time to show up reliably, this provides a comfortable way for them to bow out. For people who do want to continue being a part of the group, we ask for a reaffirmation of their commitment. For us this means:
Having a career group has been one of the best things I could have done for my confidence, excitement, and overall satisfaction about my career development and choices. If you’re interested in forming your own group, hopefully what I’ve learned will help you get off on the right foot.