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Facebook COO's 'Lean In' inspires gatherings on female leadership

Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg
Associated Press

Lean in alone, and you might fall on your face.

Lean into a small circle of supporters, and you'll prop each other up.

That's the lesson that tech entrepreneur Gina Bianchini learned from her Cupertino, Calif., field hockey team, her Stanford roommates and her Goldman Sachs analyst class.

So she offered her friendship when Sheryl Sandberg first arrived at Facebook. And when Sandberg dreamed of a book, Bianchini matched it with her own idea: an online women's leadership program, crafted around social circles.

Together they've co-founded the nonprofit website LeanIn.Org.

"There's power in small groups, meeting around shared goals so you reach your full potential," said Bianchini, 40, founder and CEO of Mightybell, which creates online communities around shared interests.

"If you are going to do something that terrifies you, first find a group," she said.

Their concept of "Lean In Circles" takes up where Sandberg's new book "Lean In" leaves off — guiding the gathering of women to study and discuss issues such as professional risk-taking, assertiveness, networking and how to find a good balance between work and life. All profits of the book go toward funding the LeanIn.Org website and its interactive community.

They are no mere book club-like living room soirees: The "Circle" project is built upon the prestigious "Voice & Influence" curriculum of Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Enrollment in the Clayman program has been restricted only to top managers and Stanford faculty — but now it's available, for free, at LeanIn.Org with advice about negotiation tactics, overcoming stereotypes and how to influence colleagues. About 150 companies, from Cisco Systems to Safeway and the nonprofit Dress For Success, are distributing the materials to employees.

At Stanford, the circle built by the Voice & Influence program was small, because it could accommodate only 20 top-level managers and faculty a year, said Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, 47, associate director of the Clayman Institute. So it struggled to achieve widespread social, cultural and economic change.

"Now we're empowering so many more people," she said.

Chris Bourg is leading one of LeanIn.Org's first circles with women who work with her at Stanford Library, and she's excited about its future.

"I see so many women — really competent, really talented, really creative women — who are hesitant to step forward," said Bourg, 47, an Army veteran and Ph.D. who manages all of Stanford's humanities and social sciences libraries.

"I want them to succeed. I want them to have a seat at the table. I want them to learn from each other's experiences.

Bourg and the 11 other members met for the first time last week — in a circle, around a conference table — and quickly agreed on three goals: to build a supportive network of trusted colleagues, to learn from each other and the curriculum, and to develop greater confidence in their skills and talents.

"It so clearly captures a need," she said. "It almost doesn't matter whether you buy every bit of Sheryl's advice, hook, line and sinker. To tell each other stories is so powerful. Very gratifying."

There's now a wait list for a new group.

The five 20-minute videos and accompanying discussion guides feature three top professors from Stanford's Graduate School of Business: Jennifer Aaker on using stories to advance your ideas; Deborah Gruenfeld, on gaining power and influence; Margaret Neale on negotiating to get a good deal. In a fourth, sociology professor Shelley Correll talks about overcoming stereotypes. And University of Virginia's Darden School professor Melissa Thomas-Hunt discusses team dynamics.

The site also includes printable discussion guides and stories from philanthropist Melinda Gates, Iraqi-American writer Zainab Salbi, Cornell medical school Dean Laurie H. Glimcher and microbrewery owner Liz Crowe, among others.

They offer lessons like these:

It takes less than 100 milliseconds, or a snap of your fingers, for someone to decide what they think of you.

Telling a story is up to 22 times more memorable than relaying facts and figures alone.

Expectations drive behavior, and research shows that if you change your expectation, you can change your outcome.

Even co-founder and veteran entrepreneur Bianchini says she has a lot left to learn. "It's made me a better leader," she said.

Sandberg's book is just the beginning, she said.

"We've built a launching pad for a sustained conversation around how to lean into your ambitions."