You are using an outdated browser.
For a better experience, please upgrade your browser here.

When women at P&G lean in together—from the cubicle to the corner office

In 2012, P&G piloted Circles, small groups that meet regularly to support each other and learn new skills. As of 2018, P&G has more than 400 Circles worldwide.

“When we decided to do this at P&G, I didn’t want to go asking other people to do things I hadn’t done. So I grabbed my friends, who were all in different functions, all at the same level, and said, ‘I just want to test this out.’”

It was 2012 and Bonnie Curtis had just heard Lean In’s founder, Sheryl Sandberg, talk about a concept called Circles during a visit at P&G’s headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. Circles are small groups of peers who meet on a regular basis to help one another reach their goals. At the time, Curtis was a vice president of product supply. Her friends were women from different departments—or functions—who, like her, had reached the top ranks of P&G’s corporate structure. With the help of colleague Gina Richards, she recruited VPs Lisa Ernst, Robin Bearden, Anne Schwister, and other senior-level women at P&G to give Circles a try.

From left to right: Bonnie Curtis, Ann Schwister, Robin Bearden, Beth Kushon, Alexis Schrimpf, Lisa Ernst

Curtis wasn’t convinced that Circles would last. But if the concept really worked, this group of women would be able to champion them at P&G from a place of experience, and their executive rank would lend credibility to the program. A few weeks later, the very first P&G Circle finally met. “We got together, and after the first meeting, we all said, ‘OK, we’re in this. We’re not just going to test it, we’re doing it,’” recalls Curtis.

“We got together, and after the first meeting, we all said, ‘OK, we’re in this.’”

Today, P&G runs Lean In’s largest company Circles program, with more than four hundred Circles and four thousand members. It’s one of hundreds of companies that has partnered with Lean In to provide a space where women can share ideas and advice, gain skills, and build community at their organizations.

Circle members reminisce about the memories they’ve shared throughout the years over lunch.

Since its official launch, P&G’s Circles program has helped women find support at every stage of their career, whether they’re senior executives or just starting out.

From left to right: Kim Mattson, Laura Milton, Yelean Choy, and Eduarda Sader walk around downtown Cincinnati

When Laura Milton left Dallas, Texas to work as an assistant brand manager at P&G’s headquarters in Ohio, she didn’t know anyone, and it was challenging to meet new people. “I realized there were some Circles that had been set up, but there wasn’t anything for young women who had just moved to Cincinnati,” she explains. With the assistance of Gina Richards, who had become a corporate leader for Lean In at the company, Milton put out a call to find people who wanted to help start Circles for women like her. Within a week, sixty people showed interest in joining, and six of them volunteered to serve as Circle leaders.

The network of six Circles, mostly composed of members who have worked at P&G for less than five years, has met over the last twelve months and helped one another navigate the challenges of stepping into a new city—and into the professional world. For example, one member wasn’t sure if she should move to D.C. to be with her boyfriend, or if he should move to Cincinnati, and she didn’t know where to turn for that particular kind of career planning. Through her Circle, she found mentors in her peers, who provided the advice she was looking for. Another member wanted to ask for a raise but didn’t know how to open the conversation. She confided in her Circle, and members gave her negotiating tips that were specific to working at P&G at her level. Not only did she get a raise, but she got more money than she asked for.

From left to right: Molly Jarabica, Rachel Katz, and Kayla Bell

Issues that women encounter early in their careers—like how to make decisions on where to live and how to negotiate—can have a lasting impact on their future professional success. Lean In helps women explore such issues by providing actionable, research-based information and tips for achieving their goals. For example, Lean In's annual Women in the Workplace study has reported that while many people take the time to research before a negotiation, a much smaller percentage talk to others about how to approach the issue and rehearse the actual conversation. Circle members learn that taking those extra steps increases the chance of getting a raise.

The Circle leaders Milton brought together are now working to set up quarterly meetups where the six groups can mingle with one another and also connect with more senior women in other Circles. They’re looking forward to creating more opportunities to share ideas, find mentors, and learn about what other functions are working on.

“You have a unique space that doesn’t exist anywhere else . . . You can be fully you.”

As women progress in their careers, the challenges they face evolve. They go from asking for their first raise to trying to figure out how to take their management positions to the next level. Or from wondering if they should move for their significant other to balancing raising a family and their career ambitions. For members, Circles provide a safe, adaptable space where the professional and personal converge with ease.

“It’s in this space that I can be proud of my accomplishments without coming across as bragging, [and] I can also talk about my kids, all at the same time. You have a unique space that doesn’t exist anywhere else . . . You can be fully you,” says Tonia Elrod, who’s been with P&G for twenty-two years.

Emily Overton welcomes Circle members into her home (left) and hosts a Circle meeting (right).

A Circle meeting at the home of Emily Overton reflects Elrod’s sentiments. Over glasses of wine and appetizers, the women’s conversation jumps from their experiences of giving birth for the first time to a TED video on what it takes to be a good leader to P&G’s management systems. They take turns picking Connection Cards and answering prompts such as “When have you felt most powerful?” and “If you had to describe your life in three sentences, what would you say?” They affirm one another when their experiences align and compare notes when they diverge.

Circle co-leaders Jenny Harris (left) and Erin Hoffman (right) chat at the P&G headquarters.

This is another of the early Circles at P&G, started and co-led by friends Jenny Harris and Erin Hoffman. Just under half of the founding members remain in the group of eleven, but newer and older members alike describe their Circle as an opportunity to open up, lean on, and learn from other women at the same level going through similar work and life experiences. In fact, the relationships between the women transcend the company they work for. For example, when Harris left P&G for a period of time, she continued being an active member of the Circle she had helped create.

Maureen Montgomery (left) meets with Lisa Ernst (right).

The P&G Circles program is only a few years old, but this corporate pioneer provides an example of the diverse ways Circles serve women in the workplace. They support women in professional transitions, like Maureen Montgomery, who moved back to P&G’s headquarters from its Geneva office after getting promoted to a VP role. “It’s like a hug,” says Montgomery about being part of a Circle during this time of adjustment. They help women who serve on predominantly male teams feel less isolated. They allow members to network and share insights, giving them the confidence and tools to ask for more. And at all levels, Circles offer women the chance to both support others and be supported themselves.

“This is the first group I’ve been a part of at this level that I’ve felt that I got something back,” says Robin Bearden. “I can honestly say it made a difference.”

“I can honestly say it made a difference.”