- Barre3 CEO Sadie Lincoln runs a female-operated fitness studio brand with more than 145 locations.
- Lincoln employs a mindful approach to management and operations, including a technique called “circles” that pays off in team cohesion and innovation.
- Lincoln explained the concept and gave attendees a step-by-step guide to employing circles at their organizations at NPR's How I Built This Summit 2019.
What does a modern-day fitness powerhouse have in common with traditional Native American culture?
Sadie Lincoln, CEO of Barre3,(opens in new tab) uses circles, an established collaboration concept based loosely on the talking stick ceremonies(opens in new tab) used for centuries in Native American culture, to foster open communication and creative problem-solving among the company’s executives, employees and franchise instructors.
"At the beginning of every training, we sit in a circle," Lincoln told attendees at NPR's 2019 How I Built This Summit(opens in new tab). "I ask each person what inspired them to become an instructor and what they feel will be their unique contribution to Barre3."
The concept of using round tables to encourage collaboration is used everywhere from classrooms (opens in new tab)to nonprofits(opens in new tab) and is founded on solid psychological principles. Studies show that people(opens in new tab) sitting in circles are more likely to work collaboratively.
After all, it wasn’t King Arthur and the Knights of the Rectangular Conference Table.
Barre3 runs circles around competition
Founded in Portland, Ore. in 2008, Barre3 offers participants a communal, inclusive environment to strengthen body and mind, both online and in 145 franchise studios operated by female entrepreneurs across the U.S., Canada and the Philippines.
In addition to crafting Barre3's innovative approach to fitness, Lincoln is touted for her authentic management style. She describes the circle as "the anti-guru model" of decision-making.
"Circle is an intentional practice of building community," said Lincoln.
The practice can be used any time a group of people come together and fosters better listening, acknowledgement of other points of view and sharing of ideas. To succeed, those taking part must embrace active listening and non-judgmental techniques. In most circles, participants are discouraged from giving or seeking advice.
Circles build "trust and transparency by creating a space where everyone is valued, seen and heard,” said Lincoln.
"Circles build trust and transparency by creating a space where everyone is valued, seen and heard.”
At Barre3, she has found that circles lead to stronger, more connected teams. The practice also creates an environment where new ideas flourish, which directly influences Barre3’s growth.
In particular, the practice encourages instructors to bring their personal styles to the brand and shows franchisees that their opinions and contributions matter. Barre3 also uses circle techniques to maintain community and connection among its fifty-plus corporate employees.
Barre3 founder Sadie Lincoln leads a workout at Popsugar's Play/Ground event in 2018.
If you’re thinking this all sounds a little … squishy, Lincoln said Barre3 employees do receive measurements based on business results and hard data. But what's more important, Lincoln insisted, is to(opens in new tab) ensure "employees feel seen and heard."
The practice also frees employees to share what didn’t work. At the start of each new quarter, Barre3's leadership team sits in a circle, and each person in turn honors recent failures.
Again, this aspect of the practice is based on an established principle, the scientific method(opens in new tab). Researchers know that figuring out what doesn’t work and disseminating that information throughout the community is integral to finding out what does work, to cure a disease or power a new technological breakthrough. Yet in many business environments, leaders are reluctant to admit they made a mistake, much less celebrate and honor errors.
5 Steps to a Successful Leadership Circle
There are a number of models(opens in new tab) for leadership circles, also called learning circles. Lincoln's tips from her How I Built This Summit presentation will get you off to a good start.
1. Master the setup: When launching a circle, at home or within your company, Lincoln’s advice is to know your audience. Choose an appropriate theme, and give attendees a full explanation on how and why you’re holding the exercise, as well as their expected contributions, so they walk in feeling prepared.
2. Know how to hold space: While circles are collaborative, they are not leaderless. The person guiding the exercise should introduce the topic to be explored at the beginning of the session and will often go first to provide an example and set the tone for meaningful conversation.
3. Encourage people to share their experiences: Circle is about leaving small talk behind and being comfortable with vulnerability. An open, honest environment with experience-sharing leads to connections and more in-depth conversations.
4. Actively listen: The goal of active listening in a circle is to make each participant feel seen and heard. That sense of recognition creates bonds among participants and lets people know their opinions matter.
5. Accept that not everyone will have something to say: If someone isn't comfortable sharing, it's okay to pass. Each circle is different, so go with the flow.
And of course, limit distractions(opens in new tab) -- no email, phones or laptops.
The bottom line
Circles create a welcoming company culture that promotes trust and fosters creativity, said Lincoln, while developing more cohesive teams. At the very least, employees will likely appreciate the opportunity to interact informally with peers.
"That builds a sense of community and safety,” said Lincoln. “And that's where innovation happens."