March 15, 2022

IT Lean In Leadership Circle hopes to inspire other groups to form at VUMC

For the last two years, HealthIT’s Lean In Leadership Circle has met every month to focus on the challenges and opportunities faced by women working in a historically male-dominated field like IT.

In late 2019, Wendy Kiepek, executive director of operational services in HealthIT at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, invited several fellow women leaders in information technology to join a new group inspired by the work of technology executive Sheryl Sandberg, author of the 2013 bestseller “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and founder of the Lean In organization.

For the last two years, this group of around 15 female leaders, formally known as the IT Lean In Leadership Circle, has met every month for around 90 minutes to focus on the challenges and opportunities faced by women working in a historically male-dominated field like IT. Each meeting is coordinated by Kiepek, who leverages the Lean In’s vast array of resources to help determine the agenda, set meeting topics and distribute related content.

The content of their discussions changes from month to month — for example, meeting topics might center on work/life balance, the importance of mentorship or navigating imposter syndrome.

During each meeting, Circle participants usually share tips and strategies with one another for handling workplace challenges. Members are often inspired to employ a strategy suggested by a colleague and personalize it for their own unique personalities and circumstances. In subsequent meetings, the group would often discuss their real-world experiences and how effective certain approaches were in addressing specific issues. VUMC IT Executive Director Cheryl Warner noted, “The Circle has given us more courage to face things head on, building both our personal and managerial confidence.”

While all the women interviewed said that the Circle has certainly been successful in helping its members navigate workplace issues, they each remarked on another, more intangible benefit they have all experienced — camaraderie and strengthened relationships. According to Colleen Egan, VUMC IT’s director of relationship management, “This is a group of women I can call on for support, whether it’s personal or professional.”

“Until the Lean In Circle, there was never a forum for connecting with other female leaders across IT,” added HealthIT Director Nancy Rudge, “The Circle has allowed for a lot of networking and relationship-building.”

Warner, who was new to VUMC when she joined the recently formed Circle, observed that the depths of relationships formed by the group often take several years to materialize in other organizations. She expressed that the Circle served as a “fast-forward” button to quickly deliver meaningful connections among women who may not regularly work together.

To be able to create this sense of connection among the participants, it was essential to ensure the Circle was a “safe space” for open sharing and expressing vulnerability. Kiepek set this tone early on during the group’s kick-off meeting, “Our three fundamentals to establish this circle of trust were maintaining confidentiality, being open and honest in our communications, and commitment to the Circle’s success by being fully present.”

The women meet monthly during blocked times in the middle of the workday, and are supported by their leadership in reserving the times on their calendars.

One challenge the Circle faced was its own reputation — other female leaders heard about the group and were interested in joining. Opening the Circle up to new members, however, was harder than expected. Kiepek explained that group size is critical, noting that 10 to 15 participants is ideal. A larger group can minimize the participation and lively discussion so crucial for success. Likewise, it was difficult to integrate new members, who had missed out on the early days when the Circle’s dynamics were being created.

With its two-year anniversary behind it, the IT Leadership Lean In Circle is thinking about its future. There have been discussions of expanding membership to men, as well as dealing more directly with race, ethnicity and gender identity topics. Some of the members have expressed an interest in helping other women around the Medical Center start Lean In Circles of their own.

Ultimately, Kiepek said she would like to see other Lean In Circles all across VUMC, stating that none of the topics is specific to women working in technology. For those interested in forming their own circles, she did offer some advice:

  • Use existing resources available from Lean In.
  • Limit number of members.
  • Get buy-in from leadership.
  • Host meetings at same day and time each month.
  • Make sure everyone is present and committed to participation.
  • Set expectations on front end.
  • Be patient — trust and vulnerability do not happen immediately.
  • Create a safe space for confidentiality.