NEW YORK - "Remember - you are your own brand," business coach Franne McNeal was telling some 100 women crowded into a downtown Manhattan office lounge one evening last week.
"If you lean back, you are denying the universe your greatness. So lean in, shout out, and get comfortable with who you are! Tonight is about teamwork."
Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer whose best-selling book, "Lean In," inspired the meeting, would surely have been happy with the turnout. Her book, and the national discussion it seeks to launch, is aimed at helping women empower themselves in the workplace. On its final page, it suggests forming small circles to continue the conversation. The idea is about 10 people per group, but more than 10 times that number showed up last Tuesday in response to an open invitation on LinkedIn from Mary Dove, a New York psychotherapist.
Many, though not all, the attendees had read "Lean In," which came out last month to a burst of publicity, blockbuster sales - and much controversy. Was Sandberg, as some of the negative reviewers asserted, essentially putting the blame on women for their inability to fully crack the glass ceiling? Was she giving a pass to government and employers, and instead firing, as one USA Today columnist wrote, the "latest salvo in the war on moms?"
MUCH TO RECOGNIZE
Not surprisingly, the women at the New York meeting were fans of the book, saying that in Sandberg's anecdotes they'd found much to recognize from their own lives - especially instances when they "leaned back."
Lauren Tilstra, 27, had just read the book during a break between jobs. She recalled that at her previous job, when her boss and mentor left, she realized she wasn't getting a seat at the table anymore - and wasn't being aggressive about claiming one.
"I was being left out of conversations," says Tilstra, of Hoboken, N.J. "I was kind of leaning back, and not getting into things that were going on. That's when I realized I had to find somewhere I could lean in." At her new job, which she began just this week, she hopes to gain a leadership role and build her own team.
SUPPORT FROM WEBSITE
To give the circles practical support, LeanIn.org has extensive content on its website (proceeds from Sandberg's book go to the foundation) including videos, produced with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, exploring issues like how to negotiate - a thorny issue for many women - and how to use better body language. There are also detailed kits for Lean In circles.
Of course, the big question is how many of these circles are forming. LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas isn't sure. "We think they're just sprouting up organically," Thomas says. She's heard from women as far off as India, Britain and Australia.
Linda Brandt, 43, started a circle in Minneapolis, where she works in public health. Brandt especially likes one of Sandberg's best-known lines: "Don't leave before you leave."
In other words: Push as hard as you can in your career until you HAVE to leave to have a baby, so that you have something compelling to come back to; don't opt out in mere anticipation of having to later. "Nobody's ever said that in such a clear way," Brandt says.
Another of Sandberg's themes is the so-called impostor syndrome - women negating their own self-worth to the point of feeling like their success is fraudulent. That rings particularly true to Bridgid Kinney, a division manager of a small business in Columbia, Mo., who hosted her first Lean In circle Monday night.
The realization that she was underselling herself came home to Kinney, 38, in a previous job, when her business partner - who was her husband at the time - left the company, and she didn't want her customers to know for months, for fear they'd think she couldn't handle things herself.
She's learning not to underestimate herself like that. In her circle, everyone articulated that they want to take greater career risks and make some changes.
While the Lean In groups seem to skew toward women in their 20s and 30s, there's certainly a range. In Tulsa, Okla., Dorothy Minor, 66, has started a circle at the community college where she teaches. For the older employees, there are issues of transition and retirement, Minor says.
At a large Brooklyn circle, participant Anne Fitzgerald, who is 43, Sandberg's age, was interested in what Sandberg calls the success and likability problem: As women become more successful, they are less liked. As a real-estate agent, she's found she's had to be aggressive to compete - but then risked being unlikable. "This is true in every facet of women's lives," Fitzgerald says - not just at work. "We don't want to be assertive."
And so, she thinks, the Lean In circle might involve some overall life lessons as well.
Tilstra, the New Jersey woman, agrees, and is grateful to talk it out with women she wouldn't have met otherwise. "You can't always trust people at work, and it's nice not to have to complain to your significant other," she says.