Two items triggered my recent reading of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” One was the recent article in Fortune magazine that suggested a complex personality behind the COO of Facebook title and the other is the increasingly popular use of the phrase “lean in” in public and private forums. I typically resist reading these “puff” pieces from business leaders, mostly men, who have professional life all figured out and simplify it in cute little sayings or clever graphics for the rest of us. This superficiality is compounded by the impression that monumental feats of professional accomplishment were achieved by shear individual willpower and towering intellect without hesitation or assistance. And to cap it off, these lifetime business executives appear to have also singlehandedly written their book – ghost writers, writing coaches, and guides or mentors are rarely mentioned. Needless to say, these books suffer from an authenticity gap.
The “Lean In” appeal
The opening stories about navigating the Google parking lot and the expectations of that intense work environment while pregnant convinced me that I had a different sort of book. There was pleasant surprise in discovering:
- Sandberg’s openness and honesty while sitting squarely in the public eye with professional and organizational reputations to defend. Yes, she is conflicted about her choices, as she admits, but so are many of us who want to accomplish multiple life goals.
- She acknowledges a cadre of people who directly and indirectly contributed to her professional development and the writing of the book. While occasionally the list of supporters reads like a celebrity top 50, the message is clear that she did not rise to her current position by herself. She has had mentors, a writing support team and help at home to whom she is deeply grateful.
- The mixture of anecdotes, opinions and researched data and the clear differentiation among the three. Data supported opinions are a welcome contrast to the typical “this is my experience or opinion so it must be a universal truth” statements.
Message to women
The book’s core message is that women are not aspiring to or becoming the organizational leaders that the world needs due a confluence of personal and cultural barriers. Sandberg highlights and tries to dispel some of the cultural myths that narrow individual and organizational choices. Thankfully, there is not a simplistic blaming of men for the failure of women to advance. She suggests that men and women are co-conspirators, frequently unconsciously so, in the process. Women share thoughts and emotional patterns that cause them to behave in certain ways and men are similarly programed to expect women to act in these ways. At the same time, there are very real systematic issues that funnel women into certain professions, particular career tracks and acceptable familial roles.
Message to men
The core message to men is that we should not assume that we are fully conscious of the cultural, personal or biological challenges of women. I should not have to say anything further, but just in case this point needs reinforcing, tell me why the design of public venues still create massive lines outside the ladies room and not the men’s room; in your workplace where do women who breast feed or pump go; and why when a man and a woman possess the exact same credentials is the man perceived to be more likeable and less selfish by both male and female evaluators (Heidi & Howard experiment). If we can admit this myopia, the book offers multiple incidents that should serve to throttle the confidence in our own judgments about another’s circumstances whether it is based on gender, racial, economic or cultural differences.
What if you weren’t afraid?
The most compelling question that Sandberg raises applies to us all, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Most of us are trained by education, family and even business systems to play small. Overtly or covertly, our cultural cues tell us to make the safe choice, take the proven path and pay more attention to your pension than your passion. This idea of what we would do if we were not afraid, prompts each of us, regardless of background to ask ourselves a series of probing questions:
- What am I afraid of?
- Lack of money, disapproval of others, health issues, failure…
- What am I doing or not doing as a result of my fears?
- Changing jobs, starting a business, relocating, getting married or divorced…
- If I did not have this fear, what would I do?
Appreciate your advantages
A message embedded throughout the book is the art of recognizing your resources and advantages. If you had educated and encouraging parents, if you attended great schools or if you connected with someone who became a mentor, contemplate how this contributed to your accomplishments. Acknowledging assistance does not diminish the personal efforts and initiative required to capitalize on opportunities, but rather presents a holistic picture for yourself and others of all the components necessary to achieve and sustain success.
You can’t have it all
Thankfully, Sandberg does not tell us that we can have all, again equally applicable advice for men and women. She talks about the choices we constantly make. If we accept a demanding, globe-trotting job it will reduce the time and energy we have to devote to our family. If we choose to train for an Ironman, it will affect the amount of we spend eating and drinking with friends. If we must care for elderly parents, it may limit the time we have for community involvement. We certainly have to make choices, but her point is not make choices based on the assumption you have no options; not to make choices without pushing hard against real or perceived barriers; and not to make choices without seeking guidance and assistance from others. This is a powerful narrative regardless of gender.
Where do men face bias in the workplace or as a stay-at-home dad?