As you may have heard, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, has written a book, and it’s kind of a big deal. From 60 Minutes to the cover of Time, Sandberg’s image and message for women to Lean In have been plastered everywhere for the world to see — enough so that one might think there was white smoke billowing into the sky above Facebook headquarters.
Ironically, many of the women I know – like my wife – are way too busy leaning in to read Sandberg’s book. So, I thought I would read it for them and offer up a concise summary, along with my perspective, of course.
Lean In is a quick read of 172 pages. It grows out of Sandberg’s now famous TED talk called “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” If you’re really busy, just watch the video as it’s a nice executive summary of the book and you’ll get all the main themes of her position. (Then buy the book and put in in your office where people can see it, but don’t be too obvious, and work the term “lean in” to at least one conversation a week.)
My initial plan was to write a critical review of Lean In, pointing out all of the ways that Sandberg was out of touch. After all, being an almost billionaire automatically makes one out of touch with the real world. But, then I actually READ the book.
It’s hard not to have a lot of respect for Sandberg. She’s obviously an incredibly smart, imperfect, successful woman, as “down to earth” as a billionaire can be (unlike, let’s say, a certain person at Yahoo), and she is genuinely interested in the advancement of women as leaders. Sure, her book is a massive ego project and will benefit her (and Facebook) greatly, especially leading up to an inevitable run for political office, but in today’s world where every single move of famous people is chronicled and ridiculed on Twitter (oh crap, sorry, I mean Facebook), I have to give her credit for putting herself way out there on a truly difficult, and not always politically correct, topic.
So, for everyone way too busy leaning in, here’s my quick summary of the book:
– As I read the book’s first chapter on the leadership ambition gap, I halfway expected Jerry McGuire to leap off of the page with his mission statement in hand saying “Who’s With Me?!” The chapter does include good data on just how far we haven’t come in terms of women as leaders. It also kick starts a succession of cute anecdotes from Sandberg showing her vulnerability and failures.
– Sit at the Table: This chapter is all about believing in yourself and having confidence in your abilities. A good positive message. It’s about having the confidence to feel that you’ve earned the right to sit at the big boy table and you shouldn’t accept being relegated to the side of the room. I think the most important thing to remember here is that it’s always better to say something smart from the side of the room than something stupid while at the table. Ultimately, your ideas should win, but Sandberg makes a good point that it’s not always the case for women.
– Success and Likeability: I found the “Heidi/Howard” example quite compelling and really all you need to know about this chapter (and book). A Columbia Business School professor gave students the same case study with the ONLY difference being some got the case with the main character as Heidi and others got Howard. Students with Howard thought he was the bomb, but those with the Heidi version saw her as selfish and “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” Bottom line is that men can get away with being total jerks at work because it fits in with what we expect, but if a woman acts like a man, she gets called the “b” word a lot. Totally unfair.
– It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder: Bottom line, work at a great company, try a lot of things (women according to Sandberg are less inclined to volunteer for new/stretch opportunities). There are many ways to get to the top besides climbing straight up.
– Are You My Mentor?: Don’t ask Sandberg to be your mentor; it makes her mad. Frankly, this could have been a one-page chapter. Basically, if you have to ask someone to be your mentor, you’ve already lost. These types of relationships evolve naturally and are a give-and-take.
– Seek and Speak Your Truth: Get feedback, give feedback, don’t bullshit.
– Don’t Leave Before You Leave: My plan was to tear Sandberg apart here, but then I actually read the chapter and realized that twice in my career I had left before I left and it didn’t benefit me at all. Why not accelerate until the day that you put on the brakes? The more valuable you are to a company, the harder it is to replace you, the more likely you can ask for special circumstances (come in late, flex time etc.). The caveat here is don’t let a group re-org around you and then leave two days later – that’s not leaning in, that being a crappy person.
– Make Your Partner a Real Partner: aka, men are cavemen (except the men Sandberg knows); find one that’s only half caveman, make him do the housework and you’re all set. Don’t worry about marrying for love or something crazy like that, just make sure he can help advance your career. Oh, and if you’re in a same-sex relationship, Ms. Sandberg has absolutely no advice for you.
– The Myth of Doing It All: We need to stop talking about this (see The Atlantic article). Stop feeling so guilty about it. Decide what your all is and go for it. Life’s not fair, just try your best and deal with it. Oh, and if you bring your kids to work sometimes that’s ok, Mark Zuckerberg will teach them how to fence and do office pranks (how about teaching them how to code Mark??).
– Last two chapters: Braveheart meets Hoosiers meets Rudy. Rally cry moment. Sandberg channels Herb Brooks giving his pre-game speech to the 1980 U.S. hockey team. “This is our time. If they (men) played us 10 times, they might win 9, but tonight is your (women) time, tonight we skate (sit at table) with them…because we can, tonight…we are the greatest hockey team (gender) on the face of the earth, now go out there and take it (lots more meetings).
So there you have it: Lean In in a nutshell, now get back to work!
But wait, one more point…
The entire time I was reading the book, I kept trying to figure out who the audience for this book actually is. I think men in business could learn something from the book — I did.
While the book appears to be for women well into their careers making tough decisions about leaning in or not, the reality is that train has already left the station for those women to lead nations and become CEOs. For the incredibly vast majority of these women (and men by the way), if they were going to be on the C-suite track, they would have already been on it. Lean In may inspire a person to go for a promotion, and that’s great, but in my nearly 15+ years in Corporate America, I never saw someone get on a true senior leadership track (I mean the top) who wasn’t already on it, and definitely not after reading a book. Remember, there are more Major League baseball players than Fortune 500 CEOs.
I think parents are the main audience for this book. Much of what Sandberg discusses is about building/having confidence, fighting insecurities, not bowing to societal pressures about what a girl (or boy) should be like.
For everyone I know, those lessons, if they indeed were learned, were learned much earlier than when attending one’s first staff meeting at Facebook.
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