This past weekend, I flew across the country to my cousin’s wedding, which afforded me an unusually quiet 6.5 hours on a Sunday to spend…reading. No errands, no cleaning, no laundry, just the blissfully lazy pleasure of words on a page. I’ve been on a food literature kick recently, so Lean In had been sitting patiently on my bedside table ever since I ordered it after seeing Sheryl Sandberg speak at Harvard April 4th.
I’m a little late to this Sandberg punditry game, but let me just come out and say it: I like her. As a speaker, she’s warm, charming, witty, humble, yet confident, gracious and eloquent. As a writer, she’s the same. Her speech in April turned out to be a really nice synopsis of the book, so I wasn’t exactly surprised about any of her points. That said, I think they’re so much more than merely valid, they’re inspiring and useful. This does seem to be like a young woman’s book and it resonates with exactly where I am in my career – heading into a critical decade that will most likely see marriage, children, transcontinental journeys, and many, many choices.
Sandberg never pretends to have all the answers, nor does she make it seem like her choices are the ones everyone should make, but she does provide a really nice foundation, backed by research and anecdotes, about how we as individuals and a community can make the world a better, fairer place. I’m also a huge fan of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s and her piece in the Atlantic last summer was about the systemic and organizational forces that hold back women/mothers in the work place. Sandberg has one way in - the personal and Slaughter has another - the organizational, they both acknowledge that it’s not just one that will fix everything, it’s a complex, weighty issue with many moving parts and nuances. There’s no catch-all here, and we must all do our part to make the change we want to see.
I’ve never wanted to be President of the United States, and quite honestly, I don’t think I want to be CEO of someone else’s company. I’m not ruling out the potential of stumbling into an idea and building a company around it, infusing it with passion, vision, and leadership, but I haven’t yet had that lightbulb moment, so for now, I plan to be dedicated to improving the world in some way and building solid, productive working relationships with those around me. I’m not sure what shape that’s going to take just yet, but I plan to follow the opportunities that feel right.
Sandberg’s words are not just for those who want to be President, who were called bossy on the playground (though I do think she makes extremely good points about the gender roles and cultural expectations - the liberal arts kid in me harkens back to Queer Theory and the “Gender is a social construct” readings in college) or who have this impervious “will to lead.” Just because I don’t want to be President doesn’t mean I don’t want to be great or that the C-suite is out of reach, and this book is really about being the best you possible, earning the respect of those around you (both men and women should take heed).
There have been many, many articles about this book, more opinions than you can ever hear, and lots of nasty backlash. There are other places to find a synopsis, and, frankly, reading the chapter titles will give you an easy overview of her main points. I don’t have the book next to me right now, but after sleeping on it, there are a few points I think are particularly salient.
Think of your career as a jungle gym, not a ladder.The days of 40-year tenures at the same company are long gone, and so too should be the notion that once on a path, the only way forward is up. We mustn’t chase titles or feel shackled by our past choices. Our skills are transferrable, our experiences invaluable – verticals are negotiable. I’ve always viewed my career choices thusly, thinking that eventually my experiences will add up to this Swiss Army knife of skills, deployable against many different kinds of problems in multiple industries. In a jungle gym, there are many ways to the top, sometimes you step down to move diagonally, and best of all, there are many people waiting for you when you get there.
Ask yourself “what would you do if you weren’t afraid” and do it. Sandberg wrote Lean In. I’ve witnessed time and time again personally that the biggest risks reap the biggest rewards, and I like being reminded of it in a professional sense too. I will seek the purposefully wild and the uncontrolled chaos.
Don’t leave before you leave.Sandberg has some hilarious anecdotes about young women (one as young as 5) over thinking the future trade-offs and decisions they will have to make to ensure their children are well cared for. I’ve had a lot of conversations with peers and mentors about being a parent while having a career, contemplating freelancing, wondering about part time, ruminating on the management of two careers and birthday parties and sleep overs. I feel like my life is already pretty busy and full so throwing tiny humans into the mix is daunting. Yet people do it and they figure it out, and until all that happens, we should press on the gas, full speed ahead.
Take a role/promotion because of your potential, not your prior experience. This isn’t exactly one of Sandberg’s pithy titles or main points, but it is a running theme that also aligns with the jungle gym theory. I think we, and certainly I see this in myself, have a tendency to want to be fully qualified, fully ready for big, new roles, but that’s not the point at all. The point is to grow, to learn by doing, to jump in and try, to ask questions and stop wondering if we’re good enough and start proving that we are.
Sandberg wrote a book, so obviously there’s a lot more than the above points. For instance, she gives very helpful tips about negotiations (likening them to walking up hill backwards in heels). She talks about going through a few of her own painfully awkward and wrought internal struggles about whether or not to even counter offer, deeply understanding most females’ inclination to just take what they believe to be fair. That and so many more tidbits were exceedingly illuminating – I encourage you all to read it.
As a final thought, it’s books like these that help us all define the kinds of people we want to be and the kinds of people that we want to work for – gender notwithstanding. Ultimately, Sandberg’s dream is for a world that’s not just more equal, but better as a result of that equality. I have the amazing good fortune to work for one of the most brilliant, humble, AND nice women in this business, but I’ve also had and have incredible male role models as well. Cheers to the good ones, I hope to join you someday.