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Learn to lean

15 March 2013 By Megan Miller

Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” isn’t a self-help guide, corporate charter or memoir. The Facebook chief operating officer claims it’s not a feminist manifesto, either. It’s more of an amalgamation of all these genres. It ranges from intensely personal and insightful to didactic and methodical. Quoted research into how women measure themselves in the workplace and at home underpins a central Sandberg proposition – that women need to be more ambitious and men more accommodating.

Of course, she is no ordinary working mother, or ordinary business leader. The overachiever in school and one-time McKinsey consultant joined Facebook in the early days and is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s one reason her volume has stirred such a debate. But this is not a you-can-be-like-me book. Rather, Sandberg says she is dispensing the advice she wished she had received.

It isn’t really a question of work-life balance. Sallie Krawcheck, among the highest-profile women to make it big on Wall Street, is on record saying there’s often no such balance for someone aiming high in their career. Sandberg surely wouldn’t disagree. She didn’t compromise her career goals much, if at all, for some unattainable idea of having it all. Rather it’s a question of the barriers that still exist even after making that choice.

One of her main points is that women are too uncomfortable with ambition. They don’t want to be called “bossy,” a term usually reserved for women and never a compliment. They are, she says, often uncomfortable with success, and she is a case study. When Forbes magazine ranked her the fifth most powerful woman in the world, she told well-wishers this was absurd. An assistant pulled her aside to remind her that a simple “thank you” was more appropriate.

Sandberg cites studies of both medical and law students that suggest that women think they have performed less well than men on tests, even when they have actually outperformed. Meanwhile men are often hired on potential while women are chosen on past performance. She calls for a more aggressive approach from women, and for more female networking. She made the same point speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit.

She gives some practical advice, including a taboo-breaking call to put the job before the concerns of pregnancy. “Don’t leave before you leave,” she tells women who might let future children distract them from professional ambition. After all, the cost of childcare should be weighed against future earning power, which will be higher if women keep on pushing.

This discussion is in the second half of Sandberg’s non-manifesto, which focuses on marriage and motherhood. She offers a contemporary sort of romantic vision, with a male hero who is a true partner and accepts the sacrifices needed for his spouse’s meaningful career.

It’s perhaps easier in Silicon Valley, where reinvented lives and businesses are more common than in some other places. Sandberg’s husband relocated his outfit – Survey Monkey – to San Francisco from Portland, Oregon to accommodate her career. Yet it still took Sandberg one failed marriage and about another 10 years to find her exceptional partner. Women have traditionally made such sacrifices routinely, but willing men remain scarce.

“Lean In” ends with a section called “Let’s Keep Talking.” This calls on women to organize their own peer groups to support each other’s careers, creating a dialogue and a network of women armed with the knowledge that they are not alone. A community that provides connections to match the old boys’ network could indeed provide a lever that might bring more women into positions of influence in business and elsewhere.

The debate inspired by Sandberg’s book may do its part, too. One participant, coincidentally or not, is Erin Callan, the former Lehman Brothers finance chief who has kept herself, more or less, secluded from the media since the firm’s collapse in 2008. Writing in the New York Times last weekend, she talked about the consequences of having devoted her life to a job that essentially evaporated.

It’s a different take from Sandberg’s. But the more women and men, famous or not, who weigh in and think about it, the more there’s a community for others to lean on – or lean into – and awareness among both sexes. Building that understanding might be the most practical legacy of Sandberg’s book.


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