In last Friday’s post I went over some critiques I had of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Like many who have read this influential work, I did express disappointment with several aspects of it. However it is important to note that I do have some high praise for the book as well. Besides shedding light on issues that have been illuminated by others in the past (and will surely continue to be highlighted in the future until they are ultimately resolved), there are several very specific things in this book that had me cheering in my seat.
First, I really enjoyed her discussion of women needing to become comfortable with the idea of sitting at the table and reaching for things that they may not be qualified for on paper. This is something that I have struggled with, and now that I am attempting to transition my career into the technology sector it remains a frequent worry; if I don’t feel 110% confident in my abilities to do a project or even a job, I have a tendency shy away from taking it on or applying for it. All of the typical excuses come to mind: I’m not qualified for it, I don’t want to take it and screw it up, etc. Sandberg mentions that this mental barrier is something that women often hide behind that can keep them from progressing in their job, when in reality men face the same thoughts but are often more comfortable taking the risk because being aggressive and ambitious are often valued more highly in men than in women in the workplace.
But if I’ve learned nothing else from nearly a decade in the working world, the one thing I have learned is that most people don’t know what they are doing a good portion of the time. We’re all trying to stumble our way through, the only difference is whether you attempt to cover that up with bravado and arrogance in a Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It approach, or if you let it defeat you before you even start. Thinking about it that way has really helped me get around this barrier. After all, if we’re all just faking our way through it, why not throw yourself into the ring? Besides, as a life long learner I don’t do well when I’m not challenged or learning new things, and learning new things is a struggle by definition. I do feel like many more women could benefit from adjusting their worldview in a similar manner.
Another part of the book I loved was Chapter 4: It’s a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder. In this chapter Sandberg discusses the benefit of trying different kinds of jobs and accepting different positions in a less of a hierarchical advance to leadership positions. It’s an echo of something I feel very passionate about: Having broad experience in a more Renaissance Person approach is often better than having deep, specialized experience in only one area. We are in an era when many business are flattening out, becoming more team oriented and less hierarchical. In this kind of environment, it is far better to come to the table with diverse experience as opposed to being an expert in a single area. Ashley Stahl, Millennial Career Coach Extraordinaire, recently hinted at the same thing in a recent post on Forbes which discussed why the technical skills in any specific college major aren’t as important as you may think they are:
We’ve all worked with the genius intern with the perfect resume who couldn’t make it to the office on time (ever); the one who spoke six languages but teamwork wasn’t one of them. Likewise, we’ve all known the colleague from the never-heard-of-it college who hustled harder than anyone else on the team and flew up the ladder with blink and you’ll miss her speed.
As Arthur Clarke said, “It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.”
What has been proven is that the most successful leaders are motivated by a purpose.
– Ashley Stahl, Six Reasons Why Your College Major Doesn’t Matter
Focusing on a ground-up, hierarchical approach to your dream job is only going to leave you frustrated. Take Sheryl’s advice on this one: Don’t be afraid to try new industries, new positions or even taking lateral positions if it will give you new experience you can move forward with. There are lots of ways to get the top of the Jungle Gym.
Another great piece of wisdom from Sandberg relates to a shift I strongly agree needs to be made by the entire working world across all industries: We need to stop being afraid to talk about certain issues. Specifically, she points to the issue of women and whether or not they have or want to have children. In an early chapter of the book, she admits that when she noticed a younger female employee at Google seemed to be pulling back from advancement, she pulled the young woman aside and asked her if she was doing this because she wanted children in the near future and was afraid she would advance her job to a level where she couldn’t do both. Sandberg admits that this direct question would put any good labor lawyer into a state of apoplectic shock; after all, both gender and pregnancy are protected classifications for employees and cannot be used as a basis for decisions around hiring, pay or promotion. Even I found my jaw on my lap when she admitted that she regularly asks questions like this, it’s drilled into you in any kind of business or management training that this is a huge no-go zone when it comes to conversations with employees or perspective employees.
But Sandberg points out something which I had never thought of before, and I agree needs to be discussed in the business world. The law simply states that these are protected classes…it does not forbid discussion of them. Lawyers and legions of HR practitioners, fearful of lawsuits and legal liability, have taken this a step farther and, to protect the business, have decided that these topics can’t even be discussed. But these issues are strongly intertwined with things like pay equity for women, workforce retention issues and the like. Many experts have pointed out that one of the biggest hurdles that women face in the working world is lack of paid family leave, and that having access to paid family leave leads to benefits for employees, employers and the economy as a whole. How can we expect to have this conversation when employers won’t discuss it for fear of litigation? As Sandberg points out, this has a chilling effect on some much needed reforms, and opines that it cannot be the intention of a law to protect women from discrimination if that protection hurts women in the long run by killing any chances of reform. Without the freedom to talk about these issues, interviews and reviews become something similar to Supreme Court Nomination hearings…a contest in how many ways both sides can say nothing. It is a pointless exercise that accomplishes next to nothing.
Despite some issues I have with the book, overall it was a good read and I do think it will be influential in the working world across all sectors. Some sectors and areas of the country will change faster than others, but change is coming and Sandberg has her finger on the pulse of much of that change.