Author: Sheryl Sandberg

Genre: Management, Feminism, Autobiography

Sherly Sandberg, currently the COO of Facebook, is probably one of the most successful professionals in Corporate America. Harvard educated, with stints in Mckinsey, World Bank, US Treasury, Google and Facebook, she is now worth about US$1.8billion! Stratospheric for a paid corporate executive who was not an entrepreneur.

Sherly delivered a TED talk on why so few women occupied leadership positions in corporate America, offering her advice. This has been viewed more than 10mn times as of now and inspired her to write this book. The book primarily talks of what women can do to have a great career along with a fulfilling personal life.  The sad reality is that less than 4% of Fortune 500 or FTSE 250 companies are run by women. I recall even when I was in P&G, this was a hot topic: at entry level, P&G hired roughly half women and half men. Both equally smart and accomplished, from similar bschools. And yet, at the top level, the percentage dwindled significantly. Even in my current role as CEO of a business, I struggle to ensure equal number of women in my direct leadership team. We all have good intentions, but sadly at the top level, there are just so few female candidates available.  Unfortunately, societal biases remain. “Our stereotype of men holds that they are providers, decisive, and driven. Our stereotype of women holds that they are care givers, sensitive, and communal”.

But beyond a manifesto to bring more women in leadership roles, this is a book on simply being a great leader. We all start with high determination and ambition but then slowly, many of us, equally competent, start plateauing out. Little nuances, blind spots or ‘bad habits’ hold us back. There are so many lessons in this book that I could personally relate to and wish I had learnt earlier in my career. I will recount the top 5 challenges of aspiring managers.

Self-Doubt: It was intriguing to see somebody like Sheryl, coming from such a privileged background and so consistently successful, still suffer from bouts of self-doubt and insecurity. In her words: “Every time I was called on in class, I was sure that I was about to embarrass myself… This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name – the imposter syndrome… But feeling confident is necessary to reach for opportunities… opportunities are rarely offered; they are seized… I still have days when I feel like a fraud.”

Likability: Like many leaders coming from a functional path, I owed my early success to my ability to influence the general manager and other leaders. Trying to be “liked” by them, then, almost became natural habit. And then I read Sheryl recounting her first review with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook: “One of the things he told me was that the desire to be liked by everyone would hold me back. He said that when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.”

Mentoring: I have been blessed to have had great mentors and owe a lot of my current position to their advice and sponsorship. Sheryl lays out the process loud and clear. “(young executives) need to find mentors (people who will advise them) as well as sponsors (people who will use their influence to advocate for them)… Mentorship and sponsorship are crucial for career progression… The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides… Mentors select proteges based on performance and potential. Intuitively, people invest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help. Mentors continue to invest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback… Few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding. Most are dealing with their own high stress jobs.”

Authenticity: Again Sheryl gives very balanced advice. First, she recognizes that “being honest in the workplace is especially difficult. All organizations have some form of hierarchy, which means that someone’s performance is assessed by someone else’s perception… So there is fear that constructive criticism will come across as just plain old criticism… Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest. Speaking truth without hurting feelings”

Work life balance: Sheryl busts the myth of doing it all. “No matter what any of us has – and how grateful we are for what we have – no one has it all… ‘having it all’ disregards the basis of every economic relationship: the idea of trade-offs… Pursuing both a professional and personal life is a noble and attainable goal, up to a point… We all face limits of time and patience… Each of us make choices constantly between work and family, exercising and relaxing, making time for others and taking time for ourselves… I had to decide what mattered and what didn’t and I learned to be a perfectionist in only the things that mattered… (But the truth is that) The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone.”

I found the book very pragmatic and inspiring. For example, Sheryl is very accommodating of women who do not wish to pursue the rate race and “have different and more meaningful goals… There is far more to life than climbing a career ladder, including raising children, seeking personal fulfilment, contributing to society, and improving the lives of others.”

Feminists though are generally hard to satisfy, and some leading ones criticized the book (“Sheryl was privileged and had powerful mentors”, “I wish she had written more of single mothers who were nannies and not only of those who could afford a nanny”…). Well, the book sold 4mn copies and got Sheryl on the covers of Time and Fortune!

Why should you read the book: If you are a young manager aspiring for the C-suite, this is a manifesto. If you are a woman, doubly so. The book is excellent, well-researched (35 pages of bibliography and further notes at the end), full of personal anecdotes and transparent advice. I have personally gifted it to many talented and ambitious young female managers, because I geninely believe the memoirs can make their path to the top clearer.

Goodreads Link: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg | Goodreads

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