Lean In: An HFM Book Review

Lean inA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to read Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, current COO of Facebook.  I highly recommend that all women read this no matter what type of work you do.  If you plan to have children, currently have children and are a working mother or even just being a female, you will get something from this book. (For that matter, men could learn a thing or two as well.)  I am very glad to have had the opportunity to read it before I had children because it has given me a heads up of what to expect as a working mom.

The writing style is easy, open and honest.  There’s not a lot of technical jargon meant to impress you.  And there’s not a bunch of theoretical situations, hypothetical fluff or baseless conjecture.  Every chapter contains at least one story about something that really happened in Sandberg’s life as a woman who works and raises children or happened to her colleagues and friends.  Sometimes they are just events that she observed as she worked her way up the ladder to her current position or in previous occupations.

As I read, I came to admire her for what she has already accomplished, but also her attitude toward her success.  She worked damn hard to get where she is, and she acknowledges this about herself.  Although she credits her colleagues and mentors when its due, she does not downplay who she is or what she’s done to get there.  As I read, I kept finding moments when I would think, “damn straight!”  As women, we are often taught to not overemphasize our achievements.  To play nicely with others.  To be peacemakers.  But guess what, you are still a good person if you acknowledge your hard work and give yourself credit for what you accomplish.

In Chapter 2, Sit at the Table, Sandberg relates a story of a meeting she once attended.  She was making a presentation in a large conference room.  There was a table in the middle, and many chairs on the side of the room.  When the meeting began, the men in the meeting promptly sat down at the large table in the middle of the room.  Most of the women elected to sit in the chairs lining the walls of the room even though there was plenty of room at the table.  Exasperated, Sandberg invites those women to move to the main table, but they decline.

The rest of the chapter is about how women will automatically downplay themselves and their position in a company even though no one is asking them to.  I have observed this myself in my own workplace.  On the very few occasions that a full staff meeting is held in the conference room at my office, many of the women will sit along the walls instead of at the table.  (I have always chosen at these rare meetings to sit at the table.  Mostly because the chairs around the table are more comfortable!)  Even the women considered to be part of the top brass administration in my company feel more comfortable (or so it seems) taking a chair along the wall instead of at the main table.  Until I read this book, I had never thought twice about that fact. But I see it plainly now.

In Chapter 7, Don’t Leave Before You Leave, Sandberg mentions that she’s been asked by many young women just starting their careers how she balances her career and her home life.  These are women who haven’t even found partners they want to have children with yet.  They are merely thinking ahead because women are expected to do so.  Sandberg makes an incredibly valid point: “would a man ask another man that question?”  And the answer is no.  A man in the work place has a home life and a work life and balancing it is something that is not questioned by his office compatriots.  They don’t ask the man, “Do you think you can handle it?”

That chapter struck me to my very core.  I am (obviously) open and vocal about my desire to be a mother.  My co-workers are all quiet aware of my situation.  But one of my closest co-workers is entirely uncertain if I will be able to handle being the director of our department as well as  a mother.  She thinks trying to balance it will be my undoing.  And I find her attitude very hard to understand as she is an incredibly staunch feminist.

I have asked myself many times if she is right?  What if I’m not cut out for both?  But after reading this book, my faith in myself is reaffirmed.  I can do whatever I set my mind to in both my personal and professional life.  Why write myself off before I’ve even begun?  Why leave before I leave?  And would my co-worker have questioned the abilities of a male in my position if he were going through what my partner and I are going through?  I don’t think so.

The main point of chapter 7 is that women are liable to make decisions with an eye toward eventually being a mother, even before they are ready for that step in their lives.  Instead of opening the door when opportunity knocks, she might chose to do the less adventurous thing because, in theory, it puts her in a better position if she has children.  Relocation is used as an example.  Maybe you have the opportunity for a promotion, but that would involve relocating to a foreign country.  Women, in Sandberg’s experience, are less likely to take that opportunity because it would influence the potential of being a mother.  Obviously, Sandberg is not suggesting that once you are a mother you compromise what you think is best for your family.  She is writing specifically about herself and other women who made decisions like this before they even had children.

One more example of why this is such a fine book before I wrap up this post.  There is a part of the book (I don’t remember which chapter) in which Sandberg discusses being approached by Mark Zuckerberg about taking on her current position.  As with any contract negotiations, there is the topic of salary to be discussed.  She seriously considered pitching Zuckerberg a lower salary for herself because she wasn’t sure that she was the best choice for Facebook.  Her husband was the one to talk sense into her.  He pointed out that Facebook was approaching her because of what she could offer the company.  Why in the world would she then downplay her abilities and take a lower salary?  Even if their family wasn’t benefiting from a competitive salary, it was the principle of the thing.  And Sandberg went back to the negotiations and got what she deserved.  The book doesn’t discuss numbers directly, but I am pretty sure Sandberg is doing just fine at Facebook.

I had an interaction like this recently.  My friend was considering asking for a raise at work.  I asked when was the last time he’d been given a raise.  It had not even been a year previous.  I cautioned him about asking too soon, but he replied that he had recently accomplished a lot of good work that had been commended by his boss.  There is no harm in asking for a raise when you do good work.  Despite my reservations he asked for the raise.  And I was just informed earlier this week that he had received a very good percentage increase of his normal salary.

Why was I encouraging him to undersell himself and what he had accomplished?  Because of my own fears in my own career.  He is 100% correct, you should ask for a raise when it is deserved.  And I have to ask myself the question that is posed by Sandberg in Chapter 1, What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?

To sum up, you should absolutely read this book.  I was able to check it out at the library, but the book is very reasonably priced on Amazon.  And you can follow Sheryl Sandberg on Facebook.  As my co-worker likes to say, I’ve found a new “shero.”

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