Loving Sheryl Sandberg. And Wishing She Would Lean In

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The blogosphere is alive with the sound of the sisters dissing Sheryl. TIME magazine’s cover invites us “not to hate her” because she is successful. Not to mention the fuss over Marissa Meyer’s reverse flexibility order at Yahoo and the harm she is doing to American mothers.

So what’s up? We don’t hate these ladies. We love them, we admire them, we envy them. That’s different. Sandberg is the archetypal female role model. Young, pretty, personable, a supremely talented people person. She has it all. Which is what much of the debate is about. Her privilege is cited as an impediment to her preaching.

Yet it’s partly because of her exceptionalism that expectations are so high. Hers of us. And us of her. She wants us to follow her example, ‘if i can do it, so can you.’ And her book is a common sense compendium of how to succeed in a male-dominated business environment. She knows we can do it, if we just ‘lean in’.

But our expectations of her are high too.

She is one of the most powerful women in American business. She is the only woman on Facebook’s Executive Team, and the only woman on their board (put there after some public outrage that there were none). She and Mayer were the two most senior women at Google and both left, leaving Google’s top team a solely male preserve. (So what’s up at Google?)

Better than most, she knows the challenge that women face in America’s corporate world. She describes it in some detail in her book. That’s why it is so disappointing that rather than using her position to lobby for changes in business, she continues the American obsession with lobbying for changes in women.

It is well-meaning. She shares many of the issues that she is coaching women through. When she was a Harvard student in Larry Summers’ class, she never raised her hand or participated. She never ‘leaned in.’ She just did what a lot of women in companies do, she worked hard and got the best grade. And Summers was smart enough to pull her into power, recruiting her as his Cabinet head. She’s proved that was a good talent play.

We need more managers and leaders like Summers. Who recognise talent and develop it, even if it doesn’t loudly or visibly ‘lean in.’ Just if it delivers. That is a management skill that is cruelly lacking in many companies, caught in a cycle of self-perpetuating leadership styles. In a cross-cultural and feminising world, the urgency is to learn that not all leaders ‘lean in.’ Some lead from behind, from the side or from online, differently and effectively.

Sandberg is exceptional in the view she has of the top of leading corporations. She knows that the solution to gender balancing companies like Facebook and Google goes well beyond women. The answers to imbalance are cultural, structural and systemic.

An anecdote in the profile the New Yorker did of Sandberg tells it all. Her then-6 year old son was dreaming of becoming a Star Wars hero when he grew up.Sandberg asked him if she would be invited to his galaxy. He told her no, that he had already invited his sister, and that only one girl was allowed. (See my earlier blog on Gen Y men. He is one of them…)

Sounds a lot like Facebook’s board. So will Sandberg focus her energies on broadening her son’s vision of the future? (not to mention her CEO’s) Or will she empower her daughter to compete for the one position open?

Given the current reality, that 16% of Executive Committees in America’s top 100 companies are women, I’d argue that Sandberg could be focusing on a bigger picture. It’s comfortable – and common – for women to mentor other women. Many do it naturally, pleasurably. It is harder for both men and women to reach out to connect and influence the opposite sex. But that is what is urgently needed. There are enough women and books coaching women how to succeed. There aren’t enough men and books telling men how to manage them effectively and adapt their organisations to become more ‘bilingual’ across genders.

There is a bigger challenge awaiting Sandberg than empowering an already empowered generation of women (nice but not game-changing). It’s unlocking the inefficient and wasteful barriers to their becoming leaders.

Sandberg has, unlike most of the women she is talking to, the choice. Men, companies, governments would listen to her. And that’s where we would love her most to lean in.

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