Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, has gotten more press over her Barnard commencement address
than the rest of the nation’s speakers combined. It’s appropriate. One
journalist writes that Sandberg provides a different “spin” on women’s
work/life issues. That’s not only an understatement, but dead wrong.
Sandberg offers a different strategy on the subject and reframes the
Barnard, the woman’s college known for its great commencement
addresses about women’s issues by prominent figures (e.g. Hillary
Clinton, Meryl Streep, Anna Quindlen), still grants the Columbia
University degree from the little school across the street. (Since our
youngest is a Barnard alumna, I admit to bias.)
My teaser blog title appears early in the speech, but it’s not to
take away from the valuable contribution she makes to women’s work/life
issues. A word cloud finds that her speech emphasizes women’s choices,
decisions, success and work world.
Sandberg’s context-setting emphasizes a number of relevant statistics: Of
190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the
world, 13% of those seats are held by women. Corporate America top jobs,
15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine
years. Nine years. Of full professors around the United States, only
24% are women.
That’s only part of the problem that women face. The message argues
that women are needed at all levels to change the dynamic, reshape the
conversation and make certain women are heard and heeded rather than
overlooked and ignored.
No question that the personal perspective and psychological issues that she illuminates, some I’ve addressed previously, are salient. You’ll want to check them out in the speech. No doubt, also, there are external forces holding women back from owning success. Studies have shown—and yes, I kind of like studies—that
success and likeability are positively correlated for men and
negatively correlated for women. This means that as men get more
successful and powerful, both men and women like them better. As women
get more powerful and successful, everyone, including women, likes them
less. An absolutely and completely accurate analysis.
No question also, that a world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world.
And so, Sandberg focuses on a different strategic approach and
formulation for women. Historically, women’s work/life balance has
focused upon early planning and recognition that if women want children
and career, they should start thinking about that route as soon as they
get into their first job. Sandberg rightly reframes the issue and
recommends that you focus upon your career wholeheartedly until the time
you need to make other decisions.
So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start
thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean
back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until
the day you have to make a decision (about children, family, etc.), and
then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll
even have a decision to make.
Strategy, we know, is about “no” as much as “yes.”
Otherwise any strategy is liable to fail. What you don’t want to do is
to start planning your life for your children before you face the
decision of having children. Otherwise you’ll miss out on the inevitable
success that single-minded focus can bring. Changing strategy before
it’s necessary is a dilution of strategy. It will keep you from
In short, if you’re smart enough to improvise and succeed in
business, you’re also smart enough to improvise and succeed in family and career. That goes for men as well as for women.
Behavioral scientists have found that the way we think about things
has a terrific impact on the way we act. If, for example, we keep family
concerns up front before we have to make that decision, it takes away
from our power and energy to get things done. This follows even in daily
priority setting. I’ve learned that it’s very important to decide
quickly what I’m not going to do, toss that in the circular file, and
then figure out what and when I need to get more important things done.
All of us are faced with more and more information, decisions and tasks.
The only way to deal with that reality is to set aside that which we
don’t have to deal with now, and get on with the rest. My coaching of
execs reveals that a lot of the stuff they think they have to do can be
easily delegated, set aside, or just plain ignored.
Sandberg has a great strategy for a very important subject. Set aside
the decisions you don’t have to make now, she says. And get on with the
rest, pedal to the metal. That includes family.
Most of us are not immune from those problems. I learned early on as a
parish minister that my way of ministering could require six nites a
week. With three daughters, I simply was not going to take that route.
Thus, eventually, I took a teaching position at a theological seminary.
As I realized that world was too small, my wife and I decided it was
time for me to go on grad school, build a different kind of education
and move on from teaching. She also made different decisions at critical
points in our family life. The most liberating result of those
decisions, of waiting until forced to make decisions (often, an
excellent pattern), is the profound satisfaction and integrity we have
about the consequences of those decisions for our children.