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Women in Leadership Spotlight: Sheryl Sandberg

In recent years, the name Sheryl Sandberg has appeared frequently on lists such as: “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune, “50 Women to Watch” by The Wall Street Journal, “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes, and “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time.

A former graduate of Harvard Business School and current Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Inc., Ms. Sandberg is a prominent face representing women in leadership. She has spoken on the topic at venues such as Barnard’s Commencement address in May 2011 and Harvard Business School’s commencement this past May. Her speech “Why we have too few Women Leaders” given at a TED conference, has over one million online views, indicative that people are listening to her inspiring words.

Indeed inspiration and encouragement seem to be the qualities that distinguish Sandberg’s approach to increasing women in the workforce. This contrasts with many discussions of women and leadership that strongly critique institutional flaws and outside causes of the gender gap in leadership.

Essentially, Sandberg does not disagree with any of the systemic problems that exist. However, she primarily focuses her discussion on what women should actively do at an individual level to reach the highest rungs of leadership and management.

Her speeches include three key pieces of advice to women: 1) Sit at the table, 2) Make your partner a partner, and 3) Don’t leave until you have to leave. She implies that each of these three actions has important implications for women’s ultimate career trajectories.

For example, telling women to sit at the table stems from years of witnessing first-hand that women tend to sit on the side of the room. She believes this represents the tendency of women to systematically underestimate their own abilities, compared to men who overestimate it. This psychological barrier prevents women from getting promotions, negotiating their salaries, and ultimately owning their own success.

When Sandberg talks about “making your partner a partner,” she refers to women having to create an equitable relationship with their spouse so that the burdens of home life and family life are evenly shared. Only in such relationships can women and their spouses be allowed to invest equal time and energy into their career developments.

Finally, Sandberg’s third piece of advice again hinges on frequent psychological tendencies of women. Women prematurely worry about their future work-life balance and self-select themselves out of opportunities before such sacrifices need to be made. Examples include women who opt out of intense medical fellowships during medical school, or women who decide not to try for partner after years of work in a law firm. She warns that premature worries become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If later women struggle with work-life balance, all their forsaken opportunities deter them from selecting work over other life activities.

Sandberg’s approach to closing the leadership gap stems from an internal impetus for women to close the ambition gap. She urges all women to take on compelling projects, embrace advancement opportunities, and enrich themselves in the fields most appealing to them. Women must feel challenged and passionate about what they do, otherwise they will drop out of the workforce feeling bored and undervalued.

Studies clearly show that women have everything it takes to become successful leaders. But maybe Sandberg is on to something. Before they can change the system, perhaps women have to change their actions first.

BLG Leadership Insights

Discovering the Roots of Leadership

Recently I had the opportunity to address the President’s Council of Cornell Women (PCCW) on the theme of leadership. In so doing I faced the unique challenge of trying not to preach nor to present myself as an expert on what I could not experience. The challenge was to find those thematic leadership issues that are common to all regardless of race, culture, and gender.

I walked away from the experience with a sense that the key set of skills that we all need are the necessary skills of execution. While certain groups face greater obstacles, the basic skills of execution demand a common language and a focused discussion on how to make sure that everyone has the minimum tools for moving agendas ahead. While clearly this field is not leveled, nor will it be leveled for a long time, we as teachers and trainers have to ask ourselves, what are the leadership skills we need to impart so that everyone has at least the same common skills on this uneven field?

Have been given this opportunity to talk to this group of outstanding women leaders it is something I had to ask myself and give much thought to. It is a question I think that more of us need to ask.

As a side note, in preparing for the talk, I had the chance to review one particularly insightful collection of essays, Women & Leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change edited by Barbara Kellerman and Deborah L. Rhode. It is an excellent compilation of theory and superb research summaries on women in leadership. It is, in my mind, the most innovative integrative material on the subject. Some of the excellent pieces in the volume include a an essay called The Great Women Theory of Leadership? by Todd L. Pittinsky, Laura M. Bacon, and Brain Welle. I also found the essay entitled Overcoming Resistance to Women Leaders by Linda L. Carli and Alice H. Eagly to be very helpful.

It’s a volume I’d strongly encourage anyone interested in leadership to review. It will force you to ask the same question I was forced to ask when I gave the PCCW talk: Where is the common ground between men and women? We know the differences, our challenge as teachers and trainers is to also deal with the commonalities.

It was a remarkable and wonderful learning experience.