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Sheryl Sandberg’s Lessons to Succeed and Savor Your Work and Life

“I could not have gotten more headlines if I had murdered someone with an ax.” That’s author Ken Auletta’s characterization of the fervent, wildly divergent and huge public response Sheryl Sandberg received after her video interview for the PBS documentary MAKERS.

What was her provocative comment? That she left the office at five thirty to have dinner with her family. Earlier, she’d spoken at the launch of Facebook Women, an in-house resource group at work. “When asked the (inevitable) question about how I balanced my job and my family,” she said that she left at five thirty and, after the children were in bed, she went online to get more work done.

1. Speak out yet stay human

Taking stands for what you believe in is core to Sandberg’s credo, in her new book that’s out March 11th. Lean In to your career “and do not leave before you leave.” Don’t hold back, as she feels that women have been conditioned to do. Instead, “we need to feel more comfortable with power.”

Yet her expressed trepidation in being bold gives her approachability: “I wanted to encourage others to personalize their schedules too. Even though I had planned in advance to discuss this, I felt nervous. Years of conditioning had taught me never to suggest that I was doing anything other than giving 100 percent to my job. It was scary to think that someone, even people working for me, might doubt my diligence or dedication.  Fortunately that did not happen.”

She advocated flex time policies just as Deloitte’s Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson recommended lattice career options to replace the traditional corporate ladder policies.

Sandberg’s willingness to be vulnerable is part of what builds bonds with others, according to Brene Brown who also believes courage, for both women and men, is borne out of choosing to be vulnerable. Yet others who emulate Sandberg’s public stands may not get the same supportive response from their work colleagues. That is what makes such acts daring.  

2. Work to deserve smart mentors who are stellar in your profession. 

Sandberg’s willingness to work hard and take strong, sometimes controversial stands may well have been bolstered by having long-time, strong, some would say alpha male mentors, including Larry Summer and Tim Geithner, as godmother to his daughter. Sandberg met Summers when taking his public sector economics class. She doesn’t indicate why he took her under his wing, yet she must have stood out in some way: “He offered to supervise my senior thesis—something very few Harvard professors volunteers to do for undergraduates.” She also doesn’t say why Washington Post chairman Don Graham “helped me navigates some of my most challenging professional situations” yet she clearly has a gift for attracting extremely successful mentors, including Arianna Huffington, Gene Sperling and Oprah Winfrey. For Sandberg that may be an undefinable capacity yet it did play a vital role in her success.

Don’t seek out strangers as mentors, Sandberg advises. “The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides.”

That’s been my experience too. My most transformative professional mentoring relationship sprung out of my work for my boos, a bureau chief at the newspaper where I worked. I was the first woman to work for him who wasn’t covering the society beat. He was a proudly self-described curmudgeon, often blunt, blasphemous and unbending yet extremely smart and seasoned in the news business.  My unrelentingly “Pollyanna-style questions” (as he dubbed them) initially irked him yet he eventually warmed up …grudgingly. Then proactively helped me. He gave candid and extremely specific feedback about my talents and weaknesses as a journalist.  We wound up becoming fans and supporters for each other through the peaks and valleys in our careers.  As Sandberg discovered, getting mentored well spurs us to mentor others.

3. Reduce the number of “benevolent sexists”

Men in “modern marriages” with wives who work full-time outside of the home view “the presence of women in the workplace more favorably” than men in “traditional marriages” do.  The later group “also denied promotions to qualified female employees more often and were more likely to think that companies with a higher percentage of female employees ran less smoothly.” These “benevolent sexists” were largely unconscious of their bias, according to Sandberg.

She also cites the Heidi/Howard study that shows we tend to “want to work with people who are like us” and research that shows that “success and likability are negatively correlated for women.” In response she calls for two changes: make workplaces more amenable to women succeeding and for women to act more boldly on behalf of their career advancement. See the rest of Sandberg’s pointers at my Quotable and Connected Forbes column.

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