By any measure, Sheryl Sandberg is a big success. Smart, rich, powerful, the 43-year-old COO of Facebook, wife, mother-of-two "has it all," as they used to say. But Sandberg doesn't take her successes for granted -- hell, no! She worked hard for them -- and she's intent on helping other women learn to lead.
Her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is out March 12, and has already garnered lots of passionate opinions. We chose her book as one of the Best of the Month and chatted with her a week or so before it went on sale.
Some things we learned:
Sandberg considers Lean In (the book) and Lean In (the foundation the book launches), to be unisex and ageless. Men and women need to work together to change the culture, she says. "I think this is everyone's issue," she says. She then tells me that even her 70-something mother was inspired by it -- and is now planning to have a Bat Mitzvah, an opportunity not available to her when she was 13.
She doesn't seem particularly surprised by the flack she's gotten in some corners of the press for "blaming" women instead of corporations and government. "I always knew this topic would incite strong debate. It's about us, about our passions."
Some critics also suggest Sandberg's opinions are mere clones of last century's feminism -- which, ironically, Sandberg admits to having undervalued at the time. "Looking back, it made no sense for my college friends and me to distance ourselves from the hard-won achievements of earlier feminists. We should have cheered their efforts."
Even this very privileged, super successful woman -- she has two Harvard degrees and has worked in the White House -- has self doubt. When I ask her how she got over the typical fears she elucidates in the book, she says, "The simple answer is I'm not sure I have. Like many women, I have a complicated relationship with leadership, with the word 'power.'"
Also, to those who think Sandberg must be "tough," she explains that she has, on occasion cried in the office and that she has come to understand that the occasional personal sharing can be conducive to a good working relationship. Example: Sandberg first turned down a job with her former professor, Larry Summers, for the most personal of reasons -- she wanted to get away from DC, where her ex-husband was living -- and declares that particular choice to have been the "best thing to do."
Real cultural change doesn't happen overnight -- "Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized," she writes -- but Sandberg evokes the night Obama was first elected President as an indicator of what can happen in just one generation. "I was standing behind my couch with my arms around my sister, crying [and watching the returns] and we said, 'You know what's the best thing about this?'" Answer: Her kids -- then one and three years old -- would grow up never knowing a time when it was unusual or special to have an African American president. So maybe the generation being born now will grow up free of gender stereotypes.
Two of the strongest chapters in the book -- the ones that resonated in our offices, which employ many brilliant women in the early stages of their careers -- are 1) Don't Leave Before You Leave (i.e. Don't be like the woman Sandberg cites who discusses her child-rearing plans with an employer when she was not only not pregnant... "but she didn't even have a boyfriend.") And 2) Are You My Mentor? (which takes its name from the popular children's book about ducklings: Are You My Mother?). Women need mentors, sure, but those mentors have to be earned, the relationship has to grow organically, and -- guess what? -- a woman is even allowed to have a male mentor.
She doesn't seem to care how she will be remembered. When I ask her what search terms on Google (her former employer) would bring up her name, she pauses. "I don't know," she says. I suggest "feminist leader," or "visionary," or "troublemaker" and she doesn't bite. "You know, it really doesn't matter," she says. "This is not about me. What matters is that we're having the conversation."