What Everyone Overlooked in Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In"

Posted by Mitch Corlett on July 22, 2013

Amazingly, we still read whole books here at Staffing Advisors. Recently, we discussed Lean In, the bestseller from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, which is largely about how to improve women's position in the modern workplace. The book got us thinking. The buzz and drama in the blogosphere is about her main point - that women, who are now 60% of college graduates, should be as ambitious as men and ultimately strive to make up a much larger proportion of the executive workforce than they currently hold. That's important, but equally important (and we think overlooked) was her approach to leadership, and the role effective communication has played in her career.

Openness to new ideas seems to be a central tenet of Sandberg's philosophy. It provides a constant stream of new ways to look at problems, and grants the ability to rapidly and nimbly adapt to a constantly shifting corporate landscape. The teachings of Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, "changed [her] career and [her] life."  She focuses on the Kofman idea that "great leadership is 'conscious' leadership," and that "effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else's point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others."

Rather than being single-minded and focused on only her vision, Sandberg is humble and works hard to gather honest and open feedback from everyone around her, noting that "the ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak."  Even if you're the highest executive in the room, she aptly says it is nearly impossible to know what other people are thinking without asking. She recounts an experience where she was being interviewed by Tom Brokaw. She felt like she stumbled through some answers, so after the interview, she asked him for feedback, and he "seemed surprised by [her] question...so [she] asked again...He then told [her] that in his entire career, [she] was only the second person to ask him for feedback."  To us, that seems like a risk few executives would take, which takes real humility, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence.

Sandberg's message is not the standard "communication is good" so frequently advised. Her message is an example of how hard executives truly need to work in order to create an open and strong work environment - one that does not silence the vital voices needed for change and growth, so that you can grow a small start-up like Facebook into a profitable company.  If you're seeking agility or innovation in your workplace, but the feedback you typically receive is just strangely wrapped in consequence-averse corporate speak, we would recommend that you promote a culture of openness (though not necessarily an open floor-plan office, they might not be the best idea).

Topics: Human Resources, Hiring Managers