How Lean In got me thinking

If you haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, you probably should. It’s an entertaining and insightful read that raises as many questions as it answers about the challenges women face in the workplace. It mixes research with anecdotes, and does so in an easy-to-read style that is self-deprecating and insecure enough to avoid crossing the line into preachy.

I’m fortunate to work at Edelman, a company that pays close attention to gender issues. We’ve made a commitment at the very highest levels to increasing the proportion of women in leadership roles to 50% by 2017, and backed that up by establishing the Global Women’s Executive Network (GWEN). We’ve also been recognized as one of the best workplaces in Canada for women (happily also one of the best workplaces in general).

I’ve just finished the book, I’ve already found that I’ve begun consciously thinking differently about numerous situations.

A few insights that I’m paying close attention to:

1. Assertiveness is not a weakness

Sandberg argues that women are held to a different standard to men when it comes to assertiveness. Among men, assertiveness is often seen as a desirable attribute. In contrast, among women it is often seen as a weakness. I’ve begun paying close attention to any discussion around assertiveness in the workplace, and as a result have been able to push back on or re-examine situations where people have cited assertiveness as a challenge. Interestingly, and consistent with Sandberg’s observations, these observations come just as frequently from other women as they do from men in the workplace.

2. Encourage inclusivity

Sandberg cites incidents that led her to think differently about “sitting at the table” – situations where she literally sat at the back of the room versus at the meeting room table, and how she’s been fortunate to work with people who pushed her out of her comfort zone and encouraged her to participate. She also notes that some apparently equitable approaches to encouraging participation can unintentionally reinforce exclusion for people (as an introvert, I can empathize with the challenges of participating in group environments as she describes).

This has led me to pay more attention to encouraging people to “lean in” to situations (and to prod them in that direction at times). It has also led me to consider additional techniques for encouraging contributions from team members who might not be comfortable in a group context.

3. People without families deserve their own time, too

Sandberg points out that a woman not having a partner or children does nothing to diminish the value of their time outside work. This is something that I’ve been conscious of for a while after a team member made the point very well to me early in my time at Edelman, but Lean In put it back in focus for me. We need both to stop judging people who are in this situation, whether by choice or circumstance, and to avoid placing a different value on their time.

Sandberg notes that while it is important that women feel able to leave the office in time to have dinner with their children; at the same time, she also notes that it is important that women without families feel able to leave work to participate in their own commitments without a feeling of guilt.

Happily we have some great role models for the former in our workplace, with senior women who place great importance on spending time with their children while also succeeding in their roles, including several members of our office’s leadership team who really exemplify this approach to me. I’m hoping to do more to encourage the latter among my team too.

4. Mentors are important

I’ve been privileged to act as a mentor for a number of young professionals in the last few years. Lean In reinforced the importance of this for me, with an interesting (and surprising, to me) assertion that it can be beneficial for a woman’s mentor to be a man. I’m not entirely sure about that last part, but either way it’s reinforced my commitment to investing my time to mentor others. It’s also led me to think proactively about encouraging managers and team members to find a mentor to support them in their careers.

5. People can sometimes self-sabotage

While I’m happy to work at a company that is putting a sustained effort behind addressing gender inequality, institutional challenges for women continue to abound in society. The majority of the things I’ve taken away from Lean In pertain to how I can become more self-aware about my own behaviour or unconscious biases. However, Sandberg’s observations on the way that women can also actually sometimes sabotage their own careers were fascinating to me too.

Sandberg ovserved that women who are looking ahead to having children in the near term sometimes avoid taking on challenging assignments in the year or two before that time comes – they’ll “take their foot off the gas”. That can unnecessarily hinder their advancement – not just over that time but as a consequence over the longer duration of their careers.

I haven’t yet knowingly encountered this situation, but I do work with a number of young, successful women who likely have these choices ahead of them. I intend to keep an eye open for this kind of situation and to help those around me to know that they don’t have to take their foot off the gas and that either choice is okay, and to work to ensure that we have a workplace that freely enables these choices .

Keeping my mind open

I was fortunate to attend the annual gala for the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression last night, which had the tagline “what you don’t know CAN hurt you.” I think that rings very true here. There are plenty of other points in Lean In that I’m sure people will think are more central to its concept than the ones above. I’m also conscious that Sandberg’s book has been quite contentious among some groups, and I’ve read some scathing reviews from those who think it oversimplifies things. However, these ideas have so far stuck in my head and I think that’s a positive thing.

For these points alone, reading Lean In has already been time well spent for me.

If you’ve read Lean In, what stood out in the book for you?

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.