Forgive the provocative title – I actually liked Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In quite a bit. If there is anything I look back on with pride at my time in Vietnam, it’s that I treated men equally to women. I feel very confident about my track record in making sure that women and men were paid equally to each other, and that they also had the same opportunities to advance and improve themselves.
Back to the book, Lean In gives a great perspective about the issues women face in the workplace, and reading it can provide the empathy to understand the interpersonal dynamics that may be occurring around you. My wife Ha has found it very insightful for her as well as she has just started her MBA at IE Business School in Madrid and many of the situations explored in Lean In are those that she faces in class on an everyday basis.
That said, this one excerpt at the beginning of chapter 4 bothers me:
About a month after I joined Facebook, I got a call from Lori Goler, a highly regarded senior director of marketing at eBay. I knew Lori a bit socially, but she made it clear this was a business call and cut to the chase. “I want to apply to work with you at Facevook,” she said. “So I thought about calling you and telling you all of the things I’m good at and all of the things I like to do. Then I figured that everyone was doing that. So instead, I want to ask you: What is your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?
My jaw hit the floor. I had hired thousands of people over the previous decade and no one had ever said anything remotely like that. People usually focus on finding the right role for themselves, with the implication that their skills will help the company. Lori put Facebook’s needs front and center.
At first, reading this particular passage excited me – it was exactly what I was looking for and I ask people this all the time. My work history had been to always do what was needed to help the company succeed. I personally do not care what I do as long as I maximize my impact. Over the years, I have gone from customer service to ecommerce logistics, to sales and business development, to marketing and digital product management.
Yet, when I was at UC-Berkeley, I failed presentations by refusing to do them, not showing up (I remember letting some classmates down, which I still feel guilty about), or simply reading my notes face down. I absolutely hated public speaking. Who could have imagined that today, as along as I prepare, I am a pretty decent public speaker? I have spoken in front of hundreds of people and taken their criticism, complaints, and questions without fear. I have pitched digital campaigns, sought funding for my companies. Public speaking was something I never imagined I could do, nor was it something I ever even aspired to do. I developed the skill once I started working because it was necessary for the success of the company.
Thus, as a veteran of multiple startups, I recently looked to take Sandberg’s advice and see what kind of demand there was for a flexible manager unafraid to focus on a company’s greater good to create success. Someone, like her friend, who would be happy to do whatever he could to create the most value. My work experience proved that was exactly what I had done in the past, spanning multiple industries and countries.
The verdict, from talking to friends, successful startup founders, recruiting managers, and even staff at Facebook over a few months time? You need to be specialized, you need to say what you want to do, and you need to create a story that shows you know how to do that. Without fail, even when I mentioned Sandberg’s story, no one bit. Kind of like, “sure, that sounds great, but what is it you want to do exactly?”
I then looked to contact Sandberg myself or see if there was a forum for the book to discuss this point. I couldn’t find a good way to do either – I wanted to learn if others had been successful where I had not, and how they had done so. No success.
This is why I believe Sandberg is wrong. Yes, if you happen to know Sheryl Sandberg, this approach could work. But you probably don’t know her. And that’s too bad (for us).