Saturday, July 27, 2013

Lean In... Or Lean Out? Part 2.

Continuing from Part 1 on Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead... here is Part 2, which covers more highlights (Part 3 will cover the controversial points about combining motherhood with an intense career).

Chapter 4: It's a Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder

I think everyone knows that the old career pattern of lifelong tenure with one company is pretty rare these days, and that most people make several significant career changes during the course of a lifetime. Sandberg touches on that fact with a helpful image: career growth isn't like a ladder that you climb up. It's not linear. It's more like a jungle gym, with a lot of lateral movements, ups and downs, and a gradual, zigzag ascent.

What gave me hope -- as someone who was completely off the radar for ten years living a semi-cloistered life as a consecrated woman, and then as a mommy working part-time from home in Mexico -- was that Sandberg believes the jungle gym model works in my favor:

"The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especially women who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or reentering the workforce after taking time off. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment."

I think that last statement really depends on how well we can swing like monkeys from one path to another, but it seems true that an uncharted course forces us to look inward at what we want to do instead of just going on autopilot and following the dotted line. It would be easy to just climb an existing linear structure or follow orders, but the risk is that we could lose touch with what we want to do, and to some degree, with who we are. The reality is, we change over the years. New interests appear; old interests may drop into the background. And those new interests can lead to totally new fields of personal development and new horizons for work as well.  That's exciting. It's dynamic and interesting. It sounds like a life worth living.

One practical suggestion Sandberg makes in this chapter is that we should have both long-term dreams, which do "not have to be realistic or even specific," but which give us "a far-off guidepost to move toward," and well-defined 18-month goals for learning new skills. The idea is to be thinking, "How can I improve?" so that we are always growing, never stagnant or pigeonholed into our past. I love that and it's why I'm going to pursue a Master's degree next year. I see a huge gap in my knowledge in a particular area that interests me and that is relevant for my current work, so I'm going to fill it and make myself more qualified for future jobs. Later there will be other steps, but for now this is my 18-month goal: start and finish an MA degree in International Affairs. Nothing to do with religion or Catholicism. It's a new chapter, and maybe a form of self-reinvention.

Another helpful suggestion was to look for companies or jobs or even niches with potential for growth. Sandberg calls them "rocket ships." These companies are expanding fast, and signing on during their fastest growth phase will mean that we grow with them. Of course, joining a fast-expanding company or market may entail some risk or a loss of perceived stability, but Sandberg argues that "the cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth."

I think this is an interesting idea but there has to be a lot of careful evaluation before signing on with a company. I can't help but think of Regnum Christi, which also went through a fast growth phase, but a keen observer (which wasn't me) would have noticed that it was poorly managed and that the finances were a disaster of debt upon debt. A lot of that growth was illusory and lacking solid foundations. Now it's slowly collapsing in upon itself, and many lay people who worked there have been laid off. So some "rocket ships" end up running out of fuel and slowly sinking back to earth... like all those dot com companies that went belly up around 2000.

A while back, I read that Warren Buffett, who is one of the most consistently successful (and rich) investors in the world, is not just lucky: he's a careful and exhaustive researcher. Before he invests in a company, he studies it in depth, paying particular attention to how it is managed. If he sees solid management practices, that company becomes a candidate. But if those and some other elements are lacking, he doesn't let himself be drawn in by the appearances of fast growth. He looks for rocket ships and steady climbers with solid infrastructure and smart leadership. I think we should do the same. Of course, there is only so much we can know about a company from an applicant position. But maybe talking to people who are already inside (because people do gripe freely if they are poorly managed) can give at least some insight.

Chapter 5: Are You My Mentor?

Sandberg describes how she has often been approached by breathless young women who want her to be their personal mentor. She said she always feels uncomfortable and usually says no, simply because mentoring a total stranger is totally awkward.

Women need a mentor in order to succeed in their jobs, she notes, but the way to get one is not to go around asking people (like the baby bird searching for his mother), "Are you my mentor?" Instead, we should excel at our jobs, and if we are lucky, a mentoring relationship will spring up out of the mentor's initiative. Basically, people mentor younger folks because they see potential that they want to help develop. They see momentum, drive, impetus, and excellence, and they want to contribute to that. So women shouldn't look for mentors like Cinderella looking for her fairy godmother. Mentors won't do everything for you. They will just tweak a moving vehicle.

"Studies show that mentors select protégés based on performance and potential. Intuitively, people invest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help. Mentors continue to invest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback."

Sandberg also clarifies that "a mentor is not a therapist" and that "few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding. Most are dealing with their own high-stress jobs. A mentee who is positive and prepared can be a bright spot in a day. For this same reason, mentees should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor. Using a mentor's time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it's better to focus on specific problems with real solutions."

So helpful. I'll remember that, if ever I get a mentor.

Chapter 6: Seek and Speak Your Truth

This chapter just confirmed a lot of points that I already knew, so it didn't lead to major "aha!" moments. Communicate honestly and clearly, and in simple language. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Listen well. Accept critical input gracefully so that people don't end up thinking you can't handle the truth, because then you'll never know what you're doing wrong -- or what people think you're doing wrong.

I liked her suggestion to solicit critical feedback with questions like "How can I do better?" or "What am I not doing that I don't see?" Thanking people publicly for their critical feedback "sends a powerful signal to others" because it tells them that speaking the truth is always welcome and accepted, and that you are not threatened by other people's insights.

She also suggests being open about our weaknesses, and says that she openly admits to being quite impatient, which gets rid of any potential elephants in the room. Without going to the point of embarrassing or inappropriate disclosures, it's good to be able to show some self-awareness. Humor also helps.

I guess it's a form of humility, or just of realism. Most people can see our defects clearly anyway, so we're usually the last person in the room to realize what everyone else already knows. If we mess up, we might as well be frank about it and not try to hide it. When I see people try to deny or hide or gloss over their mistakes in order to maintain some kind of facade of perfection, I end up losing respect for them. For God's sake, if you screw up, just admit it. If someone admits a mistake nobly and then repairs it, I actually have more respect for them than before. And I don't think I'm the only one who reacts that way.

Lastly, Sandberg encourages women not to try to create a watertight separation between our real self (with all its emotions) and our work persona of professionalism and competence. She says that "true leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed," so there is no point in hiding or compartmentalizing our emotions to the point that we become impossible to relate to. For women, especially, some degree of emotion is going to work its way into our office space, especially if there are problems with the kids or some other difficult situation that we are carrying. Sandberg says that sometimes (and I suppose each case is different, depending on the person and also the workplace environment) it is even okay to cry at work if a personal burden becomes too heavy.

I don't think she is advocating a total waterworks of uncontrolled emotion every day; I think she's trying to correct an opposite extreme of women leaders doing violence to themselves by compartmentalizing and suppressing emotions, when maybe some show of emotion would make them more human and accessible. Just a guess.

Coming soon: Part 3, which covers what I consider to be the fundamental flaw of Sandberg's philosophy of "leaning in."

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