Sunday, September 08, 2013

What does “lean in” mean for you?

This month The Savvy Reader Book Club is reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Today is the first in a series of posts I plan on writing though out the month inspired by the book.

What was Sheryl Sandburg's motivation behind Lean-In?

When Sheryl Sandburg graduated from college in 1991 and from business school in 1995 her entry-level colleagues were a balanced mix of male and female. She saw that her senior leaders were almost entirely male, but she thought that was due to historical discrimination against women. She thought it was only a matter of time before her generation took their fair share of leadership roles. But with each passing year fewer and fewer of her colleagues were women. More and more often she was the only woman in the room. 

She feels the problem is two-fold:

External barriers erected by society
Blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment.
Too few workplaces offering flexibility and access to child care and parental leave.
Men having an easier time finding mentors and sponsors who are invaluable for career progression.  
Men are promoted based on potential while women are promoted based on past accomplishments.

Self-imposed internal barriers:
Lacking self-confidence.
Not raising our hands.
Pulling back when we should be leaning in.
Internalizing internal messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, and more powerful than men.
We lower our expectations of what we can achieve.
We continue to do the majority of the housework and childcare.
We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet.
Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions.

Sheryl’s argument is that getting rid of the internal barriers is critical to gaining power.

In the introduction of Lean-in she writes:
I am writ­ing this book for any woman who wants to increase her chances of mak­ing it to the top of her field or pur­sue any goal vig­or­ously. This includes women at all stages of their lives and careers, from those who are just start­ing out to those who are tak­ing a break and may want to jump back in. 
This book makes the case for lean­ing in, for being ambi­tious, in any pursuit. (pgs. 9-10) 
She then promises to provide adjustments and differences we can make within ourselves to reduce self-imposed internal barriers in subsequent chapters.

I recently watched a news program where a group of women were talking about leaning-in. Every one of them felt they couldn’t possibly lean-in to their careers more than they currently were doing. They were completely tapped out. After reading most of this book I can’t help but wonder if they’d actually read the book themselves or if they were just responding to the hype. I also wonder if they had thought about what leaning-in actually means to them.

For me leaning-in no longer means doing whatever it takes to get the corner office. (Actually I have a corner office – it is kind of small though - but it does have a window with a view of our back parking lot.) I also make a decent salary, but am not paid nearly as much as a man would be paid in a similar position. At this stage of my life I don’t want to lean into my career. I want to lean-in to my life. I want to a second career that is more meaningful and less time consuming than the one I have now. 
The example from the book that resonated with me the most is the one where Larry Kanarek manager of the Washington D.C. office of McKinsey and Company gathered his employees together for a talk.
He explained that since he was running the office, employees came to him when they wanted to quit. Over time, he noticed that people quit for one reason only: they were burnt out, tired of working long hours and traveling. Larry said he could understand the complaint, but what he could not understand was that all the people who quit- every single one- had unused vacation time. Up until the day they left, they did everything McKinsey asked of them before deciding that is was too much.

Larry implored us to exert more control over our careers. He said McKinsey would never stop making demands on our time, so it was up to us to decide what we were willing to do. It was our responsibility to draw the line. We needed to determine how many hours we were willing to work in a day and how many nights we were willing to travel. If later on, the job did not work out, we would know that we had tried on our own terms.  
Counterintuitively, long-term success at work often depends on not trying to meet every demand placed on us. The best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately - to set limits and stick to them. (pg. 126)
Wow did that hit home. I am one of those people who doesn't use all of my vacation time. Even with my recent bunion surgery I worked from home four of the eight days I was out of the office. At the end of this year I will probably have at least two weeks of unused vacation – ouch. One of my fellow male managers called me out on this. He said I work so much that it is now expected. He strongly encouraged me to break this cycle and begin taking care of myself. He uses all of his four weeks of vacation each year, upper management complains when he is out of the office, but he does it anyway. He does make himself available for questions via phone and email while he is out, but he doesn’t actually sit down and work.

For me leaning-in has to involve setting limits and learning to stick to them without feeling guilty
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Are you reading this book? What are your thoughts so far? What does “lean-in” mean for you?


  1. I'm with you - leaning in is all about setting limits and actually doing the things that matter most well. :) Great post!

  2. I like the idea of "leaning in" to life- as well as career. For me, "leaning in" is growing confidence in myself- as I launch my own site/business, it's having the confidence to be proud, market myself, and ask for what I want and deserve.

  3. sheryl gave an example of how a friend or colleague went into an interview and rocked it because she asked the potential employer (i'm paraphrasing because i don't have my copy on me), "what problems or issues are you having so i can help you solve them?" i mean, who doesn't want to hire someone who asks that question?!?! that is the best interview advice i've ever heard.

    this book really resonated with me because she speaks our truth which is that we often deny ourselves opportunities because we are thinking about how to accommodate our partner or our family when that issue quite potentially is irrelevant.

    since i am ready to start a family, i have definitely given less attention to my career which is awful. because now i keep hoping that we will win the lottery some day as i won't want to go back to a dead-end career.

  4. I haven't read the book yet but it's been interesting to hear different people's thoughts and reactions. I really appreciate your perspective on this - especially when you say that you are more interested in leaning into your life versus career right now. But thinking back on my work/career life, that last snippet you shared definitely hit home for me too. I worked so hard and didn't draw enough lines and boundaries and it just wasn't good or healthy. It's true that your company/employer will continue to make demands on our time but we need to be responsible for creating boundaries for ourselves. I'm slowly learning how to do this with my work and with life outside of work too.

  5. Crystal,
    Thanks for the comment,

  6. Stefanie,
    Great definition.

  7. Catherine,
    Yes asking your interviewer how you could help them is excellent advice. I also think it is a great way for the interviewer to learn what the interviewee is really looking for and perhaps a bit about the company's culture as well. I think I may have to write about this. Lean in has given me enough material/blog ideas for many posts to come.

    I also enjoyed your comments about leaving before you leave. I still have my fingers and toes crossed hoping your fertility clinic comes through for you.

  8. Christine,
    The sad thing about not setting boundaries is in the end the only way we can see out of the situation is to quit. There has to be a better way.

  9. My mother was a sociology professor who believed she needed to works 14 hour days, seven days a week. Her kids came last. She never took vacation and forced herself to live on half of everything she earned. She was promoted, widely published, but had few friends and was clinically depressed for most of my life. And didn't treat it. She went straight from her office to a dementia unit that costs $7000 a month. All that work and saving and this is what she bought herself. Her "best" friend from work hasn't visited her even once in three years. My sister and I moved her out of her office because she was unable to and her retirement was that we threw all her papers in giant recycling bins. No one was there. No one cared. It broke my heart and I am having trouble leaning into my own work after seeing all that go down.

  10. Heidi,
    This is a great example of what not to do and why I want to lean into my life. Also, I am reading Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It. I think you would find the chapter on tenure interesting - I assume your mother was tenured. I remember when you wrote about cleaning her office and had no choice but to throw out all of her unfinished work or papers. The book says how most tenured professors write for each other and not for academics and that only other academics understand it. The book seems to say they are wasting their time.

  11. Lean in to LIFE - Yes! I love that. I haven't read the book but enjoyed your perspective/review. Perhaps women not leaning in has something to do with boundaries? I never knew where it was appropriate to "draw the line" in the workplace. I assumed I had to do... All the work! Unable to express that I was exhausted, too overloaded, or ask for help. Burnout was the inevitable result.

    Happy to find your blog via #SITSBlogging!