Sheryl Sandberg has returned to Harvard to address another graduating class, preaching the value of honesty, taking on board the hard truths, and acknowledging mum-guilt.
The Lean In author and Facebook COO made the trip last week, telling the audience, “I can’t be as funny as Amy Poehler, but I am going to be funnier than Mother Teresa”, reminiscing about her undergad days at the school (“I never could have predicted Facebook because there was no Internet, and Mark Zuckerberg was in elementary school — already wearing his hoodie”) and referencing the inner conflict about work and family that prompted her to write Lean In. She also spoke about confronting some hard truths at work and around inequality in the workplace while offering a few personal anecdotes from her own experiences.
Here are a few takeaway lessons from Sandberg’s address.
Acknowledge the hard truths
Sandberg urged students to be truthful, not only with themselves, but also with others, and to listen carefully when someone is telling the truth.
She recounted that when her first marriage began to breakdown after less than a year, “It did not help that so many friends came up to me and said, ‘I knew that would never work.’… No one had managed to say anything like that to me before I walked down that aisle,” she recounted.
“We don’t always see the hard truths, and once we see them, we don’t always have the courage to speak out. “
She said that in contrast, her first boss told her that deferring law school for the second time was perhaps a sign that she shouldn’t go, and that she seemed to only want to go because her parents encouraged her to. She decided not to go.
If you want to do well at work it’s important to solicit feedback and take the criticism on board. Feedback is a critical professional skill to master.
“I know how hard it can be to be honest with each other,” she said. “But I bet sitting here today you know your closest friends’ strengths and weaknesses, what curves they might drive off of, and you’ve never told them. And they’ve never asked.”
“The most important thing I can tell you is to open yourselves to honesty.”
Be honest about the mum guilt
Speaking about the difficulty many of us often have with being truthful to ourselves, Sandberg explored a theme that’s become synonymous with her book’s title.
She said that after she became a mother she would remind everyone, often, that she didn’t feel guilty about working. “Even when no one had asked… Someone would ask, ‘Do I need a sweater?’ and I would say, ‘Yes, it’s unpredictably freezing, and I don’t feel guilty working.'”
“People don’t start out lying to other people, they start out lying to themselves,” she said. “And the things we repeat most often are often the lies.”
She told the audience that she spent the next year thinking about her role as a working mother, and talking with her co-author Nell Scovell about those issues that working mothers confront. That brought about the creation of Lean In.
She continued with the need to confront those workplace inequalities that account for the major gender imbalances in the workplace.
“Yes, there are women who run Fortune 500 companies — 5%, to be precise — but our road there is still paved with words like ‘pushy’ and ‘bossy,’ while our male peers are ‘leaders’ and ‘results-focused,” she said.
“Last election cycle, women won 20% of the Senate seats and the talk was that ‘women have taken over the Senate,'” she added. “Fifty percent of the population wins 20 percent of the Senate? That’s not a takeover, that’s an embarrassment.”
Nothing is someone else’s problem
Her book has ignited a spirited conversation about feminism and the workplace, but Sandberg admits that she wished she had done more to address workplace inequalities earlier in her career.
It took her eighteen years to speak out about the issues facing women in the workplace — “My silence implied that everything was okay. You can do better than that.”
Recounting a favourite sign in the Facebook office that reads, “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem,” she said, “I hope you feel that way about the problems you see in the world, because they are not someone else’s problem.”
“When my classmates and I were in college, we thought the fight for gender equality was won … Sure, most of the leaders in every industry were men, but we thought changing that was just a matter of time. We didn’t need feminism because we were already equals,” she said.
“We were wrong; I was wrong. The world was not equal then, and it is not equal now.”
She recalled being invited by a prominent Silicon Valley executive to speak at an all-male club in California and instead of politely declining, telling the club owner that she would not speak to any group that would not admit her as a member. “Really,” she said, “A year after Lean In,this dude thought it was a good idea to invite me to speak to his literal all-boy club.”
Instead, she responded in a way she wished she had done years earlier. “I wrote a long and passionate email arguing that they should change their policies.” The club’s leaders said change would come “eventually”.
“Our expectations are too low,” she said. “‘Eventually’ needs to become ‘immediately.’ “