When Sheryl Sandberg Spoke, We All Wanted to “Lean In”

On this Sunday, the critically-acclaimed TV show “Mad Men” returns for its sixth season. For people who work in advertising and marketing, it is a fascinating show because it depicts the early days of advertising agencies of New York City’s Madison Avenue in the 1960’s.

The show rightfully deserves awards and applause for the top-notch writing and acting. But one thing that is difficult to celebrate was the way women were treated in the workplace during that time. Sexist behavior was rampant. Opportunities for women were extremely limited or non-existent. And there was a huge gender gap in terms of equal pay for equal work.

This inequality did not take place exclusively in the advertising profession. It was an accepted way of life in all businesses and much of society at the time.

That was then. But what about now?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is helping to spark a timely and much-needed national conversation on the topic.

A few years ago, Sandberg gave an electrifying TED talk about how women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers. The video of the talk generated over two million downloads, and the great response became the basis for her new best-selling book.

Thirty years ago, women constituted 50% of the college graduates in the United States; yet today, men still hold the vast number of leadership positions in business and government.

What can be done so that more women can have a stronger voice in the decisions that affect our lives?

Sheryl Sandberg recently tackled that question in Philadelphia at a special discussion presented by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by my employer, SAP. I was pleased to not only represent SAP at the event, but also to hear Sheryl talk about an issue that has great support at SAP: to encourage and support more female leadership in the workplace.

There were about 1,000 attendees, mostly women of course, but also a few men. We were all “leaning in” to eagerly hear Sandberg’s insights and observations.

Sandberg encouraged everyone in the audience to challenge the assumption that “men rule the world.” She was interviewed by Tamala Edwards, a local television news anchor with WPVI-TV 6, and the audience was impressed by her honesty and courage for tackling this issue with real passion and conviction.

The “Lean In” Blueprint

I have been quite passionate about women in leadership roles because it’s such an important issue. I have often listened or talked to female leaders about this topic, but Sheryl made a clear and compelling case unlike anyone I had heard before. It is truly an issue that can no longer be ignored.  Consider this:

  • there are currently only 14% of female leaders in corporate America (the numbers vary by country but essentially are low to very low in most countries around the world)
  • Women earn 70 cents for every dollar earned by a man

Those are sobering facts. But Sandberg lays out a very compelling blueprint for women to change this situation. As she says, “the best way to change an institution is to run it.” But she does not stop there. She shared some simple and powerful advice for women:

  • Believe in themselves
  • Be ambitious
  • Work hard
  • And lead

In other words, to “lean in.”

But Lean In is not just a book for women. I would recommend this book to women and men, because Sandberg’s principles and advice are relevant to EVERYBODY.

As Sandberg told us, this is not a “business” challenge; at its core, equal opportunity for women is a broad social issue. If we are to increase the opportunity for woman to have more roles in business and leadership, then society must transform. Women comprise 50% of the world’s population; why is there such an imbalance with regards to equality and opportunity?

It Starts With the Family

And Sandberg was quite vocal that changing perceptions and behavior starts in the family, beginning with our children. As parents, we often do more than pass down our genes to our children; we also pass down our perceptions as to what defines a boy or a girl. When age-old stereotypes are passed down from one generation to the next, it makes it more difficult for girls to have access to the same opportunities as boys.

The audience really resonated with Sandberg’s observation about the critical role the family plays. Only if we educate, treat, motivate, challenge, inspire and guide our children in the same way can we hope to one day live in a society where women really have equal rights, opportunities and rewards for what they do.

Sandberg reminded us that we should not ignore that men and women are different. They are different, and thankfully so. But what we need to do is abandon misconceptions and age-old stereotypes, such as girls are sweet and boys are smart.

The Message for Men

Sandberg’s advice goes far beyond changing perceptions within the family unit. Change needs to occur in the workplace, and while there were only a handful of men in the audience this morning, Sheryl had a message for us men: we need to be agents of change.

Sandberg told the women in the audience, “It’s counter-intuitive, but the single most important career decision you can make is who you’ll marry.” The level of encouragement and support you receive from your spouse or partner will have a huge influence on the career decisions you have to make. It can be the difference between “leaning in with gusto” or leaning back with guilt.

As managers, husbands and fathers, men have to think long and hard about our words and actions, both at home and at work. What message are we conveying? Are we true advocates for equal opportunity? And are we backing up our words with real, sincere actions? Do our values and actions reflect respect for women?

If a man cannot answer those questions with an unequivocal YES, then he has some work to do.

The Message for Marketers and Managers

While I was only among a handful of men in the audience, Sandberg’s message is not women-centric. We all need to lean-in as a society.

It is important to note that the majority Sandberg’s career has been the high-tech sector. Historically, high-tech has been a male-dominated world, but times are changing. We are seeing more leaders like Sandberg, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo and Meg Whitman at HP closing the gender gap.

Technology is about the future. The industry’s view of the valued role of women leaders needs to be progressive and forward-thinking as well.

But this transformation needs to span across all aspects of business and society. Yes, women need to lean in, but managers need to be leaders and create those opportunities.

Marketing is the ultimate team sport. To win mindshare and market share, you have to assemble the best team possible. Consider this: when you do not create opportunities for women to grow and succeed, you miss out by not leveraging the talents of female employees. Those talents are often different and very complementary to men. The combination of women and men working together is better than a team mainly comprised of men.

Women are not just as good and effective as men, but they are bring valuable differences, insights, perspectives and work styles their organizations. It is precisely for that reason that we need more women in business and in leadership roles.

Women are not just equally capable, they are different and often better than men in certain areas. That complementary ying and yang balance strengthens the workplace.

Ignoring the talent and potential of the female workforce instantly puts old-thinking companies at a distinct disadvantage.

That’s right: encouraging and leveraging female leadership can create a real competitive advantage for your team and your organization. Why would a manager or a company not want to build the best team possible?

While millions of “Mad Men” fans will eagerly turn on their TV’s Sunday night to follow Don Draper and the other ruthlessly competitive “Mad Men,” it’s important to remember that 1960’s thinking is over.

It’s time to lean in…and move forward.

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