In Praise of Sheryl Sandberg (and all women)

While working out in a gym in Abu Dhabi, of all places, I watched Soledad O’Brien’s CNN interview with Sheryl Sandberg re “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” It was a reinforcing interview between two intelligent and focused women with a great supporting cast. It is worth watching as an adjunct to the book. Everyone should, of course, read the book–I mean EVERYONE.

My read of the primary focus of the book is an exhortation for professional women to look in the mirror with a new eye and seek leadership opportunities and not convince themselves (or allow others to do so) that they can’t or shouldn’t. There is an occasional recognition that there are many other women throughout the workforce who don’t get a fair shake. It is also an honest personal appraisal of Sandberg’s career to date, the mistakes she has made and the lessons she has learned. It is a management primer for women–and men–that specifically deals with the prejudices we all bring to our interactions with the other sex (notice I didn’t say “opposite”). It has application to interactions with anyone, since we are all different products of nature and nurture. The facts and data–read the appendix!–that document reasons for the gender gap, as well as the anecdotes throughout the book provide support for Sandberg’s conclusion that things won’t really have changed “until half our institutions are run by women and half our homes are run by men.” They certainly won’t change for the women further down the pyramid until that happens. She often says that men have to do their part to produce this change but she really puts the onus on the women. It is an important message.

In my mind, though, there is a bigger message in the book and an unstated opportunity for companies who get it now–and some have–to set themselves up to take advantage of “gender arbitrage.” This is not the classic definition of gender arbitrage, which is hiring smart women for less, but the “gender arbitrage” that was defined back in the late ’80’s when we took the Lehman Research effort from 15th to 1st in the rankings in three years. Boris Groysberg and Ashish Nanda, who did much of the work creating a series of Harvard Business School cases about what happened there, pointed out that we had more women and more successful women in the department–statistically off the charts–than any other firm in the business. Somehow, we created an environment where the best women on Wall Street were attracted to the firm and thrived and new female  analysts became successful quickly. It got defined as gender arbitrage after the cases were written. We also had many very successful men. It was a hard-working but supportive place to work. It was really IQ/Acumen/Attitude arbitrage. The women were not paid less than the men and in many cases made more, tied to their success as analysts and, ultimately, managers. There were many little and some big things we did that helped produce the success. I would suggest that you go to the HBS Publications website and spring for a copy of the Jack Rivkin Lehman A case if you really want to get into the nuances. Boris is now teaching a course at HBS, “How Star Women Succeed,” and the case is a part of it.  Why the environment initially existed is hard to explain. It started with just wanting to create something special that had nothing to do with gender–just capabilities and a big “no-jerk” policy.  There was one thing, though, that made a difference. From the very beginning there were many people involved in the interviewing processes, but our lead interviewers were two of our first outside hires–two very capable women. An interesting thing happened as a result. Here were two people who were clearly part of the decision-making process and were serious about talent and attitude. Other women they interviewed were attracted by their attitudes, their openness, their empathy and the clear understanding that they were decision-makers. Interestingly, the men they interviewed knew that they were a big part of deciding whether the men would be hired and that they (the men) might end up working for them (the women). Some men just opted out because of that, which was fine with us. The ones who didn’t, understood how the organization was going to work, recognized the talent and the opportunity and clearly didn’t have a problem with the working relationships. In fact they saw the working relationships as a big plus. It all fed on itself and created a supportive environment where the gender balance really worked for us. We didn’t just have a good gender balance. We got the absolute best where there were no impediments and much support in the work place and in their lives in general–for both the women and the men of like minds.

I don’t think organizational success has to wait until talented women lean in and work their way up the jungle gym to the top. If the organization truly creates the environment that doesn’t tolerate the jerks and provides continual support for both the women and men making decisions about their lives, they will end up with teams that really work. And the best managerial talent, which should be equally balanced among the sexes, will rise through the ranks. Who knows if the real organizational structure, if this truly happens, will have “ranks” as opposed to something more like the jungle gyms Sandberg refers to. Sandberg points out that “Research already suggests that companies with more women in leadership roles have better work life policies, smaller gender gaps in executive compensation, and more women in mid-level management.” I would submit that there are companies with all or some of the above because they started down this path many years ago. We need many more. What a waste of having impediments that prevent the best to rise. It is important to read Sandberg’s book, though. If male and female employees  and executives cannot empathize and learn from her story, the gender arbitrage, as I define it, won’t happen. There is more to say on this subject, but everyone please read the book, and then we’ll talk.

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About Jack Rivkin

Jack Rivkin retired in 2008 as EVP, CIO, Head of Private Asset Management of Neuberger Berman(NB) and from NB's Executive Management Committee. He was also on the Lehman(LB) Council on Climate Change(CC) and the NB CC Fund Advisory Board. He has been engaged with the United Nations and other entities on policy issues related to Private Capital and CC. He is an Associate Fellow of the Asia Society. He has continued on the NB Mutual Fund Board and with his CC responsibilities. He began his investment career in 68 as an analyst at Mitchell Hutchins(MH), and became Director of Research(DOR) there. After Paine Webber(PW) acquired MH, he served as DOR; CFO of PW; CEO of PWMH-the equity trading and investment arm of PW; Chmn of MH Asset Management and President of PW Capital. 87-92 he was DOR and, subsequently, Head of the Worldwide Equities Division of LB. 93-95, he served as a Vice Chairman and DOR at Smith Barney (now Citigroup). He was an EVP with Citigroup Investments 94-01, responsible for private equity investments. He was also an adjunct professor at Columbia University teaching a course in Security Analysis. He joined NB in 2002. He is the co-author of “Risk & Reward—Venture Capital and the Making of America’s Great Industries,” Random House, 1987. He is a regular guest on various media. He is the principal subject in a series of Harvard Business School cases describing his experience as DOR and Equity Head at LB. He has served as a director of a number of private companies and the NYSSA. He is currently a director of Idealab, Dale Carnegie, Operative, World Policy Institute and other private companies. He is a member of the Economic Club of NY, the Anglers Club, Theodore Gordon Fly Fishers, and a lifetime member of Trout Unlimited. He continues to be an active private equity investor when he isn’t fly fishing. Mr. Rivkin earned his Professional Engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines and his MBA from the Harvard Business School

10 thoughts on “In Praise of Sheryl Sandberg (and all women)

  1. You go, Bossman. As I have always said: You not only talk the talk but you also walk the walk. You successfully managed intelligent, energetic, high profile women, you created an environment where they felt comfortable and told others about their atypical experiences with you and your management team. Obviously, things were different at Smith Barney vs. Lehman Bros. but before I even had my first meeting/interview with you, everyone I asked said I would only benefit by working for you. What happened to the two management women who you had sitting in on interviews at Lehman? By the time I interviewed with you, I was subjected to John Hoffman and Joe Kozloff!! Let’s be real–those two needed more tutoring in human rights, much less womens’ rights. Although you know I still have a soft spot in my heart for Joe: Ex-SDS student radical who never met an illegal drug or a woman he didn’t like! Bring back the ’60’s. I think your sense of fairness is hard for a lot of people/managers to embrace and I do have hope when I listen to my kids. And let’s not forget, we have a Black President and the Supreme Court is considering marriage equality. Mike Skutinsky gave me the Harvard case studies to read years ago.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Ms. Val,
      Thanks for your comments. maybe if we had put John and Joe in dresses it might have helped. A very different environment with fewer degrees of freedom. And look what happened. There is hope. BTW, a lot to write from an iPhone. Help from Siri?

  2. Jack,

    A wonderful commentary, but I have one small critique: When you recall that you had two women interviewing, I would have used the word “coincidentally.” My guess is that you did not purposely have two women, it just happened. That, to me, is where the credit to you really arises from. (Plus, I have an inside look thanks to Bruce Cameron!)

    I may have benefited from the “gender arbitrage” in my career, but it was not consciously done. I graduated from college in 1969 and, among my cohort, we did not make a distinction by gender. If you are interested, I could share with you some observations that were related to me after I left the bank.



    • You are right, George. Whoever we hired got involved in interviewing and recruiting. It just so happened that early on it included a couple of great female analysts. That helped us shortcut the process on getting the right kind of people into the organization and keeping the wrong kind out.I would love to hear about your experiences.

  3. Jack: you left us hanging! “Somehow, we created an environment where the best women on Wall Street were attracted to the firm and thrived and new female analysts became successful quick.” How did you do it? Sure, I will read Sandberg’s book, but I want to know YOUR secret sauce.
    From one of your (many) former employees who would work for you again any time.

    • Thanks Barb! Maybe that’s the next chapter or a whole book. Boris asked me when I went up for the “How Star Women Succeed” to think about why the environment existed in the first place. I couldn’t really answer him because it wasn’t a planned environment. It was just the way it was–no strategy to create a special environment, because I didn’t consider it special, except in the sense of wanting to have no jerks and the best people who wanted to work together and succeed. That’s always the way it was. I am still trying to figure out what the nature and nurture elements were that led to the way I think. No one had ever asked me until Boris did.

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  6. Great blog!

    It reminds me of some of the values you taught me and why I was able to excel under your leadership at Citigroup Investments making venture capital investments.

    I always hire with your ‘no jerk’ policy in mind. I have not had the opportunity to significantly scale an organization that embodies your gender arbitrage value, but I suspect that the opportunity will come since I definitely believe in hiring the best, enabling better decisions via diversity and rewarding merit.

    • Thanks Dirk, You were a part of helping us hire the right people and making the teamwork real. I am not surprised that it has carried over into subsequent roles since it was a part of your nature to begin with.

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