Lean In Again: Some Observations on the Comments re Sheryl Sandberg’s Great Book

In Dealbook, Professor Steven Davidoff published an interesting article, “Why So Few Women Reach the Executive Rank,” which provided a pretty good summary of what many have drawn from Sheryl Sandberg’s observations in her book. I still say everyone really does need to read her book. I would add to my admonition in my earlier post–Read the book, carefully. I would also suggest reading Davidoff’s article carefully as well.

I think one quote in Davidoff’s article is very telling– “women have to behave like men to rise to the top.” This seems to be a universal conclusion of what Sandberg is saying in her book. I think a more complete statement,  is “women have to behave like the men who are currently at the top to rise to the top themselves.”

I would posit that in many cases we have the wrong men at the top who are pretty much, across the board, producing sub-optimal performance relative to what it could be. Most corporations are operating below their potential because the culture does not allow the best talent, female or male, to rise within the organizations. Exclusion and prejudices about what constitutes a good worker or a good manager, in my view, often lead to less capable people managing parts of any organization. It is easy to identify women as a class being excluded. And there are a set of prejudices and difficult work environments that exist specifically related to women. There are also less explicit prejudices which end up excluding a set of men as well. Sandberg hints at this in her book. Organizations that minimize both these prejudices–female and male–end up with more successful women and a different set of successful men. And, I believe, a more successful business–certainly relative to their peers. We need to identify more clearly what it is about those organizations (too few in number) where this is happening.

Trying to understand what it is about the culture and the general environment in those few organizations where the presence of more women in the ranks may be an indication of that culture, might provide some clues about what it takes to create the right environment.  I am still trying to figure that out, in spite of having been part of an organization where that happened. I think we need a few professors to take on the challenge of identifying the organizations and truly figuring it out.

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.