Thursday, 25 April 2013

Sheryl Sandberg and the myth of 'having it all'

Chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, has written an inspiring book to help women get on, says Heather McGregor, with a brilliant tip for getting kids ready for school.

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Have you ever met Sheryl Sandberg, asked my husband when I told him I was reviewing her book for Management Today. Yes, I answered, several times, although I am not sure she would remember.

I first met her in 2008, when she was still at Google, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The very WEF meeting, in fact, where she spent time bonding with Mark Zuckerberg.

This year at Davos she was sitting at the bar in the Pepsi cafe when I thanked her for being an inspiration to me when I was writing my own book on women and careers.

What I should really have thanked her for, now I have read Lean In, is for writing a sequel to my Mrs Moneypenny's Careers Advice for Ambitious Women.

And what a sequel. At the time of writing, this is the number one bestselling book on Amazon in the US. Here in the UK it is number 36. Amazon also tells me that the book it is most often sold with is... mine.

I hope Sheryl is pleased about this; when my own book came out a year ago, the book it was most often sold with was called Run, Fat Bitch, Run, which I was less happy about. (Mind you, it could be worse. In Italy, the book mine sells most often with is Fifty Shades of Grey.)

But I am digressing. Do we really need another review of Lean In? There have been several hundred already, not all of them supportive.

The New York Times' Maureen Dowd said that the book and the associated campaign that Sandberg has launched to encourage more women to move up in the workplace have left her 'leaning out'.

Joanne Bamberger in USA Today thinks Sandberg is out of touch with reality. My FT colleague Vanessa Friedman takes Sandberg to task for not mentioning how important clothes and presentation are for a woman in the workplace.

I, on the other hand, like this book a lot. It says many of the things that I have believed for ages about why women don't progress as far as they could.

Having it all, says Sandberg, 'is best regarded as a myth'. Indeed. I have long held that the best way of shattering the glass ceiling is to shatter the myth that women can 'have it all'.

She describes her first appraisal with Mark Zuckerberg. This itself is an interesting concept. Sandberg is almost 15 years older than Zuckerberg and by my reckoning would have been 39 at the time of her first Facebook appraisal, which would have made Zuckerberg 24. Any woman about to turn 40 who can embrace an appraisal with a 24 year-old so calmly gets my vote.

She also gives him resounding thanks in the book's acknowledgements. Zuckerberg pointed out to her the important truth that she should worry less about her own popularity if she wanted to achieve change. I couldn't agree more. Running a business, and indeed being a parent, is not a popularity competition. Life is not an episode of The X Factor.

I could go on and on about the things I like about this book, including Sandberg's citing of the late Nora Ephron, who was a business hero of mine for taking a very negative emotional experience (being cheated on by her husband when she was very pregnant with their second child) and turning it into a lucrative screenplay.

I also like books that suggest things I could do to help me get more things done. One story in the book mentions a fellow speaker at a conference who admitted publicly that she occasionally put her children to bed in their school uniforms to save 15 minutes in the morning. Genius! I loved it. Why did I never think of that when mine were younger?

I suspect that some people may have missed the point of this book, which journalist April Dembosky, a San Fransisco-based rising star, accurately described as 'giving an intriguing glimpse into the experience of one of the most successful women in business'. As Dembosky says at the end of her piece, Lean In is as much a book about leadership as it is about female careers.

Personally, I think the reviewers who have sniped at this book are looking far too much at the negatives. Why is that? Are they envious of Sandberg's success?

I like her point that 'the more women can stick up for one another, the better'. So, Sheryl, I'm sticking up for you. It's a great book and it says all the things I strongly believe in. Better still, because you are more successful and more famous than me, more women will read your words and, I hope, be inspired to lean in.

If you want to be a woman at the top, focus on your career. Stop trying for perfection in everything, realise you can't do it all, make hard choices and be proud of them. Spot on, Sheryl.

Heather McGregor owns and runs the executive search firm Taylor Bennett, writes for the Financial Times, and is the author of Mrs Moneypenny's Careers Advice for Ambitious Women (Penguin, 2012)

BOOK:

Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead

Sheryl Sandberg

WH Allen, £16.99

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