I’m about a quarter of the way through Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. If you search online, you’ll find extremely differing reviews of the book. Some reviewers skewer Sandberg for not mentioning the stable of nannies and cooks that likely supported her efforts to rise to the top, while others believe that the book is, overall, a win for women. I’ll withhold judgement of the work until I’m done, but I did happen upon a few paragraphs that immediately resonated with me in light of some recent conversations with professional colleagues.
In the chapter “Sit at the Table,” Sandberg offers both personal anecdotes and supporting research that shows that women are less likely to grab opportunities for which they’re not 100% qualified (on paper). Conversely, men seem to exhibit the confidence to apply for positions that are a a real stretch for them. This is such a timely read for me because, just last week, I was encouraging a friend to apply for a very cool, executive level position that she would absolutely rock.
She read through the job requirements and knew she could handle this job, and yet she continued to focus on a few of the line items for which she had no experience. I scanned the list and told her, “who cares about those, you’d learn them in a day!” This friend is a continuous learner and can pick up anything fast, so it’s troubling to me that she could even linger on line items that are not critical components to a job.
What will be even more troubling to me is if the HR/hiring person won’t see beyond those line items. I’ve always claimed, and continue to insist, that hiring talented people means evaluating the person’s ability to learn and communicate/collaborate with others. When I interview, I look for smarts and personality first and specific skills second. You cannot teach smarts. You cannot teach character, but you can teach skills.
Sandberg states, “One of the things I tell people these days is that there is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit around you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.”
Regardless of how I’ll feel about Sandberg at this book’s end, I couldn’t agree more with this statement. Women do need to put themselves out there, stretch for opportunities that may seem out of reach. If we don’t do that, we’ll be stuck with only lateral moves or in support roles, watching those with courage and confidence (but maybe not as much talent) gobble up all the opportunities.
I have plenty of insecurities–who doesn’t–but one thing I’m proud to say is that I’m not afraid to stretch to reach the next opportunity. There have been several times when I’ve put myself out there for projects that I knew I could do but needed to quickly learn the skills to complete. It’s a scary feeling, but I’m not daunted. I dive in, read up, practice whatever it is I need to, learn from others, ask questions and voila! I’ve reached the next level and learned a lot in the process.
If you’re in the position to hire someone soon, here are a few things I’ve gleaned from life and this new read:
- Ask the candidate(s) about their learning style. Ask what they’re reading and how they self-educate. People who take the initiative to read, learn, and grow without prodding are likely going to be self-starters in the workplace too.
- Ask them about how they’ve stretched themselves or gone out on a limb. Don’t slam-dunk them if they failed because of that. I’d rather work with people who try hard, stretch far and occasionally fail than with people who never take any risks. No risk = fear. Fear = lack of innovation. Lack of innovation = slow death in competitive industries.
- Ask women you interview to self-promote. Sandberg claims that men are better self-promoters than women because society encourages men to tout their accomplishments but punishes women who do (as being too bitchy or arrogant). If you’re interviewing a woman, press her to brag. Tell her to let all her successes hang out! Because many women have been conditioned (whether they know it or not) to minimize their achievements, you may miss out on hiring someone amazing because they’re being too humble. It’s not necessarily their fault; they just haven’t had a safe environment to step up and “lean in.”
I’m interested to see how the rest of the book unfolds and if I agree with most of Sanberg’s work.