Book cover: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg


This weekend I read the book Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. It’s been in the news a lot lately, and was mentioned several times by speakers I heard at South by Southwest in March, so I was eager to see what it was all about. In the end, I read the book because I was asked to as part of a work retreat. My unit is composed of a team of five women, and we’re lucky enough to have a boss that places value on professional development. Each year we read one book in preparation for a group discussion as part of our annual planning retreat. Since Lean In had received so much press, we decided to give this a look this year. I am so glad we did!

A few of the highlights for the book, from my perspective, made me think about some phrases I’d heard in the past, but in new ways.

“Sit at the table.”

When I was in graduate school, I took a class from Terry Denbow, the then-retiring vice president for university relations. The course focused on practicing public relations in higher education. One of the main lessons I took away from the class was the need to “sit at the table.” Terry told us that, as PR practitioners, we all needed to push for the right to sit at the table where decisions were made. At the time I was taking a new position within my college, and I took Terry up on his advice. During our somewhat regular staff meetings I began sitting at the table. I didn’t think too much of it until this phrase appeared in Lean In. Sheryl Sandberg points out that women frequently avoid sitting at the table. Literally. They sit against the wall or in the corner. I’ve seen this in practice, and never focused on the fact that it is the women that do this. I have never seen one of my male co-workers hide in the corner. By sitting at the table you signify that you are willing, able, and worthy of being involved in the conversation.

“Impostor Syndrome”

This phrase came up at work a few months ago when a co-worker was planning a workshop on the subject for graduate students. The gist of it was that people, grad students in this case, can feel that they don’t deserve the accolades they get because they feel they don’t have the skills or qualities that are attributed to them. When this topic was broached, I had just finished my graduate program. I remember thinking how I could relate to the idea from a student perspective, but it never occurred to me to think of it from a professional perspective. Sheryl Sandberg points out that the same impostor syndrome comes into play when women under value their skills and abilities, assuming they are less qualified than they are, or focusing on the things they have yet to learn rather than what skills they already bring to the table. When I started my newest job I know I was guilty of this. And if I’m being honest with myself I’d have to say I’m still working on it.

“You can’t please everyone!”

“When you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.” These words hit home. As a communicator at work, I’m pushing for the cutting edge in communications and new media. But as a communicator in academia, I’ve learned that change can be a four-letter word for some. I’ve always tried to be sure everyone is pleased, and I need to let go of this. Sheryl’s words made me realize that by trying to please everyone, I may be holding back on my goals for my work.

One thing that I appreciated about this book was the approach Sheryl took in including single women, as well as men, in her discussion. Work/life balance and career planning are not limited to women with children, but not everyone realizes that. Actually, many single women don’t realize that. Sheryl’s book lays out reasons why all benefit if all have access to equal treatment.

There were many elements of this book that spoke to me, and I will be holding on to this book for years to come. I anticipate that with each re-reading at a different point in my life I will get more out of it, and I’m eager to hear our unit’s discussion of the book (we’re all at different stages in our lives and careers).

I would highly recommend this book to anyone – man or woman – who is working in a professional field, plans to be working in a professional field, working at home (as a parent or otherwise)… This is a must read, both for what it will do for the individual and for what it will do for work teams and partners.