Sally Helgesen reviewed Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead in Strategy+Business magazine as one of the Best Business Books 2013: Managerial Self-Help. This blog adapts her review to apply to project management/project leadership.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead combines exhortation, analysis, and memoir in addressing the question of why so many women who start their careers with high potential and high hopes fall behind as the years progress, resulting in a continuing paucity of women in project management positions. Until recently, this was widely attributed to the lack of a “pipeline,” a problem that, it was assumed, would resolve itself once enough women were hired on projects. This has not happened.
Although Sandberg recognizes that substantial extrinsic obstacles stand in the way of women’s success (organizational culture, blatant and subtle discrimination, and, of course, child-care issues), she’s also convinced that internal obstacles (issues related to women’s own thinking and behavior) play a role. This is what she sets out to examine, drawing on her own experience and that of other women. She buttresses her observations with well-integrated academic research on such issues as how success and likability are correlated in women (negatively, as it turns out), differences in how men and women perceive their own qualifications for advancement (men rate themselves more highly even in cases where women significantly outperform them), and how men and women perceive their employability (dishearteningly, women apply for open jobs only if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed, whereas men apply if they meet 60 percent of the requirements). Such data makes it difficult to argue with Sandberg’s central thesis that women’s tendency to question their own skills often plays a role in limiting their opportunities.
The Facebook COO freely admits that she has made every mistake she discusses and tells her own story with refreshing candor. For instance, when Larry Summers, her mentor and thesis advisor at Harvard, recommended she apply for an international fellowship, she ignored the advice because she feared it would make it harder for her to find a husband. Later, working for Summers at the World Bank, she made up for this strategic error by taking to heart his advice that she “bill like a boy.”
Sandberg demonstrates a gift for self-awareness that avoids both self-adulation and false modesty. She admits she didn’t know how to read a spreadsheet when she arrived at the World Bank and describes humiliating moments when she made poor decisions, received withering feedback, or even cried. Although she’s been criticized for these admissions by those who believe successful women must always inhabit the straitjacket of the unvaryingly positive role model, her honesty has stood her in good stead, both in her career and in the warm persona that animates the book.
She expresses humility and is not reluctant to assume a lower-status position if she has something to learn. She’s a skilled questioner who actively shows that she is listening so others will be comfortable opening up. She credits her success to recognizing that truth lies in the eye of the beholder and that statements of fact are therefore likely to put others on the defensive. She acknowledges that listening and being open were hard skills for her to learn and says she has to work at being “delicately honest.”
To improve your listening skills, have a look at Learning Tree Course 294: Influence Skills: Getting Results Without Direct Authority.