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How to Succeed in Business

Sheryl Sandberg; drawing by James Ferguson

To begin with, a quiz. Who wrote the following sentences: Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, or Sheryl Sandberg?

(a) When communicating hard truths, less is often more.
(b) It takes self-confidence, courage and a willingness to take the heat when you make the tough calls.
(c) Opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.
(d) Get your priorities straight and keep a hot list of what you’re trying to do.
(e) Seeking out diverse experiences is useful preparation for leadership.
(f) People used to ask me, “How could somebody as busy as you go to all those swim meets and recitals?” I just put them down on my calendar as if I were seeing a supplier or a dealer that day.

Before looking at the answers—at the bottom of this page1 —look closely at the prose. These are the words of successful people. More to the point, these are the words of successful people who are trying to sell the secrets of their success to others. In order to do so, they have tailored their language to appeal to the widest possible audience. Hence the blandness of the vocabulary, the interchangeability of the thoughts, the imperative and declarative nature of the sentences.

The similarity of the language may also reflect some parallels between the lives of the writers, all of which have been outstanding. Welch ran General Electric before writing Winning (2005), a best seller that made him into a business guru. Iacocca ran Chrysler before writing Iacocca: An Autobiography (1984), a best seller that made him into a business guru too. Both men then wrote more books, gave lucrative, inspirational speeches, and consciously made themselves into role models for others.

Sandberg hasn’t quite reached CEO heights—she is chief operating officer of Facebook, not the top boss—but then she has some qualities the top boss of that organization doesn’t. Certainly she’s more charismatic, more eloquent, more approachable. Her gender has also contributed to her book’s style and to its reception. There aren’t that many telegenic, superstar female business executives out there, but there are probably a lot of people who would like to become one—especially one who earned $845 million in share options last year. Like its predecessors, Lean In has now become a best seller, and it’s safe to guess that it will make Sandberg into a business guru as well.

Ultimately, Sandberg’s goals are familiar ones too. Lean In, she explains at the end of the book, is not “the end of the conversation, but the beginning”:

I invite you to continue the discussion with me by joining the Lean In Community at www.facebook.com/leaninorg. Let’s keep talking about these issues and supporting one another…. I also encourage you to visit www.leanin.org for practical education and personal experiences that can help you reach your goals. Here you can explore topics critical to your success—from negotiating effectively to understanding your strengths. You also can create and join Lean In Circles, small peer groups that meet in person for ongoing encouragement and development.

Although these suggestions have been hailed as a novelty, they too are familiar tactics. Welch also has a website: www.welchway.com offers an online management training program that “delivers battle-tested business techniques you can put into action immediately.” Meanwhile, those who visit www.leeiacocca.com can download a Leadership Scorecard that “is most effective when shared with colleagues, family, and friends.” Readers are invited to “share your thoughts” with Iacocca, and with one another. Thus can the discussion be continued with these older male gurus too, perhaps in small peer groups that meet in person.

By writing that all three of these books share many qualities, I don’t intend to diminish Sandberg’s achievement. She has indeed done something new: She has written the first truly successful, best-selling “how to succeed in business” motivational book to be explicitly designed and marketed for women. She has done so cleverly, using language intended to appeal to women—“ongoing encouragement and development” as opposed to “battle-tested business techniques.” As part of her pitch to women, she also claims to be telling a larger story about gender and society, about which more in a moment. But this is not a book that belongs on the shelf alongside Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi. It belongs in the business section.

Despite her gender, the similarities between Sandberg and Welch or Iacocca, for example, are more profound than the differences. Lean In, like Winning or Talking Straight, is neither a proper autobiography nor a work of journalism. Sandberg has conducted no original research. Instead she deploys autobiographical anecdotes, backed up by social science studies and material from other people’s books. Some of the social science studies are dubious. Sandberg claims, for example, that studies show that “couples who share domestic responsibilities have more sex.” Alas, other studies show precisely the opposite.2 But that isn’t the point: this is a motivational tract, not a scientific paper.

Like Welch or Iacocca’s books, Lean In also offers not specific advice but more universal words of wisdom. Sandberg isn’t telling you to buy stocks instead of bonds this year, she is offering inspiring but generic suggestions that could have equally come from a fortune cookie: Set your priorities. Leap at opportunities. Take risks. Communicate clearly. Find ways to balance work and family.

Not all of this advice is consistent. On the contrary, as Amanda Hess of Slate has perceptively written, Sandberg frequently contradicts herself.3 At one point, she encourages women to pretend to be confident even when they aren’t, indulging in “an hour of forced smiling” if necessary: “feeling confident—or pretending that you feel confident—is necessary to reach for opportunities.” Four chapters later, she proffers precisely the opposite advice: “Instead of putting on some kind of fake ‘all-work persona,’ I think we benefit from expressing our truth.” At another point, she explains that she wants women to speak up—one of her strongest anecdotes describes a business meeting at which the men all spoke and the women stayed silent—but also admits that she herself has been coached in order to learn how to speak less.

Startlingly, she even contradicts the piece of advice most central to the book. From the beginning to the end of Lean In, Sandberg argues again and again that women must overcome internal and external barriers, welcome challenges, not back away, not assume they won’t be able to do something because they are pregnant or might be pregnant or won’t be able to cope. This is what she means, after all, by the expression “lean in.” “This book makes the case for leaning in, for being ambitious in any pursuit,” she writes, and the subtitle is “Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

And yet, in the summer of 2006, Sandberg herself was offered a top job, not as the chief operating officer but as the CEO of LinkedIn:

But the timing was tricky. I was thirty-seven years old and wanted to have a second child…. I had to pass because I didn’t think I could handle both a pregnancy and a new job.

In other words, she leaned out.

These contradictions reflect a deeper problem: motivational slogans, whether they come from Sandberg or Welch, are almost always useless in real-life situations. In practice, a successful woman—like a successful man—must learn, early on, how much emotion to show and how much to conceal, depending on the circumstances. She must learn how much to speak and how much to keep silent, for that depends on the circumstances too. Above all, she must understand herself well enough to know which challenges are worth accepting and which—given her personal situation, her husband, her finances, her interests, her age—must be sensibly refused.

Sometimes it makes sense, in the lives of both men and women, to leap at opportunities. Sometimes it’s foolish. Some risks are worth taking and others are not. But this book steers well away from such subtleties. Once again, however, that isn’t the point: Sandberg is not offering a life plan, she is offering words of inspiration.

For similar reasons, the book offers no real insights into how Sandberg actually does it. How is her life organized? How is her balance achieved? What does it really cost? How does she cope with travel? With weekends? With vacations? Only twice in the book does she—very briefly—mention her household help, which I have to assume is quite substantial. After the birth of her first child, she and her husband hired a nanny, “but she couldn’t solve all our problems.” She has a helpful husband, but he too has a full-time job. She has a nice sister, but she is a working physician. Faced with a similar dilemma, a Californian businesswoman of my acquaintance hired a second nanny as a supplement, and eventually a third. Is that what Sandberg did? She never tells us.

Only once does she give us a glimpse of a specific work-life-balance strategy she successfully deployed while still working at Google. When returning to the office after her child was born, she “went to great lengths to hide my new schedule from most people”:

Camille, my ingenious executive assistant, came up with the idea of holding my first and last meetings of the day in other buildings to make it less transparent when I was actually arriving or departing. When I did leave directly from my office, I would pause in the lobby and find a colleague-free moment to bolt to my car.

Sandberg now writes that this obsessive desire to conceal how much time she spent at home “stemmed from my own insecurity.” But there’s nothing new here. When going to his daughter’s swim meets, Iacocca would write “country club” in his diary (as quoted previously), “as if I were seeing a supplier or dealer,” pop out of the office, go to the meet, and come back, without necessarily being all that clear about where he was going.

And perhaps this was extremely clever: when you have a new baby and a big job, maybe it’s a good idea not to be entirely clear about your whereabouts. Perhaps a gift for subterfuge and a talent for scheming even help explain Sandberg’s (and Iacocca’s) success. In fact Sandberg has a number of other unusual qualities that she doesn’t advertise—qualities that would not fit so easily into a fortune cookie—but that may also explain how she got to be a multimillionaire COO. Obsessive workaholism, for example: after her baby was born,

I started checking e-mails around 5:00 AM. Yup, I was awake before my newborn. Then once he was down at night, I would jump back on my computer and continue my workday.

Again she seems embarrassed by this behavior. But why? It is perfectly possible that zealous addiction to work and careful attention to detail, especially at five in the morning, are precisely what helped get her to where she is today.

Other factors, even harder to imitate, must also explain Sandberg’s rise. For example, she surely has an astonishing and unusual capacity to cope with difficult, socially awkward, borderline-Asperger’s men: Sergey Brin, Larry Summers, Mark Zuckerberg. This is not a talent that many women, or indeed many men, are lucky enough to possess. But then she has been very lucky in other ways as well. At Harvard, for example, Sandberg happened to take a class with Summers, who happened to hire her as a research assistant before he happened to become treasury secretary. Upon arriving in the government, he made her his chief of staff.

Coincidences like this have a part in the life of any successful person. Bill Gates, for example, has acknowledged how much he benefited from several unlikely pieces of good fortune: unusually early access to computers, teenage proximity to computer labs, the chance to learn programming before anyone else did. “I was very lucky,” he told Malcolm Gladwell at the beginning of an interview about the sources of his success. Gates easily acknowledges the role of chance and fortune—but then he isn’t seeking to package his life story as a source of motivation for others.4

By contrast, Sandberg is disinclined to talk about luck, and this makes sense: If that’s all it was, then what lessons can she sell to women in Lean In? What will women talk about at Lean In circles? What will they write on the Lean In Facebook page? Her lack of interest in the mechanics of her own career is equally understandable. One can quite see that “Be dishonest about your working hours” or “Be at the right place at the right time” doesn’t have the same ring as “Opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.” That sort of advice wouldn’t have made this book into a best seller.

  1. 1

    (a) Sheryl Sandberg, (b) Jack Welch, (c) Sheryl Sandberg, (d) Lee Iacocca, (e) Sheryl Sandberg, (f) Lee Iacocca. From Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, Jack Welch with John A. Byrne, Jack: Straight from the Gut (Warner, 2001), and Lee Iacocca with Sonny Kleinfeld, Talking Straight (Bantam, 1988). 

  2. 2

    Sabino Kornrich, Julie Brines, and Katrina Leupp, “Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 78, No. 1 (February 2013). 

  3. 3

    Amanda Hess, “Lean Where?,” Slate, March 8, 2013. 

  4. 4

    Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown, 2008), p. 55. 

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