Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Lean In," by Sheryl Sandberg
Chapter Seven: "Don't Leave Before You Leave"

With this chapter, Sandberg is speaking my language all over again.  In fact, she's speaking my language so much that I hesitate to analyze or paraphrase big sections.  So I'm going to start with some perfect quotes that get right to the heart of the issue.

"From an early age, girls get the message that they will have to choose between succeeding at work and being a good mother. By the time they are in college, they are already thinking about the trade-offs they will have to make between professional and personal goals."

"I'm a big believer in thoughtful preparation"... "But when it comes to integrating career and family, planning too far in advance can close doors rather than open them." "Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family."

In other words, we pass up opportunities that we would have taken if we were not planning to one day to have a family, or move to a different town, or go back to school.  By letting opportunities pass us by for some future unknown, we slow down our career progression.  "The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in."

And then, to make things worse, if we do return to work after having a baby or making some other change related to our family life, we see that our male  colleagues have outpaced us.  This is so discouraging that often we pull back even more.

"The more satisfied a person is with her position, the less likely she is to leave. So the irony - and to me, the tragedy - is that women wind up leaving the workforce precisely because of things they did to stay in the workforce. With the best of intentions, they end up in a job that is less fulfilling and less engaging. When they finally have a child, the choice - for those who have one - is between becoming a stay-at-home mother or returning to a less-than-appealing professional situation."

At the same time, "not every parent needs, wants, or should be expected to work outside the home." "No one should pass judgment on these highly personal decisions. I fully support a man or woman who dedicates his or her life to raising the next generation. It is important and demanding and joyful work."

Amen, sister.  For me, the problem has never been in the value of choosing to work over the value of choosing to stay at home to raise a family, or vice versa.  For me the pull is wanting to have it all.  Which we can't do.  And I love this book for realizing that we have to make choices, and supporting us to make the right choices based on our personal situations, but recognizing that they will be difficult.  And, as this chapter points out, not choosing to leave before we need to.

These choices are intensely personal, and only you can make these decisions for yourself.  However, it's rare that timing in life is ever perfect.  Just like you may never get around to having a child if you're waiting for the "perfect moment," you may also never take advantage of greater work responsibility or a change in career if you're waiting for your personal circumstances to be ideal.

I really like the quote where one woman refers to herself as a "career-loving parent" rather than a "working mom."  It's a much more positive label, one that I can live with.

If you've got the hard-cover copy of the book, there are a few more good sections in this chapter, like the bottom two paragraphs of page 100; two great examples on page 101, and some great data on page 102.

For this career-loving parent, I'd say if you only read one chapter of this book, make Chapter Seven that chapter.

Photo Credits:

Working Mom:
If you Have Kids:
Working Mother magazine cover:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Lean In" Chapter Six: “Seek and Speak Your Truth”

“Lean In,” by Sheryl Sandberg
Chapter Six:  “Seek and Speak Your Truth”

In this chapter, Sandberg celebrates honest and open communication in the workplace.  While I agree with most of her assertions, I’m not sure that my own institution, the U.S. State Department, is completely ready for such openness.  Let’s take this one point at a time.

Authentic Communication:  This is a very important area, and one that I believe in.  In my own work, I would be remiss if I did not tell my superiors when I think that we are headed down the wrong path.  Our work can influence policy, and if I want our policies to be the best they can be, I have to speak clearly and loudly.  Otherwise I might as well be a rubber stamp that adds no value.

However, sometimes it’s hard to speak up.  We want to protect ourselves, get a good evaluation; not rock the boat; be known as a team player.  But if we don’t speak up, it can lead to all sorts of problems:  “uncomfortable issues that never get addressed, resentment that builds, unfit managers who get promoted rather than fired, and on and on.”

My favorite point in the chapter,” effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view.   Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others.”

Working in a multicultural environment, this was a given.  I knew that I would have to adjust to many different perspectives and a lot of different cultural realities.  But one thing that it took me a long time to learn is that it’s difficult to hear other people’s truths if you don’t allow for their way of expressing themselves.  I am a fairly fast talker.  Recently I was actually called out on it, in a situation where I had no idea I had been speaking quickly.  Not everyone talks fast.  How will I get to their truth if I don’t slow down enough to allow them time to express it?

Sandberg also makes a point which I thought most of us learned in High School, but which must not be the case.  She suggests using “I statements” rather than “You statements.”  Telling a person “You do this, and I don’t like it” can easily lead to quick and defensive responses.  If you say instead “I feel frustrated …” it helps to diffuse the tension and allows for a discussion.

Solicit input broadly.  All of us can use a little constructive criticism.  As managers, we also need to empower our colleagues to tell us when our way may not be the best way.  We can start by making it clear that we are open to suggestions, and want to be told when there are concerns about our choices, or if we are simply making a mistake.

We should also invite constructive criticism more actively by asking “’How can I do better?’ ‘What am I doing that I don’t know?’ ‘What am I not doing that I don’t see?’”  It’s tough, because no one likes to hear that they’re not perfect.  Sometimes the feedback can even be painful.  “But the upside of painful knowledge is so much greater than the downside of blissful ignorance.”

Then the chapter starts into a bit of a laundry list.  Most of them are fairly self-evident, so I’ll just list them here, and give a general idea of whether I agree or disagree.
  1.  Speak openly about weaknesses.  I think that this advice has to be followed with caution.  We are all encouraged to recognize our “areas for improvement” so that we can get increasingly better at what we do.   But in this cut-throat world, being too open about one’s weaknesses can backfire.  I get her point, but I still recommend caution with this one.
  2. Thank people publicly for being open and honest.  This is definitely helpful when a colleague steps out on a limb.  But I would also exercise discretion in this area.  As someone who likes to spread around the positive praise, I have to rein myself in from time to time so that I don’t make it seem that my praise isn't worth a lot.  Yes, we should publicly acknowledge helpful feedback, but we should limit that praise to true examples so that our praise has merit.
  3. Humor can be an amazing tool for delivering an honest message in a good-natured way”.  Yes. 
  4. Everyone gets upset at work.  It’s okay.”  I would definitely like to think that.  I enjoy being able to be open with my colleagues.  Sandberg adds “Sharing emotions builds deeper relationships.”  Again, it sounds good.  But it’s not always realistic.  I think that when someone is truly in need, and this is exceptional, most of us will provide support no matter where we are, including in the workplace.  But if I am going through a tough time, a divorce, etc. and my emotions become a constant companion, I don’t know how many people will be tolerant of repeated breakdowns, and I don’t even know whether it’s appropriate to expect them to do so. 

There are colleagues in my life who have provided emotional support and a shoulder to cry on, as well as my favorite, a place to vent frustration and anger, but they are rare.  They are special, and they are trusted.  I just don’t think that we can expect the modern workplace to be accepting of “emotion” on an every-day, every moment basis.  It’s a profession, there still needs to be some professionalism about it.

I do agree with one of Sandberg’s conclusions.  “Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.”  However, I don’t think that “speaking the truth” has to or should include “shedding tears in the workplace … no longer viewed as embarrassing or weak.”  To me tears, compassion, sensitivity, and honest communication are four different things, with their own pros and cons.  They should be approached as such.

Compassion, sensitivity and honest communication are musts in the modern workplace.  Tears are still meant to be private.  I wish that she had focused on the first three.

Photo Credits:

Speak the Truth, Even if Your Voice Shakes:
Authentic Communication at Work:
We Keep Looking for Perfection, Walking Right Past Authenticity:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Great Gatsby." More DiCaprio, please...

Last night I watched "The Great Gatsby" in 3D.  I had never read the book, so my only preconceived notion was that, since Baz Luhrmann directed both films, it might be like "Moulin Rouge," which I detested.

I was pleasantly surprised.  The film had all the great elements of "Moulin Rouge" without being as over the top.  The costumes were amazing, the set decoration and locations fantastic, and the acting well controlled.

Leonardo DiCaprio has finally, truly grown up.  He is beautiful in this movie.  I don't want to give anything away for those like myself who haven't read the book, but I can say that I found DiCaprio and his character a study in contrasts, and by far the most wonderful thing to watch in this film.

The film has a complexity, a seedy underbelly that sometimes comes right out and slaps you in the face, and other times leaves you with jaws agape.

I wondered from the beginning whether I was being dragged into a fantasy, or whether the story is based in truths that we prefer not to acknowledge.

Whether you watch it for DiCaprio, for Fitzgerald, for the sets, the costumes, or the lavish beauty, definitely watch it.  

Tobey Maguire is the weak link, though I'm still not sure whether it's his acting or the character he was asked to play. That's the one thing I would have asked if the movie, though the story probably wouldn't allow it.  Less Maguire, more DiCaprio.

Enjoy, Old Sport.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

“Lean In,” by Sheryl Sandberg
Chapter Five: “Are You My Mentor”

I have strong feelings about mentors, much stronger than the feelings I have about this chapter. Yes, talking about mentoring is important, but once again, I believe this entire chapter could be boiled down to a paragraph or two and incorporated somewhere else in the book.

Prior to joining the Foreign Service, I had mentors, but none that I called by that title. I was most close to one of my French professors who specialized in Medieval French Literature, the field I hoped to go into. I respected him and envied his skills so much, and I tried to spend as much time with him as possible. At the same time, I didn’t have any notion about what a mentor was, nor did it enter my mind until much later that he was, in fact, a very important mentor for me.

In the Foreign Service the concept of mentorship is well defined. I had the opportunity to request a mentor when I began working for the State Department, and again when working at my first post. In both cases, I was paired with successful, intelligent, interesting, and caring male mentors. But I really learned to use the mentor system best during my tour in Manila, under the leadership of the fantastic
Kristie Kenney, who I now consider as a vicarious mentor through following her on Twitter, Facebook, and other Foreign Service channels.

During that Manila tour, we had a session about what it means to be a mentor and what it means to be a mentee. The best advice I received was that mentoring is not a one-way relationship. The mentee has to be willing to take the lead in the relationship. It’s incumbent on the mentee – the person who is getting the greatest benefit in the relationship – to keep in touch with the mentor and remind him that I’m still here, and that I need and want his advice and counsel.

Here are this Sandberg’s main points on mentoring:

1. Don’t ask a total stranger to mentor you.

2. Use your time with experts to ask thoughtful questions that show that you have done your homework.

3. Mentors are important, but if you excel at your job, and you cultivate good business relationships, those connections should occur naturally.

4. When a mentor-mentee relationship is done right, it should yield benefits for both parties.

5. Mentors don’t have time for excessive hand-holding. When you ask your mentor to share their time with you, make sure you’re prepared. Focus on specific problems with real solutions.

6. Be open to “peer-to-peer” mentoring relationships. They can “provide more current and useful counsel.”

Mentors are like a secret weapon. My network of mentors now extends far beyond my two officially assigned colleagues. I claim specialty mentors, like those I ask to review my self-evaluation statements each year. I have Management mentors, to whom I turn when I’m not sure how to solve a personnel issue or regulation. I have “women in the workplace” mentors, including Elizabeth Power, whose amazing examples show the success women can have if we do “Lean In” and encourage other women to realize their potential as well.

How have your mentors improved or changed your success at work or in your personal life?

Image credits:

Kristie Kenney: AP photo