Learning from Sheryl Sandberg: Future Women Leaders Should Choose Their Mentors Wisely

I’m a fan of Sheryl Sandberg – the COO of Facebook and much of the reason that, coming into its IPO, the company is valued at up to $100 billion.

Let’s face it, Mark Zuckerberg might have had a great idea – but he didn’t know how to turn it into a great company. Sandberg did and that’s exactly what she accomplished. She took the concept and turned it into a juggernaut.

A lot of how she did so was by looking for, at and to women – both within the company and in its partnerships with advertisers and other revenue-generating relationships.

I started focusing on Sandberg because of her speech to the Barnard College graduating class last year. (The video follows the post.) In it – and in others – she has as good as become the voice of women empowering themselves in this new generation of up and comers.

And that’s why one particular segment of the New York Times article about Sandberg and the Facebook IPO struck me as so very, very interesting. It shows the other face of women and the way they disempower each other.

It comes from a comment made by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation and a director of the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University. She said:

“I am a huge fan of [Sandberg’s] accomplishments and think she’s a huge role model in some ways, but I think she’s overly critical of women because she’s almost implying that they don’t have the juice, the chutzpah, to go for it….I think she’s had a golden path herself, and perhaps does not more readily understand that the real struggles are not having children or ambition. Women are, in fact, fierce in their ambition, but they find that they’re actually derailed by other things, like they don’t have a sponsor in their life that helps them go for it.”

And there you have it. The typically passive-aggressive, indirect way that women take other women down – and do a much better job of it than men ever can.

For women reading Hewlett’s comments, the underlying message is, “You might want to listen to Sandberg but don’t ever think that you can achieve what she’s achieved because she had all the breaks – from money to the right husband to the right mentors. She’s an anomaly so lower your personal expectations and you’ll be just fine.”

Let’s face it, if a man were to say - or even imply - anything like what Hewlett said, women everywhere would be up in arms about gender bias, sexism and more. But let a woman say what Hewlett said and it’s accepted – or at least acceptable.

No. It’s not.

Ever since the women’s movement began, this has been one of the common themes. Women against women. Indirectly, but always there.

Oddly, it even showed its ugly face in the recent debacle of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to remove its funding from Planned Parenthood – an organization for and by women whose raison d’etre is women’s health.

Sure, Komen positioned their defunding as if it was a policy decision. When they realized that everybody recognized that the real and underlying reason was wholly political, they quickly reversed their decision. All of this under the stewardship of a woman CEO - its Founder, Nancy Brinker.

Only a woman could have made such a seriously wrong decision in the first place. A man would have been too frightened (and too aware) of the fallout to have ever given it a try.

And that takes us back to Sheryl Sandberg’s message.

Few in the world – man or woman – ever achieve what Sandberg has achieved. What that means is that it’s not about the comparisons – whether with men or with other women. It’s about believing that you can do all and more than you ever thought. And it’s the Sandberg’s of the world who lead us all to believe that we, as women, can do and be just that bit more than society would tell us we can or will.

So it comes down to a choice for you and how you see your life.
As you choose your mentors, role models and guides, be aware that not all women are for other women’s success. You can either focus on the limitless horizons that Sandberg describes or the society- and (however unconsciously and unintentionally) self- imposed limits that Hewlett describes.

For my part, I’m going with Sandberg. You should too.

[This article appeared on Technorati.]