Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In and Preparing Yourself for Success

This is the first in a series of articles I'm writing about women in business, the lessons of Lean In and, particularly, how you can help build your career and a healthier workplace. For women, the lessons will be immediately understandable and applicable. For men, this will explain a lot of the dynamics you see around you. For all, it's information on which you can immediately act. I look forward to your comments, thoughts and experiences.
It's been a year since I wrote about the ways that women actively undermine other women and how crucial it is that that behavior stops.

Based on Jodi Kantor's recent article in the New York Times, not only was she not listening, but the behavior is alive, well and thriving.

Interestingly, the target is the same as last year (Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook), and even though it's different people taking their shots, the tactics they use remain the same as well.

What makes this particularly heinous is the context of the attack. Ms. Sandberg has taken the message of her TEDTalk (which has netted over 2 million views) and turned it into a book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Moreover, she has simultaneously established the Lean In Foundation - giving women the tools and skills they need to take themselves and society - worldwide - to the next level at no fee to themselves.

Yes, that's right. She's making sure that women who aspire, have dreams and have been stymied by themselves, others and the system at large (basically, every woman) now will be given a world class curriculum of skills and support to help them fulfill themselves and achieve their dreams.

You'd think that women who have already achieved success would cheer Ms. Sandberg for her efforts. No. At least not in Ms. Kantor's and her crew's case. Instead, using incomplete information, inference and personal attack, they do their best to undermine Ms. Sandberg and what she's offering the world - even before either the book or Foundation launch.

So, since these are, unfortunately, too common (and, frankly, lazy) tactics, let's take a look at how Ms. Kantor did it in her article. That way, as you achieve your goals, you'll see the game as it's being perpetrated against you (which it will be), take the right actions (which in many cases is none) and, generally, feel sorry for the perpetrator. (We'll get to why in a bit.) 

Tactic 1: Incomplete Information 

Let's start with two facts:
  1. At the time of this writing, neither the book nor the Foundation are live yet, and
  2. Ms. Sandberg both founded and funded the Foundation.

So, when Ms. Kantor casts aspersions about what is being asked of the launch partner organizations - name brands like Sony, American Express, Johnson & Johnson and Google - she's offensive to the companies and their leaders by demeaning the letter and spirit of their participation.

Do Ms. Kantor's assertions have substantive merit? No. Are they a handy tactic? Yes. Because even before the launch has occurred, she's doing her best to make those organizations' leaders question their partnerships and the impact it will have on their brands.

The good news is: It won't work.

New organizations grow and evolve. As needs develop, they respond - at least the smart ones do. As time goes on, the involvement of the Foundation's partner organizations will also evolve based on ideas generated by the Lean In Circles, the partners, themselves, and the Foundation, at large.

So not only is this tactic substantively shortsighted (which the partner organizations' leaders know - if they're even paying attention to what Ms. Kantor wrote), but it's boring and lazy - because the only thing the perpetrators using this tactic are doing is replaying the old adage, "The best defense is a good offense." 

You'd think they'd come up with something new - which they sort of do when combined with... 

Tactic 2: Inference

Let's remember who we're talking about here. Sheryl Sandberg has a resume of public and private sector achievements that do one thing most clearly: they show that she is both successful in her own right and knows how to create success for others. 

I apologize for the repetition but at this moment, the Foundation hasn't launched yet. So why is Ms. Kantor asking if anyone will come to the Lean In Circles - and if they do, will they get anything out of the experience and want to come back? 

Worse, why is she using the pilot Circle participants as targets - just as she did the partner organizations?

The Circles are the heart of the Foundation. They're the outreach. They're where a progressive, structured curriculum of skills training and interpersonal support are delivered. They're treated as the learning environments they are - while designed for a generation that engages and connects in ways that older generations of women (like mine) either didn't or couldn't because we didn't have the opportunity.

Lean In Circles are not a coffee klatch, a 'consciousness raising' group or sitting around a campfire singing "Kumbaya." They're a commitment - by the Foundation to the women involved and by the women involved to themselves and their Circle members.

So, in direct answer to Ms. Kantor's question: Yes, women will come to the Circles and when they do, they'll learn and grow. Then grow more. 

BTW, there was another aspect of this tactic that was at play in Ms. Kantor's playbook: If you can't take on your target directly - or you don't think you'll win if you do - get someone else to fight it for you. Cat fight, anyone? Yes, to read Ms. Kantor's article is to wait for any number of her cohorts to join in the fun of trying to make the success of Ms. Sandberg's book and Foundation - and, by extension, the women involved - failures before they even begin.

That's not only wrong, it's shameful, especially when tied to... 

Tactic 3: Personal Attack

We already know that Ms. Kantor had no hesitation in attacking the partner organizations and the pilot Lean In Circle members. But she didn't stop there.

Ms. Sandberg is taking the women's movement to a new level for a new generation. What the trailblazers of the movement did for their time is what Ms. Sandberg is now doing for women in a world that has evolved to provide more opportunities - and obstacles - than ever before.

Why, then, does Ms. Kantor think we need to know about the size of Ms. Sandberg's home ("9000 square feet"), her education ("double Harvard degree"), her wealth ("a fortune worth hundreds of millions on paper"), her husband (CEO of SurveyMonkey) or her "army of household help"?

We don't. It has nothing to do with the message that Ms. Sandberg is bringing. But it's a handy - and, once again, lazy - way to undermine that message by making the messenger a less than trustworthy source.

That way, even before the Lean In Foundation has launched or the book has been released, the seed has been planted: Since you don't have what Ms. Sandberg has, what she's offering won't do you any good.

That's wrong - on so many different levels - which takes us to...

Why You Should Feel Sorry for Women Who Attack Other Women 

In a word: they're scared.

They may be scared that they can't compete. They may not believe that their skills will get them where they want to go. They may be afraid to aspire. To dream. To be disappointed.
Ultimately, their reason doesn't matter - because it has nothing to do with you. It's all about them - and that's the most liberating thing of all.

You are free to aspire and to achieve. You can set your goals and go after them - not feeling the need to take others...and especially other women...down in the process. In fact, you'll share your success.
And to help you along the way, make sure you read the book and look into establishing or joining a Lean In Circle in your area. That way, not only will you have your own skills, but you'll have Sheryl Sandberg supporting you every step of the way. 
Women and Leadership: Sheryl Sandberg and the Facebook IPO (llk)

An earlier version of this article appeared on Technorati (llk)