One of the most unfortunate myths about women in business is the perception that if we are highly motivated, competent, and successful, then we must also be high-powered bitches: less warm, less nice, and less nurturing than a female should be.
I just read the amazing New Yorker article “A Woman’s Place” about Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, and what I admire most about Sandberg is that she totally rejects this misconception about women in leadership roles. She does not maintain power by trying to act like a man. Instead, she leads with honesty, sensitivity, engagement, and by being generally likeable, attributes that might be scorned by traditional businessmen, but which have brought her, and Facebook, great success.
In fact, Sandberg’s male coworkers rave about her leadership strategies. Facebook’s Vice President of Product, Chris Cox, tells the story of Sandberg’s first months at Facebook, where she made a huge effort to introduce herself to employees and establish personal relationships. “She builds trust because she’s honest,” Cox says. “People can be intimidated by Mark [Zuckerberg]. Sheryl just cuts right through that.”
Sandberg manages to be modest without trying to hide her ambition or her success for fear of appearing too intimidating or cold. She also exemplifies one of the key ingredients for a truly good manager: she nurtures the talent of others rather than trying to hog the spotlight.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says of Sandberg, “She could go be the CEO of any company that she wanted to. But I think the fact that she really wants to get her hands dirty and work, and doesn’t need to be the front person all the time, is the amazing thing about her. It’s that low-ego element, where you can help the people around you and not need to be the face of all the stuff.”
It’s also interesting that Sandberg advocates building close personal relationships at work, rather than separating work and life. “I believe in bringing your whole self to work. We are who we are. When you try to have this division between your personal self and your professional self, what you really are is stiff. . . . That doesn’t mean people have to tell me everything about their personal lives. But I’m pretty sharing of mine.”
Sandberg’s example is inspiring because it demonstrates what I have long suspected, that women can prevail by acting like women. And in fact, our “feminine qualities” are actually extremely valuable in management positions and might revolutionize business. Keep in mind, Sheryl Sandberg may be described as honest and nice, but she is also incredibly smart, sharp, and motivated. I have no doubt that she has carefully evaluated her business persona, and I am thrilled to see that being true to herself—as a leader, as a woman, and as a mother—has brought her enormous success.
Have you ever felt that you needed to act more like a man to gain respect in the workplace? Do you think this is still necessary, or does Sheryl Sandberg’s story represent a change in attitude in business? We love to hear your stories and your thoughts.
Watch Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring speech on TED Women at GoGirl: “Women Face Harder Choices Between Professional Success and Personal Fulfillment”