Lessons Learned from NOT Leaning In


Leaning In Photo from IStockPhoto

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is causing quite the stir.   The book has been met with joy, anger, hope, interest, more anger, disbelief, and amazing sales.   Much of the criticisms of her book are about her and not about her message.

I’m in the middle of reading the book that was published last week and am finding it a good read.  Although Sheryl specifies that the book is not on career management, I am finding that to be one of the strengths of the content.   Whether your ultimate goal is to lead or not, every woman does need to develop career management skills so you can lean in at the times that will help you achieve your goals.

I have missed some opportunities to lean in.  There are more but for this post I will leave it to three examples.  I offer them as examples from one of the 99 percenters, an average Jane, a person whom you may find more in common than Ms. Sandberg.

Being a Friend Instead of a Career Counselor

Years ago, a close friend was upset because a coworker was named the new manager of her department and she had not been asked to interview for the promotion, a promotion she wanted. I was younger and more stupid then so  I shared in her pain, listened to her, and probably bought her a drink. Instead, I should have woken her up from her dream of the business world.

Although we all know many times when work does feel like high school getting a promotion is not one of them.  Bosses won’t be your girlfriends encouraging you to try out for the senior musical because you have an amazing voice.  Everyone who wants to be promoted needs to tell the right people at work.  The right people include the hiring manager for the job you want.

Silently Stood By

I was a presenter at a Women in Business Conference last fall and the keynote speaker ended her talk with “work hard and you will be rewarded”.  At the time, I thought about standing up and challenging her.  Working hard while not stating interest in new challenges will not result in new challenges.   I did not want to be that person but I should have been.  Here was a room full of college girls and professional women.  The college girls may have bought into the concept before they even started their careers.  That is starting one step behind. You don’t need to do a thing more than your job…. it’s absolutely wrong.

Standing by and not challenging such nonsense is as culpable as bystanders endorsing bullying.  If we are asking our fifth grade students to stand up to bullying  than I should have the courage to do it as well.  I partially failed that day.  I say partially because during my session I did address my disagreement on the topic.  I know it was a day late and a dollar short on that occasion.  It won’t be in the future.

Automatic NO

I was lucky. I learned to lean in early because of the first time I did not.  As a senior in college in 1985 I worked part-time at the local office of Congressman Joseph Early of Massachusetts.  It was before desktop computers and voice mail so I filed, answered phones, took messages, and once in a while actually talked with a constituent.  I must have done a good job because one day in May when the Congressman was in the office he called me in to speak with him.  I can still see him sitting in the big leather chair as I stood anxiously in front of his desk. I don’t think I had ever said more than hi to him before.   My first real conversation with him, and the Congressman offers me a full-time job in the D.C. office! I declined.

I declined so quickly it shocks me when I think of it now.  I know I did not consider the offer seriously.  I know it would have resulted in a different career path.  I may have been right to decline the offer because I was offered another job in government 12 years later and declined that job as well.  That time I knew why.  Where I was wrong was in not indicating interest and asking questions about the job until I could make an informed decision.  That is what someone who is managing her career does.

Since that job offer, I have never said an automatic NO again. To me, leaning in means developing my own career challenges and considering career challenges that are pitched to me. Some I have accepted and some I have declined.  Neither has been made from fear or lack of information.  When I have accepted challenges they have been interesting, rewarding, eye opening, and have moved my career forward.  I look forward to the new challenges I will accept.

Have there been times when you wished you leaned in?  I would love to read about them.  I’m sure the other readers would benefit.

© Katie Donovan 2013