How "Lean In" helped me in Career Development

<I read the book so you don’t have to.>

I’ve started to read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” probably 8 years too late. Much has been talked about the book, a lot of criticism has been shared, a lot of support too. I’m not going to write yet another review of it, especially when it has been almost a decade passed and most statistics quoted in the book has since outdated.

However, I’m working and living in Vietnam, where every innovation, every trend and every movement is probably a few years later than other Western countries anyway. We have seen more female leaders, we have opened up conversations about feminism and the role of women in the workforce as well as families, yet we have a long way to go. Just as evident on this blog and countless stories my friends and I myself have witnessed first-hand, women are to this day viewed as the caregivers. A woman’s worth is deemed by her marriage and her husband.

And so although admittedly harboring bias against self-help books, I found myself reading Sandberg’s “Lean In” and finished it in less than a week. I found some practical lessons there worth trying to apply, and matter of fact, I did apply, to my career development.

1/ If you don’t ask, no-one will know.

Sandberg argues that a lot of women, and men, in the workforce assume if they work really hard, if they are liked, if they work long enough, they will get promoted. Then they’re bitterly surprised when they’re passed as the promotion goes to someone else, who asked for it. To quote her really-not-at-all-exact words, don’t expect people to put a little princess crown on your head for being pretty and nice.

Instead, ask. Ask your boss when you can be reviewed for a promotion, and why you should be. Ask what skills and what projects you’ll need to take on to get to that next level. Ask for a promotion with clear evidence of your contributions to the company, and how you will continue doing so in the future.

That really strikes a chord to me. I have been in my current company for the last 2 years without really talking to my boss about the next step. What does my career path look like? Where in the company structure will I eventually see myself? And it scares me than most that I’m standing still, not knowing where to go next. I immediately take the next opportunity to ask my boss, and tell her, that I can do more. We eventually agree that I can work towards taking over the whole digital marketing function, and that she will start giving me new projects in website development, lead generation, community engagement… Just like that, grey areas become clearer. Now I know what I’m working towards in the next stage, by asking the question.

Photo by Pixabay on

2/ Don’t be afraid of risks.

A good portion of “Lean In” was spent talking about how internal obstacles within each woman were holding them back from taking initiatives and leadership. While the hesitance to take on a new project or to initiate new ideas to your supervisor is common to both men and women, statistically women are much more inclined to say no when they’re not sure they can succeed in certain endeavors.

It’s only natural to say no: you don’t want to embarrass yourself, you don’t want to take on too many responsibilities, you don’t want a failure hinder your upcoming promotion. What I also learned from another book, “Yes Please” by Amy Poehler (another title I picked up 7 years too late?), is attitude matters, even in the scenario of failure. Poehler pushes her readers to say Yes to most everything asked of them, followed by Please. If you’re polite, if you’re responsible, if you’re committed, if you’re kind, even when you fail, people remember it positively.

And say yes I did. I have recently taken on quite a few of digital campaigns at work, which were necessary given the current global health crisis that moved everything online. Now, do I fully know what I’m doing all the time? No. Do I give up and tell my boss just to let me go back to what I know best? No. Fake it until you make it. Ask questions if you’re not sure. Say it out loud when you feel like you cannot cope.

“At a certain point, it’s your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters,” Sandberg writes. “Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that — and I’ll learn by doing it.”

As it turns out, when I asked, your boss also said: “You know what, I’m not sure either, but let’s find out together.”

3/ Mentorship might be overrated.

What Sandberg observed in both Google and Facebook was that the culture of mentoring is much prevalent. Which was a good thing, as younger employees were given support and guidance to move more quickly on their career. Many, however, approached the mentorship strategy wrong. One young woman once barged into Sandberg’s office and asked if Sandberg could be her mentor. Sandberg had to politely decline, since she didn’t know who this employee was, and how she could help her.

Sandberg pointed out, don’t ask anyone to be your mentor. Instead, ask for specific advice from people you know and respect to solve specific problems.

This is particularly true for me as I started my career not in digital marketing but more on the traditional media: press, events, print ads… Digital marketing used to be this scary thing I didn’t know where to start with and even until now, I have a lot of doubt because I mostly learn things by myself on the job. I thought of looking for a mentor, someone who knows all about Facebook ads or SEO or Google search campaigns. Mentorship may make me feel better, it may give me more confidence in the quality of my work. Yet after reading “Lean In”, I also realize it’s a waste of time to wait. I might find a good mentor in the future, I might not. At the same time, I still receive good advice from my peers, my co-workers, my managers. There might not be one person to be able to give you all the support you need, but ask, and you’ll surely manage.

3/ Your career is not a ladder.

“Ladders are limiting,” Sandberg writes. “Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.”

The simpler version of it is: you don’t have to go straight up all the time. This is actually very useful, especially for someone like me who have had a few years of working in the field. I have made it to a managerial position. What’s next? The answer is so much more. I don’t have to worry about when I will make CMO. I don’t have to even stick to marketing all my life. It’s also okay to make a dip, say, if I want to switch to another function. It’s okay.

She also mentioned that while it’s not absolutely necessary to know what you will be doing in 5 years career-wise, it might be useful to have an 18-month plan. This is enough time for you to pursue immediate workplace goals, like learning new skills.

4/ Skip the people pleasing.

As women, it’s almost compelling to be ‘cute’, to smile even in times of being challenged, to lower your voice when you need to ask for something from someone. I have heard these stories from my girl friends, my colleagues, even my boss. She’s the CMO of a millions-dollar company, she has worked in marketing for more than 30 years and she’s still being told to be ‘nice’, or to smile more.

Sandberg confesses that during her first formal review at Facebook, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg told her that her “desire to be liked by everyone” would hold her back. Even at leadership position, women still need to fight back the instinct to try to be liked by everyone all the time.

I had an ‘instance’ at work just recently, when due to a miscommunication, I’ve upset a director guy in the company. It came to a point where he actively removed me from a work group chat and it somehow hugely stressed me out. I think about the awkward meetings we will have afterwards or how other people in that group chat would think about me. In the end, nothing happened. The emotional part of the story only came from me, I myself felt the need to be liked. Now, I don’t advocate for being ruthless or rude until you get what you want from people. It’s always better to be kind and polite. However, understanding that you don’t have to be liked by everyone will save you a lot of time stressing over details.

There are apparently many more challenges women have to navigate through the workplace, challenges that Sandberg did not have to face and did not include in her book. I still find the book concise enough to make me think about my current and future choices in my job, how I can improve myself, and where I’ll go next. And that is as impactful as a book can be, in my opinion.

A post by D.A


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