Last one learning

So just two years and six months after it was first published I finally read Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  Yes, I am officially the last working woman on earth to read this book.  Lean In is predictably readable, and Sheryl Sandberg comes across as so likeable and relate-able, you almost forget that she was Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, served as chief of staff for the Secretary of the US Treasury and is currently one of the most powerful women on Earth.  I needed to frequently remind myself that no, sadly, we are in fact not besties.

I enjoyed the book, but I have to admit that I didn’t find it to be revelatory. That said, I am going to attribute this to the fact that in the two and half years since publication its contents have been endlessly quoted, extracted and referenced; perhaps if I’d read it before the expression Lean in had been mainstreamed and co-opted into corporate jargon, I might have felt its full impact.  Though I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the read, there were a few parts that I particularly related to and wanted to share.

No Pants Suit Required: My favorite chapter was titled ‘Seek and Speak Your Truth’ about leading with authenticity.  I’m grateful that we’re past the days when women leaders felt compelled to express their leadership by behaving and even dressing like men – and this is not just driven by the fact that I don’t look amazing in a pants suit.  Instead of parroting traditionally male styles of leadership, Sandberg champions a more honest approach and references a Marcus Buckingham study asserting that leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.  Since I’m great at being candid and far from being perfect, I love this sentiment and wish that more leaders – of both genders – would have the confidence to be real and sometimes even vulnerable.

The Promotion Fairy Doesn’t Exist: After a successful start to my career and a fairly swift ascension up the ladder of PR titles, I reached a period where I found myself professionally stagnant.  I was stuck with the same title – doing the same role – eagerly awaiting a promotion and feeling increasingly frustrated and disheartened when it didn’t land on my desk.  Now that I am past this period and have some distance, I can see that I was waiting for the arrival of the Promotion Fairy.  Apparently I am not alone in this behaviour and according to Lean In there is even a name for it.  Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, Founders of Negotiating Women Inc. have coined the term ‘tiara syndrome’, referring to the fact that many women expect their work to be recognized and, subsequently, to have tiaras promptly placed on their head in acknowledgment and appreciation.  Turns out there are no tiaras in the work place, and no fairies either.  What I had failed to understand was that I needed to advocate for myself – if I wanted something I was supposed to ask for it.  I have since learned that the Promotion Fairy…is me.

Mentors Don’t Want to be Snorts: I love that Sandberg has a chapter titled ‘Are You My Mentor’ referencing the children’s book Are You My Mother?  She talks about many women’s misplaced energy in actively seeking mentors – sort of like the little lost bird who wanders up to anything in its path and asks ‘Are You My Mother?’  The best part of the book is when the little bird approaches a crane (‘a Big Snort’) to ask out if it might be his mother, to which the Snort answers, ‘Snort’.  There can be an awkwardness in a forced mentorship relationship that is lacking any historical connection or shared commonality, I mean what mentor wants to be the Snort?  Formal mentoring programs can be valuable, but I find that the most mutually beneficial relationships happen organically.  When the little bird finds his mother he instinctively knows who she is – similarly mentors/mentees don’t need official titles, scheduled meeting or matching necklaces that break down the middle - when you find each other, you’ll know.

While reading Lean In, I couldn’t help but feel very spoiled working in PR, an industry in which I am surrounded by intelligent and inspiring women, and where I am more frequently in the majority than not. That said, the statistics show that despite the number of women in the industry, females remain underrepresented at the most senior levels.  Of all the amazing, accomplished and ambitious women in communications I know – far too few of them have a C in front of their title.  As Kelly Parisi of Lean In said last week at an industry event, ‘PR doesn’t have a pipeline problem…it has a promotion problem.’

While there are surely a myriad of reasons and explanations for this, I was reminded of one of Sandberg’s anecdotes in the book.  At speaking engagements when Sandberg announces she is no longer taking questions, the women dutifully lower their hands while the men keep theirs raised.  Sandberg then finds herself going back on her word in response to the outstretched arms in front of her, and the result is that men get their questions answered and women don’t.

Maybe that’s part of the problem, when it comes to seeking advancement we’re just not keeping our hands up for long enough.  So, while everyone else Leans In, I’m going to stretch up my arm, wave my fingers and keep my hand firmly raised.  And if that doesn’t work…there’s always the Promotion Fairy.

Avra Lorrimer

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search