The Facebook executive on a self-help mission

by Paul Harris

The Observer

Sheryl Sandberg does not do things by half-measures. So when the chief operating officer of Facebook and the most high-profile businesswoman in the world publishes a book she does not sit back, give a few interviews and let the glowing reviews flow in. No, Sandberg tries to start a fully fledged social movement.

For the ambitious executive’s tome, “Lean In,” published this month, aims to be no ordinary book. Certainly it’s been helped by a far from ordinary marketing campaign. Sandberg and her team want to create a network of “Lean In circles” all across America made up of women in their 20s and 30s eager to absorb the lessons and wisdom of the staggeringly successful (and fabulously wealthy) Sandberg.

They will watch video lectures at night-time meetings and read about the vast reams of data showing how the odds are still stacked against women succeeding. In what is an attempt at a mass raising of female consciousness, the Lean In circles will have membership requirements and a strict format of check-ins, updates, presentations and discussion. Corporate sponsors, such as Sony and Johnson & Johnson, have signed up as launch partners.

In the end, Sandberg, 43, wants to churn out cohorts of women motivated to “lean in” to their chosen careers with aggression and passion, say yes to challenges and opportunities at work, even if you have kids, and so avoid being kept down by the patriarchy.

But there has been a backlash. Sandberg, as one of the key executives of one of the most successful companies in recent American history, is a billionaire. She lives in a giant house, has a successful and wealthy husband and can easily afford whatever help she might need to ensure her two children are looked after while she sits in Facebook meetings, goes to Davos or gives a TEDx lecture.

The same cannot be said for many working women, let alone single mothers, who put in long hours, fight the same entrenched sexism yet lack the huge resources that Sandberg has managed to build up. One of her most pointed critics is Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former top State Department official who wrote a notable feature in the Atlantic magazine last year arguing that women expecting to have a family and a full career were being held to an unattainable standard.

“Sheryl Sandberg is both super-human and rich,” Slaughter told Fortune magazine, implying that mere mortals might be better off looking elsewhere when seeking guidance on their work-life balance.

Slaughter has a point. But there is little doubt that Sandberg is also the sort of figure that any woman — and, indeed, any man — should find admirable. She has risen to the top of a man’s world where only 21 of the Fortune 500 companies are led by a woman. She has blossomed in Silicon Valley at the two biggest names — Google and Facebook — emerging from its male-dominated environment of geeks and nerds.

It would have been so easy for Sandberg just to have written a standard business book of life lessons and personal mantras: the shelves of America’s bookshops heave with such works. But Sandberg is seeking to do something different: to enact social change. She wants to help other people reach the same lofty heights that she has scaled. No surprise, then, that a simple book is not enough.

To those who have been watching Sandberg’s rise, the surprise is not that she is trying to start a social movement, but that it has taken her this long.

When Sheryl Kara Sandberg was a child growing up in North Miami Beach in the 1970s, where her family had moved from Washington when she was two, she used to play a game with her younger siblings. They were trained to follow her around at home shouting “Right!” at everything she said.

It was, perhaps, a sign of the self-belief that would mark every stage of Sandberg’s career. Certainly, she shone at school, where she regularly topped her class. Brains ran in her family. Her father, Joel, is an eye doctor and her mother, Adele, has a Ph.D. and worked as a French teacher before concentrating on raising her children. The family was Jewish and Sandberg’s parents were active in helping Jews leave the Soviet Union. Often, at weekends, the whole family would go to rallies.

At Harvard, Sandberg continued to shine. She was never a rebel or even that outspoken, but her intelligence always set her apart. Sandberg majored in economics and, after achieving the top grades in his class, no less a figure than economist Lawrence Summers volunteered to be her thesis adviser. Her subject? How economic inequalities contributed to spousal abuse.

Summers was impressed and helped promote a group she founded, Women in Economics and Government, perhaps a harbinger of the same themes she is now exploring with her Lean In groups. Summers once told the New Yorker that Sandberg was the opposite of a typical messy student. “When Sheryl hosted an economics association reception, every name tag was right, the food was right, the schedule was right,” he said.

When Summers was later appointed to the World Bank he recruited Sandberg, who by then had graduated as the top economics student. She worked for Summers for two years then attended Harvard Business School and took a job at management consultancy McKinsey.

By 1995, when Summers was in the Treasury Department of the Clinton administration, he recruited her again, making Sandberg his chief of staff. Still in her mid-20s, she had already reached the giddy heights of a Washington career, mingling with the rich and powerful and earning a reputation as a go-getter who always kept an eye out for those below her.

But when the Republicans came to power after the 2000 election, Sandberg abandoned the world she had conquered. She went to the West Coast to take up a job at Google, which, shocking as it now seems, was not the all-powerful force it has since become. But she proved herself soon enough, striking a key deal with AOL that paid off and setting Google on the way to becoming profitable.

Her personal life also moved on; she married longtime friend Dave Goldberg in 2004 and had her first child in 2005. Three years later, she jumped ship to Facebook, again joining a company that is now huge but was then troubled and smaller. With her usual briskness, she set about finding ways to make the firm generate cash and, by 2010, Facebook was profitable. Two years later, it launched itself on the stock market in a move that made many of its employees hugely rich, even though the share price tumbled almost as soon as it began to trade.

Hers is, by any account, an impressive story, earned by the sweat of her brow, her ambition and her knife-sharp mind. So impressive is Sandberg that there are whispers about her future political ambitions. She has the right ingredients — youth and riches — and has been at Facebook for five years (which in Sandberg’s world is long enough to become bored). What’s more, in the shape of Lean In, she now has a manifesto of sorts and — she hopes — a movement to back it up. Which brings us back to her critics.

Sandberg’s philosophy is big on self-help. Her book eschews the idea of mentors; its website has asked for women to send in their success, not sob, stories. In the book, she writes: “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” For a moment, it feels as if a part of Sandberg thinks women just need to buck up their ideas and beat sexism that way.

Which might be news to the single mother doing two low-paid jobs just to pay the rent. Or the couple struggling to get by who cannot afford childcare to keep them both working. Or any woman appalled by corporate America’s dreadful attitude towards paid maternity leave. Or a woman forced to keep a job she does not like just because it has decent health care coverage.

Perhaps some of the huge corporations that Sandberg has signed up for her Lean In circles project might be persuaded to support raising the minimum wage, universal health care or paying workers while they have babies.

But, amid all the self-help and management speak, those sorts of old-fashioned political ideas do not seem to be getting much attention.

For a lot of working-class and middle-class Americans, struggling with soaring inequality, the growth of dead-end jobs and a still sickly economy, “leaning in” yet harder to their workplace might not seem like much of a solution.

A glance at one of America’s most ambitious women

Born: Sheryl Kara Sandberg was born on Aug. 28 ,1969, in Washington.

Her brief first marriage to Brian Kraff ended in divorce in 2004 and she is now married to entrepreneur David Goldberg.

Best of times: Still to come. She has conquered Washington and Silicon Valley and is now seeking to change the world. Only a fool would say her best times are behind her.

Worst of times: Facebook’s flotation on the stock market last year was hailed as one of the most eagerly awaited share auctions in a generation. Instead, it turned into a debacle of delays and then a plummeting stock price. It left the firm’s reputation — briefly — in tatters.

What she says: “I always thought I would run a social movement.” Sandberg in the film “Makers” about the feminist movement.

What they say: “A key part of what Sheryl does is helping people advance, to be seen and to be heard.” David Fischer, Sandberg’s deputy at the Treasury Department.