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What would Sheryl Sandberg do?

  • 7 June 2013
  • From the section Magazine
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Sheryl Sandberg

In her bestselling book Lean In, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg explains how women can succeed at work and still have a family life. The Magazine road tests the Sandberg philosophy for seven long days.

Monday: Dismantle the hurdles

Sandbergism of the day: Women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves

8 APRIL 1430 GMT LONDON: My editor has sideburns and a deep voice, and he is wearing a set of noise-cancelling headphones.

I am sitting next to him in the BBC's shiny new building in central London. I was hired three weeks ago as a writer in the Washington office, and sent to the UK for a training programme.

My editor takes off his headphones and tosses them on the desk.

"She took Prozac because of a break-up?" he says - with scepticism. He looks up from an article I have written.

"Haven't you ever been in love?" I ask.

He says I should not ask that question. "I am in love with the BBC," he explains.

The BBC is a mission organisation, a company where people believe they are part of something bigger.

They also put in long hours - sometimes at the expense of personal relations.

It seems like the perfect place to test Sandberg's theory about giving everything you have to your work and still being happy.

Like most people, I would like to do better at my job. I would also like to become famous, make buckets of money and remain true to myself.

Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, has laid out guidelines for achieving these goals.

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Tuesday: Internalise the revolution

Sandbergism of the day: Feeling confident - or pretending that you feel confident - is necessary to reach for opportunities

9 APRIL 0910 GMT: "Does anybody have a copy of The Quiet American?" asks my editor.

He looks around at the writers and editors on the desk and says he needs the book for a reading group.

"I do," I say, adding, "I always have it with me. It's my bible."

"Are you sure it's OK for him to borrow the book?" asks one of the writers, a dark-haired woman.

"I'm not going to burn it," my editor says. "It's her bible."

I have read The Quiet American more than a dozen times over the past decade, and each time I underline passages.

The pages are taped to the spine, and loaning the book out makes me feel uneasy.

"Sharing emotions builds deeper relationships," writes Sandberg. It also helps people excel at their jobs.

"I'll bring the book in tomorrow," I say, and look back at my screen.

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Thursday: Use 'we' language

Sandbergism of the day: Pronouns matter... Whenever possible, women should substitute "we" for "I"

11 APRIL 1030 GMT: The fourth floor of the BBC building has lots of windows and on a sunny day it is flooded with light.

I walk past a white cupboard where people put their jackets and there's a kitchen with a cabinet marked "mugs". It has a faucet with extra-hot water for tea.

When I come back to my desk, a colleague says an executive has been looking for me.

"He apologises for being an hour late," he says.

"He was late?" I say.

I sit at my desk, wondering if Sandberg ever forgets about a meeting with a corporate executive - or is in the bathroom when he comes to see her.

1505 GMT: A correspondent and I are in the kitchen, drinking tea. He puts an ID badge next to his mug.

I ask about people he has interviewed, like a British ex-intelligence officer who said people think espionage is "a world of cold betrayal" - when in fact it is "a world of trust".

Sandberg also believes that people in the office are working towards common goals.

I smile and say "we" instead of "I" in the kitchen, trying to adopt Sandberg's "relentlessly pleasant" style.

The correspondent says we should work together on a project. Score.

As I walk to my desk, though, I feel uncertain. He is a correspondent - a lot fancier than me. He is several rungs higher than I am at the BBC, and I wonder why he wants to join forces.

I have spent years getting to know people and policymaking in Washington, a super-competitive town. Working together could help the correspondent. I wonder how it will help me.

1703 GMT: The only sound on the fifth floor is the tapping of keyboards.

"Tara," the executive calls out. He has short hair and looks like he should be wearing a hoodie.

We sit at a diner-style booth in an open-office space. He scrunches up his legs and then stretches them out.

Sandberg would want me to explain the different ways I can help the company. But I am stiff and silent - too scared to speak.

Wonder if he will tap his mobile to terminate my position while sitting in the booth or will wait till the meeting is over.

I am assuming that he knows by now how little I will contribute as an employee. He says humour is an important part of the BBC - and should be increased on the site.

"I heard the worst thing you can tell an Englishman is that he's not funny," I say.

He laughs.

"You're going to do well here," he says as we leave the booth.

Realise that sometimes ignoring Sandberg's advice - and just being myself - is OK. I did not say "we" a lot - or smile like crazy - and it worked out.

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Friday: Combine niceness with insistence

Sandbergism of the day: Negotiations involve drawn-out, successive moves, so women need to stay focused… and smile

12 APRIL 0905 GMT: I leave The Quiet American on my editor's desk. The dark-haired writer picks up the book.

"It's like your diary," she says. "Are you sure it's OK for him to have it?"

"It's just under-linings," I say. I look back at my screen.

1258 GMT: "I don't want to be dictated by this 24/7," a producer says, holding up her mobile. She has long hair and is wearing pale lipstick. "To me success is not money," she says.

Still.

Inspired by Sandberg, she has asked for a pay increase. "To be a bit pushy is a good thing. Not in a Bolshy way - like you're demanding revolution," she says.

"But too many women aren't pushing themselves. They're leaning back."

1540 GMT: "He said he wanted to work with me," I tell a deputy editor, describing the correspondent I had met. "He was enthusiastic," I say.

The editor looks at me. "He wants your sources," she says, and laughs.

The "we" approach - it can work against you.

1550 GMT: My editor stands by my desk, holding up The Quiet American. He describes a scene in A Gun for Sale, a Graham Greene novel I have never heard of.

There are nice things about revealing yourself, as I discover. Now I know my editor has read all of Greene's novels - and that he is my friend.

1715 GMT: A reporter and I sit in armchairs in BBC's Millbank studios. I stir my instant coffee with wooden sticks, trying to dissolve four sugars.

A correspondent and a member of parliament walk up and ask if they can use the armchairs for an interview. I jam the sticks into my bag and follow the reporter. We sit in an aisle.

A producer appears, carrying a box. He gestures towards five other boxes he has to carry through the aisle. We move to another desk. My pen runs out of ink.

A German film director once said movies are like life, except with the boring parts taken out. So are self-help books. When mundane things or setbacks happen in Lean In, they provide teaching moments. As a Harvard freshman, Sandberg got a C on a political philosophy paper. This becomes a milestone on a journey towards empowerment.

In real life, these are just moments.

Sandberg reportedly makes $30m (£19m) a year. She would have found a better place for coffee stirrers than her bag.

2113 GMT: Walk into the hotel, wondering if I am actually qualified for my new job.

Many women feel like "a fraud" at work, Sandberg writes. "We consistently underestimate ourselves."

In the room I write postcards to my children, Lidia Jean, Julia and Xander. Attach the prettiest stamps I can find.

Saturday: What can I do better?

Sandbergism of the day: Every job will demand some sacrifice

13 April 1130 GMT: On the train to Heathrow. Thinking of the time I spent at my desk, working Sandbergian hours, rather than seeing London.

The sky is grey, and we pass a double-decker bus.

Monday: Fortune favours the bold

Sandbergism of the day: Without fear, women can pursue professional success and personal fulfilment

15 APRIL 1502 EST (1902 GMT) WASHINGTON: An assigning editor rushes to my colleague's desk and breaks the news about the Boston explosions.

I walk over. My throat feels thick.

"I'll go to Boston," I say.

"Does it make more sense to have Tara stay here and work her sources?" a producer asks.

"Maybe," I say. "But why don't I head for the airport and you can talk about it. Text me if you want me to come back."

I want to cover the story in Boston. I know Sandberg would say that I should seize the moment.

An editor walks me to the door, showing how to check the levels on an audio recorder. I put the recorder in my bag. My hands are shaking.

I call Xander, who is 14, from a taxi and ask him to grab my laptop and meet me at Reagan National.

"There was an explosion in Boston," I say. "I'm trying to get there before they shut down the airport."

Waiting in line in the terminal, I see Xander, wearing a red windbreaker, at the top of the stairs.

I wave to him. He hands me my laptop, and I go through security.

1905 EST (2305 GMT) BOSTON: In Copley Square it smells like cigarette smoke and fried chicken. The sky is streaked with pink.

The Westin had been cordoned off because of a bomb scare, and a woman who is visiting from Arizona says her son asked her to find another hotel.

"I wonder if my kids are worried," I say.

"I bet they are," she says.

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Tuesday: Empowerment

Sandbergism of the day: Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized

16 APRIL 0835 EST (1235 GMT): A black dog sniffs a camera. The carnage press - reporters who cover events like the Newtown massacre - are waiting for security screening at the hotel.

I trip over a tangle of wires. A German shepherd jumps up, and an officer holds him back.

"Were you worried about me?" I ask Xander on my mobile. He is in Washington.

"I don't know - a little," he says. "You didn't say why you were going to Boston. You just said that there was an explosion."

Sandberg does not have a chapter about single mums who cover terrorism. I put away my mobile.

1940 EST (2340 GMT): Walk into an apartment with 18-foot-high ceilings for a dinner with academics and journalists.

Someone hands me a wine glass. After a week of following Sandberg's advice, I do not have the strength to lift it.

One of the guests says women talk about Sandberg during salary negotiations: "She gives them licence."

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Postscript: Lessons drawn from a Lean In immersion programme

I filed six features about Boston, writing about the Tsarnaevs, and got feedback from my London editors.

"They wanted me to tell you that your articles about the bombings have been warmly received," my colleague in Washington says.

So British.

I went to Boston because of Sandberg - she gave me licence.

But in some ways her advice falls short. Her book is rife with contradictions, making her, as one of my editors says, "a bit weasly".

She leaves the office at 1730 - but starts work at 0500. She tells people to reveal their authentic selves at work and to trust others - and does not account for the possibility that not everyone is on your side.

Nor does she fully take into account what it means to be a single mum or to struggle to keep your job.

There is another contradiction - a big one. In a paradoxical way, it contains the secret to her success. Lean In is a self-help book, the most solipsistic of genres, yet her advice is to be altruistic.

Give yourself to others - at work and home, she says, and pay attention to those around you.

"We all want to be heard," she writes.

Sandberg shows what makes a person happy - working hard, caring for others and spending time with the people you love. And I believe that her heart is in the right place.

Yet she never for one second forgets about her own goals. This is how she has got to the place where she is today.

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