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Sheryl Sandberg

Be Authentic, Don’t Be Afraid


Be Authentic, Don’t Be Afraid


In an exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In talks about women, social media, and creating a more equal world.



Be Authentic, Don’t Be Afraid

By Isabella Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 531 )

The very name Sheryl Sandberg brings to mind associations with the phrase "most influential."

The reason for such high regard, and equally high expectations, is not just her abilities, but also her ambition to change the world’s expectations of women.

As the chief operating officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is responsible for running a social networking empire with 1.1 billion users. In its financial statement for the 2nd quarter of 2013, Facebook posted revenue gains of 53 percent over the same period last year. The company’s advertising business, under Sandberg’s watch, bucked industry trends and grew by 61 percent, the key factor lifting revenues as a whole.

But more importantly, Sheryl Sandberg has transcended business and geographical boundaries, forcefully calling for the elimination of gender bias, and encouraging women not to limit themselves but to courageously fulfill their greatest potential.

Her TED Talk encouraging women has had over 3.3 million views. And her new book, Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead – has already been translated into over 30 languages. Within half a year, her foundation "," which encourages women to help one another learn, has seen chapters sprout up in fifty countries, with over 270,000 members.

The day before her 44th birthday, Sheryl Sandberg joined CommonWealth Magazine for an exclusive on-line interview.

With her neatly trimmed hair and two big eyes that, despite her frantic schedule, look fresh and alert, she was ready with a welcoming smile, and talked with a rapid sense of urgency.

When speaking of work, she was very clear about the best way to put one’s abilities into action. When speaking of passion, she demonstrated that helping women was her new mission in life.

Following is her interview with CommonWealth Magazine.

Q: Congratulations to you. Lean In has become a bestseller in many different markets around the world.

A: Thank you.

Q: What's the most impressive feedback you would like to share with us?

A: The feedback that makes me the happiest is when I hear from individual women anywhere in the world that they read the book and their lives changed. And the nice thing is it happens every day from all over.

Lots of stories – there's a 15-year-old girl who decided that the question "What would you do if you weren’t afraid?" was a really important question for her, so she started carrying a "fear" notebook around. She would write down everything she was afraid to do and either do it or save it and make sure that by the end of her life she had done every single thing on that list. Women getting raises that they had never asked for before. Women asking for the flexibility they need. Women getting their partners, husbands and boyfriends to do more in the house, more with their children.

Our goal is to change people's lives, and that happens one conversation by one action at a time.

Q: You work with teams around the world. What are your observations of women from emerging markets, especially from Asian countries? Do you have any advice for them if they want to "lean in" and pursue their careers?

A: What's interesting about the challenges women are facing in leadership is that they are very similar all around the world. Now, there are huge cultural differences between the United States and Europe and Asia and different parts of the developing world, for sure. I'm not saying that countries are same – they’re not. But what’s true everywhere is that more men than women lead.

Everywhere in the world that’s true. It's true in every government, it's true in every company, it's true in every industry. There's not a single country in the world that doesn't have 95 percent of its big companies run by men, including Taiwan, including the United States, and so these challenges are very similar, and they go to our expectations that are based on gender.

Everywhere in the world, we expect boys to lead, men to lead, and everywhere in the world we expect girls to take care of others, to be communal. In English we call our daughters bossy. We never call sons bossy. Boys aren’t bossy; they lead. We call our daughter bossy, and that same behavior is what hurts women leading, and so we are focused on how we help women all over the world, to sit at any table they want to sit at, to get their domestic partners to be more partners and explore any dream they have.

Q: You put the will to lead as a part of the subtitle of your book, how do you define leadership?

A: Leadership can be leading anything you want. For some women – and we’ve heard from women all over the world – leadership was a work-at-home mom, someone who only works with her children, going into her school and demanding a better teacher for her child, finding her voice. For another woman it was having the courage to go back to work. For another woman it was having the courage to only work four days a week. For other women it’s having the courage to want to lead. Starting in junior high, starting in middle school by age 10 all over the world.

If you ask boys and girls, do you want to lead, do you want to lead this organization, do you want to be the president of your school, do you want to run this company, more boys than girls say yes. So part of what we're trying to do is help women find their voice, so they can lead.

Q: So the will is also very important.

A: That's right. But the will is not just the women's responsibility. The will is the responsibility of all of us.

Q: Some people have described you as the co-pilot of Facebook. I don't know whether you agree with that or not. What's your philosophy as a co-pilot, if we can call you that?

A: So look, no one does anything alone, and Mark and I have had, for over five and half years, and continue to have a great partnership. He leads the product work here and I lead the business side. We sit together, we work very, very closely together, and I think we are lucky to have found each other with very complementary skills. I really believe that none of us do anything alone.

It’s part of why with Lean In, with the book launch and It’s a mailing list right now, but come find us anyway at, where we encourage women, or men, but women, to form Lean In circles, gather in groups of 8 to 10 to meet once a month, that's because working together gets better results.

Q: The high tech industry and the Internet industry are fast changing industries. As a leader, how do you manage uncertainty and fast growth?

A: Someone just asked me, barely minutes ago, what are you most afraid of? I said I’m most afraid of not innovating. I'm most afraid of moving too slowly, not too quickly. I think very few companies fail by doing too much. Usually companies fail by doing too little, getting too reliant on their entrenched interests.

Q: You are known to be very good at prioritizing and inspiring people around you. What are your secrets? What are your secrets to prioritizing, and to motivating people around you to contribute to important things?

A: The nice thing is those two things go together, and I wrote about them in my book. If you trust other people to do things, you can give them more important roles to fill, they feel that they have more impact, and you can have more leverage. People who hold everything really close and don’t bring other people in aren’t really able to motivate people as well. I think the other really key thing is setting a vision that people believe in. So at Facebook our vision is to connect the world, and it’s one that every single employee believes in very deeply.

For Lean In, any woman or man who buys the book, reads the book, joins our community, forms circles, they are buying into a vision, and it’s a vision of equality. Not just equal opportunity, but actual equality.

Q: We know that Facebook recruits the best talent around the world. How do you define high potential? What are the key qualities you are looking for in people with high potential?

A: People who are entrepreneurial, people who are here to solve problems. We have these posters all around our walls, and my favorite is a new one which says, "Nothing at Facebook is anyone else's problem," which is pretty cool. If you can see the problem, then you should solve it. Pretty clear.

Q: According to your observations, what will be the next force from Silicon Valley that will change the world? What will be the next new trend from Silicon Valley?

A: I’d like to think women, really. I’d like to think the full talents of the population would be really exciting. I also think technology, which is social at its heart, which lets people express who they are, which is what Facebook does, would be a big part of that trend.

Q: Did you get any feedback from Mark after your book was published?

A: Yes, it was fun. He read the book. The book came out in March, and he read it over Thanksgiving. So, five months before. And he said he read it – he kept texting me, Facebook messaging me. He kept saying, there's nothing in here you haven't said before, but putting it all together really made him think about women. And I think we all are thinking about it more, because we need to, and it’s not just Mark. Once Lean In was published, CEOs from all over the world have jumped in and said we want to be a Lean In company. We want to make sure we're using the talents of our full population.

Q: If you would like, what kind of advice you would like to tell Mark, as a male CEO?

A: The advice I give to men is a couple of things. One is that we have to address gender openly and honestly. I think in many workplaces, gender has become something no one talks about, right? It is a dangerous topic. Women don't want to bring it up, because they don't want anyone to think they are complaining. Men don't want to bring it up, because they don't want feel they are discriminating. So we don't talk about. And that is not leading to equality. So my view is that the advice I have for all men and women in positions of power, is to start talking about how gender drives our different expectations, so that we can start getting to equal expectations for girls and boys.

Q: In Lean In, you share lots of your personal experience and choices. Do you have any regrets? If there is one thing you could change in the past, what would it be?

A: Oh my God, many. I talked in my book very openly about it. I got married at a very young age. It was too young. I wasn't ready, and it didn't work. I got divorced by the time I was 25, which is super young in the United States to have gotten married, let alone to have gotten divorced. People marry, I think, much later here. That was big. That for me was about kind of knowing who I was and knowing who I wanted to be.

Q: What is the best advice you got from your mentors or sponsors throughout your career?

A: Lots of great advice. Some of the advice is about being your authentic self. Understanding what’s important to you and, really, believing you can do anything. You know, our message to women is to ask themselves what would they do if they weren’t afraid and then really try to do it. And most of us don't even ask ourselves those questions, so giving yourself the space and time to think, to figure out what's important to you, I think is so important.

Q: In your career, why do you think being authentic is so important? Does it help you make decisions?

A: I think you make better decisions. I think if you are not trying to fool anyone else, you are not trying to fool yourself.

I think it lets us understand that men and women are different. I think for too long all over the world the women who are working in business or running for office, they feel this pressure to pretend that they are the same as men. I don't think we need to do that. I think what we want to do is acknowledge the differences, and really find ways to build institutions that take the best of everyone and work together.

Q: Should the "Lean In" kind of attitude start early, maybe in high school, or...?

A: Even earlier. We know in the data from the book that we call our little girls bossy, not boys. We know that teachers call on boys in classrooms more than girls. That’s true in the United States and all over the world. So if we want to start encouraging girls and women to lead, we’re going to have to start very early. This is going to have to start in every home and every family, and end in every school and office.

Q: What's your advice to the parents and teachers with young kids?

A: Encourage girls to lead. Understand the subtle ways. My book is about understanding gender bias, understanding the ways in which boys and girls, men and women, are treated differently. Most people don't do this on purpose, it’s just part of how we’re raised, and so if we can start understanding those gender biases early, we can change them. For example, I’ve asked audiences all over the world, if you are a man, please raise your hand, if you’ve ever been told you are too aggressive at work. No hands go up. If you are a woman, please raise your hand if anyone’s ever told you you’re too aggressive at work. So many hands go up, because the behaviors that we think are totally acceptable for men, we think are unacceptable for women. If we can educate people on that, we can start thinking differently.

There's a man who works for me at Facebook. And he got feedback – we do reviews, you get feedback from different people – he got feedback that a woman who worked for him was too aggressive. So rather than write "too aggressive" in her performance review, he went back to the people who gave him the feedback, and he said to them, "Let me ask you a question: what did she do that was too aggressive, specifically? And if a man did those exact same things, would you have thought that was too aggressive?" And their answer was no.

That means that awareness can change a situation, and we cannot change something we are not aware of.

Q: Earlier on you talked about how important it is to be entrepreneurial. And we know Facebook is a very innovative company. But will that be a challenge to Facebook too? When Facebook has grown bigger and bigger, how do you keep the entrepreneurship growing inside the company?

A: You keep teams small. You keep your processes to what you need, but no more. And you keep rewarding innovation. And you have to be able to tolerate mistakes. If you can't tolerate mistakes, you can't innovate.

Q: Do you have any special program or rules to foster or promote innovation in the company?

A: Yeah. One thing we do is we put all of our engineers through boot camp, which means every engineer learns to code, every engineer checks in code on the site. So that means that all of our people who work here as engineers are all familiar with the site and they’re all able to get hands-on experience. We are not very hierarchical at Facebook. Everyone does real work, and that makes a really big difference.

Q: We talked about your advice for parents and teachers. How do you raise your own daughter, and how do you have time?

A: Parenting is a hard thing. I'm trying to encourage my son and daughter to explore every option, and to feel like they have every option. So one of the reasons I wrote Lean In is because when my daughter was four, we played a song about all the U.S presidents to her for American Presidents Day. And she looked up, and she said, "Mommy, why are they are all boys?" And we're trying to tell her, you can be president. We’re also trying to tell my son that he can be a full participant at home. I think too often we give girls the feedback that they’re supposed to do everything in the home, and boys the feedback that they’re supposed to do everything in the office. And we're trying with our children to tell them both.

Q: As a mom and full time professional, you must feel lots of time conflicts and stress about everything. When that happens, what is your way to deal with that? What's your secret?

A: I wrote a chapter on this in my book, about the myth of doing at all, the myth of having it all. None of us can do everything. You have to learn to figure out what's most important and do that stuff really well and then forgive yourself. One of the funny stories in my book is, we have St. Patrick's Day, and people tend to wear green. I drove my son to school on St. Patrick's Day. And the woman who opened the car said, it's St. Patrick's Day, he’s supposed to be wearing green. And my son was wearing blue. So I felt terrible all day, very terrible. So I called my husband. Now, if my husband drove my son to school on St. Patrick's Day wearing blue, the woman who opened the door would never say he’s supposed to wear green. She would say you are such a great father for driving your son to school. But it was me. I called him, and I said, this whole thing happened, and our son was wearing blue, and he’s supposed to be wearing green. And my husband said, why are you upset? He learned something really important today. He learned he doesn't have to be like everybody else. I think, as a mother, we beat ourselves up for why we are not perfect, and my husband was just much more forgiving of himself. I think that is a very important lesson. There is no way we can do everything for everyone. We have to pick and choose and do the best we can and forgive ourselves.

Q: Technology and social media break down many boundaries and make the world flatter. Do you think women will have more opportunities in this new world with technology and social media?

A: Yes, I think social media gives everyone voice, and I think that voice can be very helpful for having women be able to express themselves. But I don't think it will happen without effort, which is why I wrote the book. I think women and men all around the world have to be fully committed to equality in our homes, in our schools and in our offices in order for it to happen.

Q: You just mention social media. How do you use social media? Has social media changed your life?

A: Along with my book, I launched a nonprofit – – and we have grown through Facebook and through other tools where people are using Facebook, and tumblr, and twitter, and instagram, and all of these products to connect. When you have without technology all conversations are much more local. With technology the Lean In community has brought together over 270,000 people all over the world, men and women, into a global community that cares about equality. It's been an amazing thing to be part of.

Q: What's the next step?

A: Lean In is still launching, we have now launched in 19 or so countries. We have many more to go. We're building Lean In circles all around the world. I think we are seeing very clearly how challenging this is for women all around the world, but also seeing very clearly the opportunity – the opportunity to get to real equality, the opportunity to contribute fully for men and women, and the opportunity to live in a better world. We believe this not only can happen, but will happen.