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Leaning Isn’t Enough

Devon CEO Jeanne Achille's perspective, the second in a series of posts exploring and responding to Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In. 

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I promised myself that I wouldn’t write about Sheryl Sandberg’s book until reading it. A blend of autobiography, the publisher’s rush to capitalize on a bright young woman’s brand, and golly gee-whiz “please like me” platitudes, Lean In is an easy read. My perception of the book must make me sound jaded and battle worn. That’s because I think that Sandberg skims the surface of an incredibly important social topic that plagues the workplace - the enormous talent pool that goes underutilized when workforce decisions are based on gender instead of credentials and potential.

At the risk of sounding like my career started sometime around the end of the last Ice Age, my experience actually spans the second and third waves of the women’s movement. Initially starting as a recruiter in the maritime industry, I quickly shifted gears to become part of the first wave of women in sales. Not the ones behind the cosmetics counter (although I’ve done that as well), rather, the ones who made their way through the Xerox Professional Selling Skills program and walked around New York City visiting prospects to sell capital equipment – to men who were utterly mystified by our presence in their offices. Our mission was tough and most days, pretty humiliating. I learned quickly that my enormous ambitions and shiny degrees were worthless currency in a world that wasn’t ready to allow women to work alongside their male counterparts – no questions asked.

Fast forward to today some 30 years later, after a lot of twists and turns in the road. From being told I wouldn’t receive the VP title even though I shouldered more responsibility and risk than my male colleagues (so I became my own boss) to office visits from the engineering team eager to see what I was wearing that day.

Along the way, I started a business that has thrived because not only have we “leaned in,” we’ve created the conversations in which we want to participate. I gave birth to and raised fantastic daughters who know they don’t need someone coaching them to lean in. While I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for keeping an important topic alive and encouraging women to take charge (much like her predecessors including Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton and Betty Friedan did), the fact is women shouldn’t have to be told what to do in this day and age. It’s mind boggling that there are still socioeconomic biases in the workplace when it comes to gender topics. That there’s still a disparity between male/female compensation for the same jobs. And that women still feel pressured to make either-or choices when it comes to raising families or caring for aging parents instead of having an array of workplace and life options that make these essential decisions possible.

After the amount of time, energy and sacrifice that got us to where we are today, leaning in simply isn’t enough. Do our male colleagues need to be told to lean in? They don’t. No one should let insecurities and tentativeness shape (and thwart) their success. Don’t be afraid that telling people what you want, when you want it and what you’ll do if you don’t get it will make you unpopular. Said best by Winston Churchill: “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Be prepared for the consequences but enjoy the rewards.