Sheryl Sandberg’s Best Advice: Don’t Leave Before You Leave

You have probably heard some of the buzz around Sheryl Sandberg’s powerful book: Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook, a former executive at Google, a Harvard grad, Florida-native who loves business, women and family. Her NY Times bestseller offers practical advice and insight applicable to women in the professional sector who wish to advance their careers. Her insight comes from a combination of extensive research, personal experience and careful observation. Sandberg writes a compelling narrative with a strong voice, a passionate message and just the right dose of humor. Her book presents a vast list of tips and advice… but for a limited audience. If you’re not a heterosexual, professional, educated, middle to upper-middle class woman who wants both a happy family and happy career, you will probably feel alienated by this book.

Sandberg’s main thesis is that women should not let conventional societal expectations of gender roles hold them back when making decisions about their career. However, she only offers advice for women in heterosexual, long-term partnerships, and does not step outside of that box. Sandberg highlights that women are far more likely to leave the workplace than men are when starting a family, and that it is often expected that women will take care of ailing parents or in-laws, which can lead them to put their career goals on the back-burner.

While the audience who stands to gain meaning from this book may be limited, the advice that it offers and the discussions that it opens are nonetheless important. The book resonated heavily with me because I happen to be its target demographic. I did not agree with all of the advice that Sandberg offered, but I could certainly relate to a lot of the issues that she raised. However, there was one piece of insight that actually may have changed my life and future career choices, Sheryl Sandberg’s best advice.

The chapter titled, ‘Don’t Leave Before You Leave’ was inspired by a conversation that Sandberg had with a young female employee when she was at Google. Apparently this employee had marched into Sandberg’s office and begun bombarding her with questions about being a working woman, particularly about maternity leave options. After a few probing questions, Sandberg learned that this young woman was not attached and was not planning on having children for many years. Sandberg’s advice to her was make the decision about going on leave at the last possible second. The reason for this is that Sandberg was worried that this young woman, and potentially many others, would turn down a promotion or a new job because they had a future family life on their minds, causing them to lean back. I can absolutely empathize.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a compulsive planner. I like to organize and plan out everything in front of me in order to lay out the best possible approach. I plan to work until retirement, I plan to get married, I plan to have children. While compulsively planning out the future can have many flaws, there is one major one that I never thought of: leave. I will inevitably one day go on some form of parental leave. I’m proud to say that I have no idea when that will be, or how long it will be for, but I didn’t always think this way.

Since I was about 17 I’ve gabbed with my girlfriends about maternity leave. I would fire off bold statements like, “Maybe I’ll even take a few years off until the kids are in kindergarten.” “Maybe I’ll work from home part time until they’re in university.” “Maybe I’ll take a year off for each kid then go back full-time”. What I should have been saying, and what I do say now is, “How the heck am I supposed to know how much leave I’ll take?!”. The mentality of my 17-year-old self could have led to me subconsciously turn down a promotion, or resist to apply for the top-level job. The mentality of “leaving before leaving” could have led me to lean back.

Sandberg discusses how so many women lean back – not when they have children – but when they start thinking about having children, which can be years before they even get pregnant. Based on my own experiences I’m inclined to agree with her. She gives excellent advice to not make any final decisions about leave until it is absolutely necessary. In Canada, we are fortunate enough to be protected by laws that prevent our employers from asking questions about personal decisions like leave, lest it affect their decisions about our career advancement. Those laws are in place for a reason, because our family decisions do not have to affect our career options, and they shouldn’t.

I think that talking about how women perceive their own career prospects, and changing any limiting factors that their mentality may cause, is an extremely important discussion to have. Since reading Lean In, I have been more wary about how I am treated as a professional woman. At conferences and networking events, I am frequently asked (by men and by women alike) if I am married, and am frequently told that I am lucky to get my career going before having children. My response to these kinds of (ahem inappropriate) comments are often along the lines of, “Oh I don’t plan to let family obligations affect my career development. Men move up in their careers after starting families and women absolutely can too.” I have been inspired to work to change everyone’s mentality about women in the professional sector.

Like I said, Sandberg’s discussion of gender is not perfect. Her perspective is limited and at times alienating. While this read will not speak to everyone as it has spoken to me, I do recommend it to any female professionals, or partners of female professionals, who want families. I am inclined to believe that that is a fairly large slice of the population. Call Sandberg what you will, the good advice in Lean In outweighs the bad and it effectively gets through to its target audience. I do at minimum recommend that you watch her Ted Talk which artfully summarizes her views. More information can be found on the Lean In Community website and Facebook page.

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