On Feb. 22, the New York Times published a 1,500-word story on its front page about Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, and her book "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead."
Drawing on her experience in the corporate world, Sandberg attempts to address one of the most sensitive topics in business today: What's stopping more women from rising to the highest positions of power?
Both high praise and harsh criticism followed the article and the publication of her book in March. But in the wake of the controversy remains an opportunity for senior business leaders and human resource professionals to revisit how they can encourage women in the workplace and inspire them to reach for leadership positions.
As Sandberg's book points out, 30 years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men continue to hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. Sandberg offers her view of why women's progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled. She also offers solutions, including the idea of women "leaning in," an idea that encourages women to "sit at the table" and take risks.
Regardless of how one views the book, the idea of maximizing talent in the workplace is key to the future of business. As Warren Buffett recently observed: "We've seen what can be accomplished when we use 50 percent of our human capacity. If you visualize what 100 percent can do, you'll join me as an unbridled optimist about America's future."
This two-part article will explore some of the ideas included in Sandberg's book as they relate to human resource management and the expansion of women's role in the workplace.
Starting the conversation
Sandberg has said she wants to "start a conversation" about women in the workplace. It seems to be working. Michelle Pedzich, senior vice president of human resources at Canandaigua National Bank & Trust Co., says that after finishing the book, she sent an email to seven female co-workers at CNB, inviting them to meet and share career path stories.
"I saw this as an opportunity to hear different perspectives and explore some of the book's ideas around mentoring and work-life balance-from a personal perspective," she says. "All seven immediately accepted the invite."
While CNB has long been recognized for its inclusive workplace policies and benefits, Pedzich says the long-term success of any company depends on continual improvement. She sees Sandberg's manifesto as an invitation to dig a little deeper and recognize the role human resources and senior leadership can play in the diversity and quality of the workforce. One way to make that happen is to share personal career stories more regularly and in different ways, Pedzich says.
"Female leaders and senior HR professionals need to be good role models on many levels," she says. "Sharing our stories and the ways we advocate for ourselves coupled with HR policies that encourage women to strive for promotion could be a powerful way to change the landscape."
Jungle gym or ladder?
Sandberg writes that career "ladders are limiting-people can move up or down, on or off." The jungle gym approach, a concept suggested in the early 1990s by Fortune magazine editor Pattie Sellers, offers more creative options.
"There's only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym," Sandberg writes.
Pedzich says she sees the jungle gym model as a great opportunity for businesses to keep talented people engaged in their work.
"Employees welcome professional development that is multidimensional," she says. "There is a real advantage to creating cross-training opportunities, both for employees and the organization."
In the book, Sandberg relates the story of a marketing executive who now heads up recruitment at Facebook. Her willingness to trade seniority temporarily for acquiring new skills illustrates the power of the jungle gym approach.
"The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment," Sandberg writes. "Plus a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top. On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above."
The jungle gym also reflects the reality of a workforce where people change jobs often. The average American worker has 11 jobs between the ages of 18 and 46, according to 1978-2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sandberg points out that the days of joining an organization or corporation and staying there to climb that one ladder are long gone.
Promotions and new opportunities
In her book, Sandberg quotes an internal report at Hewlett-Packard that suggests women typically apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they believe they can meet 60 percent of the requirements. This difference should give HR managers pause, and it is an opportunity to rethink policies and practices.
A few years ago, Dawn Schnell, an HR professional who works for an eye health company in Rochester, was encouraged by her managers to pursue a different role that involved the relocation of employees from the United States and Canada to other countries.
Schnell had worked as the corporate staffing manager and in a number of roles that involved diversity and HR compliance. She successfully introduced a diversity and inclusion training program that the company implemented throughout the United States. While highly experienced in many HR functions, she was unfamiliar with issues pertaining to foreign laws and tax codes, knowledge required for the HR expat position. She accepted it anyway.
"I learned unbelievable amounts of information on taxes, country laws, relocation and everything in between," Schnell says. "The managers I've worked with have always encouraged me to enter unknown territory."
Catalyst, a non-profit organization focused on women and business, says that when companies are more intentional and strategic about encouraging critical assignments for high-potential women, they often experience a dramatic difference in diversifying the pipeline and moving more women into leadership roles.
Part II: Ideas offered by Sandberg and others on work-life balance and flexible scheduling.
Candace Walters is president of HR Works Inc., a human resource consulting and outsourcing firm providing on-site HR management, affirmative action plans, HRIS self-service technology, benefits administration, training and employee handbooks to clients throughout the U.S. To offer comments on this column or ideas for future columns, write firstname.lastname@example.org.