Confidence Woman

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is on a mission to change the balance of power. Why she just might pull it off

  • Share
  • Read Later
Peter Bohler for TIME

Strategy meeting Sandberg with team members

Sheryl Sandberg’s first employees, according to her family, were her siblings David and Michelle. “Initially, as a 1-year-old and 3-year-old, we were worthless and weak,” they said in a toast at her wedding. But by elementary school the person who is currently the chief operating officer of Facebook, and arguably one of the most powerful women in America, had whipped them into shape, teaching them to follow her around the house and shout “Right!” after each of her orations. Was this a game? Sort of. “To the best of our knowledge Sheryl never actually played as a child,” they said. “[She] really just organized other children’s play.”

Sandberg tells these stories about herself early in her first book, a memoir–slash–”sort of feminist manifesto” in which she enjoins women to pursue their careers with more rigor, to engage more energetically in the corporate cook-off, to Lean In—as the book is titled—to the opportunities and challenges of becoming a boss. She says she had misgivings about sharing these family fables because they make her seem bossy, a term she takes issue with. “I notice bossy is applied almost always to little girls,” says Sandberg over lunch (she ordered a Wagyu hot dog with no bun and no relish). “It’s just not used for men.”

In person, Sandberg does not give the impression that she’s bossy. She gives the impression that she was born 43, that she was delivered preloaded with the capacity and will to order people around but also the capacity and will to ensure that they thrive. Now that she is really 43, she has so perfected these skills that merely helping run a $66 billion tech company is not quite enough of a challenge. So Sandberg has taken on a new mission: to change the balance of power. That quest and her plan of attack have brought out the broadsides.

(MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Sheryl Sandberg)

It would be un-Sandbergian to write a book and just leave it at that. Her campaign comes with, a nonprofit foundation with corporate partnerships, online seminars and guidelines for establishing support groups. It’s probably not an overstatement to say Sandberg is embarking on the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism and reframe discussions of gender since the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971.


The thing is, she’s in a pretty good position to pull it off. She’s the co-pilot of the biggest network of humans the world has ever seen: Facebook’s roughly 1 billion members, most of whom are female, at least in the U.S. She’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And she has an undeniable record of knowing how to get things done. Her résumé, with its by-the-book stints at Harvard Business School, McKinsey and the Treasury Department, does not reek of revolutionary, but in the lineage of key feminist figures, she may well turn out to be pivotal. “In a sense it’s almost like Betty Friedan 50 years ago,” says author and historian Stephanie Coontz. “She’s talking to a particular audience, but they really need this message.”

(MORE: Sandberg Exclusive Excerpt: ‘Why I Want Women to Lean In’)

Midflight Stall

Why, almost exactly 44 years after Lorena Weeks became the first woman to use the Civil Rights Act to win the right to be promoted, at Southern Bell, are we still arguing about women and success? Only flat-earthers and small boys don’t believe that women can lead huge Western democracies (thanks, Margaret Thatcher), head companies (thanks, Indra Nooyi), play exciting sports (thanks, Billie Jean King), rise to the rank of four-star general (thanks, Ann Dunwoody), change the world, trade cattle futures and be funny (thanks for all three, Hillary Clinton).

But women’s journey to the top is having an altitude problem. Young female executives begin on the same career staircase as men, but it’s almost as if the stairs change direction, Hogwarts-like, and take them somewhere else. For three decades, more women than men have graduated from college, but that academic dominance has not led to corresponding business or political success. There are currently only 17 heads of state out of 195 who do not have a Y chromosome. Women hold about 20% of all seats in parliaments globally. Slightly more than 4% of Fortune 500 companies are headed by women, and women hold 17% of board seats. Worse, these numbers aren’t changing very fast. Ten years ago, 14% of board seats were held by women. A decade has passed, and women have gotten a few inches farther into the boardroom. “Women are not making it to the top of any profession in the world,” says Sandberg. “But when I say the blunt truth is that men run the world, people say, ‘Really?’ That, to me, is the problem.”

Few people disagree that somewhere on the climb between the graduation podium and the C-suite, women are getting lost. The contentious issue is what—or who—is keeping them down. Fingers are pointed in every direction: the U.S. has primitive maternity-leave laws on par with those of Papua New Guinea—a country that still has actual cannibals. Women are hitting their childbearing deadlines around the time future executives are being winnowed out from regular management. Turnover at corporate boards, which are heavily male-dominated, is very slow; most have a mandatory retirement age of 72. American companies structure their workers’ days around the expectation that someone else is handling the home front. Men have welcomed women into the workplace, but housework, cooking and child-rearing duties are still borne largely by women.

(MORE: Forget About Mentors — Women Need Sponsors)

Sandberg acknowledges all these obstacles but drills down on one in particular, the one she says receives the least attention: the invisible barrier in women’s minds. “Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions,” she writes. It’s not exactly that they’re to blame, she notes. Females are raised from birth to have different expectations. There’s an ambition gap, and it’s wreaking havoc on women’s ability to advance. “My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”

Do women want that kind of power? Are men hardwired to want the big paycheck, the high-horsepower career more? How much of women’s tendency to lean back stems from something deep in the DNA? Research findings suggest that women are as ambitious as men but that their ambition expresses itself in a different way. For Sandberg, these are not relevant issues, just as it’s unclear whether humans are genetically predisposed to eat too much or do so because of the food around them. Either way, it’s causing obesity and needs to change. “We have to evolve to meet new circumstances,” she says. “I’d like to see where boys and girls end up if they get equal encouragement—I think we might have some differences in how leadership is done.”

Sandberg’s critics are quick to remark, Easy for you to say. She has two Harvard degrees, a rich but menschy CEO husband, vast personal wealth, all the household help she needs and a flexible workplace. She walked into two of the right companies—Google and Facebook—at the right time. Women lower on the scale of money and education may wonder just how Sandberg expects them to lean in to their paycheck jobs. And for her to suggest that other women aren’t doing the right things to be successful, well, it’s what many people are calling ballsy, as in that’s what a guy would say. Her thesis has already drawn the ire of other women working in the same field. (Men have been less voluble. This is no-win territory for them.)

(MORE: Dominique Browning: More Ways Women Sabotage Themselves)

“Are we going to spend another 20 years trying to make women adapt to a system that doesn’t fit them?” asks Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, who runs a global management consultancy, 20-first, that helps companies achieve greater gender balance. She points to data from McKinsey that businesses with more women on their boards are more profitable. “Companies need women. It’s a problem for them if women aren’t advancing.” She thinks Sandberg’s message is the wrong one. “It’s insulting to women to say they need to become more like men to succeed.”

To be fair, that’s not exactly what Sandberg is saying. For all her success, she’s nothing like a man. She may currently have thousands of people saying “Right!” to her, but she’s refined her technique since elementary school. Now it blends an overwhelming amount of data with a weapons-grade ability to nurture and an exquisite organizational acumen. She’s like an escapee from a Star Trek episode in which Spock sired a child with an empath.

Take her role at Facebook. COOs aren’t usually the rock stars in an organization. They’re the nuts-and-bolts guys—usually guys—executing the CEO’s will and hoping to get the top job. Sandberg’s approach has been a little different.

“She built the whole business part of Facebook,” says Mark Zuckerberg, the social juggernaut’s hoodie-wearing CEO. “I didn’t know anything about running a company. [We] knew where we wanted to get, but we were lacking someone who was a visionary at how you work at large scale.” The company had about 70 million users and $150 million in revenue before she joined in 2008. Now it has a billion users and recently reported revenues of $1.59 billion for the quarter. “Some people emanate ‘I’m a pro at what I do. And I’m such a pro that when you’re around me, you’re going to want to be more of a pro too,’” says Chris Cox, Facebook’s implausibly young, handsome and Zen VP of product. “And that’s how it felt when she showed up.”

Nobody at Facebook has an office. Sandberg sits two desks down from Zuckerberg in a corner of one of the social network’s parking garage–size open-plan buildings in Menlo Park, Calif. Next to her is a pillar with “I Love You, Mom” painted in childish letters, created during a visit to Mom’s workplace by her 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. Opposite her sits her longtime assistant Camille Hart, who works on the multicolored megascreen spreadsheet that is her boss’s schedule. When Sandberg wants to talk to Zuckerberg, which is often, she spins around on her chair and literally leans in.

Passionate even for Facebook, where messianic is the default attitude, Sandberg’s a huge fan of the word huge. As in, “That is huge.” “It’s a huge problem.” “This is hugely important.” Her second favorite word seems to be genuinely, although to be fair, she’s partial to all adverbs. She gestures continually, with her fingers bent at the second knuckle, as if she’s mixing pizza dough or winding yarn. She’s an ardent listmaker and is never without a little notebook. Each page is either a project or a person, and she rips them out when the tasks are done. “I feel my to-do list,” she says.

(MORE: Caitlin Flanagan: What About the Children?)

Combined with her efficiency is her emotional quotient (EQ), an uncanny grasp of how people feel. In a meeting to discuss the purchase of a Web-design company—a process known as acqui-hiring, in which the deal is mainly aimed at bringing in new talent—Sandberg reminds her team that the firm’s founder is about to have a birthday and wants to get the deal done before the big day. “I think that birthday helps us,” she says. As Zuckerberg puts it, “She’s unique in that she has an extremely high IQ and EQ, and it’s just really rare to get that in any single person.”

Sandberg doesn’t like to call what she does management. It seems too clinical. She has the gift of making others feel their contribution is significant. (Two people told me they were the first to take Sandberg’s kids to a farm.) She believes in crying in the office and devotes a chapter in her book to honest communication at work. “We argue pretty vehemently,” says Cox. “One thing I appreciate about Sheryl—when it’s about to get heated, we’ll call each other. We don’t raise our voices. We have a different tone.”

Meetings are the vertebrae of any executive’s day, and Sandberg runs a brisk one. In the pre-Sandberg era, they didn’t always start on time. And there weren’t always notes. “Sheryl’s able to get a diverse set of people to get to a decisive position very quickly,” says Mike Schroepfer, VP of engineering. “She’s famously impatient.” She’s also practical, making sure people aren’t meeting on an empty stomach. “After Sheryl came to Facebook, I got a lot less hungry,” recalls Zuckerberg.

The Sandberg Way

After running thousands of meetings and hiring, directly or indirectly, thousands of people, Sandberg feels she’s in a position to comment about the way women work. And here’s what she’s noticed: it’s not their fault exactly, but they aren’t pursuing their careers in the most efficient way. Inefficiency is abhorrent to Sandberg. She has a sign in her conference room that reads, “Ruthlessly Prioritize”.

Of course, we can’t all be Sheryl Sandberg. In fact, none of us can be Sheryl Sandberg. To understand why, it helps to know how she got to be who she is.

“I was raised [to believe] that going into business was a bad thing,” says the oldest daughter of Joel and Adele Sandberg, an ophthalmologist and teacher from Florida. “You were supposed to be a doctor or work for the government or a nonprofit.” (Both her siblings went into medicine.) Sandberg thought she was going to be a lawyer. In sixth grade she took second place in a Florida-wide oratory contest, even though all the other speakers were in high school. That she couldn’t see over the lectern without a step stool didn’t diminish the impact of her speech about the folktale of the little red hen and the importance of everyone’s doing their bit for America.

It was Sandberg’s parents who first demonstrated the power of the network. Joel is the efficient, competitive one, Adele the passionate, nurturing one. In the ’70s they were activists for Soviet Jews who were trying to emigrate to Israel. If one of the refuseniks, as they were known, was arrested or sent to a labor camp, the community reached out to a guy in London. He then called a bunch of supporters all over the world, including Adele Sandberg, and they activated a telegram program and called their local politicians. By 1987, partly as a result of pressure from Western nations and networks like the Sandbergs’, Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. “My biggest concern for my kids was that they grow up to be a mensch,” says Adele. “If she ended up turning into a snob, I would not be proud of her.”

After topping her public school and getting her undergraduate degree at Harvard, Sandberg was accepted into its law school. Despite the thriving aerobics class she’d started on campus—where she says she learned to smile even when she didn’t mean it—she went to work for the World Bank for her former professor Larry Summers. He had been her thesis adviser (she wrote about the economics of spousal abuse) and says, “I noticed her because she was the best student out of 75 or 80 in my undergraduate class.” After two years of international aid work, partly on Summers’ advice, Sandberg decided to skip law and do an M.B.A.

(MORE: The Pay Gap Is Not as Bad as You (and Sheryl Sandberg) Think)

Success vs. Popularity

Sandberg learned one of the key lessons in her book during her time in business school (Harvard, again), and not in a good way. After her first year, she won a fellowship. The guys who won all talked about it. But Sandberg sensed it was better to keep quiet. “Female accomplishments,” she writes, “come at a cost.” And that cost is people declining to click on the Like button.

Sandberg often refers to a 2003 experiment that found that students considered a successful entrepreneur in a case study more likable when her name was changed to a man’s. “The data says clearly, clearly, clearly that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” says Sandberg. Finding that out “was the aha moment of my life.” It explains, she believes, why women who will negotiate ruthless deals for their clients will not do the same for themselves. It accounts for why women are less eager than men to trumpet their management triumphs or put themselves forward for leadership positions. Because women are supposed to be nurturing and peacemaking, not aggressive. When she clues in managers on the success-and-likability conundrum, “it completely changes the way they review women,” she says.

Awkwardly, it turns out, women don’t particularly like successful women either. Sandberg points to how quickly people criticized her friend Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, who went back to work two weeks after having a child and recently appeared to make Yahoo’s work practices a lot less flexible. “No one knows what happened there,” she says. “I think flexibility is important for women and for men. But there are some jobs that are superflexible and some that aren’t.” Regardless, she believes no man who ordered the same policies would have come under fire the way Mayer has.

(MORE: Judith Warner: Why Sandberg Matters for Real Women)

Sandberg, too, has drawn her share of opprobrium. After Anne-Marie Slaughter, an academic and former State Department honcho, criticized her in a much-talked-about essay on why women can’t have it all, Sandberg sent her an e-mail, which Slaughter talked about to a newspaper. Sandberg, the reigning world champion in finding a positive thing to say about everyone, initially declined to comment on this episode. The two have now made up.

At least one prominent feminist is supportive. “Every group of people that has been systematically told they were supposed to play a limited role internalizes that role,” says Gloria Steinem. “She’s saying we have to both fight against the barriers and get them out of our consciousness.”

Sandberg’s peers are generally supportive but guarded. “The most crucial thing for a woman to have if she’s going to get to the top is a sponsor,” says Ann Lee, author of What the U.S. Can Learn from China and a contemporary of Sandberg’s at Harvard Business School. “I was not terribly surprised at Sheryl’s success, because I knew Larry Summers had taken her under his wing.” In fact, after a short stint at McKinsey in 1996, Sandberg went to work with Summers again, this time at the Treasury Department. When he became the Treasury Secretary, she was his 29-year-old chief of staff. “I was hugely lucky, and that explains most of my success,” says Sandberg, “just like every man.”

Her next move, to a small but energetic company called Google in 2001, took people more by surprise. Wayne Rosing, who now runs an astrophysics nonprofit, was vice president of engineering at the time and one of the people who interviewed Sandberg for the job. “She was such a Google type: smart, articulate, passionate and able to work through a problem she had never encountered before,” he says. What Rosing didn’t notice, however, was her passion for women’s rights: “She was just one of the guys, one of the players.” In fact, it was only after she got very sick while pregnant (the Sandberg women all had nine months of morning sickness) that she got the firm to put in special parking spots for expectant moms.

“I never called myself a feminist or gave speeches on women as late as five years ago,” says Sandberg, whose interest in women’s leadership coincided with her joining Facebook in 2008. Until the week before Lean In came out, she was the only woman on Facebook’s board and had been there less than a year, and she’s still the only woman among its top executives. Since the day she took Facebook public in a much hyped IPO, the stock has yet to rise above its offering price; investors are skittish, and advertisers are skeptical. The company needs a steady presence and a cohesive face as it moves forward. This might explain why Sandberg’s nearly omnipresent Facebook handlers are quick to insist that Lean In is not a company project or a distraction and is definitely not Sandberg’s exit strategy. The only time Zuckerberg looked at one of the two p.r. reps present during our interview was when he was asked how irreplaceable she was. He finally came up with: “She has irreplaceable qualities.”

Other employees are less cautious. “I have not thought about Facebook without Sheryl,” says Cox. “That would suck.” He’d respond, he says, by trying to get as good at writing noncheesy thank-you notes as Sandberg is. “If Sheryl were to leave, a bunch of us would say I need to absorb that and honor that,” he says. These people take their social networking seriously.

(VIDEO: Sheryl Sandberg Leans Forward)

How She Does It

Among the myths that circle around Sandberg is that she leaves the office at 5:30 p.m. Actually, that is true. But after putting in some time with her family, she returns to work with a vengeance. She’s one of those work-hard, play-hardly-ever types. She usually goes to parties only to work the room or if she’s holding a gathering of women at her home. She and her husband Dave Goldberg try never to schedule dinners on the same night. If that does happen, she often calls on her sister. “She lives a mile away, and the answer is always yes,” Sandberg says.

On their first outing, years before they started dating, Sandberg fell asleep on Goldberg’s shoulder during a movie. “I was smitten, but I found out later she does this to everyone,” he says. Her favorite film is 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. The last time she picked a movie for a group of friends, she chose Fame. As punishment, the group made her sit through the whole film. And not sleep.

In many ways her domestic life is very traditional. The family plays a lot of games; Zuckerberg recently taught them the Settlers of Catan. Her kids already get their own breakfasts and make their own school lunches (with help). Sandberg says studies that show working moms of today are as engaged with their kids as traditional moms of yore “make me feel so good, so much better.” She declines to answer questions about her domestic help, saying it’s not a question you would ask a man, then declines my offer to ask Goldberg the same question.

Chapter 8 of Lean In claims that one of the most important career choices a woman makes is whom to marry. She and Goldberg, who’s as laid-back and genial as Sandberg is intense and energetic, dated after several years of friendship, during which time Sandberg was briefly married. Four years ago Goldberg left a big job at Yahoo so the family could be together in Northern California. He took over SurveyMonkey, which at the time had 14 employees. “That was hard,” he says. “But what Sheryl has been supergreat about is that there may be a time when we’re going to move someplace for my career.”

(MORE: Readers Respond: How to Get Ahead at Work)

The job change hasn’t held Goldberg back. SurveyMonkey now has a staff of 200 and 14 million users, and he just completed a recapitalization of the company that values it at $1.35 billion.

Sandberg urges women to negotiate shared household duties with their spouses early and often. “We have areas of responsibility. I do travel. I do anything electronic, computers, cars,” says Goldberg. “I do photos and videos. We share the child care 50-50. Although it’s not like we keep score.” And he does the finances. Since Facebook went public, his wife has cashed out about $90 million worth of shares, according to a schedule that was set before the IPO, and she still has almost 18 million shares left. But she demurs when asked how much she’s worth, claiming that that’s Goldberg’s area. “He manages our money,” she says. “I have essentially no interest.”

There is always chatter, especially among Californians, that Sandberg, who’s a big Democratic fundraiser, will return to the public sector. She has the contacts and skill set. “I really loved being in the government,” Sandberg says. “I won’t rule out that I would ever want to go in again, but not run for office. But, not now. It’s not the right time for my family.” According to her father Joel, public policy was always her first love, but he’s not sure she isn’t there already. “Turns out that she probably has a better platform for doing it this way,” he says.

Sandberg doesn’t act as if she wants to leave her current job, even though it’s almost impossible for her to become CEO. “Ironically, having written a book about women and leadership, having, like, the top leadership role is not the most important thing to me,” she says. “I could have done that on the way out of Google. I had those offers.”

It may be that solving the problem of fade-out in women’s potential is enough of a mission for Sandberg, at least for now. It has proved to be a significant challenge for many of the corporations and governments that have tried to address it. But it’s possible that in amassing circles of women and giving them simple empowering tools, she’s putting the infrastructure and players in place for a much more ambitious trophy than a seat in the corporate boardroom. Getting women to the highest echelons of business might be her idea of getting them to the starting line. After the women get the power, well, then she can really let loose.

MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Sheryl Sandberg

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4
  6. 5