Hardly anybody knows anything about why some workers succeed more than others. This US News article describes research that found that, among college graduates, left-handed men earned 20 percent more than right-handed men (and as noted below (Ioannidis), this result is itself probably false). Despite this confusion Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell, with Lean In, attempt to tell a large and diverse group of workers, i.e., women, how to get further ahead. In giving this advice Sandberg draws heavily from her personal experience. However, based on my interviews with members of the Harvard economics faculty, who were scientifically sampled based on dog ownership and membership in an elite 10:30 pm dog play group, Sandberg is an atypical individual. Out of the Class of 1991 she is fondly remembered more than 20 years later for her unique talents, work ethic, and personal charm. Few of us would expect to enter the NBA on the basis of learning from Michael Jordan’s personal stories.
In most of the book Sandberg is an exponent of Silicon Valley Socialism. On page 23 she decries the fact that “Of all the industrialized nations in the world, the United States is the only one without a paid maternity leave policy.” (There is no consideration of whether or not the federal government can constitutionally impose such a regulation on businesses that operate within a single state.) When government cannot impose right-thinking via new regulations it must be imposed by our social and intellectual superiors bullying us: “Everyone needs to get more comfortable with female leaders” (p50).
On page 24, however, Sandberg takes up the traditional conservative position of blaming Hollywood: “We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers. The current negative images [of working mothers] may make us laugh, but they also make women unnecessarily fearful by presenting life’s challenges as insurmountable.”
At least one chapter is based on some confusion regarding government protocol (p27). Treasury Secretary Geithner shows up to a meeting at Facebook and his four staffers, all women, don’t want to sit at the table with their boss. Sandberg assumes that they are sitting on the sidelines not because they are staffers (who don’t typically sit at the same table as cabinet secretaries) but because they are women. Sandberg and Scovell title a whole chapter “Sit at the Table.” The rest of the chapter contains heavily footnoted observations about how men and women supposedly behave in general. Men overestimate their capabilities, qualifications, and performance. Women may underestimate these things. Women don’t take criticism well. Presumably some psychologists did reach these conclusions at some level of statistical significance, but as John Ioannidis notes, “Most Published Research Findings are False.” Sandberg and Scovell heavily footnote their book, but without ever acknowledging that a semester’s effort by a tenure-hungry psychologist or sociologist may not be as reliable as results from a team at CERN (and even some of those have been wrong).
Sandberg confirms that “A is Average” at Harvard. Her brother David, a neurosurgeon whom Sandberg admires because currently “he splits child care duties with his wife fifty-fifty”, was also a Harvard undergrad. He takes “a class in European intellectual history”, skips all but two lectures and all but one book, gets tutored for three hours and receives an A for the semester (p32-33). The guy’s success is attributed to the general confidence of men. Sandberg does not consider how likely it is that her brother’s confidence would have resulted in an A in a physics class at Caltech.
Sandberg and Scovell cite a significant-sounding CMU study in which 57 percent of male master’s graduates tried to negotiate for a higher starting salary while only 7 percent of female graduates did (p45; Sandberg does not discuss “Negotiation for Starting Salary: Antecedents and Outcomes Among Recent College Graduates” by O’Shea and Bush, 2002, which found that “Women [among graduates with a business degree] were no less likely to engage in negotiation than men, and experienced similar success as a result of their efforts.” (“success” being a $1500 pay raise, an amount that Sandberg earns every 13 seconds that she is at work)). Sandberg points out a useful strategy for a woman who is being hired for a job that involves negotiation: tell the potential boss that he or she should expect to see some good negotiation skills right there and then (p46).
Mark Zuckerberg, smart enough to drop out of Harvard, gives Sandberg some useful-sounding advice: “When you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.” (p51)
We get some good advice on how to apply for an important job from Lori Goler. She went to Sandberg at Facebook and asked “What is your biggest problem and how can I solve it?” (p52)
Sandberg’s history of Facebook seems to have been informed by “The Social Network” movie. On page 54 she refers to Mark Zuckerberg as having “famously crashed” the Harvard computer network with his little site full of still photos. In my review of the movie back in 2010, I noted that this was not likely given that the Harvard network at the time was used for physics data sets and streaming video.
Eric Schmidt, the Google CEO at the time, gives Sandberg some interesting career advice: “Only one criterion mattered when picking a job–fast growth. When companies grow quickly, there are more things to do than there are people to do them.” (p58)
Sandberg did a bit of her own psychology research, tracking the number of men versus women who were interested in leaving the security of Google to follow her to Facebook. It turned out that the women were more risk-averse and waited until Facebook was larger before seeking Sandberg out. (p61) Sandberg says that it is bad to be risk-averse but she has not analyzed the risk-adjusted return to the different career choices of men and women. With the benefit of hindsight it sure seems dumb that these women did not quit their safe jobs at Google to join the sure-to-grow Facebook, but at the time Groupon probably looked just as good as Facebook. If taking big risks and using the benefit of hindsight is so sensible, everyone invested in the S&P 500 is stupid. It would have been so easy for them to have put all of their money into the IPOs of Microsoft, Apple, and Google and earned 80 percent ROI instead of 3-8 percent (source).
Sandberg identifies the same tendencies for underlings in a bureaucracy to hold their tongues that Max Weber noticed 100+ years ago (p85; no reference to Weber). She offers some practical advice for dealing with the problem of the boss not getting frank feedback on page 86: ostentatiously reward people who breach etiquette by speaking uncomfortable truths to higher-ups.
Sandberg advises women to take a very challenging exciting demanding job just before getting pregnant (p95). That way, when the baby arrives, the temptation to quit work altogether won’t be so tempting. [Sandberg says that this advice is for those women who find that "pregnancy does not slow them down at all, but rather serves to focus them and provides a firm deadline to work toward." She herself finds pregnancy "very difficult" and had to turn down a demanding new job that would have coincided with her second pregnancy.] Sandberg encourages (p102) women to work even if their after-tax salary (and the book was written before the recent round of tax increases!) is not much larger than the cost of child care (and the book was written before the latest round of day care/nanny inflation). Sandberg’s argument is that for executive-track women the cost of being out of the workforce for a few years is devastating so they should stay at work, despite the minimal net after-tax compensation (and keep kids parked in day care), so that their future salaries will be higher.
I covered Sandberg’s simple formula for marital happiness in an earlier blog post. Sandberg recounts that she herself had a first marriage that ended in divorce and left her traumatized for several years, unwilling to take an important government job because she would have had to live in Washington, D.C. where her ex-husband was wandering about. [The divorce seems to have happened when Sandberg and her husband were both in their 20s, with minimal assets and no children, so the trauma was due to disappointment rather than to litigation over child custody and the millions of dollars of tax-free cash that a plaintiff parent who wins custody can enjoy when the defendant parent has money; just imagine how incensed Sandberg would be if she had to turn over half of her $845 million/year salary as alimony!]. Her second marriage has worked out a lot better but it is unclear that her current husband does anything special with or for the kids: “Dave pays bills, handles our finances, provides tech support. I schedule the kids’ activities, make sure there is food in the fridge, plan the birthday parties.” (It seems that neither parent cleans the house, cooks the food, or is involuntarily hands-on with the kids.)
Sandberg devotes a chapter, “The Myth of Doing It All”, to telling women that they don’t need to work so many hours and they don’t need to care for their children so many hours. On page 136 she cites a study finding that children are just as well off being cared for by someone other than the mother. (I.e., according to the PhD psychologists Sandberg’s kids are learning just as much from a $12/hour day care center employee as they could have from their Harvard-educated parents. Sandberg does not discuss the research (a sampling) that finds that children with involved fathers do better on a wide variety of measures, including intelligence tests, before suggesting that children will be unharmed from less involvement by both parents.) It would be difficult to apply the chapter in practice, though. Sandberg says to cut back on working hours and on taking care of kids, but not exactly how to do it. Insist on shorter meetings with the distribution of a pre-meeting agenda? Delegate more to recent college grads and make them do the 80-hour weeks? Park the children in front of 500 channels of TV? Buy an Xbox 720 and PS4 for the kids? Sandberg doesn’t say.
The book becomes hard to understand as Sandberg moves from descriptive to prescriptive. On page 168 she talks about how one of the first women U.S. Navy submarine officers was welcomed by the men on the fancy boats but resented by Navy wives. On page 169, however, she talks about how the world will be a better place for women when more of their sisters are in power. Sandberg’s personal experience, however, contradicts this. She says that she has never worked for a woman. All of the mentors and sponsors she describes are men. When she was 27 years old, a man hired her to be Chief of Staff for the United States Secretary of the Treasury. Would a woman have been willing to hire her for the same job at age 17?
That completes my chapter-by-chapter review of the book. Time for some overall comments….
Short list of people you need to meet to be in Sandberg’s league: Larry Summers (the former United States Secretary of the Treasury was Sandberg’s thesis advisor at Harvard and is her “longtime mentor”, page 17 (Sandberg was Summers’s chief of staff in Washington, p56)); Tim Geithner (United States Secretary of the Treasury at the time that he visited Sandberg at Facebook, page 27); Meg Whitman (eBay CEO, p57); the Google founders and CEO (p57-58); Robert Rubin (genius who got Congress and Bill Clinton to repeal Glass-Steagall, then left government to collect $126 million from Citigroup, the primary beneficiary of the repeal, page 81); Howard Schultz (Starbucks founder/CEO, fellow board member of Starbucks with Sandberg, p91); Gloria Steinem (p177, “No one has thought about women–and all of humanity–more deeply than Gloria” (no explanation of how Siddhartha Gautama, Confucius, Adi Shankara, Jesus of Nazareth, Mohammed, Homer, Socrates, Epicurus, et al. came to find themselves ranked so far behind Steinem); Arianna Huffington (p177); Oprah Winfrey (“When I was hesitant to share something personal, I heard her voice in my head”, p177).
By the standards of the American business bestseller, this book is pretty good. One of the worst books that I have ever read is Jack Welch’s Straight from the Gut (my Amazon review). Yet this 496-page compendium of names of GE middle managers and U.S. golf courses averages four stars at Amazon and spent 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Sandberg displays a towering intellect compared to Welch. If these books are so popular with American business managers perhaps the big take-away message is that deep intellectual reflection, skepticism regarding the conclusions of social science graduate students, and logical consistency are not useful in managing a company.
Sandberg got a bachelor’s degree in economics but she doesn’t ask the question that one would expect an economist to ask after reviewing her findings. Sandberg portrays American men as basically lazy and skating into top jobs on the basis of an unjustified confidence in themselves that impresses the more or less stupid CEOs and board members in our biggest enterprises. Historical events do support Sandberg’s thesis to a large extent. In a 2009 blog posting on a book about pensions, I wrote:
In 2008, GM was promising to pay an 18-year-old employee a pension when he retired in 2038. They were also promising to pay for the guy’s health care during his retirement, regardless of what procedures, tests, and drugs were available starting in 2038 and continuing through perhaps the year 2100 (anything that Medicare didn’t pay, GM was promising to pay). A company that promised a defined pension benefit was betting its life on interest rates. If the pension plan was set up when interest rates were 10 percent per year and interest rates subsequently fell to 5 percent per year, the company could easily go bankrupt, wiping out shareholders. If the War on Cancer that President Nixon declared in 1971 had been won, the company would certainly have gone bankrupt.
The author of this book paints GM as truly the dumbest company on the planet, though presumably municipalities will end up looking just as bad pretty soon (esp. if low interest rates continue to prevail). The GM managers set things up so that they needed to continue growing in output, health care costs per person had to stop inflating, interest rates needed to remain high, and foreign competitors needed to be excluded from the U.S. market. If any of those conditions failed, the company would go bankrupt.
And certainly the American political system seems to support the cited research that found that success makes women less likable and men more likable. In my December 2007 prediction that Barack Obama would become president in 2009, I noted that people did not like Hillary Clinton despite her experience and qualifications. Barack Obama, on the other hand, was and remains beloved despite a relatively low level of experience and previous accomplishment.
Yet eventually you’d expect someone with an economics degree to ask how a persistent overconfidence enables men to continue to dominate in a market economy. Sandberg’s brother was able to skate through Harvard College courses without working because Harvard makes only trivial demands on undergraduates in many of its majors. Wouldn’t that open up opportunity for intellectually rigorous universities, perhaps online, and independent certification exams that end the corrupt practice of professors grading their own students (“the guy seems not to have learned anything, but he attended lectures from the world’s smartest person [me!] and therefore he must have progressed quite a bit so I will give him an A”)? The Home Depot board pisses away shareholder wealth by hiring square-jawed confident-sounding Robert Nardelli, who was paid $500 million to keep Home Depot standing still while Lowe’s pushed forward. Wouldn’t the U.S. economy eventually come to be dominated by enterprises whose boards had figured out that it was more sensible to hire a female CEO with a realistic opinion of her capabilities? Or if the “boy’s club” mentality is too strong, wouldn’t the U.S. and world economy eventually be dominated by enterprises founded and run by women?
I am not suggesting that these questions show that Sandberg is wrong, only that they are natural ones to ask. One answer that preserves Sandberg’s hypotheses is that in a market economy all companies would be run by women but we don’t have a market economy. When the overconfident male leaders of General Motors run the company into insolvency their fraternity brothers in Washington, D.C. ladle out sufficient tax dollars to paper over the consequences of their stupidity. When the Wall Street men’s club runs most of America’s biggest banks into insolvency, after skimming hundreds of billions of dollars off the top to fund beach houses, Gulfstreams, servants, etc., the fraternity alums in Washington open up a fire hose of tax money so that Chapter 11 reorganization, with a subsequent takeover by women managers, is not required. Sandberg’s book supports this answer. The world of business that she paints is not a permanent home for its executives. The bigshots with whom Sandberg associates go back and forth between jobs directing our economy from Washington, D.C. and private-sector jobs benefiting from whatever new regulations have been promulgated.
Ultimately the book feels like a politician’s attempt to get votes from an interest group. The message follows a standard formula: “You [members of Group X] need to work a little harder, not give up on the dream, and vote for me so that I can help you. If I am elected, I will pass laws to force Group Y [your white male oppressors] to hire you ahead of their golfing buddies.” Like other grievance politicians, Sandberg has personally enjoyed a brilliant career and stunning success at an early age thanks to assistance from members of Group Y, but she is confident that members of Group Y are oppressing everyone else in Group X. What is new is that Sandberg and Scovell tell Group Y that they need to do a lot more housework and child care in addition to complying with whatever new federal regulations are imposed on the companies for which they work. This formula certainly appeals to Americans. Nobody has ever voted for a politician who said “Whether you are a member of Group X or Group Y, on average you are not as smart, educated, or productive as a typical citizen of Singapore and that’s why, despite their lack of natural resources, Singapore’s per capita GDP is about 25 percent higher than ours while their cost of running government is 17 percent of GDP compared to 42 percent here (source).”
What is not explained in the book is why someone who earns $845 million per year at Facebook would want anyone’s vote.
More: Read Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.