Most Powerful Women

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg on what makes women succeed

October 4, 2011: 8:48 PM ET

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sat down with Fortune editor-at-large Pattie Sellers to discuss why women aren't making progress at the highest levels of corporate America, Facebook's latest strategy, and her political aspirations.

Below is an unedited transcript of the interview.

Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg

PATTIE SELLERS:  Thank you for doing that, Sheryl.  I don't know if we mentioned that Pat Mitchell was supposed to be here, but is taking care of her very ill mother, and Somaly is the heroine to Pat Mitchell also, who is a real regular of the summit.  So, Sheryl was supposed to introduce that session, and we asked Sheryl the other day if she would do it, and she said that was wonderful.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  It was an honor.  I think being with Somaly, which I had the opportunity to be before, really puts everything else in complete perspective.  It's almost hard to go on with the conference or do anything else when you think about the challenges that she faces, and still faces every single day.

PATTIE SELLERS:  So, the transition here is, I was thinking about this.  You know, I like to say that real power is personal power, the power that you have if you lose your job tomorrow.  And real power is about taking risks with yourself, and your platform.  And real power more so today than ever needs connectivity.

And so both you and Somaly really do that, which is great.  And like it or not, and I guess my first question is, how much do you like it that you are probably among all these most powerful women, you're probably the leading role model for young women who are interested in building their careers today.  How intentional is that, and how accidental is that?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  My first comment would be, I'm not sure that's true in the sense that there are so many women here who are role models.  I think there have been so many women here who are role models for me, and continue to be.  Where's Arianna and Melody.  Yes, they're my mentors.  And I think all of us in so many ways are role models.

I did a couple of years ago, with Pattie's encouragement and inspiration, start speaking out about being a woman.  And it was interesting when I did it, because when I did it everyone told me not to.  This is it, this is going to end your career.  Women in business don't talk about being women, seriously.  You can't do this.

And I thought about the fact that, well, if I'm not willing to do this, then no one is going to talk about this.  And I didn't do it early in my career.  I definitely waited until I think I felt more comfortable and more confident.  And I also waited until I thought there was a problem.  So, I didn't start out as a women's advocate, embarrassingly, I think I should have.  I just started out where I think all of us start out as, I am a woman, I happen to be a woman, but I work in Facebook.  And then, over the last ten years, I saw myself what the aggregate data tells us is true, is that women have stopped making progress at the top.  You know, women became 50 percent of the college grads in the United States in 1981, that's 30 years ago.  Thirty years is plenty of time for the numbers at the top to move, and they had been steadily moving up until about nine or ten years ago, and they stopped moving.  And that's just a world I don't want to live in.

PATTIE SELLERS:  Well, we were just boasting that there are now 15, 15 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 with Meg moving it back in.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  Right, and thank you, Meg. We're glad, but that's not enough, 15 out of 500 is not a case for a world that we want to live in.

PATTIE SELLERS:  So, two years ago, a little over two years ago, you were down in Mexico celebrating your 40th birthday with your girlfriends from high school, I remember.  And I was on the train coming up from Washington and my phone rang, and it was Sheryl, and luckily I wasn't in the quiet car, because she pitched me this idea.  She said, I want to write this essay that I'm calling Don't Leave Before You Leave.  And I'm like, what's that?  And she wrote it for the Most Powerful Women issue two years ago, and it's still on my blog, which is called Postcards, and you'll see it at the top, because I've kept it there because it gets major traffic every day, and just explain that, the point of Don't Leave Before You Leave.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  What happened is that I wound up trying to figure out why the women were not moving to the top, and I had hired a lot of people at Google.  I worked there for a long time, and I watched what happened, and what happens is that women in my language leave before they leave.  So, one of the biggest reasons why there aren't more women at the top is that in the college educated parts of our workforce, the women that are most likely to get those jobs at the top of any industry, women are leaving the workforce.  The numbers are something like a third 15 years out of business school or undergrad are still working full-time, a third are working part-time, and a third are not.  And that's the first part of the problem, is that if only a third are still in full-time, and it's a very personal choice, so I don't pretend that everyone should stay in the workforce, or have my crazy life, or your crazy life.  But I want to think about what we could say to the women who do want to stay in.

And what I saw happening is that women don't make one decision to leave the workforce.  They makes lots of little decisions really far in advance that kind of inevitably lead them there.  So, what happens is, they start thinking about having a child.  They start thinking about it kind of early, sometimes when they get married, sometimes before that.  One woman came to see me and started asking me how to balance like work and a child, and I kind of looked at her, it was at Facebook, she looked really young, and I said, are you and your husband thinking about having a child?  She's like, oh, no, I don't have a husband. She didn't even have a boyfriend.  And she was there thinking about.

And that sounds like a good idea, but it's really not a good idea because what happens is, the moment you start thinking about making room for this child you don't even have is the moment you start leaning back, or you don't really start leaning forward, because you start thinking, oh, I might get pregnant, and you don't go for the promotions.  And in my experience, having had lots of people work for me, I know so many people here, the men that work for you, they are on you.  They want every promotion.  They are in your office for every single new opportunity.  You're opening an office in India, they're in your office, I want to lead it.  They see problems.

And the women, not all, but many more than I would want, they don't come jog us.  And when you go to them and you say, hey, I really want you to take this on, they say, really?  Can I do that?  And I often feel like we start as women really holding ourselves back, and we leave before we leave.  And what happens is that by not keeping our foot on the gas pedal all the way through, by the time you have a baby, if you are one of those lucky women, and everyone in the room here is basically in that group, who doesn't really have to work, you have a choice, you're only going to do it if your job is really fulfilling.  And if you're working for some guy who should be working for you because three years ago you were thinking about making room for a baby, and he was like in your boss' office getting the promotion, you're going to feel undervalued, and then you'll leave.

And so, what I'm trying to talk about, I know so many people here believe it, is we need to teach women to keep their foot on the gas pedal, and then if they want to stay home with a child, great, that's work our society needs to value.  But don't do it until you have to make that decision.

PATTIE SELLERS:  So, you have kept your foot on the gas pedal from working for Larry Summers, who you first met at Harvard, and just a huge influence on you there, as you were on him, in fact; working for him at the World Bank, going to McKinsey for a short stint; becoming chief of staff for Larry Summers when he was Treasury Secretary in the Clinton White House; going to Google; going to Facebook.  So, what has been your career strategy?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  So, I don't have a career strategy.  I think much like planning for children, too much planning is usually a bad thing.  What I tell everyone, and I really do for myself is, I have a long-run dream, which is I want to work on stuff that I think matters.  I started my career at the World Bank, as you said, I worked on leprosy in India.  I care about what's happening with Somalia.  If you care about this stuff, I think you can only go to work on things that really matter.  So, I've always wanted to just work on things that matter.  And then, I have kind of an 18-month plan of every step along the way.

PATTIE SELLERS:  An 18-month plan?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  Yes.  I mean, kind of a year is too short, two years is too long.

PATTIE SELLERS:  What's your 18-month plan now?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  I am going to continue growing Facebook.  We are in a very interesting phase.  We just announced a whole bunch of stuff that really changes how we work with partners across the Web.  We announced a whole bunch of things at Ad Week this week, yesterday and today.  And so, we're really in the kind of growing phase of this, and that's my plan.

PATTIE SELLERS:  One more question about your career, do you have political aspirations?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  I have aspirations to do something that matters.  And right now, I don't think there's much I can do that would matter more than Facebook.  And that doesn't mean that there aren't tons of other great things.  There are.  But I really believe that when you give people authentic identity, which is what Facebook does, and you can be your real self and connect with real people online, things will change.

When I was studying economics, economists talk a lot about the invisible victim.  Why is it that we can sit here and let 27 million people be slaves in the world?  Why do we let 800,000 children die every single year of completely ‑‑ of malaria, which is completely preventable and treatable.  We do it because they're the invisible victim, because we can't relate to numbers like 27 million, and 800,000, they're too big.  But when we see one child, we cannot let that one child die.

PATTIE SELLERS:  Sheryl, I'm going to bring it back to you, we're limited on time.  Seriously, I appreciate that, but have you had ‑‑ (Laughter) ‑‑ I mean, I do.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  I don't really appreciate that, that's okay.

PATTIE SELLERS:  Have you had a conversation with any of your politically connected friends, and you have a lot of them, have you had a conversation about, should I ever run for political office someday?  How should I think about this, honestly, have you had that conversation?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  I honestly haven't.  I really love my job.

PATTIE SELLERS:  Really?  Really, you really haven't?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  I really haven't.

PATTIE SELLERS:  Because there are people out there who think like you're going to run for Governor of California someday.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  Well, you know, I really have not had that conversation.  We can have it now, but it really ‑‑

PATTIE SELLERS:  Meg may still be here out in the hallway.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  I'm fairly certain she'd advise against.

(Laughter.)

PATTIE SELLERS:  She said it was harder than she ever imagined.

Okay.  So, how is ‑‑ I'm going to move to the audience in a minute.  What has been the most important strategic decision that you have made at Facebook, and I think of you as the sort of person who has largely been responsible for the monetization and the organization, the sophistication of those two areas of Facebook.  What has been the most important strategic decision that you have made, or you had a huge influence over?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  Probably, and with Mark who has been a great partner and a great boss, and leader, a couple of things, I think the key decision, and he really gets all the credit for this, to move off of the Facebook platform and really put our technology across the Web, which he led, I think that's actually been Facebook's most important decision.

And the reason that is is that it seems obvious now that we should be liking and sharing our real self across the Web.  But, at the time he led this internally, people would say to him, if we put our technology on the Web no one will come to Facebook.  And he would say that's not the point.  The point is to be a social platform that enables people to be who they are everywhere.  And I think that was a great leap.  And now you know something is a great leap when it just seems obvious and there are lots of people who think they should do it.  And that's been great.

On the monetization front, I really think part of why I came to Facebook is I really believed that there was a part of advertising that hadn't really happened on the Web.  When the Web happened the Web was going to change everything.  But, really we didn't really market differently.  Mostly we took our TV commercials and we cut them down, or we took our banner ads and we put them into text.  But, we were still doing what we all did as marketers, and I've been a marketer for a long time, which is one-way dialogue.  We were talking at our consumers.  And what I saw at Facebook, and Mark saw at Facebook was the opportunity to have real two-way dialogue with brands and real two-way dialogue, you and I, about a brand.

So, we can like postcards, or like the Fortune Most Powerful Women Conference.  And you have a Facebook page, and I've liked it, and you've liked it.  And we interact with each other around what this is.  And that's what Facebook enables, and it enables it to the tune of hundreds of millions of people every day.  And I think, just like I do for things that are important like malaria, I think for the products we use and the services we sell, and the services we buy, authenticity changes everything.  And I believe Facebook has the potential to do that.

PATTIE SELLERS:  Who has a question?  Yes, up here, Nancy.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  Hi, Nancy.

QUESTION:  I'm curious when you talk about doing something that matters when in fact they have no clear strategy.  First of all I loved hearing that.  So, thank you.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  It's really true and it is reassuring.

QUESTION:  I think it's great.  I think it inspires a lot of people to follow the things that they're interested in versus a career ladder.  Things don't always work out.  I'm curious though, how did you ‑‑ how did that affect your attitude toward risk, risk taking, how has that guided you.  And I'm also interested in knowing whether or not you think women, in your experience working with women, how they feel about that whole risk equation, whether or not you think there's a difference between men and women very generally.

SHERYL SANDBERG:  So, for me, I get nervous like everyone else when you think about things, and I was in government, you know, towards the end of an administration sometimes people start thinking about what they're doing next and I'm no great meditator.  In fact, my New Year's resolution every year, and I'm Jewish so I get two New Year's a year, is to meditate and I fail every time.  What I do in my career is kind of live in the moment, because I recognize that thinking about the future just makes me nervous, and that's not going to help me do what I need to do today.  So, for me I've really been able to do that.

I do believe that women don't take enough risks.  Not every woman, certainly some do, but same thing, the men are just put on the gas pedal, career motivated, the data shows very clearly that at every stage, starting in college, in the high educated part of our workforce men are more ambitious than women.  And I really believe we're not going to close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap.  And so the ambition gap has to do with risk.  I think the most common mistake I see people make, and men make this mistake, too, but women do a lot, is they're too worried about the upward trajectory and not worried enough about growth.

The two corporate jobs I've taken I went from Treasury to Google (GOOG), and I went from Google to Facebook, had one thing in common, which is that they were more junior, other people's words not mine, than other jobs I was offered.  When I went to Google, Google was like 250 people.  I was going to be a business unit general manager, except there were no business units.  Susan Wojcicki is here.  She helped recruit me.  This was the non-job of all time.  I mean there was no job there.  And I was offered like senior sounding, more senior roles at more established companies, but I really believed in what Google was doing, and Eric Schmidt gave me great career advice, he said go for growth.  Growth moves everyone up.  If it's growing it works.

So, I went to a smaller company with a very more junior, less-defined job, when I came out of Google it seems obvious now to come to Facebook, but at the time a lot of people asked me, right, you remember this, what are you doing?  You're going to work for a 23-year-old, no one knows if Facebook is going to be the next MySpace or Friendster, and you're not CEO.  You could be CEO somewhere else.  And what I saw was something that mattered, Facebook mattered with authentic identity, and an opportunity for growth.

And so at each stage I cared less about my level, I kind of think it's silly, than I have about the underlying growth and I do think this is really important for everyone to know, particularly women.

PATTIE SELLERS:  Growth, not level, that's great.

Yes, back there.

QUESTION:  Hi, Sheryl.  I had a question about how you've been able to balance clearly an ability to drive the growth agenda at Facebook.  And balance that with your philanthropic and corporate social responsibility concerns.  You talked about coming out as a woman 10 years ago, but as you think about the idea of being able to drive the philanthropic and corporate social responsibility agenda at Facebook to align with some of your concerns.  How have you been able to do that, or have you been able to do that?

SHERYL SANDBERG:  My really quick and honest answer is I don't do enough.  I mean if I could sit on this stage and talk about the things knowing that there are another 2 million that will go into sexual slavery next year, I'm not doing enough.  None of us are doing enough.  And I really believe that.  I worry about that a lot.  You do find that as you have the ability, as you get more senior in corporate America you do actually have the ability to do more, or have more leverage.  And so I met Somaly and I read her book, I wanted to meet her, I got to meet her, I organized the one and only ever benefit I ever did, and we raised a lot of money, and it was amazing coming together.  So many women in this audience helped me and really ran it.

Where's Jen Fonstad?  Jen Fonstad really ran this.  And you know, we raised a million dollars that night.  I've never raised a million dollars in my life and I probably couldn't have done that five years before.  And so I do think one leads to another, but I'm not sure I don't think I do enough, not even close.

PATTIE SELLERS:  I think we're out of time, unfortunately.  I think we're out of time.  I'm sorry.  The reward here is that we are going to have on this stage a woman who we have been trying to get for 13 years and I talked to Sheryl about it probably a couple of times over the last couple of years and Sheryl among other women had a huge influence on getting the woman who is probably the role model for more women in this room than anyone else, and that is the legendary Gloria Steinem interviewed by my colleague Fortune's Jessi Hempel.

Welcome Jessi and Gloria.

For more transcripts from the Most Powerful Women summit, click here.

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