Why CEOs should read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In

March 11, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In reminds us that there is a very strong business case for inclusion and diversity.

By Mohamed El-Erian

WHITE BOOKFORTUNE -- I have never met Sheryl Sandberg in person. She did not send me a copy of the manuscript for her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. And she did not ask me to write a column on it.

Also, I have not followed closely her debate with those who characterize her as misleading women about "having it all." Yet, having watched her popular 2012 TED talk, I was excited to read that she was working on a book. And I was delighted when Sara Piccollo and Kim Stafford, work colleagues, obtained a copy and lent it to me.

This book will likely resonate with readers to different degrees depending on their vantage points. Personally, I approached it wearing two hats -- one as the CEO of a merit-based and highly-driven company, and the other as the parent of a nine-year old daughter. In both capacities, I feel that Lean In is a must-read.

Together with another great new book (Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, a book that brilliantly details how unconscious biases operate and why even the most thoughtful people and most successful companies can inadvertently trip up because of them.), Lean In has made me more aware of certain behaviors and, thus, already has had an impact on me.

Both books have armed me with thoughtful insights that speak directly to challenges I face every day -- as a spouse and parent, but also as CEO of a company whose continued success depends on its people. It is the latter that I would like to share with you here, focusing for now primarily on Lean In. (I plan to write another column devoted to Blindspot.)

In a manner that is enjoyable to read and easy to internalize, Sandberg provides valuable insights on how a meritocracy can enhance its productivity and effectiveness. The major emphasis is, of course, on better career management, especially (but not only) as it relates to women -- or, to put it more specifically, explaining why women face a much higher risk of unnecessarily opting out or of being pushed out; why companies need to recognize the value of including diverse perspectives, including gender, in all areas of decision-making; and how too many companies inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to hiring, developing, promoting and retaining women.

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Early in the book, Sandberg tells a story that will ring true with many decision-makers who have the institutional power to quickly solve problems but may not always have access to comprehensive information in a timely manner.

Well into her pregnancy, Sandberg was searching for a parking place at her (former) workplace. The one she finally located was quite far from the entrance to the building.

Forced to run awkwardly to make a meeting, she realized that this ordeal is shared by other pregnant women. So Sandberg went to her CEO and suggested that parking spaces be reserved for this purpose. The CEO instantly agreed, noting how this obvious decision had never occurred to him and recognizing that a multi-perspective leadership team is better at identifying and solving problems, large and small.

Lack of timely information is not the only trap that faces many of us who have demanding schedules and competing claims on our attention. Other types of communication failures persist even in the most successful companies (which could thus be even more successful), including those that result in too-literal interpretation of signals from the top.

Sandberg shares an episode where one of her internal work requests -- that Powerpoint presentations no longer dominate meetings with her associates -- was applied in a generalized manner that she never intended (namely, to outside meetings with clients and prospects). Once again, it was courageous feedback that put a stop to an unfortunate and detrimental lapse.

MORE: On Sheryl Sandberg and conquering confidence killers

Timely feedback is critical to the vibrancy and well-being of any company. It is most important when it comes to the delicate issues that employees may find hard to bring up, particularly those in under-represented groups.

As managers, we all have an obligation to ensure proper channels of communications, and we must recognize that it is not enough just to have an open-door policy and ensure that all have a proper opportunity to speak at meetings. (Indeed, both Lean In and Blindspot provide good reasons why women and people from certain cultures hesitate to raise their hands to get the floor or, particularly in some Anglo-Saxon companies, find it hard to shout loudly to command attention.)

Often the most valuable insights and feedback are the hardest to collect. Thus, managers should work hard and consistently to thoughtfully solicit diverse views, ensure greater two-way interactions, and provide proper safe zones.

Sandberg is right to remind us that there simply isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. Companies have to find their individual sweet spots. It is an evolutionary process. And, to help it along, Lean In provides some interesting examples and actionable advice.

Consider, for example, the current well-intentioned emphasis on mentoring. It is almost a modern-day institutional fad.

These programs are often seen as a great way to preserve and enhance the culture of a company, and especially one that is growing rapidly and hiring robustly. They are. Yet they are all also among those facing the highest risk of being over-institutionalized.

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Mentoring programs need to be thoughtfully designed, and course-corrected as needed. Sandberg provides examples of how real and perceived hindrances, both conscious and subconscious, can be addressed -- including the case of an executive at Goldman Sachs (GS) who decided to have all his mentorship meetings, male and female, over breakfast and lunch rather than over drinks/dinner where gender mixed meetings have a higher risk of being misconstrued.

Structured mentoring can play an important role in overcoming impediments, especially for women, to equal access to the informal mentoring approaches that many companies use. But they are not complete substitutes. Indeed, they are most effective in a mix than enables both formal and informal mentoring.

It is particularly important to recognize that the managerial challenge does not end with the allocation of mentors. Both Lean In and Blindspot urge us to check for structural impediments, including the "like me" bias and in-group favoritism. Yes, these tendencies may lead to more "natural" mentoring relationships; but they may also be less effective.

In connection with this, Sandberg rightly urges companies to recognize two realities: What motivates a good, two-way mentoring relationship is a common perception of capabilities and prospects; and this is best formulated in the context of the specific operational themes and strategic goals of the organization.

The last point I would note here is Sandberg's endorsement of a point first made by Pattie Sellers at Fortune. It is best to view a career not as a ladder to climb, but as a jungle gym.

This is an important distinction. A jungle gym allows for great exploration, optionality, and success. It recognizes that, for both internal and external reasons, linear careers are not the norm anymore. It is also a better motivator, and a stronger enabler of team work. (As Sandberg notes, "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.")

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In all this, we should never underestimate the extent to which small adaptations can cumulatively have a meaningful impact. Indeed, as Sandberg rightly points out, "Major changes can result from these kinds of 'nudge techniques,' or small interventions that encourage people to behave in slightly different ways at critical moments. The simple act of talking openly about behavioral patterns makes the subconscious conscious." Again, Sandberg shares insightful examples that are also operational.

Due to framing problems, there is a material risk that reviewers of Lean In will not spend enough time encouraging managers, and especially male managers, to access Sandberg's insightful tips. This would be a great shame. Lean In is extremely valuable for gaining a better understanding of talent management, including (but not limited to) an improved appreciation of the challenges women and other minority populations face in many segments of the workforce.

I worry that, rather than characterize this book as also providing a guide to help broaden and deepen talent at every level of a company, too many reviewers may opt for a very narrow interpretation -- that of viewing Lean In as just for women looking for insights and inspiration as they navigate careers and think about real and perceived trade-offs.

This would unfairly limit the book's scope and influence. Such a narrow characterization would also play straight into the hands of those that wish to impose on important gender-related debates many over-simplifications, highly artificial distinctions, and extreme corner solutions.

Managers, and especially male managers, are well-advised to think of Sandberg's book as one that speaks effectively to a general theme that we should all recognize and appreciate: There is a very strong business case for inclusion and diversity.

Like other managers, I know that a critical part of delivering on my fiduciary responsibility is to ensure that our company employs, enables, develops, stimulates, and retains the best talent available. And like other parents, my strongest hope and aspiration is for our daughter to pursue her professional passion without holding back or being unfairly held back. Lean In provides important guidance for both these roles.

Thank you, Sheryl Sandberg!

Mohamed El-Erian is the CEO and co-chief investment officer of PIMCO. He also heads the U.S. global development council. 

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