Learning To “Lean In” After A Career Setback

SophiesArrival_0010Back in March of 2003, my career was in full swing. I was a business consultant for a top firm, traveling each week to my clients. The work was engaging – I was learning so much – and I was getting great feedback on my work from my clients and my managers. Oh, did I mention I was 8.5 months pregnant?

I was excited to sit down for my annual review. I was looking forward to hearing about how all of this hard work was finally going to pay off with my bonus and salary increase. The conversation started great – my boss raved about my performance. But the conversation quickly changed when he made this statement:  “You won’t be getting a salary increase or bonus this year because of your upcoming maternity leave.”

I was shocked, speechless, angry, ready to cry.

This was the moment when I realized my career would never be the same again.  I grew up with parents who told me I could do anything, be anything, and here I was doubting that I’d get anywhere.

There has been so much being said lately about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. 

Regardless of whether the lessons shared in the book relate to all people – they are personal, brave, they make you reflect, and most importantly, they get us talking about women. In the past 10 years we’ve made no progress in the numbers of women in leadership so something isn’t working. To me, “Leaning In” is highly personal and different for everyone. Sometimes it means taking a new opportunity, sometimes it means asking for the promotion, sometimes it means asking your partner to do the grocery shopping.

For me, the book makes it ok to talk about the issues so many of us struggle with – and shows that we aren’t alone.

I knew what happened during my review was wrong but I didn’t feel equipped or empowered to do anything about it. And once my daughter was born, things didn’t get any easier. I drove myself crazy counting the hours she spent at daycare vs. with me. I used to risk life and limb driving like a crazy person to pick her up each evening just to have an extra 5 minutes to add to the good side of my tally. Not to mention the “mommy wars”  adding to my own guilt of wanting to have a career.

It took a long time for me to sort through these issues. I started Leaning In when I was 6 months pregnant with my second child. I took a new role at a new company (my current company). I made a conscious effort to let go of the guilt, accept my decisions, and enjoy my career. Today I have 4 children and nothing gives me more satisfaction than coaching other women through the sometimes dark days of early motherhood.

I watched Sheryl’s Ted Talk on Why We have So Few Women Leaders years ago and it opened my eyes. I finally felt like someone understood. So, when I was invited to attend a Lean In event on April 4 in Philadelphia, I was thrilled. For me, getting to hear from Sheryl first hand could only be compared to bringing my daughter to see Justin Bieber – minus the screams and tears.

The event, sponsored by SAP and Beneficial Bank, started with an interview with Sheryl and followed by an esteemed panel of 3 business women leaders from local companies – Luisa Delgado, Chief Human Resources Officer at SAP, Ashley McEvoy, Group Chairman of Vision Care at Johnson and Johnson, and D’Arcy Rudnay, Chief Communications Officer at Comcast Corporation.

My favorite moment of the day was when I realized that my daughter, Sophie, who was with me during that fateful performance review – isn’t bossy like friends, teachers, parents often tell me – but has “executive leadership potential”… just like Sheryl.


I’ve summarized some highlights and lessons below:

Sheryl’s take on -

  • Our messages to our children – to our sons: teach them to nurture. To our daughters – encourage technology from a young age and stop calling them bossy – it is executive leadership potential.
  • Hiring women – it is ok for managers to have open conversations with women to reassure them that if they want to eventually have a family, you will support them through this time.
  • Career Planning – we should think in terms of long-term dreams and an 18-month plan. Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder – we can move sideways and down – not always up.
  • Negotiation – Sheryl wishes it were fair now and that women can negotiate like men but the reality is we can’t. We must negotiate by putting it terms of “what’s in it for the company” vs. ourselves – use “we” and smile.
  • Likeability – The fact is that success and likeability have different correlations for men and women. The more successful women get, they are often less likeable.
  • Mentorship – Don’t ask someone to be your mentor. Instead, ask how you can help them – on a project or on a solution. This will go much further and let the relationship come naturally.
  • Dating – The decision on who you make your partner is the most important career decision you can ever make.
  • Guilt – let yourself off the hook. Even Sheryl feels like a bad mom some days but it is all about perspective. Her husband says they are “heroes” for being home for dinner at 6.

Lessons from Our Panel:

From Luisa Delgado:

  • This is a global discussion – coming from her travels in India she was having similar discussions.
  • Being a parent makes her a better leader because she can see things a fresh perspective
  • We should focus on our dreams instead of the methods we will use to reach them
  • From self-doubt comes superior leadership – the ability to question yourself makes you stronger.

From Ashley McEvoy:

  • At Johnson and Johnson, we incent leaders 50% results, 50% how they achieved results
  • Make life accessible to people.
  • Ask for input all the time – how can I do this better/differently
  • Take the time to strengthen  your inner voice – she did this during 5 maternity leave “mini-sabbaticals”

From D’Arcy Rudnay:

  • Never attribute your success to luck – it is hard work.
  • Find your courage
  • Fake it til you make it
  • It is ok to lean out sometimes.

Photo details – My executive leader, Sophie, born May 2003.

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