chief operating officer / facebook
Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer at Facebook, overseeing the firm's business operations. Prior to Facebook, Sheryl was vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google, chief of staff for the United States Treasury Department under President Clinton, a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, and an economist with the World Bank.
Sheryl received a BA summa cum laude from Harvard University and an MBA with highest distinction from Harvard Business School.
Sheryl is the co-author of Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy with Wharton professor and bestselling author Adam Grant. She is also the author of the bestsellers Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and Lean In for Graduates. She is the founder of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to build a more equal and resilient world through two key initiatives, LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org. Sheryl serves on the boards of Facebook, the Walt Disney Company, Women for Women International, ONE, and SurveyMonkey.
Sheryl lives in Menlo Park with her son and daughter.
Drew Kugler: Good afternoon Sheryl.
Sheryl Sandberg: Glad to be with you. Thanks for having me.
DK: And I'm grateful for the time that you're taking here to contribute to this discussion. I always start off every guest with the same question. And there's a method behind the madness, but I've always find the answers very interesting and that's—when you were a child, a kid growing up, do you recall what you wanted to be?
SS: You know I had I been asked this before; I don't have a great answer. I think I knew what I didn't want to be. Which was I didn't want to be a doctor. My father's a doctor and then my brother and sister are both physicians. They both became doctors—they came after I was and I think it's because I considered myself bad at science. And I think looking back at it, I don't think I was bad at science, I think I wasn't encouraged in science and I think it's the same old gender stuff that girls still face today. Now, I like my job, so I'm glad I'm not a doctor and there are plenty of doctors in my family—we don't need more and they they do a great job, but I do look back on that day that's really interesting and one of the things that probably still hasn't changed enough from when I was a kid to when I sit here with you today.
DK: Yeah, interesting. When you mention the word encouraged—that you weren't encouraged to be a doctor—I’m assuming you were there moments of encouragement that you received that did put you in a certain direction—that are conversations so-to-speak?
SS: Well, my dad certainly would have wanted me to be a doctor, so it wasn't at home. I mean one of the things I've thought about is I liked math, and when I was in I think in ninth or tenth grade I went to a math contest on a weekend that my teachers had. There's math contests you should go, and I went, and there are no other girls. And I just said to my math teacher, “Well the girls don't do this.” And I don't remember exactly what he said, but he kind of agreed with me—“Yep. Lot of boys here.” What didn't happen was “Well, that's why we need more girls.” And I think these messages girls get about math and science being for boys are still alive and well unfortunately and they were probably even more alive and well when I was, you know, in school. I did like oratory contests when I was in sixth grade, so I was encouraged to be, you know, a speaker, a writer, all of the verbal stuff. And again, I think that's pretty stereotypically female.
DK: Got it. OK, speaking of conversations, as we advance now in your career—since we actually met, actually back in the mid ninety's when we first crossed paths, but ever since then in your career you've been a staunch advocate in terms of workplace communication about the giving and receiving of feedback. I've heard many stories read many things that all place you squarely as a big advocate for that now obviously that's a place that I have grown to make a living as well, so we're in violent agreement there the nuances though of feedback, is what I'd like to talk about a little bit. I have clients ask me lots of questions about how to do it, “Oh, it's so hard. Oh, it can be so scary.” They throw up a lot of reasons; and I'm curious as to what you would say if you got asked some of these questions. For example, is there a difference in your mind between giving feedback at work and giving feedback at home?
SS: Well, it's fun to have this conversation with you because I think you were one of the first people who ever did kind of a three-sixty review. I mean, I was at McKinsey, I was a young associate, I just graduated from business school and I had had a job before business school for two years, but there wasn't really a formal review process, and this was like the first feedback I got. And I found it super interesting and I hope at least my memory of it was I was very eager to learn and I hope that was true. But I remember it being like, wow, people are talking about me when I'm not there and saying things, and so I do think feedback is something that we don't necessarily teach people to take.
I mean, I remember as a middle school girl, you would be in that the circle with your friends where you all told each other what you really thought and you know evidently went very badly. I've tried to do better with my kids, so my daughter and I took a girl's Leadership Institute workshop, which I highly recommend to anyone who can find one in their area. You can go online and find it, but it's actually about teaching girls to talk to the other girls, and be leaders, and it really is they don't use the word feedback because it's for elementary school girls and I think they do middle school, and in high school too. But it is when you're angry at a friend; don't text, don't tell the other girl that you're angry at the first girl. Tell her. Learn to speak your mind. Learn to say how you feel. Not “You did something wrong.” Think about a child an elementary school child giving feedback. Not, you know, "You did something wrong", but, "I felt bad when you did X"; and so, I've certainly tried to do it.
My mom was pretty incredible at this. Even as very young children, she taught my brother and sister and I to what she called "mirror". What mirror means, and I do it with my kids—I have since they were very young, as you know, “you took my ball”. And then the other kid has to say “I hear that you're upset because you think I took your ball”. You have to repeat back before you can say, “actually I didn't take the ball at all; it fell across the room”; but the idea of being able to really listen actively. And so I think it's hugely important... at home, and at work, that we teach people how to give each other “feedback” which is be honest and authentic and tell people how they can help us and how we can help them.
DK: As as people grow older, and get jobs in places like this, I would imagine, least my experience is, it's tough for the older they get, to imbue some of this empathy, to imbue some of this patience and listening to grown ups. Do you find that to be the experience, or do you do you apply a "mirror" here or where you work or anywhere, as you as you go around.
SS: Well, it is hard, and I think we have a responsibility to our children, to kids, to make sure they haven't always only been patted on the back. I remember when my son, my first child, was going to kindergarten and it was like the assembly. And we went to public school. And, you know they were asked, some parent asked, “What can you do to prepare your child for kindergarten?” And the answer the principal gave was, “Disappointment.” Make sure you have said no, and obviously there are a lot of kids who are really struggling out there and hear no all the time, and have really, really serious challenges. I think a lot of us as parents try to protect our kids from challenges. And that's coming from a really good place, but I think we can protect kids too much. And I think making sure that you know they know that there are things they can do that will be easier for other kids. There are mistakes they make knowing how to say they're sorry early really helps.
DK: So let's let's go to work and come to the workplace. Something that I see happening a lot I'm curious as you watch people here, and hear about other places. I see people doing feedback. Providing negative feedback at times, which as we agree has to be done. But they do it on e-mail and I'm curious what your reaction is to that, knowing you know how technology can play in communicating. But what's your reaction to people who do that.
SS: Well, I can tell from the tone of your voice that this is probably not something you're recommending. (laughs)
DK: Thank you, but I was trying to be more subtle.
SS: But I would say that the most important thing about feedback is that it's real time, and pretty constant. And so I'm sure it is a better idea and that's what you teach people to do it in person, make sure it's nuanced. And e-mail can be, I'm certain, I'm sure, a bad idea. I know email—I tell people all the time, if you're angry, don't e-mail. I still think e-mail feedback quickly is probably better than no feedback, because the most important thing about feedback cycles at work, in my view, is that you need examples. One of the things people do is they wait till the six-month or one-year performance review cycle. They give performance on their peers and they say, you know, “he can be difficult to work with.” OK. Well, give the person an example—but I don't want to give the person an example—because it will, you know, show who I am. The problem is absent an example when you say to someone, “you're difficult to work with.” Even if the person is completely open to it, they say “Great, how?” “Well, I can't tell you.” So what really helps all of us improve is when it is real time. Real time. And so I'm sure email is not always the best idea, but I'm going to argue that real time is more important than a form.
DK: Because it certainly can start real time, but I'm just wondering what the person does once they read the email. Do they then email back? But that is a slippery slope. You want to have a conversation.
SS: Conversations. Pretty soon the conversations are better. The thing about feedback is the more you do it the more you do it, in the less of a big deal it is. So if no one ever gives anyone negative feedback or constructive criticism or suggestions for improvement, the day you do it, it's the hugest deal in the world, and you're sitting on the edge of your chair for your performance review. But if it's constant and it is positive and negative, but, “Hey, you did a great job in that meeting, and then the next time I thought you missed this point”, it becomes something that's expected and much less of a big deal. So I've tried to do it [at] Facebook and we're still working at it. I think this is always a work in progress, is make hard, hard conversations part of the conversation we have on a regular basis.
DK: You just answered the third nuance, because I was really wondering, because everyone comes to me and says it's really hard where we work to be able to give my boss feedback. And you just you just explained one very good tactic to be able to create an environment where feedback flows upward, but that is that probably the number one question I get. How am I supposed to give my boss—terrible word male or female—but, “How am I supposed to get my boss feedback? I'm going to get in trouble.” Literally, people are worried they're going to get fired if they speak up.
SS: And really it is up to leadership. Great leaders are looking for feedback. Great managers are looking for feedback. So really my answer is your boss should be asking for it. The problem is, as you and I both know, everyone's boss isn't asking for it. So the question is, how do you open up that conversation? A couple of thoughts. One is asking for feedback yourself is one way of opening up a feedback conversation. A good boss, a good leader, you know, will always ask for feedback as well. You know, if I give you feedback now—again not have to do that—but sentences like, “I want to make sure we can work together as productively as possible. I want to help your team.” If it's your boss, “I want to help as much as possible. I really would like some feedback from you on how I can do better, and if it's OK, I'd like to share some thoughts I have on ways we can work together better,” to kind of warm it up. Hopefully the person will say yes. The way you say it, you know, “You're mean to me”—that's accusatory and nonspecific. But, “You know, it hurt my feelings when you said this yesterday”, that doesn't accuse them of doing anything or explaining how you feel, and it's in this specific. I'm not saying it's not work on every boss. But it's going to work better than, “You were mean to me.”
DK: Exactly. You know none of this work—people always ask me “Well, if I try this and it doesn't go well, what do I do?” I say, “Well, the challenge is you're entering into the conversation assuming that's not going to go well, but what if it does go well?” Just changing the question helps open you up a little bit more possibility, but most people are not that optimistic at times going into feedback sessions. But off of feedback for a second, on to another one: In all the years that you've done what you've done, what's the hardest thing for you to learn, that you've had to learn, about being better at conversation?
SS: For me, it's to slow down. If I'm gonna make a mistake today, I'm going to go too fast. I'm going to say too much. I think knowing the error of knowing the direction of your errors is actually really important. I don't know anyone who half the time says too little, and half the time says too much. I know a ton of people who say too little and I know a ton of people who say too much. I put myself in a say too much camp. If I mess up today, I'll be too direct, say too much. I don't know anyone really who goes too slow half the time and too quickly the other half. I know a whole bunch of people have moved too slowly and a whole bunch of people moved too quickly. I'm gonna move to quickly. There are some people I've worked with, both men and women, but often women, who, their voice literally isn't loud enough in a room. And I have said to them, in order to have the right volume, you're going to feel like you're screaming. Your goal is to get someone to tell you you're too loud. Never happens. But by striving for too loud they're going to get to the right volume. You know, every so often, and really not that frequently, someone will say to me, “I wish you had spoken out more in that meeting.” Very infrequently—but when it happens, I'm like,“Victory!” I think knowing the direction of your errors and trying to over-correct often gets us to the middle.
DK: Got it. In one of the previous podcasts I interviewed Atul Gawande about his book The Checklist Manifesto. And he noted that the research that has changed surgical outcomes, has been for those surgical teams to, in essence, pause. And to check with each other in a slower way, to use your word. I'm curious as you look around these halls and you think about the places you watch, you said you have slow and you have fast. Could most of these workplaces you're familiar with, if you had to lean one way or another, is it slowdown or is it speed up?
SS: I think for most companies it's speed up. Mark and I are very focused on keeping Facebook fast. I'm sure there are, and I'm sure I could think of some examples of companies that failed by moving too quickly—I'm sure there are those. I gotta say it's ten-to-one on companies that failed by moving too slowly. I mean I think usually companies move too slowly and they're, you know—it's the classic Innovator's Dilemma—they're usually afraid of cannibalizing or disrupting their current business... and that's always a mistake.
DK: Well, obviously we're all familiar with with your work, both your work and your foundation's work on Option B and on Lean In. As I was thinking about those two undertakings that you've led. It struck me that as those are going to have impact, both now and in the future, it's going to be as a result of thousands, I think, of conversations that take place first in the listener's head—the person who's taking in the concepts—and then, like in your Lean In circles, and beyond the conversations that are created to discuss the concepts and the findings. So it's all going to be driven by conversations, I would ask you, as you look over the success that the organization has had, what do you aspire to in terms of all of those conversations? What would you like to make sure that people do and don't do as they talk to each other about these very challenging concepts.
SS: Oh my God, it's such a great question and I think... it really is at the heart of my philanthropic work, which is many different things but for this example really Lean In and Option B. And conversations at the heart of them. So with a Lean In, you know, what I thought was missing was the actual honest conversation in the world that we didn't have enough female leaders. You know, she meant leadership was a trend that had increased for decades and really came to a standstill a little over ten years ago and I walked onto a TED stage and said the world is overwhelmingly run by men and you could hear the audience gasp. And the audience—it was the TED women's conference—they were pretty attuned to that, but when you say the world is overwhelmingly run by men, that's something we needed to face. And I don't know if we were facing a while ago, which is part of why I felt very strongly about running about writing lean in and starting the LeanIn.org Foundation. We are not comfortable with ambition and women. Ambitious is a positive term for a man, “He's ambitious.” And it is a negative term for a woman, “She's ambitious.” Just that term and so the Lean In conversation is around the imperative and the benefit to everyone about having more diverse leadership—women as well as, you know, historically under-represented minorities. And it's about comfort with ambition. I want every woman out there, of every background, to be encouraged to be ambitious. Now that doesn't mean every woman wants to be a C.E.O. or wants to run for President—she doesn't have to. But I want to take away what is a systematic discouragement of her to lead, that starts with being called bossy as a little girl. We don't call boys bossy, we call girls bossy and goes all the way up through adulthood. And I want to replace that with a conversation around why ambition and leadership are good for girls and women.
And with Option B... probably the first interview I did for my book, a journalist said, “Everyone dies and everyone knows people who die, yet we can't talk about it. Why?” And I don't know the answer to that question, but Option B is an attempt to at least spark some conversations about what is a huge—the most basic part of our lives—which is death. When someone is suffering, when someone dies, when someone loses someone, when someone gets cancer... You can immediately silence a room; you want to silence the room, say, “I just got diagnosed with cancer. I just lost my son. I just lost my husband, my wife.” Silence. So we greet the hardest times in our friends, in our associates, in our family's lives, in our own lives with silence. And Option B is an attempt to kick all those elephants out of the room and be there for each other. And the only way to be there for each other is have the conversations. “I know you're hurting and I know I can't take away that hurt but, I'm here to talk about it with you.”
DK: So let's go there. For me, it's something that's personally important to me. You know, as in one of the certainly thousands of notes and things you received after Dave died I felt a real need to reach out to you and tell you about meeting him, which was two weeks before he died. I went to Survey Monkey and interviewed him about a client—the mutual client he was helping—and that I was helping. And there was this craziness that day at Survey Monkey. And he showed up, apologized for being two minutes late and he sat down in the middle—like a glass room like this—but people were running by and everything and he completely lasered on me. When he found out that we had crossed paths before, he then talked about you the rest of the interview. But when he passed, I felt the only way to let you know how I felt was how it felt to meet him. So I ask you this—thought about this one a lot. You have talked extensively about the difficult and awkward conversations that have taken place with people as they come to you and this notion of what they could say. What have you learned most in general about communicating and connecting with people. What have you tried to do other than obviously put out this amazing book with Dr Grant, that you think will be enough going forward for people, like they've obviously cared about a lot?
SS: Well there's no one answer for anyone, but what I learned in losing Dave was just how often I had got it gotten it wrong before by not acknowledging, or by offering kind of generic help. You know I used to think that if something bad happened to someone you say it the first time, “I'm so sorry for your loss.” But then you never mention it again because you're reminding them. You can't remind me Dave died. If you say to this day, years later, “I'm sorry for your loss”, I'm not like "Damn, I forgot!" Right? Of course I know that. And the person that has cancer next to you is going through chemo this morning—she knows too—and so I think we have to not be afraid to acknowledge. I think I also learned that, you know—and I used to do this all the time —“Is there anything I can do?” That's a kind offer— I meant it well—but what is the other person supposed to say? It shifts the burden to the person you're trying to help to think of something.
You know, there's this great story in my book I included of a colleague I have here, Dan Levy. And he and his wife were in the hospital for many months with a sick child they eventually lost, tragically. And a friend of his texted and said I'm downstairs in the lobby for a hug for the next hour, whether you come down or not. Just show up. Then in the workforce, you know, I always thought my role was to give people time off, and I really believe in that. I'm very proud of Facebook bereavement policies. I've been talking to other companies about extending their's. I'm proud of our maternity, paternity, family leave policies—all of this. But so we have to let, give people time off, but encouragement's also helpful because after Dave died and I came back to work when people said to me—I thought I couldn't concentrate. Of course I couldn't concentrate. And they say, “Well of course you can't concentrate, with all you're going through.” That was further proof that I can do my job; and so when someone said to me... “You know, I think you made a good point today.” That was so reassuring. So counter-intuitively—not just offering a time off, which is still really important—but if they choose to be at work, and they need to be at work because sometimes, you know, work was for all of that was horrible, but work was way better than home. Once my kids were back at school thank God for me I had somewhere to go, because sitting in my kitchen waiting for him to walk in was just brutal. And the office was brutal, but less so, because I don't have as many memories of him here. But having encouragement—“Hey, you're still contributing”—was really helpful.
DK: You know I heard on other podcasts this whole notion of how you learn to deal with it and some of it from your spiritual Jewish upbringing I was I was thinking about that as we begin to conclude here. Some of the most counter-intuitive advice I've ever gotten that that goes parallel along with what you've been saying is from from my rabbi. Your rabbi told you lean into the suck. My rabbi has said that when people die and you go to Shiva. He said that the tradition is that we that we not speak to the mourner, that the mourner should speak first. Because, what happens exactly as you've said in this is when it parallels, is that people become so self-focused on saying the wrong thing, or not knowing what to say, that the conversations actually become, as you pointed out, more burdensome, more awkward, is the word I used earlier. The point that I had in mind here as I've heard your advice, is something that Steve our rabbi said, sometimes the best conversations are the choice at moments to say nothing, and to listen and to be present and to, in essence, show up. But let the person lead, and I know that—I watched your face, right? I know that's in contrast to how you saw it play out. But that was something I wanted to share with you—you've been so helpful here in terms of guidance and thoughts for people. Sometimes the listening part—at least, as I lost my parents, and onward—has been extremely helpful.
SS: I think it's good advice as long as you make sure the person knows you're there to listen, so you almost have to give the entry like, “I'd really like to hear you”; and then listen. And so I think it is good advice if you give someone an opening.
DK: It's great. Well, Sheryl, thank you! I said at the top—I want to reinforce this is from the bottom of my professional and personal heart—this means a lot. My listeners will be very happy to hear your perspective. And it has been enlightening and provocative and helpful and that's what matters the most.
SS: Thank you for having me.
DK: You're welcome.