Growing up in North Miami Beach, Sheryl Sandberg was always the top of her class and never rebelled against her parents—until junior high. As her mother recalls, “One day she came home from school and said, ‘Mom, we have a problem. You’re not ready to let me grow up.'” Her mother couldn’t help but concur: “I said, ‘You’re right.’ The minute she said it, I knew she was right.”
This managerial gravitas would come to inform all of Sandberg’s ventures, from her role as chief of staff to US treasury secretary Larry Summers, her six years as a vice president at Google, and her current role as chief operating officer at Facebook.
At the Treasury Department, Summers’ conference table always seemed to fill up with male senior officials. So Sandberg would beckon junior staffers, many of whom were women, from the sidelines to grab a seat at the table. “We’ll make room,” she’d say. When an aspiring Facebook employee cold-called Sandberg’s cell phone, the top executive didn’t just pick up, she took a risk, swiftly hiring the woman to lead Facebook’s recruiting efforts. “A key part of what Sheryl does in her life is helping people advance, to be seen, and to be heard,” says David Fischer, who was her deputy at the Treasury Department, worked for her at Google, and is now at Facebook.
Most notably, Sandberg started the Lean In movement in 2013 through her eponymously named book, urging women to charge ahead in their careers and be conscious of the ways they hold themselves back. While her intention in writing Lean In was to help women advance, be seen, and be heard, many identified Sandberg’s missteps in overlooking the race and class barriers that prevent many women from “leaning in” to opportunities.
Following her husband’s sudden death in 2015, Sandberg grew more empathetic to the means by which life circumstances can paralyze women’s progress. She’s since shifted her focus to advocate for policies and research that explicitly target intersectional inclusivity, while teaching the art of personal resilience in Option B, her new book. Sandberg’s relentless efforts to elevate women, democratize the C-suite, and make vulnerability and resilience actionable values in and beyond Silicon Valley make her among the most important figures to shape the modern workforce and the global economy.
In an interview with Quartz, Sandberg reveals what men can do to fight sexism at work, the story behind her favorite poster, and the mindset that leads to healthy professional relationships.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
Gender equality is one of the biggest ideas of our time or any other. While a lot of people are thinking and talking about it, too often we suffer from the tyranny of low expectations. We become resigned to the status quo or satisfied by incremental progress. That’s not good enough. I remember the 2012 election, when women won an all-time high of 20 seats in the US Senate. Is 20 better than 19? Yes. But the commentary at the time was about women “taking over” the senate. When women hold only a fifth of senate seats, that’s not a takeover—that’s a gap.
We would be a lot better off if half of all countries and companies were run by women and half of all homes were run by men, and we shouldn’t be satisfied until we reach that goal. We need to do more and do it faster to change the core dynamics of our world.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
Any conversation about success has to start with acknowledging the many ways in which I am lucky. I know how fortunate I am to have been born in a country that respects the human rights of women and into a family that was able to provide me with a great education.
Having said that, hard work is key. Every person I know who has achieved success, whether professionally or personally, works really hard. Howard Schultz gave me a poster that reads, “The world belongs to those still willing to get our hands dirty.” I hung it in my conference room as a reminder to always being willing to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. There’s no substitute for just doing the work.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
I would change our culture, which teaches all of us—women and men—that men should achieve and women should support others. The truth is that everyone should achieve and everyone should support others.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
When I graduated from college, I believed that it was only a matter of time before the women of my generation achieved real equality. I looked ahead of me: It was almost only men running the world. I looked beside me: There were equal numbers of women and men in my graduating class, all talented, all ready to make their mark and lead. I thought it was obvious that we would be the generation that put the world right when it came to sexism and gender inequity. I did not understand the subtle and not-so-subtle barriers that women would face in the workforce. I did not understand how difficult it would be to achieve real equality at home. In time, those realities became clearer.
5. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I think any good professional relationship is based on honesty and mutual support. Both may seem obvious, but both take a lot of effort to get right. Honesty means telling the truth even when it’s hard, and being open to hearing it, even when you don’t want to. Mutual support means valuing other people’s goals as well as your own. That doesn’t always come easily. You’ve got to work at it.
6. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Some of the best advice I ever received was from my mother. If I was ever tempted to say no to an opportunity because I wasn’t sure if I was talented enough or smart enough or prepared enough, she’d say, “Make decisions from strength.” That stuck with me. Now when friends and colleagues reach a crossroads and are trying to choose the right path, I ask them, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
7. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
To recognize the bias against female leadership that is deeply ingrained in our culture—so deeply that just about all of us have it to some degree—and take steps in their workplaces to root it out by hiring, promoting, mentoring, and supporting women.
I wish people would stop telling me… to meditate. I’m sure they’re right. I’m sure it would be good for me. But I just can’t do it.
Everyone should own… a notebook and a pen. If you want to get stuff done, there’s no substitute for just writing it down.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.