Sheryl Sandberg’s Inspiring Speech At Harvard Business School

by John A. Byrne on Print Print

This is not a setup for honesty.  Think about how people speak in a typical workforce.  Rather than say, “I disagree with our expansion strategy” or better yet, “this seems truly stupid.”  They say, “I think there are many good reasons why we’re entering this new line of business, and I’m certain the management team has done a thorough ROI analysis, but I’m not sure we have fully considered the downstream effects of taking this step forward at this time.”  As we would say at Facebook, three letters: WTF.



Truth is better used by using simple language.  Last year, Mark decided to learn Chinese and as part of studying, he would spend an hour or so each week with some of our employees who were native Chinese speakers.  One day, one of them was trying to tell him something about her manager.  She said this long sentence and he said, “simpler please.”  And then she said it again and he said, “no, I still don’t understand, simpler please”…and so on and so on.  Finally, in sheer exasperation, she burst out, “my manager is bad.”  Simple and clear and very important for him to know.


People rarely speak this clearly in the workforce or in life. And as you get more senior, not only will people speak less clearly to you but they will overreact to the small things you say.  When I joined Facebook, one of the things I had to do was build the business side of the company and put some systems into place.  But I wanted to do it without destroying the culture that made Facebook great.  So one of the things I tried to do was encourage people not to do formal PowerPoint presentations for meetings with me.  I would say things like, “Don’t do PowerPoint presentations for meetings with me.  Instead, come in with a list of what you want to discuss.”  But everyone ignored me and they kept doing their presentations meeting after meeting, month after month.  So about two years in, I said, “OK, I hate rules but I have a rule: no more PowerPoint in my meetings.”


About a month later I was about to speak to our global sales team on a big stage and someone came up to me and said, “Before you get on that stage, you really should know everyone’s pretty upset about the no PowerPoint with clients thing.”  So I got on the stage and said, “one, I meant no PowerPoint with me.  But two, more importantly, next time you hear something that’s really stupid, don’t adhere to it.  Fight it or ignore it, even if it’s coming from me or Mark.”


A good leader recognizes that most people won’t feel comfortable challenging authority, so it falls upon authority to encourage them to question.  It’s easy to say that you’re going to encourage feedback but it’s hard to do, because unfortunately it doesn’t always come in a format we want to hear.



When I first started at Google, I had a team of four people and it was really important to me that I interview everyone.  For me, being part of my team meant I had to know you.  When the team had grown to about 100 people, I realized it was taking longer to schedule my interviews.  So one day at my meeting of just my direct reports, I said “maybe I should stop interviewing”, fully expecting them to jump in and say “no, your interviews are a critical part of the process.”  They applauded.  Then they fell over themselves explaining that I was the bottleneck of all time.  I was embarrassed.  Then I was angry and I spent a few hours just quietly fuming.  Why didn’t they tell me I was a bottleneck?  Why did they let me go on slowing them down?   Then I realized that if they hadn’t told me, it was my fault.  I hadn’t convinced them that I wanted that feedback and I would have to change that going forward.


When you’re the leader, it is really hard to get good and honest feedback, no many how many times you ask for it.  One trick I’ve discovered is that I try to speak really openly about the things I’m bad at, because that gives people permission to agree with me, which is a lot easier than pointing it out in the first place.  To take one of many possible examples, when things are unresolved I can get a tad anxious.  Really, when anything’s unresolved, I get anxious.  I’m quite certain no one has accused me of being too calm. So I speak about it openly and that gives people permission to tell me when it’s happening.  But if I never said anything, would anyone who works at Facebook walk up to me and say, “Hey Sheryl, calm down. You’re driving us all nuts!”  I don’t think so.



As you graduate today, ask yourself, how will you lead.  Will you use simple and clear language?  Will you seek out honesty?  When you get honesty back, will you react with anger or with gratitude?


As we strive to be more authentic in our communication, we should also strive to be more authentic in a broader sense. I talk a lot about bringing your whole self to work—something I believe in deeply.


Motivation comes from working on things we care about.  But it also comes from working with people we care about.  And in order to care about someone, you have to know them.  You have to know what they love and hate, what they feel, not just what they think.  If you want to win hearts and minds, you have to lead with your heart as well as your mind.  I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time.  That kind of division probably never worked, but in today’s world, with real and authentic voice, it makes even less sense.


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  • Neal Gorenflo

    Sandberg’s thought is similar to an idea in Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis that careers should be lattices not ladders.  But the dominant theme of the book is that grads should forget the traditional idea of jobs / careers altogether and take direct control of their economic destiny through institutions and practices that democratize economic life (open source software, open hardware, cooperatives, credit unions, public banks, participatory budgeting, coworking, hackerspaces, car sharing, etc.).

    I have to agree with Mike below, Sandberg is the wrong person to model.  She, or more accurately Facebook, symbolizes everything that’s wrong with our world.  Facebook’s Zuckerberg is lionized for exploiting the most sacred of things, human relationships.

    Why not have Linus Torvalds instead?  He’s more accomplished and more representative of what’s needed.

  • Smi_josepha

    Awesome speech.  The bit about honesty is so true.  I regret not telling my previous company CEO the things that he needed to hear.

  • MS

    what a load of crap

  • radical?

    Sheryl Sheryl Sheryl. You have two children. Your husband works. I’m sure you both work very very hard at your jobs. Perhaps even 80 hours a week at times.

    Who’s caring for your children? Are your children getting the nurturing they need from both of you? Do you know the side effect of children without nurturing parents? Assuming you put them in a day care, have you seen the low quality in day cares and after school programs?

    How much love and attention/nurturing did your parents give you? Did that help you get to where you both are today? Are you giving the same amount of love to your children?

    Now, that’s all about you. You both are motivated and smart. Smarter than the average bear. Do you really think that average America can do what I said above? Aren’t the average couple stressed to breaking points already? Aren’t divorces at all time record highs? I wonder how long your marriage will survive. I’ll check back on this in 5 years.

    Why are you pushing your viewpoints on women. Why is our nation becoming a nation of wimps who cry ‘I’m a VICTIM’ at every moment of their lives? Why are you Sheryl telling women to cry victim. Are victims a lower more cowering species anyway? So in the end aren’t you telling the ‘not so smarter than the average bear’ women in America to cry victim and get favoritism? Is that how you want women to gain an advantage? Favoritism? Is that how you got to where you are today?

    AAAWWW poor Sheryl, we better hire her or else she’ll litigate.

  • JustSaying

    Three years later, her husband is no more with us.

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