Sheryl Sandberg returned to Harvard Business School where she received her MBA in 1995 to deliver the keynote Class Day speech to this year’s latest crop of graduating MBAs on May 23. The chief operating officer of Facebook came to the company after working as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, as an economist with the World Bank, as chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury during the Clinton Administration, and as an executive at Google.
During her 20-minute address, she offered the audience insights into her own life along with a wide range of observations and advice. Among them:
After leaving Washington, DC, for Silicon Valley, Sandberg was offered a job at Google as its first business unit general manager, but she wasn’t sure the position was the right fit. “The job was several levels lower than jobs I was being offered at other companies,” she explained. So she sought the advice of CEO Eric Schmidt, who told her that “When companies are growing quickly and having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves….If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” She took the job.
Sandberg noted that in the current business environment, a ladder is no longer an appropriate metaphor for career growth. As one of her friends put it, the more appropriate comparison is a jungle gym. “As you start your post-HBS career,” she advised, “look for opportunities, growth, impact, and mission. Move sideways, move down, move on, move off. Build your skills, not your resume….Don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb.”
“Your strength will not come from your place on some organization chart. Your strength will come from building trust and earning respect. You’re going to need talent, skill, imagination, and vision, but more than anything else, you’re going to need the ability to communicate authentically, to speak so that you inspired the people around you. You must also listen so that you continue to learn every day on the job.”
Honest feedback is essential, but getting it can be a problem, Sandberg said. “A good leader recognizes that most people won’t feel comfortable challenging authority, so it falls upon authority to encourage them to question.”
“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 a real voice, an authentic voice, it makes even less sense.”
Sandberg also talked about the challenges facing women in the workforce, especially in top-level positions. Only 15 or 16 percent of C-suite positions are filled by women, she noted – a number that hasn’t moved in a decade. “We need to acknowledge that gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership,” she said. “The promise of equality is not equality. ” To bring about improvement, she advised, women need to stop underestimating their abilities, while companies have to give more thought as to how to mentor, sponsor, and encourage them.
In closing, Sandberg advised the graduates to “make the effort to speak as well as seek the truth, remain true to and open about your authentic self, and give us a world where half our homes are run by men and half our institutions are run by women. I’m pretty sure that would be a better world.”
And oh yes, “keep in touch via Facebook,” she said with an expressive smile. “And since we’re public now, could you click on an ad or two?”