Sheryl Sandberg’s Inspiring Speech At Harvard Business School


Excellent career advice.  And then he said, “Get on a rocket ship.  When companies are growing quickly and having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves.  And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in.  If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

About six and one-half years later, when I was leaving Google, I took that advice to heart. I was offered CEO jobs at a bunch of companies, but I went to Facebook as COO.  At the time people said, why are you going to work for a 23-year-old?


The traditional metaphor for careers is a ladder, but I no longer think that metaphor holds. It just doesn’t make sense in a less hierarchical world.  When I was first at Facebook, a woman named Lori Goler, a 1997 graduate of HBS, was working in marketing at eBay and I knew her a bit socially.  She called me and said, “I want to talk with you about coming to work with you at Facebook.  So I thought about calling you and telling you all the things I’m good at and all the things I like to do.  But I figured that everyone is doing that. So instead I want to know what’s your biggest problem and how can I solve it?”

My jaw hit the floor.  I’d hired thousands of people up to that point in my career, but no one had ever said anything like that.  I had never said anything like that.  Job searches are always about the job searcher, but not in Lori’s case.  I said, “You’re hired. My biggest problem is recruiting and you can solve it.”  So Lori changed fields into something she never thought she’d do, went down a level to start in a new field.  She has since been promoted and runs all of People Operations at Facebook and is doing an extraordinary job.

Lori has a great metaphor for careers.  She says they’re not a ladder, they’re a jungle gym.


As you start your post-HBS career, look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission.  Move sideways, move down, move on, move off.  Build your skills, not your resume.  Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you.  Do real work.  Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job.  Don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb. If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.

You are entering a different business world than I entered.  Mine was just starting to get connected.  Yours is hyper-connected.  Mine was competitive.  Yours is way more competitive.  Mine moved quickly, yours moves even more quickly.

As traditional structures are breaking down, leadership has to evolve as well – from hierarchy to shared responsibility, from command and control to listening and guiding.  You’ve been trained by this great institution not just to be part of these trends, but to lead.

As you lead in this new world, you will not be able to rely on who you are or the degree you hold.  You’ll have to rely on what you know.  Your strength will not come from your place on some org chart, but from building trust and earning respect.  You’re going to need talent, skill, and imagination and vision.  But more than anything else, you’re going to need the ability to communicate authentically, to speak so that you inspire the people around you and to listen so that you continue to learn each and every day on the job.


If you watch young children, you’ll immediately notice how honest they are.  My friend Betsy from my section a few years after business school was pregnant with her second child.  Her first child was about five and said, “Mommy, where is the baby?”  She said, “The baby is in my tummy.”  He said, ‘Aren’t the baby’s arms in your arms?”  She said, “No, the baby’s in my tummy.”  “Are the baby’s legs in your legs?”  “No, the whole baby is in my tummy.”   Then he said, ‘Then Mommy, what is growing in your butt?”

As adults, we are never this honest.  And that’s not a bad thing.   I have borne two children and the last thing I needed were those comments.  But it’s not always a good thing either.  Because all of us, and especially leaders, need to speak and hear the truth.

The workplace is an especially difficult place for anyone to tell the truth, because no matter how flat we want our organizations to be, all organizations have some form of hierarchy.  This means that one person’s performance is assessed by someone else’s perception.

  • It was a hypothesis. Symantically, there is no assumption in my remark.

  • Lao Tzu

    Many people care more about making money than being remembered. Why do you make the assumptions that Sheryl cares about being remembered?

  • JustSaying

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

  • 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.

  • MS

    what a load of crap

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Dr Bhaskar Das

    Very inspiring speech of Ms Sandberg. i endorse her reference to need for gender neutrality in corporate sector. if it’s not addressed soon we shall fail to leverage a major chunk of the available human talent pool. 

  • This is conventionally faux-provocative neo-establishmentspeak to a pre-brainwashed audience. Pleasantly naughty clichés to hear, of course, but leaves one mighty hungry. Ms. S is so evidently capable of better, and will need to challenge herself way beyond this if she’s going to be remembered as anything more than a lucky rider on the right rocket.

  • Guest

    Much of the speech was great. I especially liked the parts about using simple language, rocket ship careers, and getting overwhelmed with PowerPoint. But, I don’t agree with Ms. Sandberg’s vision of  a better world: “And four, most deeply, that your generation accomplish what mine has
    failed to do. 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.” I don’t think that would necessarily result in a better world. A better world is one in which people achieve what they strive for – whether that is home maker or executive, and whether that results in a 50/50 split or not. Ms. Sandberg also said that women are better off marrying women (regardless of whether or not they are even attracted to women) unless they marry the right man. Blanket, provocative statements like these discredit Ms. Sandberg and detract from an otherwise strong speech.

  • CLG123

    My hope would be that Ms. Sandberg will “walk the talk” in terms of making Facebook a leader in providing compelling, flexible career options for women.  She gave a speech several months ago in which she implied that it’s women’s fault that they are not “taking their place at the table” or something like that. In this more recent speech, she at least seems to have softened that line a bit  (as it’s a bit more difficult for the rest of us to grab a seat at the table when we don’t have Larry Summers as a personal career concierge). The reality for the rest of us is that most companies look down on women who have families (yes, even women with tippity-top MBAs), and/or fail to provide flexible opportunities that allow them to combine their work and family aspirations. 
    Now, if only a large, recently-IPOed company with plenty of cash in the bank could take the lead here in, say, allowing for things like job-sharing, compelling part-time & remote work, etc…..

  • Great to read and even greater to feel the things..

  • yay

  • guest

    … one ..

  • Community

    The number used word in the speech is “I” … sad state of affairs.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks Misiek. Just fixed the spelling of Lori’s name.

  • Misiek

    John – thanks for transcribing it. I believe that Laurie you are referring to is Lori Goler.

  • prasanna sabat

    Excellent interview!!!

  • JohnAByrne

    Unfortunately, there is no video. Harvard Business School did not tape or stream the event.

  • Prashanthidgunji

    Do you have the video of this speech, it is inspiring

  • L.

    Dear John….thank you for your transcribed post of Ms. Sandberg’s speech today. I am truly grateful. Onward we shall press. L.