Career Advice from Sheryl Sandberg's HBS Commencement Speech

Jun 6, 2012
8 Min Read

Last month, Sheryl Sandberg (COO at Facebook) gave a very inspiring commencement speech to the 2012 graduating class of Harvard Business School. She shares lessons learned from her own career as well as futuristic career advice based on current and emerging business trends and leadership practices. As I listened to the video recording of the speech, I thought about how much of it is relevant to nearly all working professionals, current leaders, and experienced managers alike. In this post, I’d like to highlight some of the quotes and words of wisdom.

How to Manage Your Career

“As organizations become less hierarchical, traditional career paths are shifting as well… The traditional metaphor for careers is a ladder. But I no longer think that holds—it doesn’t make sense in a less hierarchical world… Careers are not a ladder; they are a jungle gym.” (6:08)

“Look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission. Move sideways, move down, move off, move on. Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you… Don’t plan too much. Don’t expect a direct line. If I would have mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.” (7:35)

“Get on a rocketship. When companies are growing quickly and having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or the missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you are offered a seat on a rocketship, don’t ask what seat, just get on.” (5:30)

Skills Needed for Success

“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… Your strength will not come from your place on some org chart; your strength will come from building trust and earning respect… You’re going to need the ability to communicate authentically, to speak so that you inspire people around you, and to listen so you continue to learn each and every day on the job.” (8:26)

How to Avoid Leadership Mistakes

“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. And what that means is that one person’s performance is assessed by someone else’s perception.” (10:15)

“Truth is better served by using simple language. As you get more senior, not only will people speak less clearly to you, but they will overreact to the small things you say.” (11:15, 12:00)

“A good leader recognizes that most people won’t feel comfortable challenging authority, so it falls upon authority to encourage them to question it. It’s easy to say that you’re going to encourage feedback but it is hard to do because unfortunately it doesn’t always come in the form you want to hear it. (13:20)

“When you are the leader it is really hard to get honest feedback no matter how many times you ask for it. One trick I’ve discovered is I try to speak really openly about the things I’m mad at, because that gives people permission to agree with me, which is a lot easier than pointing it out in the first place.” (14:40)

Authenticity and Bringing Your Whole Self to Work

“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 the rest of the time. That kind of division probably never worked, but in today’s world it makes even less sense... It is all professional and it is all personal, all at the very same time.” (16:00)

Women in the Workplace

“I recently started speaking up about the challenges women face in the workforce... The lack of progress we’ve made in the past decade has convinced me we need to start talking about this... Women underestimate their abilities compared to men. For women--but not men--success and likeability are negatively correlated. That means that as a woman is more successful in your workplaces, she will be less liked. This means that women need a different form of management and mentorship, a different form of sponsorship and encouragement, and some protection. There aren’t enough senior women out there to do it, so it falls upon the men just as much or more as the women; not just to talk about gender but to help these women succeed.” (17:10)

Though I’ve outlined my main take-aways, I encourage you to watch the full video—it is full of interesting real-life examples that illustrate the concepts and justify the advice. And if you enjoyed the video-recap, also check out thoughts on servant leadership from Colleen Barrett, President of Southwest Airlines.

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