Book Review: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

I have never had a problem calling myself a feminist. A lot of women do because they don’t want to be perceived of as crazy bra-burning psychos, which is unfortunately how society has sort of pigeon-holed feminists. So, when the buzz started about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, I was a little puzzled that I was not quite as excited as I thought I would be.

“people were pulling from the book what made sense for their lives”

If you’re a female professional these days, Sheryl Sandberg has been thrown into your face for years as the apex of female achievement. I remember when the “news” hit that Sandberg leaves her powerhouse Facebook job at 5:30 every day so she can be with her family. “That’s great for her,” I found myself thinking. It turned out my prejudice was not really about gender, but it was about wealth. Not everyone works for a Facebook-sized company. Not everyone has a husband who is not doing too badly himself. As Sandberg notes in her book, she is “very fortunate.”

As the book reviews came pouring in, I found that people were, as you might expect, pulling from the book what made sense for their lives. Some women became very angry because they perceived that the advice Sandberg was giving was unrealistic for them. Some women were all about it. And men remained fairly quiet about the whole thing.

I decided to read Lean In for myself this month instead of depending upon the reviews I had read for the last year or so, and what I discovered is that the book is far more logical than most reviews would have you believe. Sandberg does infuse the book with her own life’s details, and there are moments in there that are touching for various reasons, but for the most part it is a real life look at what being a woman is like these days. If you stay at home with your kids you are met with criticism because people feel you are not “ambitious” enough. If you are succeeding in your career it’s obvious you aren’t “nurturing” enough. As Sandberg demonstrates over and over, women are caught in a real catch-22, and much of it is because of how women judge other women.

a great read for women, but also for men

A lot of phrases from Sandberg’s book have become catch phrases now. “Lean in” itself has become a widely repeated call. “Sit at the table” has also been repeated quite often. But the real core of Lean In is that women need to grasp what they want for themselves. Leaning in doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go haywire on your career or your family. Leaning in means manipulating life so that you can live the way you want. This does not just pertain to women either. Men, too, need to learn how to lean in because, it turns out, some men care about their families as much as they care about their work. Sandberg asks those men to be given a break, too.

I think Lean In is a great read for women, but to be honest, I would love to see men gravitating towards it more. Women know the troubles women face to some extent very probably. Men may not even realize that they are also cut by the two-edged sword of sexism. In that way, Lean In could make a big difference for men and women, which is really the way societal change needs to happen. Read it with an open mind though. Drop all of the baggage from past reviews, all of the news coverage, and more. Start with a blank slate as much as possible.

It’s worth your time.

Photo by World Economic Forum [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Book Review: Daniel Pink’s To Sell Is Human

Ever since the social media revolution really started to take hold (what would you reckon, 2008?), selling has seemed to have become equivalent to a swear word. Selling is pushy. Selling is what snake oil salesmen do. Social Media, many have preached, is not about selling. It’s about relationship building. These two actions, both integral for the success of any given company, have been torn asunder as if they are mutually exclusive.

If you have read this book, you might question how I feel it can combat the sense that selling and social media don’t mix. After all, Pink does not really deal with social media much at all except for a few brief mentions of Twitter and Facebook. The key is how Pink talks about selling, however. After reading the book, you can apply the lessons between the covers in whatever environment you might find yourself

Why do we hate selling?

The first part of the book explores selling as a profession. Pink illustrates based on survey results that people definitely think negatively about selling. The word invokes images of a smarmy used car salesman who is trying to sell you the worst car in the world at the highest price. If you’re in sales, people think, you are in the business of trying to fool people into buying things. Poor, defenseless people. That’s why we have the phrase, “Buyer Beware.”

There’s just one small problem. This entire line of thinking is old-fashioned. Buyers now know as much, if not more, than salespeople. Before someone buys from you, they have probably researched your competitors, read blog posts, talked to friends who bought from you or one of your competitors (or both), and more. Pink suggests the saying should now be, “Seller Beware.” Selling is no longer a game where the salesman has the distinct advantage in information currency. We are acting like a kid who is still convinced the bogey man is in the closet even though the doors are wide open and the lights are on. Times have changed. It’s still possible to get duped, but many salespeople are now aware that their customers and prospects can test the validity of their claims with one simple swipe of a smart phone.

Pink also offers some bad news for those who insist that selling is the work of the devil. We are now all selling something. It may not be a product or a service. It may be an idea of how to improve a process at work. It may be a blog post we want people to read. Selling is really just moving people into a direction you want them to go. Based on that definition, we spend quite a lot of our time selling. Sorry folks.

How to think successfully about selling

The second part of Pink’s book is about the brain. Pink cites several fascinating studies about how people interact with other people. To sell (whatever that means for you), you need to be attuned to what people need and want. You need to be watchful for opportunities. There are a lot of interesting tidbits in this chapter, including research that indicates that a sell that offers a few negative points can produce better results than a purely promotional pitch. There is the idea that selling potential can be more effective than selling already existent results.

A lot of the studies that support this chapter are based on in-person reactions. There is a lot about how people betray what they are feeling with body language, for example. But there are cues you can watch for in the online world too, and there are ways you can experiment with how you present yourself, your company, and your products or services. For example, Pink talks about how effective salespeople will often work to present the potential buyer as the more powerful person in the relationship. This runs counter to what many in the online world currently do via self-promotion, but it is easy enough to engage someone online and give them the upper hand in the conversation.

Pink also talks in this section about the importance of asking oneself questions to prepare for selling. Often you will hear people say that you need to pump yourself up. Pink says the more effective approach is to ask yourself, “Am I ready for this?” This forces you to answer either yes or no, and it forces you to then support those answers. This is a much more honest conversation. When using social media, instead of simply saying, “I am being authentically human,” you can ask yourself, “Am I coming across as an authentic human being?” That may be a difficult question to answer.

What to do when selling

Finally, Pink talks about listening, improvising, and serving, the three facets that make up the foundation of human selling. Social Media practitioners may perk up a little at the word “listening.” “Sure, I have my monitoring software right here!” But that is listening “for.” Pink talks about the additional importance of listening “to” what people are really saying. In person it is easy to interrupt. Online it is easy to simply phase out or impress our own meaning on to what someone else is saying. Building relationships that can ultimately create loyal customers requires that you listen to. This does not mean that your care is anything less than genuine. It simply means that if you want to differentiate yourself and your company, if you want customers to think about you as “human,” then you need to BE human. That is more than a catch phrase, as Pink clearly illustrates.

The “serve” chapter may also strike social media users as familiar,. Online we might call it “give to get.” This may be boiling it down into terms that are too simplistic, but the concept is obviously a solid one. If you want to earn someone’s trust, you have to be trustworthy. If you want to be thought of as human, you must show human qualities.

Daniel Pink’s book has given me a lot to ponder. I highly recommend it, whether you think you are selling or not. You can get it here. (not an affiliate link).

Book Review: Ctrl Alt Delete by Mitch Joel

When a book begins with the warning that you are in Purgatory, your first instinct may be to make sure you didn’t actually pick up Dante’s Inferno. The brightly colored Ctrl Alt Delete, however, does not necessarily paint Purgatory as a bad concept, and it offers ways that you can prepare for the battle and make sure you end up on the right side of things. First, however, you have to understand why Mitch Joel introduces his work by saying a large portion of the world could end up going to hell.

The fact of the matter is that as technology continues to change and improve, the need for as many employees in the world steadily decreases. Job descriptions are changing, job positions are disappearing, and the need for huge office spaces complete with executive suites may also be on its way out. In the first half of Ctrl Alt Delete Joel runs you through how the world is changing exactly. He talks about companies that have become multi-million-dollar enterprises that are run by one person in an apartment with one computer at their disposal. He talks about how social media has enabled companies to better understand customers and prospects. He talks about how mobile is the wave of the future, except that to plan for that wave, we need to be starting in the present. The way companies have always done things may soon become outdated, if it hasn’t already. There is a revolution afoot, and the companies that survive will need to reboot.

In the second half of the book things get slightly more personal. Instead of talking about companies that need to reboot, Joel talks to you, the reader. It is sometimes hard to grasp how much life has changed just over the last 10 years or so. To stay in touch with friends, Yahoo Messenger was pretty much the coolest thing ever (do you remember all of those really cute emoticons?). Email was still the best way to keep in touch with people, and to talk with someone outside of your country (or outside of your state for that matter) required often ridiculous long-distance fees. Now, not only do we have wireless computers, but we ourselves have, in a way, become wireless computers. With our phones as a fifth limb, we can learn what the weather forecast is, we can talk to friends, we can take pictures of our food (boy can we do that) and more without even thinking about it. We have become robots on the go.

All of this new power, however, clashes with the Purgatory Joel describes. Humans may have more reach on a personal contact level, but if you are not happy with your job, what can you do about it these days? Many of the positions you used to dream about are not just unavailable. They simply no longer exist. Your own position at work may be getting the squeeze because technology has reduced the number of people needed to get the work done. Maybe your resume is out-dated given everything that people need to know how to do these days. Maybe you’re not worried about trying to be content. Maybe you’re just worried about trying to get by.

Ctrl Alt Delete offers encouragement for people in these situations as well. Purgatory does not have to be a permanent state, and it does not mean your life has to go down the toilet. But again, just like companies, you need to do a reboot. Joel’s main message for individuals is that you need to adopt an entrepreneurial attitude towards everything you do, whether it’s your job search, your current job position, or more traditionally, starting your own company. As he often says in the book, the idea of working towards your retirement party and your gold watch are gone. Success these days is about whether your company – and you – are thriving.

All in all, I found this book to be thought provoking. My only wish, even though it would have made the book approximately 70 times longer, would have been to have some suggested actionable items. There were a few, but I think in these difficult days, telling people that they need to reboot, while great advice, also requires a little guidance. Reboots can be scary, after all. Starting all over again is seldom something people embrace with open arms. To combat the fear, giving step-by-step ideas of how to get the work done can, for some people, make a big difference.

That being said, for a big picture of view of what has been happening in the world, both for businesses and for individuals, I highly recommend giving this book a read. You can buy it here. It explains that nagging stress you’ve been trying to pin down, that feeling that you are drowning in too much information and change. And it lets you know we’re all in this “Purgatory” together. If we work things right, we could all come out of it ok. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?

Book Review: Humanize, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant

I was scrolling through Facebook one day, as I am prone to do, and I came upon a post from Olivier Blanchard mentioning the book Humanize. He said it was really good. Jason Konopinski then came along and confirmed that the book is a must-read. While I love arguing with those two, I took their reviews as a pretty solid hint that I should give the book a try.
I’m rather glad I did, so thanks, guys!

At its core, Humanize, to me, is a road-map to becoming a truly “social business.” That phrase has begun to approach “buzz word” status, but the way authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant describe this progression is far from your run-of-the-mill social media OR business book.

Explaining what this book is about is going to be terribly difficult in the short span of a blog post. Given that, I’ll preview a few key points that the authors press on, and hopefully that will be enough to whet your appetite.

We need to get away from machine-thinking

Early on in the book, Notter and Grant talk about the fact that our current business world revolves around mechanics. We have an “engine,” we have systems, we have logical and linear progressions. It’s not that these things are necessarily bad, but social media has made them out-of-date and no longer effective. The world no longer moves in systematic, linear ways. The future cannot be foretold (if it ever could). In order to become a truly social business, companies need to embrace those hard to explain, warm, mushy human traits like trust, relationships, and a decentralization of power.

We need to be open within our company walls, outside our company walls, and as individuals

Often times throughout the book the authors talk about those “leadership retreats” your bosses may have undertaken at various times. Only a select few are invited and very seldom are the goings-on of these meetings discussed with everyone else. Notter and Grant talk about the fact that while having a sense of leadership within a company can be okay, a social business will strive to incorporate everyone into important meetings. If that makes you sweat as a leader, you need to read this book immediately.

Those often-used words, authenticity and transparency, do make an appearance in the book, but they are defined honestly rather than through a haze of cliché. If you say that you embrace diversity, you really need to embrace diversity. If you say you believe in environmentally sustainable practices, you really need to walk your talk. Indeed, many segments of the book are divided based on “walk,” “talk,” and “thought.”

Finally, a social business must be the sum result of individuals who are open with and about themselves. Grant and Notter note often that in order to make the whole system work in an ideal way, each individual needs to fully understand and accept what they are good at and what their weaknesses are.

We need to embrace change and conflict

This will really make you feel queasy. Humanize suggests that companies can only truly be social, human, innovative, and generative if everyone is willing to accept change and conflict. Conflict doesn’t mean fist fights, by the way. What the authors mean is that if you notice someone not performing well in another department, you openly discuss that with them directly. And in a truly social business, that person receiving the feedback will trust you enough to know that you are looking out for their best interest and the company’s best interest. You all are after addressing problems before they become truly huge problems.

Like I said, this is not your typical business or social media book.

What I loved most about Humanize is what is hardest to get across in this brief space. The authors do a brilliant job of paralleling the rise of social media with the rise of management practices in business. They contrast the human-oriented world of social media with the still machine-based world of business, and they focus on that point of intersection, that point of conflict. It’s in that little spot, that bullseye, where social businesses are born.

As I read this book, I thought about The Now Revolution, which would be a good supplement to the sections focusing on culture. I also thought about Olivier Blanchard’s Social Media ROI (which is quoted) and Christopher Barger’s Social Media Strategist. I think with these four books in hand, you’ll have a real compass that can guide your company not just to being a “social business” in the abstract, but also to all of the benefits those changes can create for you.

Happy Reading!

Illustration by chris 論 [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons