My Year of Leaning In: It Made Me a Better Professional and a Better Boss

What Women Really Think
May 6 2014 12:28 PM

My Year of Leaning In: It Made Me a Better Professional and a Better Boss

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Thanks, Sheryl Sandberg.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nearly a year ago, I first wrote about creating a Lean In circle. Inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s wave-making best-seller, Lean In, I decided to form a group of like-minded professional women who were interested in talking about career advancement and following the curriculum outlined by Sandberg’s nonprofit, Leanin.org

Our circle ended up being seven Brooklyn professionals, all in our late 20s and early 30s, in a range of fields from business to nonprofit to media. We committed to a year of monthly meetings, and now that we are at the end of the process, we all agree: It was worthwhile.

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Professionally, it was an eventful year for most of us. Virtually everyone in the group did at least one of the following: negotiate for a raise or promotion, get accepted to a new educational opportunity, or get a new job. Certainly, some of these things would have happened without the existence of our group, but we all felt that the group encouraged us to feel empowered to ask for raises and to help turn thoughts about our careers into action. And the fact that we didn’t know one another at the beginning was a plus—one member noted how easy it is to get sidetracked and not want to talk about work matters when hanging out with close friends.

The group seemed to have an impact not only on our actions, but also our self-perceptions. One woman who recently received a prestigious fellowship said she found herself thinking a lot about the group and the messages of Lean In as she caught herself downplaying her achievement to people congratulating her. I’ve personally noticed throughout the last year, when I have moments of insecurity about my professional achievements, I now remind myself how it’s more common for women to suffer from impostor syndrome—and knowing this makes me feel like my doubts aren’t such a big deal.

Here's another fascinating byproduct of the group: More than one of the members noticed that the group had made them not only more conscious of their own careers, but also more thoughtful about helping younger, more junior women excel. “I’m a better manager, because of this group. I’m a more thoughtful mentor and I’m much more conscious of the power I have, and I realize now that [women] may not be asking for what they deserve,” said one member. Another, who works in business, told me this story: “I asked a younger woman who I was going to work on a project with for a year if there were any areas she wanted to try out and stretch into. She totally blanched. Later, she apologized for her reaction, and said ‘no one has ever offered that to me before.’ ” Personally, I’ve noticed I’m more open to and even encouraging of younger women who try to negotiate with me in the workplace, knowing it might be a little harder for them to approach me than a man in their same position. Even if I can’t give them what they want, it's important they know that it’s good that they tried me. 

Lean In has gotten a lot of flack since it was published, and I know some people rolled their eyes at me for starting this circle, so what was the most helpful of all was to have this group of women where everyone was essentially on board with Sandberg’s message. Not that we didn’t sometimes improvise: Leanin.org provides in-depth, 20-plus-page printouts of instructions on discussion questions, icebreakers, and group exercises, each labeled with guidelines for how many minutes should be spent to ensure a timely meeting. As the secretary of the group with the self-imposed task of following the curriculum, I found the outlines a bit corporate and stiff, as well as slightly dizzying to keep up with. However, after a few meetings we found our own rhythm to the process and didn’t always adhere to the suggested meeting guidelines. Many of us really liked the video on negotiation featuring Stanford School of Business professor Margaret Neale, but we found some of the other educational videos a bit basic. As one group member put it, “They seemed like they were for people right out of college.”

Even though Leanin.org was founded by Sandberg, a social network superstar, our group did not really get into the technology platform, Mighty Bell, which was provided to supposedly enhance the Lean In circle experience. People got frustrated with logins, the inability to watch the assigned educational videos on our phones while on the go, and clunky interfaces. We ended up conducting all of our circle business through email and the scheduling tool, Doodle, which I introduced to the group after people weren’t using Mighty Bell’s internal scheduling tool.

We all kept our commitment to do the circle for a full year, which is the time frame Lean In recommends, and since a couple members are planning moves away from New York, now feels like the right time to wrap up. I hope we’ll keep one another updated on our career dilemmas and triumphs. More than once I’ve turned to one of our group members outside of the meetings for opinions or recommendations in their areas of expertise, and I hope to continue to do so. And like the other women in the group, I plan to keep advocating for myself in the workplace, no matter if we're still talking about Lean In five years from now or not. 

Katherine Goldstein is the editor of Vanity Fair's website, VF.com. Follow her on Twitter.