Why companies should promote their quiet achievers

It seems everyone has an opinion on why there aren’t more women in leadership roles.

We are too quiet, too loud, better at managing down than up, and sometimes just the wrong gender.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is about to add another flaw to that list: women lean out when they need to lean in. In her new book,  Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, due out in March, Sandberg acknowledges the impact of chauvinism and corporate obstacles on the gender gap but also suggests women may compound the problem by holding back instead of aggressively pursuing leadership opportunities.

I have no doubt that this is true. I’m guilty of it myself, having grown up believing that great work would speak for itself. But I fear that Sandberg, though no doubt well-meaning, is actually highlighting the need for a behavioural change in women. Is the answer to the gender gap that women need to start behaving like men by “leaning in”, as they do? I was hoping the thinking had moved on from that.

I have witnessed so many men in my industry “lean in”, land the top job, mess up, head to the competitor, lean in, get the top job again, only to do a very ordinary job of things there too. So I don’t dispute the suggestion that this is the path to the top as it stands today. My question is whether it’s the best path to a vibrant future for companies.

Something desperately needs to change in far too many industries. The same old just doesn’t cut it anymore. Giving bright, visionary women a go is certainly an untapped opportunity but what’s the point if the only ones who get to the top are those who exhibit the most male-like behaviours?

In an interview with The New York TimesSandberg was quoted as saying “Real equality means that women can do anything.” I agree with this sentiment but surely that also means we can be quiet achievers too?

I was chatting with a friend recently and she was lamenting the “squeaky wheel” that is her oldest son. Apparently he has been attention-seeking all of his young life. “It’s always ‘me, me, me’,” she said of him.

By contrast her younger daughter is independent and quiet. “She is such a great kid, she just knuckles down and gets things done without needing constant affirmation.”

At the end of the conversation we agreed that, as a positive, her difficult son would be CEO material down the line. Many a truth is said in jest.

I will be one of the first to read Sandberg’s new book because I have no doubt that the insights she will offer women who aspire to leadership roles will be compelling. And she is probably right about her observation that if women want the leadership roles they will need to have their hands up. I just wish she wasn’t.

Do you agree? Has your focus on your job rather than the one above you held you back?

This article was first published on LeadingCompany’s sister site, Women’s Agenda.


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