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Chapter 4 It’s a Jungle Gym,Not a Ladder
ABOUT A MONTH AFTER I joined Facebook, I got a call from Lori Goler, a highly regarded senior director ofmarketing at eBay. I knew Lori a bit socially, but she made it clear this was a business call and cut tothe chase. “I want to apply to work with you at Facebook,” she said. “So I thought about calling youand telling you all of the things I’m good at and all of the things I like to do. Then I figured thateveryone was doing that. So instead, I want to ask you: What is your biggest problem, and how can Isolve it?”

My jaw hit the floor. I had hired thousands of people over the previous decade and no one had eversaid anything remotely like that. People usually focus on finding the right role for themselves, with theimplication that their skills will help the company. Lori put Facebook’s needs front and center. It wasa killer approach. I responded, “Recruiting is my biggest problem. And, yes, you can solve it.”

Lori never dreamed she would work in recruiting, but she jumped in. She even agreed to drop downa level, since this was a new field for her and she was willing to trade seniority for acquiring newskills. Lori did a great job running recruiting and within months was promoted to her current job,leading People@Facebook. When I asked her recently if she wanted to go back to marketing someday,she responded that she believes human resources allows her to have a greater overall impact.

The most common metaphor for careers is a ladder, but this concept no longer applies to mostworkers. As of 2010, the average American had eleven jobs from the ages of eighteen to forty-sixalone.

This means that the days of joining an organization or corporation and staying there to climbthat one ladder are long gone. Lori often quotes Pattie Sellers, who conceived a much better metaphor:

“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.”

As Lori describes it, ladders are limiting—people can move up or down, on or off. Jungle gymsoffer more creative exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are manyways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The jungle gym model benefits everyone, but especiallywomen who might be starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, orreentering the workforce after taking time off. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips,detours, and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment. Plus, a jungle gym provides greatviews for many people, not just those at the top. On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at thebutt of the person above.

A jungle gym scramble is the best description of my career. Younger colleagues and studentsfrequently ask me how I planned my path. When I tell them that I didn’t, they usually react withsurprise followed by relief. They seem encouraged to know that careers do not need to be mapped outfrom the start. This is especially comforting in a tough market where job seekers often have to acceptwhat is available and hope that it points in a desirable direction. We all want a job or role that trulyexcites and engages us. This search requires both focus and flexibility, so I recommend adopting twoconcurrent goals: a long-term dream and an eighteen-month plan.

I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today. For one thing,Mark Zuckerberg was only seven years old when I graduated from college. Also, back then,technology and I did not exactly have a great relationship. I used Harvard’s computer system onlyonce as an undergraduate, to run regressions for my senior thesis on the economics of spousal abuse.

The data was stored on large, heavy magnetic tapes that I had to lug in big boxes across campus,cursing the entire way and arriving in a sweaty mess at the sole computer center, which was populatedexclusively with male students. I then had to stay up all night spinning the tapes to input the data.

When I tried to execute my final calculations, I took down the entire system. That’s right. Yearsbefore Mark famously crashed that same Harvard system, I beat him to it.

When I graduated from college, I had only the vaguest notion of where I was headed. Thisconfusion was in deep contrast to my father’s clear conviction of what he wanted to do from a youngage. When my dad was sixteen, he felt a sharp abdominal pain during a basketball practice. Mygrandmother—good Jewish mother that she was—assumed it was hunger and fed him a big dinner.

That made it worse. He ended up in the hospital, where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis, butbecause he had eaten, they couldn’t operate for twelve excruciating hours. The next morning, asurgeon removed his appendix and, along with it, the pain. My father chose his career that day,deciding that he would become a physician so he could help ease other people’s suffering.

My mother shared my father’s desire to help others. She was only eleven when she heard her rabbigive a sermon on the importance of civil rights and tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means“repairing the world.” She responded to the call, grabbing a tin can and knocking on doors to supportcivil rights workers in the South. She has remained a passionate volunteer and human rights activistever since. I grew up watching my mother work tirelessly on behalf of persecuted Jews in the Sovietunion. She and her friend Margery Sanford would write heartfelt appeals calling for the release ofpolitical prisoners. In the evenings, my dad would join them. Thanks to the collective efforts ofconcerned people all over the world, many lives were saved.

Throughout my childhood, my parents emphasized the importance of pursuing a meaningful life.

Dinner discussions often centered on social injustice and those fighting to make the world a betterplace. As a child, I never thought about what I wanted to be, but I thought a lot about what I wanted todo. As sappy as it sounds, I hoped to change the world. My sister and brother both became doctors,and I always believed I would work at a nonprofit or in government. That was my dream. And while Idon’t believe in mapping out each step of a career, I do believe it helps to have a long-term dream orgoal.

A long-term dream does not have to be realistic or even specific. It may reflect the desire to work ina particular field or to travel throughout the world. Maybe the dream is to have professional autonomyor a certain amount of free time. Maybe it’s to create something lasting or win a coveted prize. Somegoals require more traditional paths; anyone who aspires to become a Supreme Court justice shouldprobably start by attending law school. But even a vague goal can provide direction, a far-offguidepost to move toward.

With an eye on my childhood dream, the first job I took out of college was at the World Bank asresearch assistant to Larry Summers, who was serving a term as chief economist. Based inWashington, D.C., the Bank’s mission is to reduce global poverty. I spent my first nine months in thestacks of the Bank library on the corner of Nineteenth and Pennsylvania, looking up facts and figuresfor Larry’s papers and speeches. Larry then generously arranged for me to join an India health fieldmission to get a closer look at what the Bank actually did.

Flying to India took me into an entirely different world. The team was working to eradicate leprosy,which was endemic in India’s most remote and poorest regions. The conditions were appalling. Due tothe stigma of the disease, patients were often exiled from their villages and ended up lying on dirtfloors in awful places that passed for clinics. Facts and figures could never have prepared me for thisreality. I have the deepest respect for people who provide hands-on help to those in crises. It is themost difficult work in the world.

I returned to D.C. with a plan to attend law school, but Lant Pritchett, an economist in Larry’s officewho has devoted his life to the study of poverty, persuaded me that business school would be a betteralternative. I headed back to Cambridge. I tried to stay socially conscious by joining the highlyunpopular Nonprofit Club. I also spent my second year studying social marketing—how marketingcan be used to solve social problems—with Professor Kash Rangan. One of the cases we worked onconcerned the shortage of organ donations, which results in eighteen deaths each day in the UnitedStates alone. I never forgot this case, and seventeen years later, Facebook worked with organ registriesaround the world to launch a tool to encourage donor registration.

After business school, I took a job as a consultant at McKinsey & Company in Los Angeles. Thework never entirely suited me, so I stayed for only a year and then moved back to D.C. to join Larry,who was now deputy secretary of the Treasury Department. At first, I served as his special assistant.

Then, when he was named secretary, I became his chief of staff. My job consisted of helping Larrymanage the operations of the department and its $14 billion budget. It gave me the opportunity toparticipate in economic policy at both a national and an international level. I also ran point on somesmaller projects, including the administration’s proposal to promote the development of vaccines forinfectious diseases.

During my four years at Treasury, I witnessed the first technology boom from a distance. Its impactwas obvious and appealing even beyond being able to wear jeans to work. Technology wastransforming communication and changing lives not just in the United States and developed countries,but everywhere. My long-term dream instinct kicked in. When President Clinton’s administrationended, I was out of a job and decided to move to Silicon Valley. In retrospect, this seems like ashrewd move, but in 2001, it was questionable at best. The tech bubble had burst, and the industry wasstill reeling from the aftershocks. I gave myself four months to find a job but hoped it would takefewer. It took almost a year.

My Silicon Valley job search had some highs, like getting to meet my business crush, eBay CEOMeg Whitman. It also had some lows, like meeting with a high-level executive who started myinterview by stating that her company would never even consider hiring someone like me becausegovernment experience could not possibly prepare anyone to work in the tech industry. It would havebeen so cool to have thanked her for being honest and walked out of her office. But alas, I was nevercool. I sat there hemming and hawing until every last molecule of oxygen had been sucked from theroom. True to her word, she never even considered hiring me.

Fortunately, not everyone shared her view. Eric Schmidt and I had met several times during myTreasury years, and I went to see him just after he became CEO of the then relatively unknownGoogle. After several rounds of interviews with Google’s founders, they offered me a job. My bankaccount was diminishing quickly, so it was time to get back to paid employment, and fast. In typical—and yes, annoying—MBA fashion, I made a spreadsheet and listed my various opportunities in therows and my selection criteria in the columns. I compared the roles, the level of responsibility, and soon. My heart wanted to join Google in its mission to provide the world with access to information, butin the spreadsheet game, the Google job fared the worst by far.

I went back to Eric and explained my dilemma. The other companies were recruiting me for realjobs with teams to run and goals to hit. At Google, I would be the first “business unit generalmanager,” which sounded great except for the glaring fact that Google had no business units andtherefore nothing to actually manage. Not only was the role lower in level than my other options, but itwas entirely unclear what the job was in the first place.

Eric responded with perhaps the best piece of career advice that I have ever heard. He covered myspreadsheet with his hand and told me not to be an idiot (also a great piece of advice). Then heexplained that only one criterion mattered when picking a job—fast growth. When companies growquickly, there are more things to do than there are people to do them. When companies grow moreslowly or stop growing, there is less to do and too many people to not be doing them. Politics andstagnation set in, and everyone falters. He told me, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’task what seat. You just get on.” I made up my mind that instant. Google was tiny and disorganized,but it was a rocket ship. And even more important to me, it was a rocket ship with a mission I believedin deeply.

Over the years, I have repeated Eric’s advice to countless people, encouraging them to reduce theircareer spreadsheets to one column: potential for growth. Of course, not everyone has the opportunityor the desire to work in an industry like high tech. But within any field, there are jobs that have morepotential for growth than others. Those in more established industries can look for the rocket shipswithin their companies—divisions or teams that are expanding. And in careers like teaching ormedicine, the corollary is to seek out positions where there is high demand for those skills. Forexample, in my brother’s field of pediatric neurosurgery, there are some cities with too manyphysicians, while others have too few. My brother has always elected to work where his expertisewould be in demand so he can have the greatest impact.

Just as I believe everyone should have a long-term dream, I also believe everyone should have aneighteen-month plan. (I say eighteen months because two years seems too long and one year seemstoo short, but it does not have to be any exact amount of time.) Typically, my eighteen-month plansets goals on two fronts. First and most important, I set targets for what my team can accomplish.

Employees who concentrate on results and impact are the most valuable—like Lori, who wiselyfocused on solving Facebook’s recruiting problem before focusing on herself. This is not just thinkingcommunally—the expected and often smart choice for a woman—but simply good business.

Second, I try to set more personal goals for learning new skills in the next eighteen months. It’soften painful, but I ask myself, “How can I improve?” If I am afraid to do something, it is usuallybecause I am not good at it or perhaps am too scared even to try. After working at Google for morethan four years, managing well over half of the company’s revenues, I was embarrassed to admit that Ihad never negotiated a business deal. Not one. So I gathered my courage and came clean to my boss,Omid Kordestani, then head of sales and business development. Omid was willing to give me a chanceto run a small deal team. In the very first deal I attempted, I almost botched the whole thing by makingan offer to our potential partner before fully understanding their business. Fortunately, my teamincluded a talented negotiator, Shailesh Rao, who stepped in to teach me the obvious: letting the otherside make the first offer is often crucial to achieving favorable terms.

Everyone has room to improve. Most people have a style in the workplace that overshoots in onedirection—too aggressive or too passive, too talkative or too shy. In that first deal, I said too much.

This was not a shock to anyone who knows me. Once I identified this weakness, I sought help tocorrect it. I turned to Maureen Taylor, a communications coach, who gave me an assignment. She toldme that for one week I couldn’t give my opinion unless asked. It was one of the longest weeks of mylife. If I had bitten my tongue each time I started to express my opinion, I would have had no tongueleft.

Trying to overcorrect is a great way to find middle ground. In order for me to speak the rightamount in a meeting, I have to feel as if I am saying very little. People who are shy will have to feellike they are saying way too much. I know a woman who naturally talks softly and forces herself to“shout” in business meetings just to speak at an average volume. Overriding our natural tendencies isvery difficult. In all the years I’ve been trying, I can only think of a few times when someone said tome, “Sheryl, I wish you had spoken up more in that meeting.” Omid did it once and I hugged him.

Eric turned out to be absolutely right about Google, and I will always be grateful to him and toLarry Page and Sergey Brin for taking a chance on me. My eighteen-month plan at the companyextended into six and a half years, and I learned more than I ever could have hoped while workingwith true visionaries. But eventually I felt that it was time to make a move on the jungle gym.

In my personal life, I am not someone who embraces uncertainty. I like things to be in order. I filedocuments in colored folders (yes, still) and my enthusiasm for reorganizing my closet continuallybaffles Dave. But in my professional life, I have learned to accept uncertainty and even embrace it.

Risk—and a great deal of luck—landed me at Google. That worked out so well that I decided toembrace risk again, which led me to Facebook. At the time, other companies were willing to hire meas CEO, but I joined Facebook as COO. At first, people questioned why I would take a “lower level”

job working for a twenty-three-year-old. No one asks me that anymore. As I did when I joinedGoogle, I prioritized potential for fast growth and the mission of the company above title.

I have seen both men and women miss out on great opportunities by focusing too much on careerlevels. A friend of mine had been working as a lawyer for four years when she realized that instead ofshooting for partner, she’d rather join a company in a sales or marketing role. One of her clients waswilling to hire her in this new capacity but wanted her to start at the ground level. Since she couldafford the temporary pay cut, I urged her to make the jump, but she decided against taking a job thatput her “back four years.” I understood how painful it was for her to lose hard-earned ground. Still,my argument was that if she was going to work for the next thirty years, what difference does going“back” four years really make? If the other path made her happier and offered her a chance to learnnew skills, that meant she was actually moving forward.

In many cases, women need to be more open to taking risks in their careers.

When I left Google tojoin Facebook, as a percentage of my team, fewer women tried to follow me. As they had been allalong, the men were more interested in new and, as we say in tech, higher beta opportunities—wherethe risks were great but the potential rewards even greater. Many of the women on my team eventuallyshowed interest in joining Facebook, but not until a few years later, when the company was moreestablished. The cost of stability is often diminished opportunities for growth.

Of course, there are times in life when being risk averse is a good thing; adolescent and adult malesdrown in much greater numbers than adolescent and adult females.

But in business, being risk aversecan result in stagnation. An analysis of senior corporate management appointments found that womenare significantly more likely than men to continue to perform the same function even when they takeon new duties. And when female managers move up, they are more likely to do so internally instead ofswitching to a different company.

At times, staying in the same functional area and in the sameorganization creates inertia and limits opportunity to expand. Seeking out diverse experiences is usefulpreparation for leadership.

I understand the external pressures that force women to play it safe and stay put. Gender stereotypescan make it hard to move into positions traditionally held by men. Women are also more likely toaccommodate a partner’s career than the other way around.

A job change that includes moving toanother city may be a nonstarter for a woman in a relationship. The result is the unfortunate tautologythat the tendency to stay put leads to staying put.

Being risk averse in the workplace can also cause women to be more reluctant to take onchallenging tasks. In my experience, more men look for stretch assignments and take on high-visibilityprojects, while more women hang back. Research suggests that this is particularly true for women inenvironments that emphasize individual performance or when women are working closely with men.

One reason women avoid stretch assignments and new challenges is that they worry too much aboutwhether they currently have the skills they need for a new role. This can become a self-fulfillingprophecy, since so many abilities are acquired on the job. An internal report at Hewlett-Packardrevealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed.

Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements.

This difference has a huge rippleeffect. Women need to shift from thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that—and I’ll learn by doing it.”

My first day at work at the World Bank, Larry Summers asked me to perform some calculations. Iwas at a loss on how to proceed, so I turned to Lant Pritchett for help. “Just put it into Lotus 1-2-3,” headvised. I told him that I didn’t know how to do that. “Wow,” he exclaimed. “I can’t believe you’vegotten this far, or even how you can understand basic economics, without knowing how to use Lotus.”

I went home convinced that I was going to get fired. The next day, Lant sat me down. My heart waspounding. But instead of firing me, he taught me how to use the program. That’s a great boss.

Women are also more reluctant to apply for promotions even when deserved, often believing thatgood job performance will naturally lead to rewards.

Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, founders ofNegotiating Women, Inc., describe this as the “Tiara Syndrome,” where women “expect that if theykeep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.”

In a perfectmeritocracy, tiaras would be doled out to the deserving, but I have yet to see one floating around anoffice. Hard work and results should be recognized by others, but when they aren’t, advocating foroneself becomes necessary. As discussed earlier, this must be done with great care. But it must bedone.

Taking risks, choosing growth, challenging ourselves, and asking for promotions (with smiles onour faces, of course) are all important elements of managing a career. One of my favorite quotescomes from author Alice Walker, who observed, “The most common way people give up their poweris by thinking they don’t have any.”

Do not wait for power to be offered. Like that tiara, it might never materialize. And anyway, whowears a tiara on a jungle gym?


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