In a week when the tech industry has had yet more of its dirty little secrets exposed (Uber’s poisonous working environment and the resignation (at last!) of chief “bro” Travis Kalanick, resignation of Binary Capital’s co-founding partner Justin Caldbeck when numerous female entrepreneurs outed him for behaviour of a predatory sexual nature) it was refreshing to join 44 other Northern Irish women and travel to London to join Sheryl Sandberg & our very own Nuala Murphy of the Lean In Belfast circle for a fireside chat. Sheryl needs no introduction. She’s one of the tech industry’s “celebrity” and most recognised female leaders and for many years she, along with her team, has been working to change the way the world thinks about gender so that more women will occupy senior and leadership roles in all walks of life.
It was incredibly exciting to wait with 246 other women, 3 men and a 9 week old baby in one of the British Library lecture theatres. The atmosphere was electric & I have to admit that the decibel level was through the roof as members of the various European Lean In Circles waved across the room to each other, introduced themselves & exchanged news.
Sheryl Sandberg has real presence. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to be in the same room as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama you’ll know exactly what I mean. We were ready to hear every word she said – and she had a lot to say. Unlike so many people who get annoyed about the injustices they see in the world, Sheryl takes action and tries to do something about it. Now don’t get me wrong – she’s in a better position than most to do so and has more than the average resources at her disposal but she doesn’t pretend to be anything but incredibly fortunate. She describes herself in her Twitter bio as “a friend to many great women” – I really like that.
A lot has been written about Sheryl Sandberg in terms of her position at Facebook where she was the first female to join the Board of Directors, her best-selling book for women Lean In, the tragic early death of her beloved husband (Survey Monkey CEO Dave Goldberg) who passed away when they were on holiday in Mexico on 1 May 2015, her subsequent row back on certain elements of Lean In and her recovery in grief.
This is some of what she had to say to us on Friday evening:
· The original ambition was to get to 1,000 Lean In Circles across the world; the current number is 33,000 Circles in over 150 countries
· 85% of Circle members are able to report a positive change in their life as a result of being part of their Circle (that is take on a new challenge, ask for a pay rise, reach for a leadership role, or similar)
· There are simply not enough mentors and sponsors out there for the women in the world that need one
· Men still very much run the world & Sheryl isn’t sure that arrangement is going too well!
· One more woman who reaches for leadership at any level changes the balance in the overall numbers
· As a general confidence builder (Susan Hayes you are going to love this!) write down 3 things you did well that day every night before you go to bed. Sheryl started doing this the day after her husband died, just as a way of recognising that she was coping. She realised it built her confidence back up and was a way of practising self-compassion. She’s moved on from that to recording her 3 daily moments of joy.
· She never makes jokes any more about getting old. Working in a very youthful environment with a boss (Mark Zuckerberg) who is 15 years younger than she is, she used to do this all the time. I could really relate to this. As I get older, instead of being grateful for my health and for the fact that I’m managing to stay relevant in terms of the work I do, I’ve noticed myself starting to feel embarrassed about my age. For Sheryl, 2017 is the year that her late husband will not turn 50.
· We need more women to work in the line roles that lead on to the CEO job; at the moment there are not enough young women entering these roles.
· She gave a special shout out to the Dublin Lean In Circle because 8 of them had asked for & subsequently received pay rises - one after the other.
Her new book, Option B, co-authored with Adam Grant is definitely worth a read although the beginning is very sad and upsetting because Sheryl is brutally honest about her feelings in the period of time immediately after she lost her husband. I perceived her to be fragile but dignified in her grief. It was heartbreaking to watch her eyes well up with tears when she spoke about Dave…but also inspiring to see how she has got through the hard times and held everything together by using a set of coping mechanisms and by asking for and relying upon help from those closest to her.
I thought I would introduce a local Northern Irish angle into this blog by asking Nuala Murphy (who interviewed Sheryl for us on Friday night) a few questions. If you don’t already know Nuala, she is the woman who started the Lean In Belfast group 3 years ago and she’s also the CEO & founder of Moment Health, a digital solution that focuses on maternal mental health issues such as postnatal depression and associated anxieties. When I first met Nuala a few years ago one of the first things she ever told me was that she was going to connect with Sheryl Sandberg and bring her to Belfast. She hasn’t done the latter (YET!) but she was in the fireside chat interviewer seat on Friday evening in the British Library, interviewing the world’s most famous and powerful woman in tech. Just amazing to witness and be part of. Here’s our interview:
So Nuala - did you ever in a million years think you would be interviewing Sheryl Sandberg on stage in London?
It wasn’t even on my radar. I always hoped we could bring Sheryl to Belfast. But I didn’t think she would bring Lean In Belfast to the centre stage at The British Library in London for the first community led event in Europe. That was just incredible and we are all so very grateful for that. As is she. We have many, many great women on our leadership team and in our community who are achieving amazing things because of their involvement in Lean In. Through our Lean In Circles we are making a positive difference to people’s lives.
My friend gave me “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” when I was pregnant with my first son Henry. I read the book and was totally inspired but also frustrated at the reasons and stats behind why there are too few women in leadership roles across all industries. Like so many ambitious women who read Lean In, it felt like Sheryl was writing the book about me.
I met Sheryl for the first time last year when I was asked to join the Regional Leaders Programme in San Francisco. I was so very nervous you know, I think it’s called impostor syndrome. I was overwhelmed by the whole experience but so delighted at the opportunity to learn. As soon as I met her it is evident how down to earth she is. Her warmth and complete gratitude towards the work we do as part of our volunteer led networks resonates across her team and friends. At that time her husband Dave had passed the year before so she really called on us and thanked us for being her life work. Our support was very special in such a difficult time. Coming back from that conference I met with such amazing women who coached me on how to build leadership in Lean In Belfast and get organised for growth. And that’s just what we’ve done, adding Allstate as our corporate partner for 2017.
So I was so looking forward to interviewing her and very, very proud that our Belfast Chapter was chosen to play that role. And you know what - I really enjoyed myself and we had fun!
And what has starting Lean In Belfast meant to you?
Dimple Lalwani said it so eloquently on Friday evening. “Sheryl - when you speak to us, it’s like we are reading our own feelings, emotions and stories. You are one of the most authentic people we know and the ability to resonate with your stories makes us feel that we’re all part of this journey together”.
Lean In Belfast started out as four women in a coffee shop and it grew so quickly it was unbelievable. There was obviously a huge need in society for this. Women from all walks of life were coming together to share and learn from each other. They were also committed to offering help for all members from public speaking to interview skills to funding applications and negotiating salaries. It’s such an honest network of individuals committed to empowering each other to achieve their ambitions and also to campaign for gender equality through inclusiveness and dialogue. Research tells us more diverse teams are more productive and boards with women on them out perform those that don’t. You and I both know gender equality is good for business. 47% of the UK workforce is made up of women but only 13.2% of FTSE 250 directorships are held by women. £23 billion is the estimated yearly value to the Exchequer in unleashing female talent.
Any tips for anyone else who has their heart set on reaching out to a "celebrity" in their field?
If it’s just for celebrity status, I’d say forget about it. I didn’t know who Sheryl was before I read Lean In, and it was only really after she made a post on her Facebook page supporting our first birthday and our sign ups kept pinging that it was WOW this woman is a global sensation. When I read the book I connected with her values. For me I always wanted to help women struggling in their careers who needed support to work things out, especially when starting a family. But we help many, many women, and not just working women either. We all have ambitions. And we can all achieve them if we surround ourselves with the right people. In the workplace we know that success and ambition is perceived positively in men but negatively in women. Why is that?
I think that everything in life & business is about people? What do you think Nuala?
I think it’s about respect. It’s important to treat others as you would like to be treated. I love listening to peoples stories. I love hearing peoples thoughts. And I especially love making new friends and helping others. I love helping people do great things which is why my purpose with my own company Moment Health and Lean In marry so beautifully. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now without Lean In. I am extremely grateful to everyone at the foundation for their support and encouragement along the way. The leadership that Rachel Thomas delivers is unbelievable and I experienced this when we had a meeting with all our European leaders on Saturday. The respect she gives her team members, us and anyone involved in Lean In is truly inspirational and the success of Lean In has been down to this. Many, many organisations could and should benefit from this type of leadership. It’s something I’ve not been exposed to in my career to date. Because of Lean In I have developed leadership skills I didn’t know I had. I gained my confidence again after it had been badly knocked. And I flexed that resilient muscle that Sheryl talks about in her new book co authored with Wharton Professor Adam Grant “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.”
Thanks Nuala for mobilising 45 women to travel from Northern Ireland to London on a sunny Friday June evening to experience the wise whirlwind that is Sheryl Sandberg and thank you for making Lean In Belfast happen. You have done a magical thing.
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Nuala Murphy is the CEO and Founder of Moment Health and the Founder of the Lean In Belfast Circle. You can contact Nuala at @nualafmurphy or at @leaninbelfast
Mary McKenna is a tech entrepreneur and angel investor. You can contact Mary at @MMaryMcKenna.