Sheryl Sandberg: It’s Time for YOU to “Lean In”

Dear Sheryl,

You’ve done an amazing job steering Facebook as COO.  Now I have a request.



Your partnership with Mark Zuckerberg is clearly working well, even through the ups and downs of managing a very large organization serving more than a billion customers. As I’ve discussed with my readers for several years, the partnership between a visionary like Mark and a skilled manager like you is often the key to success in startups and early-stage companies, as it obviously is at Facebook. In fact, research indicates that a successful partnering of this kind is more predictive of success than factors such as market growth potential, timing, product, sustainable advantage, virality or exit potential.

The founder of an innovative company is often highly competitive, visionary, and driven with a mental focus on the long-term strategy, a desire to disrupt the status quo, and a style of leading from mission and purpose rather than one-on-one relationship building. I call this type of person a Vision Master. There are of course infinite variations; this is just a common set of traits I see in founders.

What the Vision Master needs is execution-mastery: someone with greater attention to relationships in management, greater attention to stability and organization as opposed to disrupting the status quo, greater attention to the short and mid-term time horizons and greater attention to defense, asking habitually “what can go wrong” and “what can we do about it.”

Do you agree?

Recently, you’ve spoken about the need for more women to be involved in technology-oriented companies in senior management positions. As you’ve so aptly said, workplace equality is far more than simply ending sexual harassment. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’ve been speaking about this for some time as well.  I’ve been reminding thousands of followers that companies with a woman founder or co-founder have a higher success rate than companies without women on the founding team.  I believe a key to understanding the value of having more women in senior management positions is partly related to the need for a diversity of leadership styles.  Let me explain:

You and Mark are clearly cut from a different cloth.  You share common goals of making Facebook the best social media platform in the world, connecting humanity and returning value to all stakeholders. But, the particular skills, the specific mindset, the focus and the management style you each bring is very different. Interestingly, men and women generally do see the world differently and that different viewpoint may well be the reason male-female partnerings in senior management succeed.

Clearly, the sharing of power among a man and a woman, a Vision Master and an Execution Master (you), a person who articulates the vision and a person who makes it real in the world is working beautifully between you and Mark. This type of diversity correlates to business success in early stage companies as well. And it can be positively impacted through gender diversity on senior management teams.

However, it is not sufficient to have gender diversity if the various members of the executive team are not diverse in their leadership styles. In fact, what I believe matters is not the gender diversity at all, but the diversity in leadership styles that usually go with gender diversity. The point is that diversity in thinking and management style correlates to financial success in business.

I’d like to suggest that, statistically speaking, women tend to have a leadership style most appropriate to functioning as an “Execution Master” on management teams. It doesn’t matter whether this is caused by biology or by culture at the moment.  Since that is the role you have played at Facebook and at Google before that, I’d like to propose that you speak to this publicly.

I realize this is potentially divisive because it could be taken as an attempt to stereotype all women as execution managers, excluding them as visionary leaders. Of course, nothing could be farther from the point. The point is that you are advocating for more women to be part of senior management teams in innovative companies and a natural place for many women to fulfill their highest potential is through managing a visionary leader of either gender, to ground their visions in reality.

Don’t misunderstand. Not that all women should be execution masters. Without question, many women best express themselves as visionary founders of companies and of course many have done just that very successfully. I’ve worked with several who are doing that right now.

Also, not all Execution Masters are women.  I know many males who naturally excel at Execution Mastery.  But I have also found, simply as a broad generality, women managers are naturally better in this role on executive teams in innovative companies.  This is true whether the founding Vision Master is man or woman.  We can theorize why this is true, but let’s save that for another day.

The fact is, we find that most Vision Masters seem to be men as of this time. There’s no denying this fact.  Since I talk with and meet a dozen Vision Master founders every week, this pattern is more than clear.  It is overwhelmingly obvious.  Anyone else can observe this pattern in a quick journey through or any other startup listing or incubator.  This has nothing to do with the preferences of investors since the same pattern can be found in any open group of founders seeking seed capital.

This is a circumstance that women can address now and immediately, but not in an obvious way.

The point is this: There is no shortage of Vision Masters. What there is a shortage of is competent Execution Masters. We need more Execution Masters.  Why?

Because the goal you and I seek is:  A much higher rate of success among innovative companies. I hope you like I, are sick and tired of hearing that only 10% to 20% of funded innovative companies succeed.  This is wrong and this has to change.  It is a HUGE waste of capital, of talent and time.  It’s time to change this for good. In doing so, more innovative companies will get the funding they need to succeed. You see, as an investor, my first criteria is not the innovation, it’s the team.

And you and I can agree that the reason (for this current low rate of business success among funded companies) is not faulty business planning or faulty due diligence.  The reason is on the human side:  investors invest in leadership teams that are ready to scale. A company and few founders know how to solve it (yet) and therefore can’t convince investors they’ve solved it. Let’s show them how.

If we’re ever to achieve a much higher success rate in startups growing into successful companies, we have to do something revolutionary about the formation of leadership teams.  You’ve shown the way, Sheryl. Women (in general, with many exceptions) appear much more capable of fulfilling the Execution Master role; superior, in fact, to most men (again, in general.)  Now, women have to step up.

Sheryl, if your goal is BOTH more gender diversity on management teams, AND greater success of innovative companies and if women are uniquely capable of fulfilling Execution Master roles, then shouldn’t more women lean in, step up, and and offer themselves as Execution Masters for all the Vision Masters out there (whatever their gender or gender identity), just as you have done?

Sheryl, tell me if you agree.

Key takeaways:

  • Workplace gender equality is more than ending sexual harassment
  • Workplace gender equality is more than equal pay
  • The larger issue is a diversity of leadership style on executive teams
  • Winning teams need both Vision Masters and Execution Masters
  • You’ve shown the way at Facebook and Google
  • We need more Execution Masters in innovative companies
  • Execution Masters:  step up to manage Vision Master founders