Ad Execs ‘Lean In’

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



working-momSheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” has caused a wide range of reactions. Her “manifesto” of sorts on working mothers, women in leadership roles and advice on partnerships with a spouse has made the COO of Facebook the center of discussions among both men and women. In the advertising industry, where we continually seem to be turning our attention to the lack of female leadership and the “old boys’ club,” some of Sandberg’s personal anecdotes can ring too true (see Digiday’s “Confessions of a Female Ad Exec”). We asked a group of women who have reached the top what they thought of all this “leaning in.”

Panel includes:

- Sara Rotman, Founder/CEO, CCO, MODCo Creative
- Elizabeth Brownsen, Executive Director, Team One
- Catherine Davis, President, Vizeum Americas
- Angela Courtin, Chief Content Officer of Aegis Media Americas & President of The Story Lab
- Leeann Leahy, President, The VIA Agency
- Julie Vessel, Group Account Director, mono

Do you agree that more women in leadership positions will lead to better (and fairer) treatment for all women in the industry?

Sara Rotman

I think the concept of "fairer treatment" in any business forum is unrealistic. That said, more female leadership will make people like Sheryl Sandberg feel less like an anomaly and eventually become the expected norm. It is only female leaders who garner the insane criticism about their personal lives over the good work that they've done. Just look at the recent coverage of Martha Stewart going to court in relation to the J.C. Penney/Walmart case. Instead of discussing the achievement of Stewart's business, her power to bring in customers or even the merits of the case, the press focused on the length of her skirt. I have never heard the press speak about how Bill Gates dresses. Perhaps if we had as many business and political leaders from our female population, we would see how silly these inane details are — but for now, I think it's a realistic depiction of how our society does not respect nor value women to the same degree as men.

Julie Vessel

Whether you agree with Sheryl or not, she is igniting a real, active and important debate, and I support that a conversation has been sparked. Our collaborative way of working depends on having voices and ideas from a variety of perspectives. To me, the fundamental truth behind this issue is what is true of any successful person: recognizing and "leaning in" to your unique strengths and talents. We are what we believe. So, the starting point for me to what Sheryl outlines is to get more women understanding and owning their unique strengths (versus dwelling on their perceived weaknesses) and encouraging them to bring those strengths forward in a real way every day.

Leeann Leahy

The problem is that working mothers and stay-at-home moms all seem to disagree, and rather than reveling in the many options we have, we as a gender tend to judge one another. People who choose to "lean in" think women who lean back are giving up. People who lean back think the lean in-ers are heartless and are trading their life for their career. And we don't waste any time making passive aggressive or snarky comments to each other about those respective positions.

Angela Courtin

I’m glad someone is saying this and that it has sparked dialogue and debate about this issue. I'd like to think that more female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women; however, I have been challenged more by women when asking for an increase in compensation/title/work than I have by men. I hope that women of my generation will lead this movement to be supportive and fair. I agree that women need to lean in, ask for more, have a supportive partner and strike the right balance. We need to stop feeling like frauds and more entitled to our success. On the other hand, we still need to change the balance of power, and I would argue that men aren't working any harder than women, but they have greater access to the top of the ladder.

Does Sheryl Sandberg's privileged education, her history with Facebook and her rise at Google provide her with more credibility? Or do these things make her less relatable to other women out there?

Catherine Davis

I am disappointed by the negative comments, so many of them by women, around “Lean In.” What I liked about the book is the focus on what each of us can control. As a senior manager, I have watched women who should have sat at the table instead sit politely in the back of the room. I have listened as they questioned themselves for delegating a task that clearly was the responsibility of someone on their team. I have coached them on the difference between being respected versus liked. I have also been in their shoes and have had every one of those conversations with myself.

Sara Rotman

I agree with Sheryl in that we can only change our own behavior. We cannot sit and gripe about what society at large is doing — this is pitching against the tide and does nothing for anyone. Instead, it is on each and every woman to simply be better. I don't believe that Sheryl is blaming women; rather, she is quite rightly expecting them to take charge of their own path and achieve what they set out to aspire to achieve. No one simply handed success to anyone — not Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs, nor Henry Ford — and for sure not Oprah Winfrey or Martha Stewart. So why on earth have we as women allowed ourselves to be convinced that being treated "fairly" must be a part of our success? This is a certain recipe for failure. But more importantly, how dare anyone — especially a woman — criticize any one of us who has (against all odds) found a way to become successful? It doesn't matter who you are; the challenges remain the same.

Yes, Ms. Sandberg has a great husband, stock options and a first-rate education. Fantastic. Bully for her. We should all look at her and think, "My God, what an achievement. I want to do THAT" — not muse on about how we too would be successful if only we had those things. True success, just like a trim figure or a proven track record, is that something we can all earn as long as we're willing to put in the work. Pointing a finger at Sheryl for her success as a means to justify our own failure is exactly why women aren't succeeding in the same way as men. It is defeatist thinking and perhaps the very issue that Sheryl is trying to address in her book. The whole thing begs the question, where is our sense of solidarity and appreciation for our sisters? How can we expect to inspire change if we are the first to undermine the success of somebody who has achieved such a rarified level of success?

Elizabeth Brownsen

Great leaders like Lee Iacocca and Steve Jobs did not have to represent multiple types of people in order to make their advice on success relevant and applicable to many. We are not used to women succeeding, and thus we create barriers (practical and imagined) to their success. A Harvard degree and business successes are concrete measures for her success. Would we let someone who had a poorly behaved dog give us dog-training advice or take cooking classes from someone who was a bad cook? No.

Do you believe that Sheryl Sandberg is faulting women for not trying hard enough? Or if she trying to push women to be greater?

Sara Rotman

Recently, I was asked what was most challenging and rewarding about owning my own business. My answer to both of those questions is the same: The successes and failures are all my own. Each of us (women) needs to take responsibility for our own lives, our own failures and — for the love of God — learn to celebrate our own successes. Just as importantly, we need to applaud other women for doing the same. We must never stand around pointing fingers because it looks easy from the outside. Generally speaking, any type of success takes years of dedication, sacrifice and hard work. Nothing more. It's difficult, uncomfortable and, as women still suffer a great deal of inequity in the workforce, it can feel unfair. But that's the story, and it's not going to change by saying it was easier for someone else.

The inequities that we face are, of course, unfair. But pushing past these inequalities and succeeding despite them is the only way to make change. As mentioned, the only thing that we have control over is our own behavior, so let's get to it, ladies! Success is waiting, and we are the only ones standing in our way.

Angela Courtin

I think Sheryl is saying that women have to make sacrifices — more so than men — if we want to have it all…and that we can and should. As a mother of a 20-month-old who pumped through pitches in convenience store bathrooms and airport clubs, you never want to be told you can't do something, and you never want to have to say that you can't, either. So you do what you need to do and hope you don't screw up your kids or your career. You lean into it because for some women, like myself, the only way to go is through.

Julie Vessel

The most powerful part of her book to me was, "see and speak your truth." The power of honest, transparent communication builds credibility and demonstrates the value that a unique perspective can provide. On the flip side, I know I'm a better employee because of honest and helpful feedback that I've received throughout my career.

Elizabeth Brownsen

No, rather Sandberg is giving realistic advice on how to work within the system we have right now, and that means working harder, smarter and not giving up on yourself.

Leeann Leahy

The stay-at-home mom who says, "OMG...I NEVER see you!" when she runs into the working mom in the pick-up line at school often means, "Wow! You are never with your kids." And the career-driven working mom who says, "No really, YOU have the hard job" to her stay-at-home friends just as often doesn't even believe it as it leaves her lips. It's just what one says when she really wants to say, "Yes, I am sure you do THINK you are busy, but you have no idea what busy is." I have been the shoulder that too many women from both sides have cried on after such comments. I am not even sure if we know how much our words hurt each other and are misread. The fact is that we have come a long way — long enough that we can choose which way we lean. But we don't celebrate our choices; instead, we spend all our time justifying them.

Topics: Leadership

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