Winter reading list, continued…

Book three is LEAN IN.

The day before my birthday, I stayed in bed all morning reading this.  Full disclosure-I’ve been dreading reading this book, as I assumed it would be a referendum on all the things I may have done wrong in my career.  The decision to leave DC was not easy one.  Throughout months of deciding, I heard Sandburg’s words from her Barnard speech ringing in my head, “Don’t leave until you leave!” By leaving DC, was I taking my foot off the accelerator, careening down the off-ramp to a less fruitful professional future?

Who knows? I hope not, though these questions are bound to flare up every now and then. I’m just glad I caved and finally read the book.  It’s about so much more than the speech.

Prior to reading, I imagined Sandburg as someone I would struggle to relate to-an overachieving-Type A-only needs 5 hours of sleep-lacks any vulnerabilities or compassion-type. After reading, I really like Sandburg.  She’s funny and actually quite relatable (personality-obviously not in success or lifestyle).  Many times throughout the book, I felt my eyes popping as she honestly divulged some of the more difficult moments in her career.

Throughout her writing, she demonstrates that she’s always learning and admitting mistakes.  I’m finding that is one of the most refreshing elements of leadership: working with people who are honest about vulnerabilities, reflect on challenges, and ask questions.  It opens the door for discussion and collaboration.  One of the most damaging tenets of the legal education is the Socratic method.  Three years and an ungodly amount of student loans to develop a dogged persistence that your answer, your view is correct and absolute-no matter how shaky the foundation.  That’s fine for a court room, but shouldn’t we be trained to collaborate and discuss? In my few years as an attorney, I’ve found we generated some of our more creative ideas and thoughtful projects when we admitted we do not have the answers and we can safely question our own theories. Sandburg never suggests she had everything figured out from Day 1, and as a young professional, I found that honesty remarkably encouraging.

She also writes about bringing your whole self to work.  This blew my mind. Again, as a young professional, I try to keep my personal life separate from work-it took me a solid year to put photos up in my office. Again with the law school doctrine, we’re trained that attorneys should never suggest they have a life or any trappings of a life that could in any way distract from the work at hand.  The ridiculous element in all of this is I work for an incredibly supportive organization, so the rigid separation is requirement is completely my own neurosis.

Anyway, Sandburg encourages women and men to be honest about their lives in the work force.  She tells the story questioning a young woman who turns down a job offer at Google.  She asks the woman if she’s worried about taking on the demands of the new job during a time she may want to have children.  Sandburg admits she’s asking questions that would make her employment lawyers panic, but she holds firm that an open discussion about life demands is critical for an effective work force.

Though I find the premise quite surprising, I couldn’t agree more. It got me thinking the caregiving.  Sandburg’s target audience is women like me: young professionals, navigating their early careers.  But her teaching applies just as equally to a more seasoned workforce.  Baby boomers are getting crushed from both ends of caregiving.  Clear support exists for the anxiety of rearing children, but most boomers feel alone, barely treading water as they care for their parents.

There’s an important movement to require employers to provide paid leave for family members caring for older adults or family members.  Sandburg’s “bring your whole self to work,” got me thinking-that’s only part of the puzzle. In addition to paid leave, we need environments where people can bring their whole selves to work.  Thinking of both the employer and employee, how much stress would we avoid if employees were encouraged, early on, to be upfront about their real or potential caregiving needs.  Would they feel so alone if it was part of normal work conversation? If they felt safe to say: “Here’s the deal, my parent/child/spouse has this issue, it may be fine, or it may be something that requires significant time off in the future. I want you to know now so we can all be prepared.” Who is protected by the expectation that the employer to be a neutral party in the employee’s life challenges? No one. We all know about the billions of dollar in lost productivity from caregiver stress.

Ha-I guess it’s impossible for me to read anything without thinking of implications for seniors/aging, but Sandburg got me thinking. It’s an excellent book.

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