If there's one person who knows how to lean into change, it's Sheryl Sandberg. As chief operating officer of Facebook and with her two books, the newly published Option B and the 2013 Lean In, she has demonstrated a mastery for steering life and work in the direction of positive growth.
Sandberg is speaking to entrepreneurs and business owners at Inc.'s GrowCo Conference in New Orleans today. "Embrace the Shift to Mobile to Grow Your Business" is the topic of her keynote interview with Inc. president and editor in chief Eric Schurenberg. Ahead of the event, Sandberg spoke with her friend economist Sharon Poczter about her life, leadership, and how entrepreneurs can compete in a changing world. Here is their exchange.
Poczter: Your new book explores how you dealt with the tremendous adversity of your husband's death. How has this adversity changed how you manage and lead day to day?
Sandberg: I certainly have a different perspective than before. Mark [Zuckerberg] says I'm calmer now, and I think that's true. I treat fewer things as emergencies now than I did before. It's also given me greater appreciation for the importance of supportive workplaces. Facebook already offered generous bereavement policies, but this year we doubled the number of days we offer people grieving an immediate family member from 10 to 20 days. I believe caring for our people is both the right thing to do and the right thing for our businesses. Employees who feel their companies are there for them work harder and are more loyal as well. I recognize that not every company can offer the generous leave policies large companies like Facebook are able to, but I believe all companies should do what they can. That's also why we need supportive public policies at the state and federal levels to ensure everyone has the opportunity and ability to take care of themselves and their families.
Some have commented that the main commonality between Option B and your previous book, Lean In, is that both position you as the current spokesperson for personal agency. Is this characterization accurate?
I think it is totally understandable for people to look for some type of commonality or common motivation that unifies these two books--but I think that misses that Option B is a book I never wanted to even be in a position to write. So for me, the main commonality is perhaps a desire to share experiences in life I have had--for good or bad--in the hope that they could be thought provoking or helpful to others, and in the case of Option B, to help honor the life of Dave [Goldberg, her late husband]. The reason I would not see them as being just about personal agency is that both of these subject matters also demonstrate to me the importance of larger changes that need to be made in public policy and at the workplace. On the latter, I am proud that Facebook has such strong maternity and paternity leave, bereavement leave, and family and medical leave, but that only strengthens my commitment to want more companies step up and to ensure that we have public policies like paid family leave that help more working parents be able to lean in at work and at home, and be able to take the time they need for many of life's biggest moments, whether the birth or adoption of a child, caring for a loved one, or taking the time to take care of yourself and your family when one faces true grief or a serious illness.
In your new book, you talk about how learning from failure is critical for creating resilient companies. Can you talk about a specific instance when you felt as if you had failed at Facebook and what you did to bounce back?
When I came back to work [after her husband's death], I felt like I was failing every day. Everyone talks about the anger and sadness that accompanies grief, so I knew to expect those feelings. But what I didn't expect was how grief would shatter my self-confidence. I wrote a whole book about self-confidence, and yet in those first months back at work I was overwhelmed with self-doubt. I could barely get through a meeting without crying--so how could I do my job?
Mark did an extraordinary thing, which has changed how I think about how we treat people coming back from a personal hardship. Instead of simply encouraging me to take the time off I needed--he did that too--he went out of his way to also make me feel valued. He'd tell me he was glad I came in because I'd made a good point in a meeting or because he wanted my perspective on something. Now when people come back to work after going through something difficult, I still offer them time off, but I also focus on giving them the extra boost of confidence that they might not have needed before.
What do you believe is the most important skill and the most valuable personal characteristic for being a successful leader of a growing company?
I've learned that we don't build resilience in only ourselves and communities. We also build it in our companies. One of the most important ways to do this is to learn from our failures along with our successes. Leaders need to be willing to do this themselves and create a culture where learning from failure is embraced at all levels of our organizations. Resilient organizations are stronger and perform better.
Facebook underwent tremendous growth after you became COO. What was the main challenge of that growth from a leadership perspective and how did you address it?
It's hard to believe it now, but when we launched, Facebook was entirely a desktop business. The mobile transition happened faster than we expected, and we had to catch up. Mark held an all-company meeting and declared Facebook needed to be mobile-first. The impact on the company was swift, from the way we structured teams and allocated resources to the fundamentals of how products were built. Within a few weeks, we'd retrained our desktop engineers to work on mobile, and teams presenting new products adopted a new rule, "No mobile, no meeting." If they didn't have a mobile version of what they were building to present to Mark, there was no meeting with Mark. We learned that sometimes you need to be willing to go all in to go where the future is heading. What was true for us is true for businesses of all sizes--your biggest threat is whether you'll stand in your own way when progress is on the line.
What do you believe is the single greatest challenge in growing a small business, and how can small-business owners address this?
All small businesses looking to grow share the challenge of attracting new customers. At the turn of the century, my great-grandparents opened a paint store in New York City. They grew their business by attracting new customers through word of mouth and local marketing--like saying to a neighbor, "Your house is peeling. You need more paint!" Today, we live in a different world. My great-grandparents never would have imagined the kind of tools available to small businesses today. Rather than waiting for the right person to walk by, in one click, a small-business owner on Facebook can reach more of the right customers in new cities or in new countries.
Since Facebook has become a leading source of advertising for small businesses, particularly through mobile adoption, what have you seen to be the most problematic challenge for small businesses in mobile adoption on Facebook, and how can it be addressed?
People have shifted to mobile, and businesses, large and small, are catching up. Facebook and Instagram are the mobile solution for many of the more than one-third of U.S. small businesses with no web presence. That's because setting up a Facebook page or Instagram business profile is just as easy as setting up a personal account. The challenge for small businesses now is adapting their creative for mobile. People want to see ads that are higher quality and as relevant as the posts from friends and family. As the mobile solution for small businesses, that's exactly how ads on Facebook and Instagram work. What used to take professional equipment can now be done using your phone.
Outside of this, if there is one piece of tactical advice you would give small-business owners, what would it be?
My favorite part of meeting with small businesses is how they learn from one another. Forty-two percent of SMBs told us that learning from one another is one of the primary ways they find the information and education to master the new mobile environment, second only to online searches. Join or form a Facebook Group for businesses like yours or in your community where you can share best practices and support one another. We're constantly inspired by the innovation and creativity we see from small businesses on Facebook. This is a community that is always experimenting to see what sticks. We learn from them and they learn from one another.