The Death of Lean In

That book, Lean In (no link here, I refuse to promote it), came out at a very bad time for me.

Several times in my life, books have swept through the company where I worked – The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Strengthsfinder, The DaVinci Code (yes, The DaVinci Code, you don’t think that it made it on its own, do you?). Mostly I dove in and made them work for me, although I gave The DaVinci Code to my husband, who read it and shared it with his entire family, leading to an awkward Thanksgiving conversation that year (“Evidence that he wasn’t married? You do realize there’s no evidence that he even existed. That’s why they call it faith. …Uh, never mind.”). I still haven’t read DaVinci – I rebel when people slap books down on my desk, tell me that we’ve decided to make them a bestseller, and assign them to me as required reading. Just doesn’t rub me the right way.

Although I didn’t read Lean In – I didn’t have time – too many female vice presidents at my company did. These were vice presidents whose teams were already working from 8 a.m. to after 7 p.m. (although they never seemed to be around when I needed them to resolve issues for the stores at 7:30 p.m.) so didn’t need to be reminded to stay late and throw themselves into every new distraction. At this time, I was coming in early every day, working through lunch, staying until 9 or 10 every night. Some of my team members were coming in on Saturdays, or taking work home with them. I don’t encourage that kind of thing – in fact, I remember getting in a horrible argument with an employee who looked like death warmed over about how many hours he was putting in and the impact on his health. And I had to have a “performance discussion” with another employee about working too many hours per week.

I had my own priorities to manage, plus my team was responsible for delivering on the priorities of all these VPs – male and female – who were peddling as hard as they could to make things happen. I often felt like we were juggling plates and, just when I couldn’t keep another plate in the air, someone would toss us a rubber chicken to add to the mix.

And then came the phone call. A VP called – probably the fourth that day – to probably insist that we needed to distribute her communication right away, probably despite the fact that it was factually inaccurate and would require us to drop everything else we were doing to review her document, align it with reality, and get the stores behind it, because it was probably a last minute request requiring payroll that had already been allocated to three other last minute priorities. To be fair, I don’t remember exactly what she called to ask, and I don’t remember exactly what my response was to her request. I’m sure I didn’t say No, because I wasn’t allowed to say No.

I mean that literally: I was not allowed to say the word No. I had made the mistake once of expressing doubt about the plans of a VP who wanted to roll out a huge and inessential change during the holidays. And I made the mistake of telling her that I’d have to pass it up the ladder to my boss for approval – instead of just treading water until I partner with my boss on the best approach. By the time I walked back to his office, she had called him. And he told me that I wasn’t allowed to say No ever again. And then he put it on my performance evaluation. And then he put it on my performance evaluation for the next three years. And then, just before he left, he put it on the performance evaluation that he handed the woman who replaced him. And she left it on my performance evaluation and left it there for another year (my theory, without evidence, is that the VP told her she had to put it on again). So I got really, really good of finding ways to avoid saying No. (And, by the way, the thing I couldn’t approve blew up and became a huge distraction to the stores during the holidays.)

Handcuffs anyone?

So anyway, I know I didn’t use the No word with this VP. But whatever I said, she didn’t like it. And her words to me were, “You just need to Lean In.”

There was a pause while I tried really heard to find the words to say to her. And then I hung up on her.

Lean In? My team was working on all cylinders. My newest boss, on my performance evaluations, always commented on the impressive amount of work my team got done, but he couldn’t talk HR into giving me any more people. I was quickly approaching burn-out. My days were often thrown off because the VP meetings I sat through were so poorly run, the woman who had called me and her boss would sit at opposite ends of a long conference table and hold the other 30 people in the room hostage while they told funny stories about their business trips together for 20 minutes, which meant the meeting ran long, and we didn’t get to everything on the agenda, the last thing on the agenda often being the thing that I needed to get resolved so that I could move my work forward. Which made us all late to whatever we had to do next, which is why I was working those insane hours – that and the work that these women handed out in the meeting and demanded be done right away.

And she told me to Lean In.

I disagree with any business leader whose advice to those who are starting out that they need to “lean in.” In my 26 years as a manager, I have advised team members and colleagues to take more initiative, to invest time up front so that repetitive tasks take less time in the future, to resolve problems in person as opposed to by email or phone, to devote time to building relationships, to spend time on the priorities that require your best work and use minimal time on less important things. I’ve advised managers to delegate more and do less themselves, to grow their teams to take on more of the daily work. I’ve reminded managers to put their own masks on first then take care of their team. Family first. Health first. Don’t get in the habit of working nights and weekends because the work will expand the time you give it; there will be times that you need to put in extra hours and you won’t have the energy to do it if you work late every day. I’ve held people accountable for work they committed to doing and didn’t do on time or to standards.

I don’t remember every telling someone to “lean in”. That’s just insulting.

I am so glad that the 15 minutes of Lean In is over.

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