How Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg learned to love power

July 5, 2011, 7:04 PM UTC


This week’s New Yorker includes a profile of Sheryl Sandberg, who is many things. She is the Facebook COO who is helping Mark Zuckerberg turn his startup into a very profitable business. She is, at 41, one of the fastest-rising stars on Fortune‘s annual Most Powerful Women list. And as she has taken to talking publicly about her career–from the World Bank to McKinsey & Co. to the U.S. Treasury to Google to Facebook–Sanberg has become the top role model for young women who refuse to believe they can’t do everything a guy can.

But Sandberg didn’t always take comfort in her clout, as author Ken Auletta writes in the story:

Sandberg says that she had an “Aha!” moment in 2005, when Pattie Sellers, an editor at large at Fortune, invited her to the magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit, an annual gathering of several hundred women. Sandberg attended, but she thought the title was embarrassing, and refused to list it on the Web-based calendar that she shared with her colleagues. She says that Sellers later chided her for being timid. Sellers recalls, “I told her that most of the women on the Most Powerful Women list—Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Oprah, and many others—had a hangup about the word when we started ranking them in 1998, but they’ve come around, and she should, too. What’s wrong with owning your power?”

This thread of Auletta’s profile–Sandberg learning to embrace her power–is one that I’ve thought plenty about as I’ve written about her and other women leaders. After Sandberg told Auletta about that “aha!” moment and he emailed me to ask if I actually did “shame” her to stop acting like a girl, here’s what I replied:

Ken–When we started MPWomen in the magazine in 1998 and the MPW Summit the year after, most all of America’s top businesswomen loathed being called “powerful.” Oprah told me she feared the word–partly because she thought declaring herself powerful separated her from real people. Carly Fiorina–who we put on the cover of Fortune that first year when she was at Lucent and practically unknown outside telecom–gritted her teeth every year after when I asked her about power. One time she answered me this way: “My strength is my strength, but it also can be a weakness.”

The backlash against women who flaunt their power can be fierce, as Carly learned quickly. When Sheryl shied from publicly embracing her power–at Google, by not putting Most Powerful Women on the shared calendar–she was, I think, reacting to that reality that top women are judged more harshly than men. That strength can be a “weakness” for women. As strategic as Sheryl is, I think she knew she had to prove her worth before calling herself powerful.

I called her on it–and as you say, maybe I “shamed” her–because I saw then that she is the real deal and could be a great role model for young women and businesswomen in general. I so remember this moment. Sheryl and I were meeting for the first time, late afternoon at Thalia, a restaurant at 50th and 8th Ave.. Over sparkling water, we talked about Google’s org structure and how it makes money (she brilliantly explained it all, scribbling on scraps of paper) and the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, which she was planning to attend for the first time.

I was stunned and amused when she told me that she can’t list the event on the calendar–because Google execs share their calendar and the word “powerful” is a turnoff…maybe even toxic? I told her that most of the women on the MPWomen list–Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Oprah, and many others–had a hangup about the word when we started ranking them in 1998, but they’ve come around, and she should too: What’s wrong with owning your power–saying you’re powerful–if you use power in a good way?

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