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Sheryl Sandberg

Seventeen years ago, Sheryl Sandberg ’91, M.B.A. ’95, was sitting among her Harvard Business School (HBS) classmates, listening to the invited speaker for Class Day. This year, now as chief operating officer of Facebook, she was that speaker.

In her May 23 remarks, she endeavored to give the new graduates advice she could have used as a young professional, and also advice that reflected the ways the world has changed since she graduated.

Sandberg’s class was the first at HBS to try an “online course,” she said; in those days, that meant the entire class signed into an AOL chat session, connecting via dial-up. A list of screen names was distributed in advance, since at the time it was “unthinkable” to use one’s real name on the Internet.

As the 2012 graduates enter the business world, Sandberg urged them to practice honesty and open communication—not a norm in most workplaces. “A good leader recognizes that most people feel uncomfortable challenging authority,” she said, and actively solicits feedback instead of waiting for it to arrive.

Sandberg believes a separation between the person one is at work and the person one is on the weekends is false, and encouraged graduates to put their “authentic selves” forward. She has spoken publicly about having cried at work, a disclosure that some publications summed up with the headline, “Sheryl Sandberg Cried in Zuckerberg’s Arms”—“which wasn’t exactly what happened,” she clarified in her speech.

She peppered her speech with peeks into life at Facebook—for instance, the pitfalls of working with a company of twentysomethings. Sandberg said she is constantly being asked, “Sheryl, can you come here? We need to see what old people think of this feature.”

She related a funny story about CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Mandarin lessons: in his attempts to learn the language, he meets weekly with native speakers who work for the company, and one week, Zuckerberg was having trouble understanding what a colleague was saying. He asked her repeatedly to boil it down to simpler language, until finally she burst out with the simplest possible construction: “My manager is bad!” (Sandberg used this story to express the idea that sometimes simple language works best to get a point across.)

Her only nod to Facebook’s rocky initial public offering—which was the national news story of the week—came in her final bits of advice. Among those: keep in touch on Facebook. “And,” she entreated, “we’re public now, so can you click on an ad or two while you’re there?”

 

The notion of a career “ladder” no longer applies, said Sandberg, whose past jobs include economist with the World Bank and chief of staff at the U.S. Treasury (in both cases working with Eliot University Professor and former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers), and vice president of global online sales and operations at Google. Instead, Sandberg urged the new graduates to think of their careers as a “jungle gym,” jumping around instead of following a preordained progression.

She recounted accepting a position as business unit general manager at Google—even though the company had no business unit yet. When Sandberg told Google CEO Eric Schmidt that she was having cold feet about taking the job, Schmidt told her, “Don’t be an idiot”—always solid career advice, Sandberg noted.

She urged her listeners to take similar leaps, perhaps accepting a job that’s a step down from what one is currently doing if it offers the chance to learn something new. “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship,” she said, “don’t ask what seat—just get on.”

Sandberg devoted much of her speaking time to urging her listeners to do whatever they can to move the business world toward gender equality. She noted that the proportion of top-level executives who are women in U.S. companies has been stuck at 15 percent for a decade. “The promise of equality,” she said, “is not equality.”

She said men and women bear equal responsibility for effecting this change, and cited research findings that women who are perceived as competent are less likable. Sandberg urged her listeners to think twice if they find themselves in an executive position, and about to pass a woman over for promotion because she is great at her job but not likable.

She took a moment to acknowledge the students’ grief over the death of Nathan Bihlmaier, who was scheduled to have graduated with them; students and their families also wore black ribbons, handed out along with programs, in memory of Bihlmaier. “Today was supposed to be a day of unbridled celebration,” she said, “and I know that’s no longer true.”