EDITOR’S NOTE: Watch Soledad O'Brien's interview with Sheryl Sandberg on "Starting Point" at 7 a.m. ET on Monday, March 18th and Tuesday, March 19th.
By Soledad O'Brien, "Starting Point" anchor
When you walk into Facebook’s New York City office, you get a sweeping loft-like feeling from a beautiful courtyard with big open windows in the very modern Bank of America building on Madison Ave. You’re also faced with a message in massive red letters that you can only read at a distance:
“PROCEED AND BE BOLD.”
I was there for my sit-down interview with Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer. She walks me over to the wall of windows with red letters to make it clear that the message is the ethos of the social media company.
Sandberg is wearing a navy and red dress, with a dark navy cardigan, and comes across as professional and personable. She had just rushed from another interview with CNN sister company Fortune magazine. You may have also seen her in one of her other zillion interviews this week, with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” or on the cover of “TIME” magazine.
As we prepare for the interview, she tells me she doesn’t enjoy the process of talking about herself, and admits she finds it to be a bit of a struggle. But the struggle must be worth it, because Sandberg’s message is gaining traction as a result of her book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” which was released on Monday.
The advice in “Lean In” is best when used to guide young women. In the book, Sandberg writes that women should strive to close the ambition gap with men, and to become leaders early in their careers to allow them flexibility later on.
“ 'Lean In' is not about fixing women,” she tells me. “'Lean In' is about all of us coming together to understand the stereotypes that are holding women back and fix them.”
However, that’s not how many have interpreted Sandberg’s points.
Here’s just a glimpse into some of the sometimes scathing reviews of her work:
“I think the reaction is intense because this is personal,” Sandberg admits. “I’m very clear in the book. This is personal for me.”
One of the more frequently spewed criticisms is that Sandberg is blaming women. But in talking with her it’s clear that is not part of her message. She understands there are structural barriers to women’s success, but her advice is about encouraging women not to be afraid to grow their careers.
In our interview, Sandberg recounts a story of a young woman who asks for guidance on balancing work and career. As the conversation continues, Sandberg learns the young lady doesn’t have children and she’s not married. In fact, this young woman was fresh out of college, but wanted to make sure she could do the job and have a kid.
“My answer to her is yeah, when you have a kid, but if you start leaning back too early, you’re going to end up in a job that pays less and it’s not as easy to cover childcare. Or you’re going to wind up working for some guy who 10 years before was leaning forward when you were leaning back. When you have a hard decision to make, make it then,” she says.
Throughout our conversation, Sandberg sticks consistently to the message of her book. I asked her about a moment that was discussed in the media this week, when she told “60 Minutes” that young assertive girls shouldn’t be told they’re bossy, but instead told they have leadership qualities.
I point out that same girl in 25 years will likely still be penalized when it’s determined that she IS bossy, and it’s less of a problem in naming the issue for the girl but more about how the behavior is perceived.
“That’s exactly right,” she says. “The stereotypes that start in childhood go all the way up to adulthood. They are why women pay a penalty for success that men don’t pay.”
Sandberg dodges any questions about her future. I did my best to get her to divulge what she was planning.
“I really love my job,” Sandberg says.
What about five years down the road, or even 10 to 15 years from now?
“Look, I love my job. I’d like to always have the following. I’d like to always make sure that I’m doing something that I believe in. I really believe in Facebook. I will work there if I believe in it,” she says.
Towards the end of our hourlong interview, I ask about her about admitting in the book that she still faces self doubt and a lack of confidence. I wanted to know if the Sheryl Sandberg sitting in front of me, who some say is nearly worth $1 billion, could feel that way, what is the typical woman to do?
“I never thought I could write a book but I did,” she answers. “I didn’t know if I could do the Facebook job but I’m doing it and I’m doing it to the very best of my ability. And so I gained confidence. I gain confidence with every assignment I reach for, and with every new thing I take on. Other women can, too.”