Sheryl Sandberg Preaches the Value of Honesty

Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Lean In gave the Senior Class Day speech for 2014.

Sheryl Sandberg at Class Day

The most important thing I can tell you is to open yourselves to honesty,” said Harvard College’s Class Day speaker, Sheryl Sandberg ’91, M.B.A. ’95, chief operating officer of Facebook since 2008 and author of the 2013 bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She stressed being honest with oneself, as well as with friends and colleagues. “So often the truth is sacrificed to conflict avoidance,” she asserted, asking the assembled seniors and their families to use “simple and sincere language” in delivering honest feedback. “You know your closest friends’ strengths and weaknesses, and what cliff they might drive off,” she said. “Ask them for honest feedback.” (Scroll down for video excerpts from her speech; the full speech is here.)

Wearing a crimson dress, beige jacket, and high heels on a rainy, frigid May afternoon, Sandberg noted that the list of prior Class Day speakers could intimidate. “I can’t be as funny as Amy Poehler,” she admitted, but vowed, “I’m going to be funnier than Mother Teresa.” She recalled arriving as a freshman in 1987 “with big hopes and even bigger hair.” At her college graduation, the seniors “cheered the Ph.D.s but booed the Business School graduates. B-school was such a sellout! Eighteen months later I applied to business school.” (She gave the Business School’s Class Day speech in 2012.) Sandberg said that as a young woman, “I never could have predicted Facebook. There was no Internet—and Mark Zuckerberg [’07] was still in elementary school.” Her career advice included this exhortation: “Don't just move up. Jungle-gym: look backwards, sideways, and around corners.”

When she turned to the writing of Lean In, Sandberg at first mentioned, obliquely, a book she had written with her friend Nell Scovell ’82, noting that “women around the world had connected with it. The book, of course, was called Fifty Shades of Grey.” More seriously, Sandberg continued Lean In’s investigation of why women haven’t attained more leadership roles in society. She noted in passing, for example, that women head only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies. “Last election cycle, women won 20 percent of the Senate seats and the talk was that ‘women have taken over the Senate,’” she added. “Fifty percent of the population wins 20 percent of the Senate?  That’s not a takeover, that’s an embarrassment.”

She recalled having been invited to speak at a Silicon Valley club that turned out to have an all-male membership; once there, she was warned that women were not even allowed on the second floor. Paraphrasing Groucho Marx, she declared, “I don’t want to speak at any club that won’t have me as a member.” Hillary Clinton, she said, faced several obstacles in her 2008 White House run, including gender bias “and worst of all, a degree from Yale.”

Sandberg spoke of breaking down all sorts of categorical barriers and preconceptions, noting that one day at Facebook, Asian-American employees organized themselves to wear buttons that declared, “I MAY OR MAY NOT BE GOOD AT MATH.” Taking her own advice on being honest with oneself, Sandberg admitted, “The first time I spoke out was only five years ago. My silence implied that everything was OK.”

She left her audience on an encouraging note that included one more friendly dig at her boss. “Tomorrow, you get something that Mark Zuckerberg does not have,” she said. “A Harvard degree.”

View an excerpt:

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