Luck or Skill?

Several months ago I wrote a post about Performance or Potential.  It was a response to a research report finding that women are promoted based on performance, and men based on potential.

I believe we’re seeing a corollary to that type of thinking in a recent NY Times article about Sheryl Sandberg.  While a good chunk of the article was positive, the following section had a decidedly negative tone:

“Some say her aim-high message is a bit out of tune. Everyone agrees she is wickedly smart. But she has also been lucky, and has had powerful mentors along the way. After Harvard and Harvard Business School, she quickly rose from a post as an economist at the World Bank to become the chief of staff for Lawrence H. Summers, then the Treasury secretary. After that, she jumped to Google and, in 2008, to Facebook.

She is married to Dave Goldberg, a successful entrepreneur and the C.E.O. of SurveyMonkey, which enables people to create their own Web surveys. She doesn’t exactly have to worry about money. Or child care. (She and her husband have two young children.)

To some, Ms. Sandberg seems to suggest that women should just work harder while failing to acknowledge that most people haven’t had all the advantages that she’s had… ‘“I think she’s had a golden path herself, and perhaps does not more readily understand that the real struggles are not having children or ambition,” Ms. Hewlett continued. “Women are, in fact, fierce in their ambition, but they find that they’re actually derailed by other things, like they don’t have a sponsor in their life that helps them go for it.’”

The Atlantic had a great article that pointed out a double standard – why is luck even brought up here when it is rarely mentioned in similar articles about successful men in business?

In addition to agreeing with the content in the Atlantic article, I started thinking about all those “lucky” women (including me) who also went to Harvard Business School. What has become of them?  How many of us are there and what are we doing now?

I went into the HBS alumni directory for my class -‘88 (Sheryl is ‘95) and did a bit of informal research.  The class of ‘88 is about 25% women.  It’s hard to know exactly but judging by how many list a job in the directory it appears that about half of the women are working outside the home.  The next question is how many of that working group have children.  This is tricky, as it’s not listed explicitly.   For my husband Steve and my two sections (where we know and are in touch with many of the people) it seems to be that approximately half of the “working half” have children.

What can we conclude from this?  Well it turns out that the “luck” of going to HBS does not alone make one worth $1.6B while being married with two kids.  In fact, and on a very serious note, it is a minority of those lucky HBS attendees that are even in the demographic category of doing what she is doing – working full time while raising young children, not to mention achieving her extraordinary level of success.

Given the fact that so many of the HBS women graduates are not working, I believe the messages she has been delivering at TED and in the Barnard commencement speech are highly relevant to this group.  Be proud, be ambitious, stay in the game.  I also can’t help but wonder about her point that the successful women are less well-liked then successful men as many of my career-oriented female classmates are not married.  We need to work to change this in our society.

Another sore point for me in this NY Times article is the implication that having a high income means that you don’t have to worry about childcare.  Of course, the challenge is even greater for the working poor and even middle class but I know of no mother, regardless of income level, who does not worry about childcare. Finding the right childcare, dealing with transitions, worrying if all is ok at home.   Managing a high-powered career while parenting young children is simply hard work leaving not a lot of free time or sleep for Sheryl or anyone else.  That’s why I believe that changes in business and government policies such as parental leave for both parents are so important.  Plus, role modeling, showing working new moms that it can be managed and our children can thrive, is critical as well.

In her Barnard address Sheryl said that our generation of women hasn’t broken through to the CEO level in great enough numbers despite the good fortune of education.  The HBS class of 1980 was 20% women and they are at prime CEO age.  We certainly do not have 20% penetration in the large company CEO ranks – for instance only 18 of the Fortune 500.  What needs to change to increase these numbers?  That is a huge topic and inevitably will involve many elements both individual and societal but the suggestions Sheryl makes in her speeches can only help.

I hope I have the humility to appreciate my good fortune and the friends and family who have helped me along the way.  I’ve talked about many of those people, in particularly my husband and parents, in this blog.  My education was a gift from my parents – I hope they know how much I appreciate it.  My husband has truly been a partner in all aspects of my life.  SugarSync is a team effort by all of the employees, investors and executive team.  But nobody but me walked out the door in the morning and returned to work with a six week old sleeping sweetly at home.  Nobody was in my head as I lay awake figuring out how to solve a business problem or woke up with an early alarm to finish a project before getting the kids off to school.  I take pride in what I have done to bring SugarSync to the place it is today and will be proud of us achieving even more success in the future.  I’m even prouder of my children and the people they are.  I hope that the lens through which these accomplishments are viewed will be less biased than the lens trained on Sheryl now.

It is a privilege, and perhaps even lucky, to have professional parents, a great education and generous mentors.  What the numbers and common sense show, however, is that what is noteworthy for Sheryl Sandberg and what is deserving of coverage in the NY Times and elsewhere is not her luck, but her hard work, talent, drive and contributions.

10 thoughts on “Luck or Skill?

  1. Lots of people are “lucky”, but only the prepared are truly favored by luck. As the father of a daughter, I am incredibly grateful for the dedication and hard work that visionaries such as you have put forward in blazing new trails and opening the possibilities that simply didn’t exist 50 or even 20 years ago; I am also excited and hopeful for what lays ahead, not just for women, but for the best of all people, regardless of ethnicity, background, etc. Thanks, and keep up the hard work!

  2. Thank you for an excellent and informative post. We should all be judged in a society that is based on results, ability and of course hard work, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity etc.

    I had the pleasure last week of listening to a keynote speech by Karren Brady in the UK at the UNIT4 UK Conference – please see here for an observer’s view:

  3. As usual Laura you convey a magnificent point with humility, humanity, and tact. You have certainly been a role model for me, even though I don’t have children. I honor and admire your success and agree it has been hard earned. It’s unfortunate that society continues to judge women through a different lens, much as they did Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. All it shows that we still have a long way to go, though we stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank you for using your position to bring awareness to such an important issue.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I can’t help but wonder how things would have played out with Hillary as the candidate – though she’s done a superb job as Secretary of State.

  4. Great article and as usual wonderful insight. Hardwork by women in the workplace continues to be evaluated in an uneven way (even by other women) next to their male counterparts. Certainly, childcare is the number one concern for working women at all levels in the workplace.

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