Career Advice from Sheryl Sandberg: The HBS Address

by Cathy Vandewater | June 01, 2012

Of all the reasons we're jealous of Harvard Business School students, snagging some incredible commencement speakers is right up there.

In case you missed it, here are a few great pieces of career (and life) advice from this year's speaker, Mark Zuckerberg's right hand woman: Sheryl Sandberg.

1. Be authentic

The Facebook COO speaks a lot about authenticity in her speech, which makes sense considering her employer. The separation of work and home personalities is now a thing of the past, in part thanks to social media. With that change has come a decrease in formality at the workplace, with less jargon and more frankness—but it takes a big person to handle all the honesty.

Sandberg says this, of being fully present and yourself on the job:

"As you graduate today, ask yourself, how will you lead. Will you use simple and clear language? Will you seek out honesty? When you get honesty back, will you react with anger or with gratitude? As we strive to be more authentic in our communication, we should also strive to be more authentic in a broader sense. I talk a lot about bringing your whole self to work--something I believe in deeply."

2. Get feedback to find your blind spots

Getting bad feedback sucks. But having everyone talk about what you're doing wrong behind your back without telling you is much, much worse—and doesn't really help you grow or improve at all.

Sandberg's trick for getting the goods is to be the first to say something. "…I try to speak really openly about the things I'm bad at, because that gives people permission to agree with me, which is a lot easier than pointing it out in the first place."

 3. To find a job, make it about the employer

It's important to communicate your worth to potential employers. But that doesn't have to mean a list of accomplishments. As Sandberg explains, the reverse approach can be much more effective, and really help you stand out.

Here's a story she shares about a woman who called her about a job at Facebook. She said the following: "I want to talk with you about coming to work with you at Facebook. So I thought about calling you and telling you all the things I'm good at and all the things I like to do. But I figured that everyone is doing that. So instead I want to know what's your biggest problem and how can I solve it?"

Sandberg was floored, and hired her. Why? Because, as she explains, "I'd hired thousands of people up to that point in my career, but no one had ever said anything like that. I had never said anything like that. Job searches are always about the job searcher, but not in Lori's case."

4. Get on a rocketship—and don't worry about the seating chart

It's great to have a job title in mind when you job hunt. Sandberg herself had a spreadsheet of potential roles she could be hired for. But she received some excellent career advice to the contrary from Eric Schmidt, who'd just been named the CEO of Google.

He said, according to Sandberg, "When companies are growing quickly and having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren't growing quickly or their missions don't matter as much, that's when stagnation and politics come in. If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on."

At a time like now, with huge institutions crumbling and startups rising, it seems like sound advice.

5. Don't worry about a linear career path

Sure, there was the career you plotted for yourself your freshman year of college. But the realities of the working world have likely changed that. That's not necessarily a problem—some of the most successful and "lucky" business figures have gotten where they are by taking chances, and often, seizing unexpected opportunities. The definition of serendipity, after all, is "happy accident."

As Sandberg advises HBS students, "s you start your post-HBS career, look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission." She notes that progress isn't always a ladder—it can be "a jungle gym."

Thus, move wherever makes sense, in any direction—"Move sideways, move down, move on, move off. Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they're going to give you. Do real work. Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job. Don't plan too much, and don't expect a direct climb. If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career."

Well said, Ms. Sandberg.

You can read her full address here.

--Cathy Vandewater, Vault.com

Read More:
Help! Graduation is Next Month and I Still Don’t Have a Job!
For the Class of 2012: Top 10 Ways to Build a Career
Dear Class of 2012

Filed Under: Job Search | Networking | Resumes & Cover Letters | Workplace Issues


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