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Dr. Cindy Haines Headshot

Why Sheryl Sandberg Can't Help Me

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I was at an appointment this week; the office had lots of media to busy people as they waited. Among the content: The latest issue of Time magazine with Sheryl Sandberg on the cover, proclaiming, "Don't Hate Her Because She's Successful."

Ironically, as I picked up the magazine and started flipping through, the waiting room TV had one of the news channels playing some coverage about the backlash Marissa Mayer is experiencing after her decision to veto the practice of telecommuting in her resurrection attempts at Yahoo. Oh boy, the war rages on. Seeing high-profile businesswomen under fire for something that wouldn't even rise to radar for men is very stressful to me. Like Gwen Stefani sings in "Just a Girl": "I'm just a girl, my apologies. What I've become is so burdensome."

I had time to get through the entire article and then moved through the rest of my day. There were a couple of points that stuck out in reading the article, but overall, nothing that really resonated with me and how I live my life and approach my career. I mean, I'm a Midwestern girl, born-raised-educated, and I like to be liked. I don't have the kind of pedigree that Sheryl has, nor do I have her chutzpah and the internal freedom to exercise assertion to the level I suspect she does.

I mean, come on, I'm just me -- A Nice Girl. A Likeable Girl. I don't know or even want to know how to play the corporate or political games for top-shelf success in a "Man's World." Sandberg even talks about the experience of groups evaluating the likeability of a successful woman. This was compared to a second evaluation of the same case study, the only difference being that the identical profile was offered as a man. The man was much better liked while the woman was less so and seen as "selfish." This is something we, as women, don't need to be told. We get that message loud and clear. There's a choice: Go after what you want, or, be liked. You can't have both.

I've often wondered and dreamt about what it would look like to be able to just be you; and if that happens to be a sensitive and nurturing female, well, that's no barrier to creating impact at a leadership level -- in fact, these qualities, if authentic to your true and gifted nature, would be an asset! This is my dream.

The second point that stuck with me was the interesting use of the word "sponsor." A sub-text that I plucked from the article: Women do not need to become men to function and thrive in a man's world, they just need a key to unlock the door to the club.

With a nod to her obvious intelligence and stellar academic record (which many of us have yet, for whom, remain inexplicably inadequate), for Sheryl, this meant having a "sponsor" -- I thought this word was fascinating in this context. We often hear about role models and mentors... but sponsors? Isn't that something we have at Alcoholic Anonymous or at the highly-sought-after country club in that neighborhood on the other side of the tracks?

But sponsor, and the need to have one, is so right on. Here's the critical but nuanced difference: A role model is someone to observe and model after. A mentor takes this a step beyond as a role model who can directly impart wisdom and advice on how to navigate the path of one's life and career.

Sponsor? While hopefully also a role model and a mentor, this is someone who goes even farther. And this may be the most important point for women aspiring to become leaders in our society: A sponsor is someone who puts their name on the line for you. Someone who quite literally brings you into the fold under their aegis. Recruiting others within their circle to accept and support you, as they do.

This could well be the most critical difference between a woman who rises to the top of business leadership and those that remain stuck underneath some invisible but still impenetrable glass ceiling.

Contrary to what we "having it all" women may believe: It's not about the kids, the biological clock or even the female versus male dynamic. It's about a club -- a very exclusive men's club. Women are being allowed to enter, yes, but who, what, when and how? It's the job of the men (and, now, women) inside to identify and connect with the talented, authentic leaders emerging from the next generation -- and sponsor them. On second thought, maybe Sheryl Sandberg can help me after all.