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Lean In or Get Out: Choices For Women on the Road to the Top

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I've ordered my copy of Lean In by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. If it will help improve the statistics on women in leadership -- in 2013 women represent 17 heads of state out of 195, hold about 20 percent of all seats in parliament globally, are seated on 17 percent of boards and head about 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies -- then I'm leaning in for sure on this opportunity.

In recent interviews, Sandberg has stated that women are in large part responsible for our less-than-stellar representation at senior levels. This view has merit. Just as it takes two to tango, women are part of their own success equation.

Evidence has long supported Sandberg's view that we're raised to be less confident about our potential, in her personal case declining to stand out by resisting being named "most likely to succeed" in her high school class.

"We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in," Sandberg told Time magazine.

Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor admitted to being nervous before trials, and as she joined the Supreme Court. One of the most accomplished and successful women in the world, no one could accuse Sotomayor of failing to lean in. Sotomayor says that she still has self-doubts.

Having confidence all of the time is not a prerequisite to success. What you do with personal doubts is much more important. Each time you overcome self-doubt or convert tension into enthusiasm, those emotions are reframed into positive motivation to do well.

It's important to know, too, before you lean in that you're on the right journey. Betty Friedan probably wouldn't have gotten to the top of Facebook like Sheryl Sandberg if she were around today -- not because she couldn't do the work, but because that wouldn't be playing to her strengths. No amount of leaning in compensates for being on the wrong path or in the wrong organization.

And so this brings me to an important point. There are times to talk and times to walk. There are indeed times to lean in but also times to get out. There are jobs for which, female or male, you should go for the top and ones from which you should run like hell.

If you're not forging a new pathway previously unwelcoming or closed to women, then learn how those who went before you did so successfully. Put your own twist on that and learn from them directly if they'll share their tactics. Make sure what you have to offer in expertise is something the company needs. Help them realize it. Promotion is not just being good at what you do, it's persuading others to see it that way.

Before you lean in, be sure you do so in an environment where your courage, skill and stamina are going to pay off. Make sure you're on a journey you want to take because it's where you belong. And it's where you deserve to shine.

Make sure you understand the environment. Don't expect to get ahead because it's the fair thing. That's another mistake many women still make. Fairness is not the issue. Know how things work -- not just how people around you or upstairs tell you they work.

Keep your eyes and ears open. Understand what gets noticed and what is just a waste of time. Plan to be disliked by some people. It could be a compliment. Recognize that a lot of good things are partially due to good fortune. A whole lot more is due to good homework.

Watch your back if the place is highly political and remember that few people get ahead alone. And you won't either.

Know what you're willing to give up. Nobody can have it all. That whole debate is a waste of time. You're not going to have it all. So, how much do you want? Make sure you have the resilience to recover from mistakes. They're inevitable.

I'm all for leaning in and more women should learn what it takes to do so competently because the statistics on female success are appalling given how long we've been at the struggle for equal opportunity and success in business and government.

The recipe for getting ahead varies across organizations. Confidence is important and so is "raising your hand," as Sandberg points out. Equally important -- knowing when to keep your hand down because the task they're giving out is not going to get you anywhere. When you step up, make sure most of the time it's for something that counts. Memorize one of my favorite phrases learned from a male colleague: "Can't do that. Wish I could."

We may be part of our own problem, but we are not all of it by a long shot. It will take many women navigating the hard road, not just at the top, to change a culture in denial of bias. There are many roadblocks to women's success. But the truth is that anything worth having is worth fighting for and it's going to take a lot more scuffles before we can say this battle is won.