Leadership 101: Be a Practitioner, Not Just a Manager!

I learned about leadership & scaling from Sheryl Sandberg. My direct manager for 10+ yrs, we spent countless hours together in weekly 1x1s (she attended religiously), meetings, offsites, dinners, travel, etc. Here are some of the most important lessons I took away from Sheryl:
In one of our early M-team offsites, everyone shared their mission in life. Sheryl described her passion for scaling organizations. She was single-mindedly focused on this purpose and loved everything about scaling. It’s a huge strength to know what you were put on earth to do.
Sheryl implemented critical systems to help us scale – eg 360 perf reviews, calibrations, promotions, refresh grants, PIPs. She brought structure to our management team and board meetings, hired senior people across the company, and streamlined communications up and down the org.
Sheryl told Mark the things he didn’t want to hear. As companies grow, people don’t want to give the CEO bad news. Mark knew Sheryl would never worry about losing her job or falling out of favor. And over time Sheryl taught me and others how to be truth-tellers for her and Mark.
Sheryl refused to participate in late night meetings. She had the confidence to admit she went to bed at 10pm and told Mark she’d be happy to meet when she woke up at 5am if he still hadn’t gone to bed yet. Her vulnerability was inspiring and signaled strength not weakness.
A few months after she joined the company, Sheryl told me she was planning to give me more responsibility (yay!). But first she wanted to make sure others were seeing what she saw in me. This was my first 360 performance review and it changed my life. I shared the story here:
Every 6 months for the next 10 yrs I received a detailed perf review from Sheryl, and she always sat with me to deliver it. She also insisted on receiving specific feedback for her. She took feedback incredibly seriously, in both directions. Her poster read: “Feedback Is A Gift”
Occasionally people would ask to meet with me after getting tough feedback from Sheryl. I would always share the story of my very first performance review and explain Sheryl’s philosophy of constant, real-time, direct feedback. It wasn’t always easy to hear, but it made us better
I frequently received emails from Sheryl with subject “You!” It might be a note (cc Mark) praising me for something. More often it was a note (cc me) to someone on my team (often deep in my org) praising them for something. Those little notes meant the world to their recipients.
Sheryl responded to all of her email. Many companies have a culture where execs respond selectively, but this makes people feel small. If Sheryl didn’t have something to say, she would still respond “thanks I’ll think about it” or cc someone else asking them to look into it.
I remember after Sheryl wrote Lean In, she lamented to me that she could no longer personally respond to every fan email because she was overwhelmed. Rather than ignore them, she implemented a system to ensure they always received a response from her team (and often from her).
Execs often fall into the trap of only managing rather than doing. Sheryl insisted everyone on M-team do “real work.” She never stopped taking sales meetings and she praised me for personally negotiating big deals. She encouraged all of us to be practitioners not just managers.
Sheryl & I disagreed early on about a decision. I thought Mark would agree with me so I went around her to make my case. She sat me down and explained that if we were going to work together she needed to be able to trust me. She invited escalation but insisted on transparency.
We faced a tough situation with a partner and one of their board members asked Sheryl to meet. She invited me to join but I demurred, I knew this would be a contentious mtg. She told me about one of her colleagues in DC who testified when nobody else wanted to – “step up, own it”
Sheryl organized trips for M-team to visit other companies we admired (she has incredible CEO relationships). We visited Walmart, Samsung, P&G. We did a mini bootcamp at Quantico Marine Officer Training Center. There was countless lessons and lots of bonding on those trips.
Sheryl was a demanding boss who held me to a high standard. She got upset when I failed & pushed me to step up my game. And she celebrated my successes. She always had my back, I knew she would fight to the death for me, and I could always trust her. She taught me to be a leader.

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