Build­ing Per­sonal and Col­lec­tive Re­silience

Face­book COO Sh­eryl Sand­berg talks to her friend, Wharton Pro­fes­sor Adam Grant, about how to build up in­di­vid­ual and or­ga­ni­za­tional re­silience.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Sh­eryl Sand­berg and Adam Grant

Face­book COO Sh­eryl Sand­berg talks to Wharton Pro­fes­sor Adam Grant about how to build re­silience — in our­selves and in oth­ers.

Adam Grant: Peo­ple who know your story are amazed by how you have man­aged to thrive in the face of ad­ver­sity. What has been the key for you?

Sh­eryl Sand­berg:

The fact is, I got through [the sud­den death of my hus­band] be­cause you and oth­ers in my life have been un­be­liev­able friends. You were right there for me emo­tion­ally, pro­cess­ing it all with me in real time. As a re­sult of this ex­pe­ri­ence, I know for a fact that we can build re­silience in each other.

This is not just about me and my ex­pe­ri­ence. We can also help to build ‘col­lec­tive re­silience’ in our or­ga­ni­za­tions and in our com­mu­ni­ties. We have a deep re­spon­si­bil­ity to help pre­vent hard­ship, be­cause it is not evenly dis­trib­uted. Peo­ple who face poverty and racism have more vi­o­lence in their lives, more death and more job loss, and all of these things lead to more ill­ness.

A great ex­am­ple of turn­ing that around is a pro­gram called the Nurse-fam­ily Part­ner­ship, which em­pow­ers first-time moth­ers from low-in­come fam­i­lies to cre­ate bet­ter fu­tures for them­selves. Nurses from this or­ga­ni­za­tion start vis­it­ing when the woman first gets preg­nant, and this con­tin­ues un­til the child is two years old. The re­sults have been amaz­ing: 15 years later, the in­car­cer­a­tion rates for these young peo­ple have gone way down.

As a so­ci­ety, we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to do a lot more than we’re do­ing. You have joked that there is a whole sec­tion in book­stores for self-help books, but there is no ‘Help Oth­ers’ sec­tion. I would re­ally love for our book and what we’re do­ing with op­ to launch a help-oth­ers cat­e­gory.

AG: I re­mem­ber be­ing stunned by some of the com­ments you faced when your hus­band died. One ‘friend’ said to you, “You’re just too an­gry and sad; it’s hard to be around you”. Can you talk a bit about what you learned about be­ing a sup­port­ive friend?


Be­fore we lost David, if some­one I knew was go­ing through some­thing dif­fi­cult, the first time I saw them I would say, ‘I am so sorry about X’; then, I wouldn’t bring it up again. I fig­ured, if the per­son wanted to talk about it, they would tell me. Also, I didn’t want to keep re­mind­ing them about it. I now know that this mind­set is lu­di­crous: You can’t ‘re­mind me’ that I lost Dave. Trust me, I know that. And, you can’t re­mind some­one that she went for chemo­ther­apy this morn­ing, or that his dad is in jail. They know.

I’m not say­ing that ev­ery per­son will want to talk about it ev­ery time, but you can al­ways say, ‘I know you’re suf­fer­ing, and I am here if you want to talk’.

The other thing I learned was the power of not just of­fer­ing to do some­thing, but ac­tu­ally do­ing some­thing. That’s an­other thing I got wrong. I have said to many peo­ple over the years, ‘Let me know if there’s any­thing I can do’ — and I au­then­ti­cally meant it. The prob­lem is, when you say that, it shifts the bur­den to the per­son who needs the help. ‘Do­ing some­thing’ doesn’t have to be a huge ges­ture. Two of my dear friends trag­i­cally lost a child, and were in the hospi­tal for many months. One day, a friend of Dan’s texted him out of the blue and asked, ‘What do you want on your burger?’

An­other friend of mine read our book be­fore it came out. She had a friend — not a close friend — whose child had leukemia and had to re­turn to the hospi­tal. She said to me, “Be­fore I read the book, I would have done noth­ing, be­cause she isn’t one of my best friends. How dare I im­pose on her when she’s deal­ing with a sick child?” But be­cause she read the book, she went to the toy store and bought a stuffed an­i­mal; then she went to the hospi­tal lobby and texted her friend: ‘I’m down here in the lobby; if you want to come down, I have some­thing for you, but I have to leave in 15 min­utes.’ The woman texted her back right away and said, ‘Please, come up!’ She gave the stuffed an­i­mal to the four-yearold and the mother was stand­ing be­hind her cry­ing, mouthing the words ‘Thank you!’

You don’t have to be some­one’s best friend from the first grade to show up with a burger or a teddy bear, but the fact is, a lot more ‘show­ing up’ and ac­knowl­edg­ing would help a lot of peo­ple.

AG: Shortly af­ter Dave died, you wrote in a Face­book post: “I will never feel an­other mo­ment of pure joy again”. Talk a bit about how you got past that.


It wasn’t easy. One of the sen­tences in the book that I love is, ‘Joy is a dis­ci­pline’. It takes work at the best of times — and it takes even more work when there is loss or grief.

About four months af­ter Dave died, I went to a Bar Mitz­vah. A child­hood friend pulled me onto the dance floor, and we started danc­ing like high school kids. But af­ter about a minute, I broke down cry­ing and had to be taken out­side. I didn’t know what was wrong with me; I just felt strange. I had been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing grief for four solid months, and I sud­denly re­al­ized, ‘Oh, my God, I feel happy!’ The guilt to­tally over­came me. How dare I be on a dance floor?

Around that time, my brother-in-law called and said: “All Dave ever wanted was for you and the kids to be happy. Please don’t take that away from him”. That was the per­mis­sion I needed. Of­ten in life, we think ‘hap­pi­ness’ is get­ting into a cer­tain school, or hav­ing a child, but hap­pi­ness is re­ally about the daily stuff — all the small things. I re­mem­ber one day, you said to me, ‘You have to start do­ing things that are fun again’. I took your ad­vice. Even things that re­minded me of Dave, I took back. The kids and I started play­ing Set­tlers of Catan again, even though Dave and I were play­ing it right be­fore he died. And I started watch­ing TV again.

AG: Hold on. Sh­eryl Sand­berg watches TV? SS:

Dave and I used to watch to­gether, ev­ery night — but then I didn’t, be­cause it re­minded me of him. Ev­ery­thing fun re­minded me of him, so I did none of it. But slowly, I be­gan to take things back. I took back Game of Thrones, even though I don’t re­ally un­der­stand it now that Dave’s not there to ex­plain. I took back Scrabble, which Dave al­ways played with his brother, Rob. Now, Rob and I play.

It was you who sug­gested that each night, be­fore I go to bed, I write down three ‘mo­ments of joy’ from the day. I started do­ing that, and I still do it. They weren’t big things: I had a re­ally great cup of cof­fee; some­one told a hi­lar­i­ous joke; my son gave me a hug, with­out be­ing asked. But, be­cause I was re­call­ing these mo­ments and writ­ing them down, I savoured them more. There is still a lot of grief. But, there is also pure joy now. And I know that Dave would want that.

AG: I re­mem­ber you say­ing to me, “I don’t think I can do any­thing”. Can you talk a bit about that feel­ing?


Af­ter Dave died, I felt the grief, the anger and the sad­ness — all of which I ex­pected. Not in the amounts that they came, but I wasn’t shocked by them. What did shock me is that his death to­tally trashed my self-con­fi­dence. Ob­vi­ously, hav­ing writ­ten Lean In, I had thought a lot about self-con­fi­dence. As I put that book to­gether I learned a lot from the data, which shows

Hap­pi­ness is re­ally about the daily stuff — all the small things.

that over­all, women feel less self-con­fi­dent than men. I started giv­ing women ad­vice about how to feel more self-con­fi­dent, and I took that ad­vice my­self. I was feel­ing re­ally good — like I deserved my job and I could be a good mother and work. My con­fi­dence was solid.

Then, Dave’s death just trashed it. I was now moth­er­ing by my­self, with two griev­ing chil­dren. I had no idea how to do that. When I went back to work I could barely fo­cus through a meet­ing and not think about Dave — let alone con­trib­ute.

Be­fore, when some­one at work was go­ing through some­thing painful, I would of­fer them some time off. At Face­book, we are re­ally good at that. Other com­pa­nies need to step up and we need bet­ter pub­lic pol­icy for those who are not cov­ered by their com­pa­nies. So, I would of­fer the per­son time off and say some­thing like, ‘Don’t worry; of course you can’t fully fo­cus right now — look what you’re go­ing through’. The thing is, when the shoe was on the other foot — and peo­ple were say­ing that to me — all it did was prove what I al­ready knew, which was, ‘Oh God: I can’t do my job; I’ve lost Dave and now I’m go­ing to lose ev­ery­thing’. It was very scary.

Mark Zucker­berg is 15 years younger than me — so I have no idea how he knew to do this — but he started say­ing things to build my con­fi­dence back up. He would say, “Oh don’t worry Sh­eryl, you would have made that mis­take be­fore this hap­pened”. That was very comforting. When I fell asleep in my first meet­ing on the first day back, he said to me af­ter­wards: “You made two re­ally good points in there to­day”, and he named them.

Now, when some­one at work is go­ing through some­thing, I will proac­tively take the time to com­pli­ment some of the lit­tle things that might have gone un­no­ticed be­fore. This is re­ally im­por­tant, be­cause to help some­one get through a trauma, we need to com­fort them and show up; but we also have to take steps to build them back up, re­mind them that they can do their job, and give them per­mis­sion to laugh and live.

AG: On to some other top­ics that you’ve writ­ten about. Some peo­ple ques­tion whether women still face bi­ases in the work­place. What is your take on this?

We know from the data that white men — and par­tic­u­larly young white men — be­lieve that the deck is stacked against them be­cause of all the talk about di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion. A young em­ployee at Face­book once asked me about this, and I just looked at him and said, “Look, if we’re bi­ased in favour of women and mi­nori­ties, we must re­ally suck at it, be­cause we still don’t have nearly enough of these peo­ple in our se­nior ranks”. When 95 per cent of For­tune 500 CEOS are male, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that there is bias against male lead­er­ship. And, based on a re­cent Lean In- Mck­in­sey sur­vey of over 100 com­pa­nies, 30 per cent more first pro­mo­tions last year were for men rather than women. So, if there is bias in the other di­rec­tion, it cer­tainly isn’t show­ing up in the data.

We need to rec­og­nize that bi­ases are real, call them out and ex­plain what they are. A man can be com­pe­tent and liked, and as he gets more pow­er­ful and is con­sid­ered more com­pe­tent, we like him even more. But women face a trade-off: As they get more pow­er­ful, re­search shows that we like them less. Also, re­search [by Rot­man Pro­fes­sor So­nia Kang et al.] shows that you can send in the same ré­sumé with a white-sound­ing name or a black-sound­ing name, and, the white-sound­ing name will get 50 per cent more call­backs. It’s ba­si­cally worth eight years of ex­pe­ri­ence to have a White-sound­ing name over a black-sound­ing name.

The data is very clear on this: We have to be will­ing to call out bi­ases and we have to rec­og­nize that a world where peo­ple are given equal op­por­tu­nity — with­out re­gard to race or gen­der — will be a bet­ter world for all of us. We will be more pro­duc­tive, our com­pa­nies will be bet­ter-run, our kids will be hap­pier and they will do bet­ter in school.

AG: As a leader, what’s the best way to man­age your ‘per­sonal brand’?


I get this ques­tion a lot, par­tic­u­larly from young au­di­ences, and ev­ery time, I shud­der. If you are put­ting ef­fort into build­ing up your per­sonal brand, please stop. You are not a brand. Crest is a brand. Per­rier is a brand. Branded things are pack­aged up and mar­keted. Peo­ple are not that sim­ple, and we can’t be pack­aged. When we are, we are in­ef­fec­tive and in­au­then­tic.

I would say to peo­ple, you don’t have a brand, but you do have a voice. Un­like a brand, it is not con­sis­tently ‘wrapped up’ in the ex­act same way. I have used my own voice to help build my com­pany, to speak out on women’s is­sues and lately, to talk about grief and try and help oth­ers break out of the iso­la­tion I felt.

Don’t pack­age your­self. Just speak hon­estly, and when­ever pos­si­ble, speak with some data be­hind you. Speak from your ex­pe­ri­ence, in an au­then­tic way. Work on de­vel­op­ing your voice, not your brand.

AG: A lot of peo­ple ask me what I think of their ‘12-year ca­reer plan’ or the ‘15-year path’ that they’ve mapped out for them­selves. What would you say to these peo­ple?


Those plans should go in the trash can with the per­sonal brand doc­u­ments. If I had mapped out my ca­reer, I would not be sit­ting here to­day. What you do need to have is a mean­ing­ful long-term dream. Think about what that is, and make it big and am­bi­tious — par­tic­u­larly if you’re a woman or an un­der-rep­re­sented mi­nor­ity. Not every­one has to want to be a CEO some­day, but we should all be am­bi­tious in terms of mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in the world. Ask your­self what you would do if you weren’t afraid; then, ask, ‘what am I do­ing in the next year or two to get there?’ Don’t try to con­nect your short-term plan to your long-run dream, be­cause you will miss out on a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties. Face­book didn’t even ex­ist when I started out.

Ca­reers are a jun­gle gym, not a lad­der. Don’t be afraid to move side­ways or even back­wards. Be will­ing to try new things, but don’t tie your­self up in knots build­ing the per­fect long-term plan, be­cause it will hold you back.

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