It has been a week since the Facebook IPO, with a whole lot of drama in the aftermath about the glitch with Nasdaq (and the legal implications), and questions about how much traders have lost as a result, while the share price has fallen: from a start of $38 it is now $32.79 in pre-market trading. But in a speech earlier this week to the 2012 graduating class of Harvard Business School, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg steered very clear of these topics.
Instead, as you can see in the video we have embedded below, we got a pretty good (and in my opinion pretty inspiring) speech: quite a few Facebook references but not directly about the business itself, and a lot of talk about remaining honest, and the role of women at the highest level of business.
Sandberg, who was at HBS 17 years ago, joked about how at Facebook she gets asked for feedback when developers need the opinion of an older person for a new feature:
“When Dean Nohria asked me to speak here today, I thought, come talk to a group of people way younger and cooler than I am? I can do that, I do that every day, I like being surrounded by young people except when they say to me, ‘What was it like being in college without the internet?’ Or worse, ‘Sheryl, can you come here? We need to see what old people think of this feature.’”
And towards the end, in the four parting pieces of advice she gave to the class, the first was a joking, obligatory reference to her employer, and the business behind it:
“Keep in touch via Facebook; this is critical to your future success. And since we’re public now, could you click on an ad or two while you’re there?”
By and large, the speech was focused on Sandberg’s own back story and how it related to her wider message of what is important in the march to succeed in business.
Sandberg talked about how hard it was for her to find a job in Silicon Valley when she first moved there from Washington DC in 2001, not least because it was just after the first bubble crashed. “My timing wasn’t really that good,” she said. “One woman CEO looked at me and said, we wouldn’t even think about hiring someone like you.”
Sandberg also made a pretty strong emphasis on honesty. “More than anything else you will need the ability to communicate authentically,” she told the graduates.
There were also a few revealing moments if you listened closely. Her description of her work life was very telling in how close it is to the paradigm that seems to underly much of the explosion in social networking: “I try to be myself, honest about my strengths and weaknesses. It is all professional, and it is all personal, all at the very same time.”
Sometimes that will mean making mistakes and admitting them, such as her ability to accept that she could sometimes be a “bottleneck” for action in her tendency to want to be hands-on. “At Google it was really important for me to know everyone on my team,” she recalled. But that also meant that when that team grew from four to 100 she kept insisting on meeting them all. Yet her employees only told her this was a problem when she asked them about it directly.
“When you are the leader, it is really hard to get honest and good feedback,” she said.
On the subject of women, Sandberg pointed out that at the C-level, the number of women in roles is “stuck” at 15-16 percent, “and has not moved in a decade and is not growing…Gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership,” she noted. “We need to start talking about this and how women underestimate their abilities.”
Given the controversy around women in the world of VCs, quite a timely reminder that her words can and do apply not just in the world of business overall, but in tech specifically.
Video is embedded below, but there is also a pretty complete, but not official, transcript at Poets and Quants.