Why Working at Facebook Inspired me to write Lean Out
On a Sunday afternoon in March of 2016, I hit send on an email to Sheryl Sandberg, setting in motion a series of events that ended 18 months later when I was fired from my job at Facebook.
To explain, I first need to go back to the fall of 2014, which was my eleventh year working at Google. At the time, there were a spate of thought leadership and training programs aimed at helping their female employees succeed. I’ve always been passionate about helping women, so naturally I got very involved in these efforts and attended everything Google offered on the topic. But after awhile, I became disenchanted. The discussions never seemed to be truly real or honest, and they lacked any sort of practical application to our daily lives.
I decided to write my own perspective on the topic, and a month later, I was in a small conference room delivering the presentation to a handful of women, most of whom were my close friends. Over time however, more women started to show up, and it grew from one presentation into a series of lectures that I presented at other companies and even a few colleges across New York City. By the middle of 2015, I’d presented to over 1,000 people, and this little side project was bringing big meaning into my life. And it was right around this time that I got the call from Facebook.
Until then, I’d never really considered leaving Google. Although there were ups and downs like any job, I was happy for the most part and my friends there were like family. But the more I talked to Facebook, the more it seemed like a perfect move. Less than half the size of Google, it was growing fast with plenty of opportunities to work on exciting things. And above all, this was the birthplace of Lean In — is there anywhere else on earth that would be more likely to support my work on the women’s leadership series?
Being a single mom of three kids, I did have a lot of really important things to consider before making such a big change. But being rash and impulsive, I disregarded most of them. After all, this was Facebook. Obviously they would understand and support my need for flexibility. And besides, nothing was going to crush my fangirl dreams of being discovered by Sheryl Sandberg who, blown away by my brilliance and passion for helping women, would give me a one way ticket out of my day job. I started Facebook in February 2016, eager, optimistic, and blissfully unaware of the downward spiral in which I was about to step.
Sheryl Sandberg and I are from the same hometown; a small Jewish community in an unincorporated part of Dade County, Florida, about halfway between South Beach and Ft. Lauderdale. We went to the same grade schools and grew up in homes less than half a mile apart. The parallels continued into adulthood as we joined Google in its halcyon days before they went public, pursued our mutual passion for helping women, and now, both worked at Facebook.
For all the things we had in common, there were just as many we did not. The most obvious being that she was a billionaire and the COO of one of the world’s largest corporations and I was nowhere close to being either of those things. There were also the minor details, like the fact she had 2 Harvard degrees, launched Google.Org, served as chief of staff for the United States Secretary of the Treasury, founded LeanIn.Org, served on the boards for Disney and Starbucks, was named one of Time’s most influential people, and Forbes 5th most powerful woman in business. I, on the other hand, went to University of Florida where my biggest accomplishment upon graduating was not having died of alcohol poisoning.
Despite the childhood and career connections, Sandberg had no idea who I was. We were ten years apart in school, and she was ten layers above me at Google, so we’d never actually met. Over the years, I thought about reaching out to her to introduce myself but could never muster the courage, and wasn’t quite sure what I’d say anyway.
My first week at Facebook however, I found out she would be speaking onstage at our sales conference the following week in San Francisco. Figuring this was the perfect opportunity to reach out, I drafted an email introducing myself, and asked if she could spare a minute to meet in person. After writing and rewriting the email at least a hundred times, I nervously hit send. And a couple of hours later, when she replied with a gracious offer to meet for twenty minutes before she took the stage at the conference, I was elated.
The next week I found myself waiting outside the stage area for Sheryl’s assistant, ten minutes before we were scheduled to meet. Trying to be cool and casual, but failing miserably, I fidgeted with the hem of my dress and silently recited Stuart Smalley affirmations about being good enough and smart enough. Sandberg’s assistant finally showed up and lead me through a maze of hallways to the green room. She tapped Sheryl on the shoulder, who then turned to me and smiled. I remember thinking she was much smaller than I expected. I mean, I wasn’t necessarily picturing Hulk Hogan in a dress, but I guess I just assumed she’d be more physically imposing. But she was petite, and I felt like a bumbling awkward giant. Then, I made it way worse. I went in for a hug. I know. I know. And it was just as bad as you might expect — the half-second embrace was weird and cold and I felt like I had already violated her before we even sat down.
She pointed to a couple of steel folding chairs and we sat across from each as she asked a couple of questions about my time at Facebook so far. Still recovering from the hug, I pretended to be cool and in control while she pretended to be interested in what I was saying. Grasping for some kind of human connection, I dropped a few names of people we knew from back home, trying to spark some more gossipy-girlfriend-type of conversation. This too, went as badly as you might expect, as things were only getting more awkward. I was about to give up when the subject changed, and she made a passing reference to the career challenges of single moms. Ah, something real! I snapped back into my normal self and for the next few minutes, rambled on about the hard times in my life and what they taught me about perseverance and confidence and self-respect.
As I continued, she began to lean closer toward me, her eyes widening, and head nodding. Wait. Could it be…? I think…. I think she’s into me.
Feeling emboldened, I continued on about being grateful for the hard times in life because they made me feel like I could do anything (except get promoted, but we’ll get to that later on). As I became more myself, she seemed to get more real too, and at one point stopped me mid-sentence.
“ — do you mind if I get my laptop for a second? Sorry, but this is really powerful stuff and I just want to write it down.”
Um. What? This could not be for real. But it was, and for the rest of the meeting, Sheryl Sandberg went on to TRANSCRIBE everything I was saying. Omg, she really does care about what I have to say! Well, sort of.
“I have to get onstage now, but listen — I’m writing a book on resilience and think you and your story would make a perfect feature. Do you mind if my researcher emails you to set up an interview and discuss next steps?”
‘That would be great! Thank you, Sheryl!” Obviously we were going to be besties now, first names seemed appropriate.
I was on cloud nine. Just 7 days at Facebook and I had impressed Sheryl Sandberg. I fantasized about all the brilliant things I was going to contribute to her book and how she’d recognize my potential and pluck me from corporate obscurity.
After the conference I went back to New York and plunged myself into the new job. I hadn’t heard back from Sheryl or her book researcher so I put it out of my mind and focused on work. Things went smoothly for about two weeks when suddenly, I became a victim of workplace bias. I don’t mean bias toward men, but toward those in power. More specifically, toward the whims of a powerful female executive named Kimberly, who for a reason I couldn’t quite discern, was silently enraged that I existed.
My third week on the job, we had our first meeting together, just the two of us. Up to that point, I held Kimberly in the highest regard. She had also worked at Google, and although I didn’t know her directly, she had a tremendous reputation and was well liked by almost everyone.
Kimberly was also the person who finally convinced me to join Facebook. During the recruitment process, she showered me with outlandish compliments and knew exactly what to say to make me feel like…. she gets me. Her enthusiasm and flattery were so over the top it bordered on cartoonish, but all my ego could see was validation and the promise of accolades on the horizon. At one point, I did hear a small voice in my head whisper, “she doesn’t even know you,” which in retrospect, was big flashing red warning sign sent from my subconscious. But unwilling to have its parade rained on, my ego insisted, “she must have heard how great I am from George,’ a mutual friend who now worked for her. So humble of me, I know.
I approached Kimberly outside the conference room for our meeting, and right away, I sensed that her attitude toward me had changed. As the door clicked shut behind us, the fake, perfunctory smile vanished from her lips and a look of icy annoyance flashed across her face. Outside the door frame, where the world was watching, she was one person. Sitting across from me, where I was the only witness, she had transformed into someone entirely different.
It reminded me of Large Marge from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The scene that haunted me as a child; the image of her human mask being ripped off and eye balls shooting out like yo yo’s from alien-like sockets. I understood Pee Wee’s terror as he watched the shocking transformation of Large Marge. Some of the scariest moments in life are when we find out we’re not dealing with the person we thought we were.
I’ll never forget the smug look of anticipation on Kimberly’s face as we sat down. Whatever she was about to say, she was going to enjoy it.
“Marissa, I’m going to give you a little bit of feedback.”
Hm, that was odd, considering I’d worked there for a total of 8 days and still didn’t know how to use Outlook. But sure, I’m always open to feedback!
“We hired you because we know you’re good. So you don’t have to go around trying to prove it to everyone. You’re coming off as frazzled and out of control.”
The punches to the gut kept coming. I ask too many questions. I’m never happy. I’m trying too hard. I spoke up just once during all of this, and it was to ask,
“Are there specific examples you can share that would help me understand why I’m appearing this way?”
She paused, started to go in one direction, then seemed to change her mind. With a dismissive brush of her hand, she answered,
“Look Marissa, you’re just not the same person you were in the interview process.”
Funny, I was just thinking the same thing about you! But ok, I get what this is now. After the tongue lashing, we walked out of the conference room together, and her persona of lovely, benevolent leader returned. Just in time for her to be seen by anyone that actually mattered.
The following months were a blur. I was supposed to be Kimberly’s marketing and strategy partner, but her disdain for me made it impossible. Not to let a pesky thing like my humanity get in the way of her desire to make me disappear, she refused to acknowledge my existence or engage me directly. Not replying to my emails and having deleted all of our meetings from the calendar, I found it almost impossible to do my job, or to do anything really. The problem was compounded by the fact that I was brand new and didn’t know anybody yet. Kimberly on the other hand, had a sterling reputation and had been at Facebook for over three years. I tried talking to my manager about what was going on, but she only knew Kimberly by her perky, public mask. She assumed that we were dealing with a normal situation that could easily be solved with mature, grown up communication.
My attempts to explain what was really happening only made me look bad. “Sheeee won’t talkkk to meeeee!” doesn’t come off quite the same way in the office as it does in the schoolyard. I would start to tell someone, then stop when I heard how petty and immature it made me sound. Panicked about not being able to do my job, and not having anyone to confide in about it, I started feeling isolated and depressed.
One night I went out to dinner with a few old co-workers from Google. When they asked how things were going at Facebook, I danced around the subject a bit. But as soon as I mentioned Kimberly, my friend Jocelyn quickly interrupted.
“Wait, you’re working with Kimberly?? Ok I know what this is about.”
Jocelyn spent several years working for Kimberly, and for the majority of it, things were great. But one day, everything suddenly crumbled. She explained,
“I passed by Donna [Kimberly’s boss] in the cafe one day and she asked how things were going on our team. I knew Kimberly didn’t like it when we talked to people above her, but what was I going to do? Not say anything? Anyway, Donna invited me to sit down with her and we ended up having a really great conversation over lunch. I never said anything about Kimberly — her name didn’t even come up! But it doesn’t matter. Kimberly hates that shit.”
You know those pictures that were popular in the 90s, the ones that looked like a random bunch of colors and lines, but then suddenly, if you looked at it right, a 3-D picture emerged? A second ago it looked like an abstract mess, but now you can see the picture so clearly. That’s what it was like after hearing Jocelyn’s story. Everything suddenly snapped together and I understood why Kimberly’s attitude toward me had taken such a swift and vicious turn only three weeks into my job. She was pissed about my meeting with Sheryl. I had seen the two women scooting around together occasionally, but it just never occurred to me that my meeting with her would be seen as some sort of political maneuver. I mean, I went in hoping to gossip like old friends! But it was clear that Kimberly saw it as a power move and a threat to their budding courtship.
From that angle, I could only imagine what Kimberly was thinking when I told her how well my meeting went — who the HELL does this girl think she is meeting with Sheryl in her second week when I’ve had to kiss her ass for THREE YEARS?
The absurdity of it all was almost amusing, and I felt better now that I could make sense of things, but it didn’t really change the situation. In fact, things were only getting worse.
Six months into my time at Facebook, I got a call from HR. Someone, I still don’t know who, told our HR business partner that they suspected I was being bullied by Kimberly, and it is Facebook’s policy to investigate any and all claims of that nature.
Kimberly was a powerful executive with friends in high places, there was just no way this could turn out well for me. But declining to press charges turned out not to be an option; my participation was required. To address my concerns, she then gave me a rundown of Facebook’s anti-retaliation policy. Apparently, I could not be punished for speaking the truth. I thought about all the people who heard that line right before they ended up dead.
I was panicked at first and tried coming up with a strategy. Picturing myself as Bobby Axelrod in Billions, I imagined the investigation as a chess game and tried plotting out my next moves. Then I remembered that I possess neither political savvy nor the ability to keep words inside my brain, which meant there was a 99.9% chance I was going to tell them every single honest-to-god detail.
I accepted my fate and surrendered to the situation. At one point, I even became a little excited by the drama of it all. Ya know how on Sex and the City, the girls would meet for brunch and share the gory details of all the messed up things men had done to them? And how they’d laugh at the absurdity, reminding each other that they are amazing women who deserve better? Yeah, well that’s what I imagined what my meetings with HR would be like during the investigation. I know. I know.
The investigation concluded eight weeks later and surprise! it was nothing like my fantasy, and everything like the reality that a mentally sane person would have expected: no evidence of bullying was found.
Two months after the investigation concluded, and only eight months into my time at Facebook, I got the news that I was being put on a performance improvement plan, or PIP for short. PIPS are supposed to help failing employees improve their job performance. But in reality, getting put on one means the company is planning to fire you, and the PIP just covers their ass from a legal perspective. My identity as a conscientious, well respected, hard worker was completely unraveled.
The official PIP document included my impending termination date, and the key reasons for my poor performance. The biggest of which: failure to build good relationships with Kimberly and her team. I was incredulous.
I called June, our new HR business person, and asked how one might go about developing a good relationship with someone who was just investigated for bullying you. That was when I learned that June had no idea about the investigation. She had joined shortly after it concluded and apparently nobody had filled her in. I gave her a brief summary of what happened and mentioned the anti-retaliation policy that was supposedly going to protect me from this exact situation. She said to give her some time to learn more about all of this and she’d follow up with me in the coming weeks.
June was no dummy. She was a seasoned HR professional who knew this was a ridiculous situation and that someone obviously screwed up. The legal implications were crystal clear. Now she needed time to figure out how to fix it and keep Facebook out of trouble.
Unsurprisingly, my performance made a miraculous recovery after talking to June, and like magic, I was off the PIP. I was relieved but in the back of my mind I knew I was a dead man walking.
Everyone around me, both at work and in my personal life, encouraged me to leave and find a new job elsewhere. But I had already decided to ride out the remainder of the year at Facebook and return to work on my women’s leadership series. The course of events forced me to come to terms with what I had always known but until then refused to admit: I was never going to be truly happy in the corporate world. In my heart, I desperately wanted to pursue my dream of writing a book and being a public speaker. So I chose to see the time at Facebook as a gift; a chance to maintain an income while I figured out a plan to go after the things that really mattered.
One of the first things I did was re-read Lean In as a starting point for my research. The first time I read it was in 2014 when I had just begun work on my lecture series. With the excitement and novelty of a new project as the backdrop, I enjoyed the book and admired Sandberg’s courage.
But now I was reading it through an entirely different lens, and it lead me to a significant realization — Lean In was completely antithetical to everything I taught in my workshops and ran counter to everything I believe as a human being. Lean In is a battle cry for women to change; to be more assertive, ambitious, and demanding. In other words, it pins the blame for the gender gap squarely on women and offers a prescription on how to behave more like men. I on the other hand, blamed the failure of our institutions which haven’t changed since the industrial age, a time when there were no women in the workforce. More importantly, I encouraged women to reject the dogma and rhetoric about what you should want and who you are supposed to be, and offered a framework for defining success purely on your own terms. The entire spirit of my lectures was irreverent and tinged with a subtle corporate rebelliousness.
I don’t know why the contrast between our approaches was so invisible to me the first time around. But reading it the second time, the profound irony hit me with a sharp smack to the face. When it came to success, I had been listening to Sandberg’s advice instead of my own. And I was angry. Angry at myself for buying into someone else’s idea of who I should be and what my career should look like. Angry because none of it was real, and angry because, deep down, I had known it all along.
That summer I was sitting in an audience at a women’s leadership breakfast when Sheryl Sandberg took the stage with none other than Kimberly. They both sat down and began a discussion around female empowerment in the workplace. Kimberly told the audience all the things she does to support the women around her. Not only does she run her office’s monthly Lean In Circle, she always goes the extra mile to help women succeed. This seemed to please Sandberg, and the audience politely clapped while I tried not to throw up. I wanted to scream. None of this is real! These women don’t care about other women! This isn’t even about women! It’s about power and personal agenda. How could I not see this all along?
In that moment I made a promise to myself. Instead of getting angry and self-righteous about the theater of feminism, I would continue sharing my truth and telling my story. Despite making significant progress on the book several months after the conference, I was still too terrified to straight up quit my job. Thankfully the universe stepped in and did it for me. By ‘universe,’ I mean a call from June on my way home from what I thought was a regular day at the office. She said that despite my marginal improvements, I am still not meeting the expectations for someone at my level. And with that, I was fired.
Oh, and the anti-retaliation policy? It had just expired.
I began writing Lean Out, The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace in the summer of 2017, and it is due to be released by Harper Collins in August of next year.
The book is not about Sheryl Sandberg, although I use my experience at Facebook as stories to support my argument. Rather, it’s about the larger dogma and rhetoric which has dominated the national conversation on women and work.
Based on my lecture series at Google, it was born from my disenchantment with the incessant stream of advice to women on how to behave. Instead of encouraging us to lean into our individual strengths and celebrate the value women bring to the table, we essentially tell them to behave more like men. Of course nobody says it like that. I mean, this is the corporate world after all. Instead, we called it ‘success behaviors’ which really just meant ‘male behaviors,’ but changing the word makes everyone feel better. Is there anything less feminist than the implication that men are the ‘norm’ and doing it ‘right,’ and that there’s something inherently less valuable about the way we are as women?
Lean Out unravels the conventional wisdom on the gender gap. It suggests that today’s leadership paradigm springs from a male worldview, with success predicated on women acting more like men. It is not only insulting, but wrongheaded, because the lack of female executives in corporate America today is not the result of dysfunctional women, but a highly dysfunctional system.
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