This morning was like any other in the office: calm, orderly, busy but peaceful. My friendly, professional co-workers were scattered about the open office floor, comfortably nestled into each of their five-foot by five-foot worlds. Most were reading through the few dozen emails that filled up their inbox since they last checked it at 10pm the night before. Some were exchanging pleasantries in the kitchenette as they filled up their coffee mugs. Just your typical Tuesday morning in Corporate America.
I entered the dark conference room that I had reserved a few weeks earlier. Like all the other conference rooms I’ve ever been in in my 12 year career, it was as sterile as a hospital operating room. The motion-sensing fluorescent lights came on and I had about ten minutes before I kicked off a three-hour working session with the project team I’m leading. I got to work on my pre-meeting ritual which at this point in my career I could completely execute with my eyes closed.
I wrote a high-level agenda up on the white board, specifically choosing the blue Expo pen over the red one. I fired up the projector and connected my laptop. Once I had opened the slides I needed for the session, I deliberately shut down my email, chat window and some personal tabs I had left open the day before (a crucial step I learned the hard way early on in my career).
I reached what felt like ten feet across the unnecessarily wide conference table to pull the three-legged telecon phone closer to me. I dialed the conference number and made sure the line was open for our remote teammates as they joined us.
Once everything was up and running, I ducked out of the room to grab a cup of water – another must-have that I learned early on in my career.
As I made my way back to the room, I continued the ritual in my head: mentally running through the meeting agenda, the purpose and objectives, the personalities that would be in attendance and what expertise I needed to draw out of each of them as part of our discussion.
When I was back in the room, two remote teammates were on the line and two had joined in the room. It was a cross-functional team and we were working on a process improvement effort that had “executive visibility”; a label which can simultaneously serve as a badge of honor and a kiss of death. The team members were senior leaders in their respective organizations. Each of them were experts in their field with decades of experience, most of it with our company.
As “project manager”, I was there to ensure these experts made the appropriate business decisions and moved the process improvement effort forward. I was used to being the most junior person in the room and the person with no particular expertise; just a skill set of facilitation, organization, and change management.
Three minutes past 9am, five out of six of our team members were present (not bad for a daunting three-hour meeting on a Tuesday morning). The one person we were still waiting for was the new guy on our team. He had joined our company just eight weeks earlier, and came into a role that faced some major challenges.
In his first week with us, he had been fully engaged – even excited – about the challenges he had in front of him. But then I noticed his attendance, as well as his enthusiasm, slowly deteriorating. I was aware of some of the very significant efforts he was working on – far more pressing than the particular project I was managing – so I was very understanding when he began missing most of our project meetings.
At 9:05am, our final team member joined us. He greeted us with the kind smile he had first greeted us with weeks earlier. I asked him something along the lines of “how are you holding up?” He expectedly replied that he was “surviving” and “yeah, there’s a lot going on…!” I thought the standard Corporate America response was the end of it. But then he offered up a quick personal anecdote. “Yeah, I got a call from my eight-year-old son last night saying ‘Daddy, when are you coming home?’ and crying that he missed me.” He told us the story with the kind smile still on his face, and just the right amount of sincere guilt and sadness in his voice. I could tell he was suppressing most of it, for fear he might burst into tears all over the over-sized conference room table.
In the short few hours I had spent with this man, I had come to know him as very kind and down-to-earth. He did not strike me as a Corporate go-getter who was content to father a few children then leave them alone for days with his trophy wife to jet around the world doing business deals… Although he hadn’t previously mentioned a son, it didn’t surprise me to learn he was a family man and apparently a very devoted father, whose heart had been slowly breaking over the eight week period since he had started this new job with our company.
After the rest of us offered our condolences for the quandary he found himself in, I and the other team members (also humans with families and lives outside this sterile conference room) spent a good three seconds thinking about our own families and priorities.
I pictured my three sweet children who run full speed into my arms when I reliably arrive home by 5pm every weekday. Although they’re still small, there is so much love in those three little bodies that even my long arms can’t quite wrap completely around it all. In the midst of my teammate’s sadness, I felt relief and gratitude that my own children will never have to make such a phone call to their mother or their father. They will never know what it feels like to have a parent who seemingly puts his or her job responsibilities before their family’s interests, willingly or otherwise.
After my initial thought of my children, my next thought was of my “Lean OUT” message because here is a man who needs to Lean OUT. He is sacrificing precious moments – a precious relationship – that no job is worth sacrificing for, especially not a job he has only had for eight weeks. Granted, he has invested much more than eight weeks into his career. But here’s the difference between Lean INers and Lean OUTers:
Lean INers will dutifully put their career and the expectations of others above their own priorities, even if doing so breaks their heart or worse – the heart of their eight-year-old son. Lean OUTers will forgo the expectations of others and the pressure of career ambition in order to meet the needs of their family and their personal priorities.
All of these thoughts crossed my mind within eight seconds between my teammate’s story and my kicking off our three hour meeting. My final thought was “See, that’s exactly why Sheryl Sandberg is so blatantly wrong” and my emotions turned from sadness for my teammate, to gratitude for my own decision to Lean OUT, to anger towards people like Sheryl Sandberg who encourage this ass-backwards way of thinking.
In meetings like this morning’s, as I sit across the table from Senior Directors and VPs literally looking into the eyes of the career path I chose to forgo, I sometimes have fleeting feelings of my ole Lean IN ambition. I think “See, all these people have Leaned IN to their careers and look how successful and happy they are! You should think again about your decision to Lean OUT…”
Then I hear a story like my teammate’s which, although dramatized here in this post is actually a common story around the Corporate America water cooler. It’s a story that is often even viewed as admirable, like we should all be impressed by this individual’s amazing sacrifice!
I reminded myself of why my teammate’s cautionary story (and the millions like it I’ve heard through my years in Corporate America) have lead me to the decision to Lean OUT. His story reminded me why I’ve chosen (and re-choose every day) to forgo the impressive title and salary that inevitably come with 60 hour workweeks, 12am emails and disappointed eight-year-olds.
Some people might have been impressed hearing a story like my teammate’s. Me? I just felt sad for him and his son. And when I got home this afternoon at 5pm on the dot and I saw my three beautiful babies running towards me, I wrapped my arms a little further around them, grasping all the love I could possibly hold.
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