The Importance of Leaning in at Work

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author
The Essential HR Handbook

Oh, how I wish Sheryl Sandberg had written “Lean In” when I was starting my business career!

I absolutely love this book and the concepts it covers, and I think it should be required reading for anyone interested in a career in business—men as well as women.

Actually, the concept of leaning in doesn’t just apply to a business situation, but can be used wherever you are in life. I am just happy that this new generation of women has the encouragement they need to pursue their career aspirations—without hesitation.

I admit it. I have been guilty of leaning back when I should have been leaning in.

I started my business career in the 1970s, at a time when I was almost always the only woman in meetings or at conferences in my field.

Now the HR field is very heavily populated by women, except for some of the top positions in organizations. It wasn’t easy to always have to fight for a promotion.

I remember one in my early career with a major retail firm where my boss got promoted and I indicated that I wanted to be considered for the position. I had been working in that department for more than two years doing excellent work according to my performance reviews and feedback. When I threw my hat in the ring for the position, the VP said, “Oh, we never thought of you—do you really want to be a ‘career girl’”?

I was stunned, and said that I thought that my commitment to the job and the company should have been obvious. I didn’t get the job—they promoted a man and asked me to train him.

Why is that story so significant?

Looking back, I don’t think I had been leaning in at all. Of course, I would do it differently today.

  • I would be sure that my accomplishments were noted.
  • I would have been much more vocal about asking for assignments and projects to enhance my skill set.
  • I would speak up!

The good news is that most women today are much more likely to speak up. Women of my generation are also more likely to help those who are following us along our chosen path. After all, few things in business are as satisfying as helping someone navigate the minefields ahead of them.

But keep this in mind:

Even though a lot of women are in the HR world, we still have a long way to go to reach the top positions in large corporations and other highly visible positions.

Why is that? Here’s one reason: HR professionals are historically not great at “blowing their own horn.” This holding-back strategy has not positioned us as the valued business partners we are.

I am hopeful that the concepts shared in “Leaning In” will spur HR professionals to speak up and lean in. I know it has inspired me.

About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors and has consulted for a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human-resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Her books include The Essential HR Handbook, and The Big Book of HR. Click here to buy the book.