The Lean In Alternative: Why Leaning Back Also Works for Women in Business

By Vickie Milazzo

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has received both high praise and disapproval from women. Whether you agree with everything she writes or not, the core lesson that women should lean in and become leaders in the workplace is solid advice. But, in their rise to the top, women should also make an effort to lean back to help other women. 

The release of Lean In, the new book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, has sparked a firestorm of attention from the media and folks around conference room tables throughout the country. Sandberg’s assertion that women in business should “lean in” and make more of an effort to lead is one that has garnered both nods of agreement and adamant disapproval from men and women alike.

As a successful businesswoman in my own right, I acknowledge that women should absolutely do everything they can to take on leadership roles in the workplace. But in addition to “leaning in,” women in the workplace should make “leaning back” a priority.

To me, “leaning back” means bringing other women with you as you achieve. Though women in the workplace have come a long way, we often still make less than men who do the same jobs as us. We are still systematically overlooked for promotions, even when we’re more qualified than the man who ends up with the job. And though it’s becoming less uncommon to see a woman heading up an executive team or running her own business, I think those of us who do reach success have a responsibility to bring women into our own power teams as we achieve big things.

There is a stereotype that women would rather compete with one another than collaborate. But I rarely find that to be true. In fact, almost every day I’m struck by what women can achieve when they work together. Without discounting the special bond that women can have with men, the fact is, we also need to fuse with other women in order to maximize our female potential. When you are connected to other strong women who complement, understand, and care about you, you will feel nurtured, empowered, inspired, and fired up, and they feel that way too! That’s what “leaning back” is all about.

Read on for a few tips on how women can “lean back” in the workplace.

Be a mentor. Not enough can be said of what we can learn from others who have encountered and surmounted problems that are similar to our own. That being the case, as they take on leadership roles and reach their goals women should become mentors and actively seek to pass on their skills to up and comers.  



I’ve been in business for three decades, and I still learn every day from my students, staff, writers, speakers, business experts, and more. I consider them all my mentors. Being a mentor to women is also a big priority for me. I look forward to the time I spend mentoring women, and it always proves to be time well spent because in the end I think I learn just as much from them as they do from me.

Speak up. Commodities are easy to obtain and easy to replace. That’s certainly not how anyone wants to be perceived at their job, but that’s exactly what happens to women who choose to lay low. Lead the way by being an outspoken part of your organization. Don't be afraid to make your voice heard.

Caution women in your organization or network from shrinking into their chairs and becoming invisible employees. Get in the middle of everything and bring new ideas to the table all the while encouraging participation and engagement from all of your employees. Help the women in your organization leverage the things that make them unique.

Teach the fine art of negotiating. Women who aren’t used to negotiating are especially susceptible to being intimidated by a show of force. Teach your network of women not to be afraid to demand respect.

I’ve worked with plenty of attorneys, met some tough negotiators, and seen many different negotiation styles. When I'm up against a pit bull, I'll take a walk and role-play with my husband Tom, who can be a pit-bull himself. I anticipate every possible objection and get myself into a Zen-like state. When it comes time to negotiate for real, I am centered and ready. I know that if I allow myself to be intimidated or provoked instead of remaining calm and professional, the negotiations are destined to fail. It’s this kind of advice that doesn’t always make it down the line to women as they’re trying to rise up in an organization or get a start up off the ground. Share it, if you’ve got it!

Say no. Sometimes the best way to lean back is by simply modeling the right behavior. When women on the rise see you do (or not do) a certain thing, they’ll see that it’s ok for them to make that choice as well. One such behavior is avoiding over-commitment by saying no.

Saying “no” to some things means you will have the time and energy to say “yes” to the right things. You need to set your own expectations of what you want to accomplish. Don’t let your career or life take a backseat to everyone else’s. When other women see you boldly make this choice, they’ll be brave enough to do it too.

Collaborate. Intelligent women know what they don’t know and when to seek answers. Smart women appreciate that what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow, and that aggressive learning is a competitive advantage to achieving any desired goal. A key element to aggressive learning is collaboration.

I find that women excel at connecting and collaborating to solve problems. The success that comes from this process provides sanity, support and genius solutions. It’s only when we come together and engage in conversation that we raise new questions and think of possibilities at a collective level we would not have considered on our own. Inside every woman is a natural collaborator. That’s a wicked advantage we have as women, an intellectual edge we can leverage for using our genius at the highest possible level. When you collaborate, everyone involved benefits.

In business—and life in general—the best long-term strategy isn’t to get ahead and stay ahead of everyone else. Instead, it’s to partner with others—to give everyone a piece of the pie and build up the people around you—so that everyone has an incentive to win. When you give other people a bit of advice, a word of encouragement, a few minutes of your time, or even a sought-after opportunity, you’ll usually see valuable returns.

This is really what’s at the core of “leaning back.” Time is a valuable gift. Mentoring is a valuable gift. Spiritual or emotional support is a valuable gift. If you want more money, encouragement, or love, give it today and you will receive it tomorrow, but not necessarily from the people you give it to. It comes through other manifestations. By giving back, I have received more abundance in every aspect of my life than I ever dreamed possible.

Vickie Milazzo, RN, MSN, JD, is author of the New York Times bestseller Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman (Wiley, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-1181-0052-3, $21.95, WickedSuccess.com). From a shotgun house in New Orleans to owner of a $16-million business, New York Times best-selling author Milazzo shares the innovative success strategies that earned her a place on the Inc. list of Top 10 Entrepreneurs and Inc. Top 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies in America.

 
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