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New grad says “Lean In” lessons come with playing ball

June 21, 2013 – 3:29 PM

By Ashleigh Sargent

Of course we’re all talking about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. There’s the public conversation about the gender gap in leadership in the U.S. (and controversy about some messages in Lean In) but as a recent college graduate and a female athlete, Sandberg has me thinking about how tools I gained on the basketball court and in class and can translate to the workplace.

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid.

Sandberg says fear is often the biggest barrier to women’s success. Women tend to be more risk averse at work and reluctant to take on challenging tasks. As a result, they never gain key skills to advance – and lead. It doesn’t help that women internalize failure and externalize success — and so may not grab hold of chances they are given. This is where being an athlete helps. I have been coached my whole life to take chances, to push myself, and to be confident in my abilities. We learn to not be afraid to fail – to be proud of our wins, tuned to our weaknesses, and confident in our potential.

Lesson #2: Sit at the table and speak up.

Women must be present in the discussions, debates, or decisions made around them. (Sandberg uses “sitting at the table” to encourage women share their opinions in important decisions.) Speaking makes some worry that they will be perceived critically, but Sandberg argues that we must correct for this by encouraging and promoting more women. I know that as entry-level employees, recent graduates like me struggle with feelings of incompetence, but we must take any opportunity we can to sit at the table. As college athletes, we are trained to be assertive and confident – and to apply our skills to the challenge. We are used to speaking up as part of the team.

Lesson #3: Work together.

Sandberg reminds us of a popular Madeleine Albright quote: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Yes, limited opportunities for leadership look like they should create competition among women for positions. But, she argues, let’s break down stereotypes and barriers so that we increase leadership posts for women – not fight over the few that exist now.  I have a competitive drive as an athlete and want to be my best, but my own success doesn’t mean others can’t be successful, too. I dedicated myself to my college basketball team so that we could together improve and reach our goals. That team-focused mindset is what I hope that I – and my fellow new grads – can bring to the workplace and to the women who are already there.

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