Mentoring, Women in Leadership

How Sheryl Sandberg’s Mentor Helped Launch Her Career

By Mike BergelsonFebruary 5, 2015

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is broadly considered one of the most powerful women in business today; she’s regularly featured on the Fortune Top 50 list and named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.

Like most other immensely successful figures, she sought the guidance of mentors at various stages of her career. In her case, a college professor, Larry Summers, who would later become U.S. Treasury Secretary, played a pivotal role in her career as both mentor and sponsor.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Mentor

Sandberg met her mentor while studying economics at Harvard. She and a friend were setting up a new student organization, Women in Economics and Government, to encourage women to major in those subjects. Of all the professors they asked for help, Summers was the most supportive. “He served as our champion and helped rally the support of his fellow professors behind our efforts,” Sandberg wrote in a 2008 article.

The following year, Summers volunteered to be Sandberg’s thesis adviser, starting a relationship that would last for decades. What impressed Summers immediately was his protégé’s determination and honesty.

“Sheryl always believed that if there were 30 things on her to-do list at the beginning of the day, there would be 30 check marks at the end of the day,” Summers recalled in a recent article in The Guardian. “If I was making a mistake, she told me. She was totally loyal, but totally in my face.”

Summers fully repaid that loyalty. In 1991, when he became the chief economist at the World Bank, he recruited Sandberg as a research assistant. Then, when he was named Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, it was his protégé whom he appointed as his Chief of Staff. From there, Sandberg joined Google, the role that helped catapult her to fame within the business world.

In an HBR interview, Sandberg said that being mentored by Summers “helped tremendously. I’ve had a lot of mentors over the course of my career, Larry being one of the absolutely most important. And certainly the first.” Of the jobs at the World Bank and the Treasury, she said: “Those opportunities are ones I wouldn’t have had without him.”

Now that Sandberg is in a position of power, she’s taken the opportunity to both help her mentor and to pass the gift of mentoring on to others.

First, Sandberg defended Summers against accusations of sexism in the aftermath of a controversial speech he gave on womens’ abilities in math and science subjects. She wrote that Summers “has been a true advocate for women throughout his career” and called him “a supportive and deeply caring mentor for me and many other women who had the opportunity to work for him.”

Sandberg’s Complex View of Mentoring

Sandberg devotes a whole chapter in her book Lean In to the subject of mentoring. While she acknowledges that mentorship is “crucial for career progression,” she points out that women often have a harder time acquiring and maintaining mentors. She applauds the efforts of women who actively seek out mentors and offers them some key words of caution.

“If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no,” she wrote. She points out that a protégé’s track record of using their time wisely and being open to feedback will lead to long-lasting mentoring relationships, not simply asking for the help.

She acknowledges the impact mentors like Summers have had; their wisdom helped her “avoid mistakes – and clean up the ones [she] wasn’t smart enough to avoid.” But instead of expecting a mentor to do everything for them, she says people should take responsibility for their own success.

Instead of telling people, “Get a mentor and you will excel,” we should be telling them, “Excel and you will find a mentor.”

Lessons from Sandberg and Summers

  • Mentorship and sponsorship are crucial to career progression.
  • Mentorship can often evolve into sponsorship, as illustrated by Summers’ decision to hire Sandberg early in her career.
  • Instead of asking someone to mentor you, focus on making a good impression on that person and allowing a relationship to develop naturally.
  • A track record of performance and openness to feedback can help motivate mentors to invest further in developing protégés.
  • Loyalty and honesty are key characteristics of the relationship between mentor and protégé.
  • When protégés reach a position of power, they can both “pay it back” by helping their mentor when needed and “pay it forward” by helping others.

Could you be mentoring the next Sheryl Sandberg? Share your wisdom with rising talent today.

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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