The Huffington Post: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from a mistake you’ve made in the past?

Padmasree Warrior (Cisco’s Chief Technology Officer): I said no to a lot of opportunities when I was just starting out because I thought… ‘That’s not what my degree is in’ or ‘I don’t know about that domain.’ In retrospect, at a certain point it is your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters. One of the things I tell people these days is that there is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.

I am twenty-two years and two weeks old and so far, Lean In has been the only book (outside any course book) I have read that is not fictional. What is funny though is that I borrowed this book from a girl last year and had not read it until this year. I might have been a bit lazy over the holidays, although the timing was perfect. I landed the best job I have had so far and this book by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, gave me a most needed perspective. The book hit home so hard that I decided that I would carefully dissect each chapter and share my opinion about them individually, especially for those who have not yet read the book.

The second chapter of this book is called Sit at the Table. It talks about women and how often they ‘feel like a fraud’. Throughout the chapter, Sheryl illustrates how women feel this way by giving examples of situations she herself has witnessed or partaken in.

The first instance is of how Facebook invited fifteen executives from across Silicon Valley for breakfast and a discussion about the economy (of course). It was a buffet (typically) and all were intended to serve themselves, mingle and gather at the large conference table (probably at the centre of the room). However, she noticed that the women who came as part of some of an invitee’s team served and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. She motioned for them to have a seat at the conference table but they sat where they were. What was interesting tough is that the men grabbed their plates, served and went right to the conference table. Sheryl explains that the women ended up seeming like spectators due to the choice of their sitting positions, even though they had every right to be there.

She dives deeper and explains how growing up, she more often than not had it in her to doubt her achievements or efforts as compared to her brother David who is two years younger than herself. She gives two instances of this relationship, one of which they were both in Harvard and took a class in European intellectual history with her roommate Carrie. She talks of how she and Carrie went to almost all the lectures and read all the assigned course books while David went to two lectures and read one book. They all sat the test together and after they asked one another how it went. The girls were both upset that they either forgot to do something or inadequately explained something and on asking David how the test went he said,

“I got the flat one …” “The flat A.”

Thing is, they all got the flat A. Sheryl explains that it was not that her brother was overconfident, it was that Carrie and herself were overly insecure.

“‘Feeling Like a Fraud’ … affects many people but especially women as they feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for what or who they are- imposters with limited skills or abilities.”

I vied for a position in one of the clubs in school once and during our first meeting, the chair would talk over me a couple of times. Nothing I said seemed to be important and since he was the chair, I felt that I should keep my mouth shut, even when I had something to contribute. This went on for the next few meetings and I started to feel like I was being bullied, but it did not make sense so I refrained from contributing unless it was important, or was asked to do so.

I earned it, yet I felt out of place, like I didn’t deserve it. I felt the need to keep quiet and attract no attention to myself lest they would find out who I really was; unqualified and inexperienced. That may be true, but I was not the only one. I am not sure that the chair did this while targeting my gender or sexuality, but having seen this and experienced it before, I attached this vulnerability to it, it being the only thing I have known.

After landing a job this year, the heads of the company (two young gentlemen) decided that the newly founded team should meet and get acquainted. We met at Java and I took my time studying each of them. We were six in total, four young men and two young women. I was to handle the legal department and Anne, the other lady with me would handle marketing. Now all the gentlemen would converse once in a while and as the heads briefly explained what we our roles would be, we were to ask questions if we did not quite get something, or if we wanted anything explained further. These young gents were all ‘techy’ and while this was an everyday topic for discussion for them, it wasn’t the same for me. Heck I did not even know how to operate Twitter until a few weeks ago. Lol.

Needless to say, I had a lot of questions, so did the guys. What was surprising is that I asked only one, and I was not very audible because one of the heads asked me to speak up. Speak up? We shared only one table booth so that I was facing three gents, so you can imagine how weak my voice was. I got curious as to why these men were not at all shy about asking questions and so I conversed with them. I asked them whether they were in campus and if so, what their major was. They told me that they were both in Strathmore and majored in something tech-related (either IT or Computer Science). What completely took me off guard was the fact that they had never met with any of the teammates, well apart from themselves.

“So do you guys know Tony (one company head) or something?

“Oh this guy? No, no I don’t. In fact, I just met him today.”

I earned it, yet I felt out of place, like I didn’t deserve it. I felt the need to keep quiet and attract no attention to myself lest they will find out who I really am; unqualified and inexperienced. That may be true, but so was everyone else.

Being put down has always been and will always be there. That much I can agree with. Sheryl opines that as women we consistently underestimate ourselves, judging our performance as worse than it actually is while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is. It is important that women are encouraged to compete and feel proud of their achievements from a very young age. Smart women or ‘go-getters’ are more often than not associated with being unlikable but if we change the narrative to appreciate effort, brilliance and competitiveness when we see it from both men and women; we would not only help a lot of people come out of their shells or appreciate themselves, but also bridge the gap between sexuality and inequality due to sex or gender. The minute we stop branding high-achieving women as ‘lucky’, ‘pretty-faced’ or ‘having powerful people’ and applaud their efforts, we instill a discipline, we respect effort and we uplift.

Looking back, I would never have realized this phenomenon had I not come across that book. Sheryl says,”I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities. I still feel like a fraud and I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not. But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up (and ask questions). I have learnt how to sit at the table.”


3 a.m. Thoughts


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