Fifteen years ago, Lori Patterson—a self-professed “accomplish-aholic”—walked away from a Fortune 500 company to join the ranks of the unemployed. She was done; she had finished working under a dysfunctional and disconnected system of leaders who took advantage of committed professionals by constantly moving the finish line and exerting their power rather than sharing it. After years of prioritizing work over family—and feeling terrible about it—she realized she had to make a dramatic change.
She founded Pixo, a small technology consulting firm dedicated, in her words, to seeing “what happens when organizations and individuals are empowered to exceed their potential.” By protecting and nurturing its people, the creative team at Pixo has figured out how to deliver technology solutions that exceed customer expectations, without exceeding 40-hour workweeks. This accomplishment, in an industry that is notorious for disappointing clients and burning out staff, is nothing short of spectacular.
Contrast Patterson’s actions to the prescriptions presented in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. Sandberg believes that to achieve equality—which she defines as equal representation at the senior levels of companies, boards, and governmental institutions—women need to overcome the “barriers that exist in themselves” so that they can “tear down the external barriers” once they are in leadership roles.
While I think Sandberg would have empathized with Patterson’s dilemma, she probably would have encouraged Patterson to stick it out and reshape the company from within. After all, Sandberg reasons, if highly trained women continue to scale back and drop out of the workforce in high numbers, equality at senior levels will be impossible to achieve.
Sandberg recommends that women “lean in” by overcoming their fears of not being liked, making the wrong choices, drawing negative attention, overreaching, being judged, failing, and “the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.” To overcome these fears, Sandberg advises women to believe in their abilities, take more risks, brush off criticism, nurture win-win mentoring relationships, and speak with “appropriateness and authenticity.” She also encourages women to share domestic responsibilities with their spouses, set attainable goals and boundaries, and help break down gender inequality by serving as vocal advocates and visible role models.
Though her book is certainly entertaining and well researched, Sandberg nevertheless serves up warmed-over advice that has been offered repeatedly during the past three decades. If there were real power in these prescriptions, women would be better represented at the top of organizations than they are today. During my 30-year career, I have witnessed women (and men) “lean in” only to discover that professional success—promotions, influence, respect, challenging assignments, higher compensation—in large organizations is predicated on working within a narrow set of values and behavioral expectations that, while they may work for some, don’t work for nearly enough people. As Princeton University politics professor Anne-Marie Slaughter says in her groundbreaking essay, “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”
Sandberg serves up warmed-over advice that has been offered repeatedly during the past three decades.
Encouraging and reproaching women to change their behavior is a necessary but insufficient avenue to realizing equality. Women have tried for years to “fit in” to the existing structures. It doesn’t work because—get ready for this—men and women aren’t the same; they think differently and therefore act differently.
Women can’t wrestle their way to the top of large organizations by simply adopting feminized versions of male behaviors. But they can learn from Patterson and create businesses in which everybody can thrive. Patterson didn’t opt out—she “leaned out” and reshaped the technology services operating model to deliver superior customer and employee value propositions.
• Delivering beyond expectations. In an industry that typically overpromises and under-delivers, Pixo’s clients say that they “achieved more than we expected to achieve.” A key factor in Pixo’s ability to delight their clients is realizing that technology professionals who are well rested and have the time to explore their passions, in and out of work, are more creative and productive. Bids are prepared based on 25 hours of billable time per week—versus industry averages of 40—and burnout is avoided through realistic timelines. According to Patterson, “We deliver on the same schedule as our competitors because our competitors promise a shorter schedule but come up late.”
• Attracting and retaining top-quality talent. Employees consider Pixo “one of the most creative and empowering technical environments to work.” People are at the heart of Pixo’s mission: It’s an empowerment company that happens to deliver technology solutions, not a technology company that delivers through empowerment. On a weekly basis, employees meet and collectively make all key decisions regarding strategy, products, staffing, and so on. Two years ago, as the employees started to value stability over flexibility, they decided to switch from flexible, hourly engagement (workers could work when they wanted and were paid only for the hours they worked) to full-time salary (adopting a standard “40-hour” workweek with the option to engage part-time if needed).
• Predictable economics. Pixo has devoted fans, with 90 percent of the company’s business coming from referrals. With a one-year backlog of work on the books, clients are waiting in line. (In fact, when I proposed this interview six months ago, they turned me down because they didn’t want to attract additional business.) During its 15-year history, Pixo has successfully weathered three recessions with loyal clients and employees teaming effectively to keep delivery humming along with minimal bureaucracy and oversight.
Patterson is an innovator and a social entrepreneur. She created an operating model that did not previously exist and that could not have been created if she had decided to disregard her values and “lean in.” As Clayton Christiansen says, organizations have a tendency to sustain rather than disrupt themselves due to hard-wired operating models that define how business is done. Over the course of my own career, I have come to believe that gender inequality is less about discrimination than it is about the inability of large organizations to reshape their values, distribution of power, skills, processes, and jobs. When companies like Pixo, and others with superior people-friendly operating models, achieve scale, they will eventually displace established competitors and serve as a force in introducing the type of structural changes that allow women—and men—to have it all.
In her book, Sandberg shares a quote: “Show me a woman without guilt and I’ll show you a man.” During our interview, Patterson explained how it’s possible to run a competitive company that nurtures work-life balance. When I asked her to define balance, she paused, laughed, and said, “To live without guilt.” Given that she has been able to live guilt-free for the past 15 years, it’s time to stop limiting our thinking and start believing that equality is possible if we “lean out” and create the companies we want to work for, instead of waiting for the companies we work for to become what we want. In other words, show me a woman without guilt, and I’ll show you a woman who has pursued her passions by taking charge of her life.