Opinion

I'd rather have employees who don't just 'lean in,' but are 'all in'

In the 1990s while Sheryl Sandberg was learning how to 'lean in' to her career, I was learning to lean in at home as a single father. And the truth is that you can’t lean in equally hard at work and at home. Instead, we can be 'all in' – present in the moment, focused passionately on each task.

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    Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, listens during an interview in New York March 12. Op-ed contributor Jim Sollisch adds to Ms. Sandberg's 'lean in' career advice for women with a concept of his own: Go 'all in.' He says, 'Everyone makes choices about where they want to lean in....All in is about learning to focus, even for short periods of time, on the task at hand.'
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In the 1990s while Sheryl Sandberg was learning to “lean in” to her career, I was learning to lean in at home. I was following much of Ms. Sandberg’s as-yet-unwritten advice. Accept every challenge. Be more assertive. Don’t worry so much about being liked.

In the mid-90s, I was a divorced father of three with joint custody and a more flexible schedule than my ex. That made me the go-to parent for sick days, hastily arranged parent-teacher conferences, and carpooling. There were years when I took my four weeks of vacation, two hours at a time, so I could leave my office at 3:30 and attend my kids’ baseball, lacrosse, and soccer games. I wanted to show my kids a father who could do it all – cook, clean, negotiate play dates with stay-at-home moms, throw a birthday party, coach the basketball team, and still have a career.

And I wasn’t alone. I know a lot of men who chose to lean in at home. To become better partners and fathers. To give their wives equal time at their careers. It’s no longer rare to find marriages where partners evenly split the workload and the parenting. In fact, a few years after I divorced I was lucky enough to marry a wonderful woman with another inflexible schedule. I continued to lean in at home. I’m leaning in right now. 

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I want to make it clear that I admire Sheryl Sandberg. I have no problem with her or her advice. I just don’t care much for books and arguments that address whole genders. Men are not from one planet and women from another.

Everyone makes choices about where they want to lean in. And the truth that doesn’t get addressed in books like Sandberg’s is that you can’t lean in equally hard at work and at home. Men can’t do it. Neither can women.

I developed an approach that I might call “All In” if I were writing a book that needed a catchy title. Going all in isn’t about devoting yourself entirely to a career. And it isn’t just about balancing career and home. It’s about intensity. The subtitle of “All In” might be “Practicing the art of passion at work and at home.”

I work with a lot of twenty-somethings, male and female. Some of them are leaning in quite well on their career paths.

They’re following much of Sandberg’s advice – boldly asking for promotions and mentors and allowing themselves, as Sandberg suggests, to fantasize about their career paths.

What they’re not doing is working intensely. I’m looking for people who aren’t all in on career development – I want people who are all in on the project at hand. I want them focused and present. I want them in the zone. And all that fantasizing about the next career move works against that.

I want to surround myself with people who might not take on every challenge but are all in on every challenge they do accept. I’ve seen too many ambitious, talented people take on way too much and do it with way too little passion.

I prefer people who are a bit obsessive about getting things right. They’re so focused, they bring you into their orbit. They look at problems as puzzles to solve. And they don’t stop when they find the first solution. They keep searching.

The truth is, we all waste too much time at work and at home going through the motions. We’re not present. At work, we spend too much time on Sandberg’s website, not leaning in but leaning back. At home we’re checking our phones when we could be really listening to our kids or our spouses. We’re rarely all in – at home or at work.

One tip about how to know when you’re all in: If you’re multi-tasking, you’re not all in. So if you’re tweaking a PowerPoint presentation at your kid’s soccer game, you don’t get credit for being all in. Same with checking email during a meeting at work. All in is about learning to focus, even for short periods of time, on the task at hand.

And being all in is the surest path to happiness. Leaning in to your career might bring success, but if you learn to find passion in the actual work, you’ll find real happiness.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

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