When do you Lean In and when do you Lean Back?


This weekend, the hottest topic up for discussion is the launch of Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg new book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” and her non-profit LeanIn.org. I was excited to see Sheryl make the cover of Time. The cover story and the essay by Sheryl are excellent reads. I highly recommend you pick up a copy for yourself. After reading the article on Friday night and catching the response from the panel on “This Week” this morning, it got me thinking about my own personal journey.

My personal Lean In story.
As a student affairs professional, I aspire to be a Director of a program, Associate Dean of an area and one day, Dean of Students. I also aspire to work on a university campus with transfer students, hold a position in NASPA, and to one day teach my Phi Theta Kappa leadership class I have been trained in. As a leader, I aspire to serve on a community board or in a position either in city government, economic development or education.

In Spring 2005, I leaned in when I decided to go back to school and earn my masters in Education in college student affairs. I could have left my job at Napa Valley College and do a grad internship up in Seattle. Instead, I chose a program that allowed me to keep my full-time job and take classes. By keeping my full-time job, I was able to serve as the president of the California Community College Student Affairs Association, continue to stay in the CA Community College system and develop my leadership skills and job experience in student life and leadership. It also was the same time I met my husband Matthias.

In Summer of 2010, I leaned back. I had just returned to work after being off for the spring semester on maternity leave with my son Sam. I was balancing pumping at my office, a 45 minute commute, and the sleep habits of my 4 month old son. I had applied for the Interim Associate Dean of Admissions and Records position and was offered an interview. At the time, I was the Coordinator of Student Life, a position I had held for 9 years. On the day of my interview, I was home with Sam, getting ready for my German in-laws to arrive later that day. I had to make a decision. Either, I picked up my in-laws at the airport and expect them to watch my son after a 12 hour plane ride, while I drove 45 minutes back to the campus for the interview, with the hope I got home in time for dinner, or do I cancel and not go for the job. In that moment, with Sam in my arms, I chose to not go to the interview. 2 months later, I would take the Student Activities Coordinator position at Canada College in Redwood City, CA which is near Menlo Park home of Facebook.

The position would be similar to the work I had been doing, but it offered me something I had not realized I needed. It allowed my husband and I the opportunity to live on campus at reduced rate so that we could save money for the down payment for our future house. I was now walking to work instead of driving. The daycare Sam was going to was a 100% better and I was now part of a multi-college district. I also was making more money. Even though I was doing similar work, I was learning so much! I was learning how to serving a whole different student population to managing the relocation of a department to a newly remodel Student Center.

So, in a way… at the time I thought I was leaning back when really, I was leaning in to what mattered to me most, my son, and it showed me that my career was still growing.

As a working mother who loves her career I struggle on and off about when to lean in and when to lean back. Right before I decided to try for another baby, I thought long and hard about if I wanted to go for a director job in my district. At 35, what was it that mattered most? Was it that director title? Or was it giving Sam a brother or sister? Before I knew it, I was picked to represent my college as part of the Redwood City Leadership Class (something I secretly wanted to do but didn’t tell anyone). So the one month I say “let’s put off having another baby and I start my leadership class” I become pregnant with Twins.

So now, my question to Sheryl Sandberg is when do you lean in and when do you lean back?

My district allows me to take a year off unpaid. I have chosen to take the year off. I don’t know what this means. Have I just leaned back from future leadership opportunities or will I be surprised? If there is one thing I know for sure, it is that this is not the end. I know my future holds that Director position, even maybe that Dean of Students. Hey, I might just run for city council. I guess you can say for right now, I am “leaning in” to motherhood knowing with confidence, I will lean back into leadership in the future.