Blogs & Comment

‘Leaning in’ works both ways

Listen up, menfolk.

asian woman meeting665With the release of the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, there has been a lot of healthy debate about how companies can enable employees, especially women, to pursue their goals at work while caring for family members and raising children. With women entering the workforce in increasing numbers around the world, and since technology has blurred the lines between working hours and personal time, many people now face the same problems.

Reading Sheryl’s personal story of how she struggled to balance family and work as she advanced in her career reminded me how essential flexibility in the workplace is when you’re raising a family. (I am father to two children who are now grown—Holly and Sam.) At the Virgin Group, we’re committed to making sure that our female employees have the tools they need to succeed, and that’s one of the reasons why Virgin America has taken part in activities arranged by the non-profit group LeanIn.org, which was established with the mission of “offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.”

Whether you’re launching a startup or helping to grow an established company, finding solutions tailored to your group’s needs will help you to build a happy, creative, dedicated team. Here are three suggestions that will help you achieve that goal.

First, make your office family-friendly. Many people spend more waking hours at the office than at home, which can be problematic for employees who must also handle the ordinary responsibilities of family life.

Think creatively about how to provide family-friendly benefits, which will help your company to attract and keep employees. Flexible work arrangements and guaranteed paid family leave tell employees that you recognize their many responsibilities—that you care and that you value their contributions.

In Lean In, Sheryl admits that she didn’t realize how cumbersome a distant parking spot could be for pregnant women until she was pregnant herself, and only then did she ask her employer to reserve spots close to the doorway for expectant mothers. Not everyone has the authority or confidence to speak up like her, so be sure to ask your employees how you can help—don’t wait for them to come to you.

Second: create more opportunities for women to succeed. Sheryl puts the responsibility on women to speak up, take advantage of opportunities and prove themselves as leaders; but from my perspective, companies also need to do more. Make sure that your company provides equal pay to women and that women are given opportunities to prove themselves able to take on leadership roles.

Flex-work policies can help: one of our employees at Virgin, Debbie, has worked from home since her first days with us. This arrangement allowed her to raise two exceptional children while taking on more responsibilities over the years. Today, her home office permits her to work across many time zones—which is essential since she’s in charge of all my global speaking events!

Finally: “lean in” yourself and listen to your colleagues and staff. Sheryl encourages all women to lean in and speak up: she gives the example of a meeting where there wasn’t enough room at a table, and so former Treasury secretary Tim Geithner’s young (and as it happens, female) associates elected to sit at the back of the room. But business leaders in senior positions need to do their part by listening.

If people aren’t speaking up, it is your responsibility to change that situation: at Geithner’s meeting, one of the senior executives should have ordered a larger table, or just gotten rid of it and rearranged the seating so that everybody could contribute.

When your employees do speak up, then it’s your turn: it’s time to earn their confidence by acting on their feedback, whether that means simply discussing a decision or promoting their ideas. There are many ways to configure an office, and the workplace is no place for old-school thinking.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies