June 8, 2013

Truly a wizard of lies -- and hearts

Someday, I’ll review an article -- but for now, I’m going to do another book.

My book club discussion on “Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust,” by Diana B. Henriques, is starting in just a few hours -- and I want to get my notes down before the discussion. You’ll just have to trust me that I wrote this section before I let the opinions of others color my review.

I gave this one five out of five stars -- and I think, as an American citizen that wants to retire someday, that this should be required reading in high schools. The fraud that Madoff perpetrated is on a scale I simply couldn’t believe possible until I dove into these 350 pages -- and the way it transpired, including both the regulatory issues and, perhaps more importantly, the issues of the human heart, is an incredible lesson that we shouldn’t ignore. (I suspect, unfortunately, that it won’t get its due.)

The most appealing parts of the book, of course, are the beginning and the end, where Henriques displays her narrative skills in giving us a truly thrilling ride through Madoff’s arrest. The middle, full of history, is as interesting as it could be, I think -- but any history is bound to get dull.

Of note: I thought it was interesting that, in discussing reasons for and against having the “profit” amounts being covered by SIPC - that Henriques never introduced the concept of incentive. If “profit” that never truly existed could be seen as covered by the fund, what incentive would investment managers have to be truthful? It would simply be someone else’s problem if they they made everything up along the way -- but the investors would still get their money.

Overall, great read. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is invested or who plans to invest in their retirement -- with a “prepared to be scared” caveat.

UPDATE: Of the five of us who made it to book club that night, only two (including me) really seemed to enjoy “Wizard of Lies.” Suspicions that this book won’t get its due seem to be confirmed.

May 29, 2013

"Lean In," Part 2 (or chapters 3 thru 6)

It’s OK to Cry in the Bathroom

(Or, apparently, in front of your boss.)

One of the thing’s I don’t like about discussions of women in business is that there tends to be some sort of “be more like a man to succeed” thread in them. We’re often taught that being successful is being aggressive, outspoken, bold and, relevant to today’s review, buttoned up -- and while these qualities aren’t limited to men, society seems to perceive that men exemplify them.

Sandberg does, I think, a great job of illustrating this -- and, I think, of arguing, however subtly, that business might be better if we also embrace the strengths of a woman’s personality.

For instance, showing emotion. Yes, even crying.

Let me say, upfront, that I’m not advocating a tissue-holding sob fest every week at the office. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could regard the occasional cry as a simple fact of everyday life, as some of the workers featured in “Lean In” seem to?

When I was just starting out in my newspaper career, I moved between internships every few months. During one such transition, I had a mini-breakdown. I was exhausted from (yet again) packing up my belongings and saying good-bye to everyone I’d just met -- and, worst of all, I was suffering from a major case of writer’s block. I had only one assignment left to finish, but I just couldn’t pull it together. It was a professional crisis, but one completely blurred by my personal struggles around moving.

Worst of all, my editor -- who I can now see was up against pressures and deadlines of her own -- was bearing down on me, insisting I finish the piece, sprinkling in the type of fear-inspiring “or else!” statements that are so common in newsrooms. (That’s a post for another day on another blog, I’m sure.)

I was on the verge of cracking for a day or two, and then I finally did -- in my editor’s office, during another round of “When is going to be done?” questioning.

The thing is, though I don't cry often -- or perhaps because I don't cry often -- I didn’t think this was so unusual. That is, I didn't until someone else made a comment along the lines of, “Oh, it’s never a good idea to cry in front of the boss.”

What was the big deal? I was upset, needed sleep (my time management skills, believe it or not, were even worse in those days, resulting in all-night packing expeditions each time I moved) and I was truly frustrated that I couldn’t pull that last piece together. Of course I cried!

I hated that this was seen as a sign of weakness. Women do cry, and I’m glad of it. Someone should! It shows that we’re plugged in, that we’re connected -- and often, that we’re striving to do good.

During a more recent transition, I broke down -- in private this time -- over my laptop one night. I was completely overwhelmed by new partnerships at work, new client relationships and new responsibilities -- and I was alone, in a hotel room, on a business trip. I was feeling like I must be the only one who couldn’t handle a new role until a coworker, also dealing with new responsibilities, chatted me to ask if we could go for a walk: She was crying, too!

Were we bad at our jobs? No! In fact, I was promoted just a few months after that mini-breakdown. But I was intensely frustrated by my job -- to which I am, in turns out, intensely connected. No one was harmed by the tears I shed that day -- and, in fact, I was probably helped by them. In admitting I was overwhelmed, I was able to connect with a friend -- and we worked together to sort out what we were individually struggling with.

Along with Sandberg, I hope that companies will continue to encourage workers to bring their whole selves to work -- emotions and all, men and women. Who wants to work in an stodgy, dry place where no one ever gets upset?

April 7, 2013

"Lean In," Part 1 (or chapters Intro thru 2)

I started this blog with reviewing articles, rather than books, in mind. But as I've already got things to say about Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," I'll start with that.

Maybe it's that the workplace improved drastically between the time Sandberg entered it and when I did. Maybe it's that I work for Google, where I enjoy changes made early on by women such as Sandberg (who it turns out requested the expectant-mother parking that dots our Mountain View campus). Maybe it's that most of the managers in my career, in and outside of Google, have been (incredibly smart and talented, by the way) women, from my first two professional editors right on up to my current boss, who holds degrees from both Stanford and Wharton.

Or maybe it's that I see the book as an opus to an eventual run by Sandberg for political office. (And that I dislike construing the English language, as packaged in books, as a stepping stone to such adventures, however noble.)

Whatever the problem, the book's simply not ringing true so far --  in part, at least, because I feel a serious lack of discrimination as a woman. Sure, I agree that women still aren't on an equal footing with men in most of the world. When I travel for work, I'm very often the only woman on the shuttle from the airport to the adjoining car rental shop. And as one who's recently returned to the United States from India, I can confidently say we U.S. ladies have it better here than in other parts of the world. But I fail to see the point in continuing to crow about the plight of women -- especially when there's such a strong contingent arguing for equality.

Instead, we ought to just get out there and do something about it.

Growing up, I learned from my Mom that women can do anything men can do -- better. In my family, women helped out with the woodworking, the painting, the gardening, the literal heavy lifting. In my high school, no one ever said, "She's such a bright student, especially for a girl." All the student leaders were women: drum majors, student government heads, stage managers for the annual musical -- women all, at one point or another during my time.

I've been unprepared at times for the roles I've taken on. I was often overwhelmed with possibilities and distractions in college, although I couldn't see it then. I could have used some additional career coaching ("How to Manage Up," for instance, might have been a good course) early in my newspaper days. I didn't know much about Silicon Valley when I interviewed at Google, and I'm still learning how to continue growing my skills in an industry that changes daily (if not hourly). In none of these moments, however, have I felt that my growing pains were due to the fact that I'm a woman.

Maybe the rest of the book will get to the how-to portion of effecting change as a woman in the workplace. For once, however, I wish we could have started without the endless list of data points -- and consequent confidence-reducing emotional reminder -- of how poorly women are represented in today's world.

Oh and one last thing: I was surprised to see that Sandberg dedicated the book to her husband for "making everything possible." Isn't this the same kind of rhetoric she's trying to turn us away from? I love my husband, but my success is my own.