I’m finally taking Katie’s advice and reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. More accurately, I downloaded the audio version so I can listen to it in the car. It’s good so far, although it doesn’t strike me as anything new. But Sandberg effectively organizes and communicates the salient points: we should encourage women to aspire to leadership roles; women should be cognizant of the internal barriers they place in their own way on the career path, and not just the external ones; men should make a conscious and meaningful decision to be equal partners at home so that women, and ultimately society at large, may benefit from increased opportunities for leadership. Lean in, she says.
Listening to the book on my way home from an afternoon spent in court followed by a meeting with a colleague, a question struck me: Is my decision to start my own law practice a version of “leaning in”?
Sure, I rejected the traditional associate-to-partner model of law firm ascension, and I suppose it may be difficult to consider me a leader if I’m a solo practitioner. Right now, I’m too small to have employees, and instead of commanding a board room, I’m hustling to convert leads into paying clients so I can pay the rent for my tiny office.
But when I think about it, I honestly believe that I actually saved my legal career by choosing to go into business for myself, rather than continuing to struggle and strive to reach the upper eschelons of a law firm built by someone else. The exhilaration and exhaustion of being responsible for every single aspect of my practice, from taking on new cases to taking out the trash, has made the work so much more meaningful for me. I can’t help but feel that this is exactly what Sandberg is talking about, at least in spirit: entrepreneurship is my opportunity to lean in—into my own career development. I may not be Chief Operating Officer of a huge company or Managing Partner of a multi-lawyer firm, but the newly found sense of meaning I have derived from managing my own practice has given me the strength to keep opting in to a successful career, instead of feeling that I have no choice but to drop out due to the demands of motherhood, or the demands of any other aspect of my life.
And then another thought occurred to me: as parents, how lucky are we to experience a form of this entrepreneurship, regardless of whether we work or not? When you welcome a child into your life, there’s no corporate structure to hand out the applicable policies, ora board of directors to give you their approval to move forward with Project Baby. Just like running a company, having a family is a kind of business venture. You, and your partner, if you have one, need to sit down and strategize, make important decisions everyday, take calculated risks, and work within a budget. Some families even create goals and mission statements. It goes to show that every parent is capable of being his or her own boss. We can all be mompreneurs, whether this means working on a start-up or being CEO of our own household as a stay-at-home mom. I’ll go one step further and say that even those of us still “working for the man” have the opportunity to fulfill our entrepreneurial side: witness companies like Google who give their employees time on the job to pursue personal projects of their choosing. All it takes is for one of us to speak up and tell the boss that a creative new venture or marketing strategy is a worthwhile opportunity in the company’s best interest, and that we know just the perfect person to lead it . . . us! I think Ms. Sandberg would be proud.
I believe there is an abundance of leadership and career development opportunities, like those described in Lean In, for entrepreneurs of all kinds, including mompreneurs, lawpreneurs, and other kinds of “-preneurs,” including those in traditional employment. While there are undeniable risks involved in starting a business, there is also much risk in staying trapped in a traditional workplace environment that stifles innovation, is more concerned with conformity than creativity, and—as high unemployment rates bear out—is no longer a guarantee of a safe, lifelong career. When we invest in ourselves as solo practitioners and small business owners, we invest in our careers. Whether you call that leaning in or leaning out, it’s a step in the right direction.