Don’t Just ‘Lean In’ – Lean OUT to Accelerate Your Career

A Woman Sailing On San Alfonso Del Mar, via

“Leaning out is about putting yourself out there. Some people can do it and some can’t. It takes fortitude.”

In a conversation last week with Wendy Warner, Senior Director at Platform Research at Polymer Group, Inc., I was prompted once again to reflect on a an important career practice for professional women: leaning out.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, first used a similar but somewhat opposite term – “lean in” in a May 2011 commencement address at Barnard College when she advised the graduating women to, ” Lean in [to your careers and work]. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there.”

But it’s not enough to just lean into your career. You must also lean out.

When Wendy uses the term lean out she means:

“One must be willing to take a certain amount of calculated risk, particularly in upstream/strategic focused work. The key is to know your facts, the risks, how far out on the limb you are and the consequences if you fall. This takes confidence, knowledge, and guts. ‘Leaning out’ is about putting yourself out there. Some folks can do it and some can’t. It takes fortitude.”

People who take calculated risks that move a business forward are usually recognized and rewarded for their contributions propelling them faster and further  in the careers or business.

I use the term lean out to describe the importance of building connections outside of one’s organization, industry and community. Leaning out in networking involves putting yourself out there to meet and work with people outside your field and comfort zone. While most people find it easier and more natural to network with people most like them, research based on the classic work of sociologist, Mark Granovetter has shown time and again, that “weak ties” or connections to people outside your closest circles of family, friends or work contacts bring you access to knowledge, information or ideas that is otherwise unavailable to you.

I have found that often women tend not to lean out as much in their networking, deciding instead due to time constraints and personal unease to confine their networking to closer circles. Successful women, like Wendy, know the importance of leaning out in their strategic thinking by broadening their access to information, networks and perspectives.

When I think of leaning out I visualize being on a sailboat and leaning out over the edge of the boat. In sailing terminology this is called hiking. The forceful movement of the sailor’s or crew’s body weight decreases how much the boat leans away from the wind which works to balance the boat and move it faster. As Wendy says this takes confidence, knowledge, guts and fortitude.

When Sheryl Sandberg urges women to lean in she is encouraging women to be ambitious, to think big, to aspire to the most senior roles in their professions, to own their success and to figure out ways to balance work and life demands.

A concern that many have is why, after so many years since women have achieved similar education levels as men, are women not equally represented in top positions. Around the world, even though the pipeline of qualified women is increasing steadily the percentage of women at the top is not. One consideration is that ambition and aspiration comes when one finds their passion and then continually challenges themselves. It comes not just from leaning in to your career but also from leaning out, an intentional forceful movement that accelerates your forward progress, balances you and causes you to go faster.