Ever wonder what it’s like to walk a day in someone else’s shoes (or spend a day in someone else’s job, as the case may be)? Us too! In our “Women at work” series, we’re talking to some of the most accomplished women we know about how they got to where they are in their careers, what advice they’d give their younger selves, and any tips & tricks they’ve picked up along the way.
Name? Ashley Finch
Job? Head of Partnerships & Programs, LeanIn.Org, a women’s nonprofit founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg
Education creds? B.A. at UC Berkeley / MBA at Wharton
What does your typical work day look like?
LeanIn.Org is a non-profit, but I always tell people we operate more like a start-up. It’s fast-paced, entrepreneurial, and everyone on the team wears many hats! Lean In has over 800 partners and one of my favorite parts of my job is the variety of experiences I get through working with them – there really isn’t a typical work day because every partnership is so unique. For example, when we launched #LeanInTogether, our 2015 campaign about men leaning in for equality, I worked with the NBA and WNBA to get players involved and to collaborate on a PSA that aired throughout the playoffs.
My team also oversees Lean In’s biggest program: Lean In Circles, which are small peer groups where members come together to encourage each other to speak up, take the lead, and reach their goals. We spend a lot of time thinking of ways to grow these groups and to help members thrive. One highlight was partnering with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to launch military Circles across every branch of our military (okay, the day we did that wasn’t a typical work day – but it was one I’ll always remember).
How did you get involved with Lean In in the first place?
After business school, I was a consultant at McKinsey & Company. I had no intention of leaving when a good friend of mine from Berkeley called. She advised Lean In during the launch and told me Sheryl Sandberg and LeanIn.Org’s President Rachel Thomas needed someone to come run partnerships. Without hesitation, I said I’d love to learn more.
I never intended to leave McKinsey for a non-profit, but I had read Lean In and Sheryl’s message about women and leadership hit home – hard. I remember doing a leadership exercise with former colleagues and there was one question that stood out: “What is the number one thing that holds you back from being the leader you want to be?” While my male colleagues had a variety of responses, all seven of the women on my team wrote down the very same answer: self-doubt. I knew moving forward that I wanted to change this for myself – and I wanted to help other women do the same. Lean In seemed like the perfect place to do that.
What have been the most exciting accomplishments for Lean In after the book debuted?
When we launched LeanIn.Org, we hoped to have 1,000 Lean In Circles – we now have over 28,000 in 140+ countries and all continents (including a group of badass researchers in Antarctica). We’ve heard from women whose Circles help victims of sex trafficking get high school diplomas and rebuild their lives, and we’ve heard from men who say that Circles make their companies a more equal place for everyone.
I’m also really proud of Lean In’s work to shift cultural perceptions. With “Ban Bossy” we worked to highlight the different language we use for girls and boys — we believe that words matter and can encourage or discourage girls from leading. We’ve worked with Getty Images to change the portrayal of women in media and stock imagery (no more stock photos of women laughing alone with salad!). And I’m really proud that so many women come up to me and say that Lean In has made them feel more comfortable, saying that they are ambitious and speaking up for what they deserve at work and at home.
What advice would you give your 25-year old self about navigating your own career?
Don’t plan so much – you really don’t know where your career will take you. Just lean into whatever you’re doing at the moment, aim to be a top performer, and good things will come.
Always negotiate – you won’t get what you don’t ask for.
Speak up – Don’t overthink what you say in meetings. The worst thing that could happen likely won’t – and if you don’t say it, the man sitting next to you will!
Who have been your biggest role models in your career?
My very first boss who taught me a few really important early lessons – the importance of knowing how to write really good, short, and crisp emails and how important it is to be a team player (i.e. it’s never someone else’s job!). Sheryl Sandberg has also been an incredible role model. She motivates me to be bolder, braver, and more resilient every single day.
The UN projects that women won’t achieve full parity until 2095. What are the most impactful individual actions we can take to help bridge that gap?
There are so many small things we can all do every day to make the playing field more even. Lean In has developed a series of tips – for women, men, managers, recent grads, parents – to help us all learn about the small behaviors we can change. For example, we know women get interrupted more often in meetings. One great thing both women and men can do is to interject when they see this happening with a comment like, “I’d love to hear the rest of Jessica’s idea.” Little changes can go a long way, so people shouldn’t be afraid to start small.
Understanding unconscious bias – and the ways we can counteract it – is also huge. We need to change the stereotypes we still hold about men and women, including those around leadership. One study showed that women get the feedback that they are “too aggressive” at work 3 times more often than men (ugh!). If we can change the stereotypes, I think that would go a long way towards changing the numbers and changing the world.
What would it mean for female equality to elect our first female President?
I believe we need more women at all levels of elected office and on both sides of the aisle – not just the presidency. Women currently make up 20% of the Senate and only 15 countries (out of 196) around the world are run by women. I personally believe the world would be a better place if we had more women sitting at the tables where decisions are made, including the White House.
P.S.: A few more quick questions whose answers we needed to know!
Who are the 3 most impressive or inspirational women you’ve met in your time with the organization?
Malala and Gloria Steinem – both personal heroes of mine. And Major Lisa Jaster, one of three women who made history last summer by becoming the first female graduates of the Army’s elite Ranger School. At 37 years old, she completed one of the most grueling physical courses in the world (did I mention she’s a mom of two?). She totally redefines what it means to be a badass on the inside and out.
If you could magically learn any new skill, what would it be?
I wish I could code. I think being able to literally build a product from the ground up would be amazing.
What did you want to be when you grew up as a child?
A Broadway actress or singer. Every day between 5th and 8th grade, I came home from school and sang Broadway show tunes or Lisa Loeb’s Nine Stories album at the top of my lungs in my bedroom. I finally learned after my fifteenth casting as a chorus girl, it was time to rethink things. But I’m still always the first to grab the mic at karaoke night, much to my friends’ embarrassment.
Best book you’ve read this year?
Feminist Fight Club – a hilarious guide to navigating subtle sexism at work by New York Times columnist Jessica Bennett.