I’m Not Qualified To Answer This Question – Are You?

Posted on March 4th, 2013 in Entrepreneurship, Socioeconomics, Startups

This article originally appeared on March 4, 2013 at VentureBeat.

I have noticed an interesting trend and I have no idea what to make of it.

At some level, I feel unqualified to render an opinion on the topic given my gender.

But I can raise a unique observation.

First, some context:  With all of the recent discussions and, in some instances, backlash about the new policy at Yahoo! from Marissa Mayer requiring people to work in the office, and while noticing some of the heat against Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, I am reminded of the many issues around work/life balance that women, and to a lesser extent men, have to deal with in balancing the attainment of a hard driving career while simultaneously doing an “adequate” job of raising a family. I’ve heard this discussion for at least two decades through my colleagues at work, and I even recall Carol Bartz telling us at Stanford in 1993 that, “Balance is a myth” – you can’t simultaneously have a career as a CEO and also extended time with the family simultaneously.  (This theme was recently raised again by Chris Shipley here.)

I’ve personally lived through this issue as my wife had a very successful 25+ year career as a technology executive before she stopped working right before we had our third child. We have wrestled with the challenge of a talented tech executive putting our family first, and the ambivalence of her choosing to give up a full-time career at which she both excelled and enjoyed.

Now for the observation:  In the last three months I have had several of my female students or recent female graduates from the Stanford Graduate School of Business tell me that their long-term career aspiration is to be a COO.

What’s odd is that I never hear that from young male students.


The men almost always want to be a CEO.

And yet the COO answer keeps coming up repeatedly with the women.

When I ask these bright, talented and capable women why they don’t want to be CEO of a company, I get squishy answers.  They don’t want to deal with external issues. They like internal challenges. They like operations and don’t want to put themselves “out there.” They think a COO role is where they will be the most effective.

What I am seeking to understand is why this has become a sudden trend and is now a career goal that I am hearing repeatedly. And is this observation tied in to the recent controversies surrounding Marissa and Sheryl?

Is it because there are now good female role models in the COO position (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg)?

Is it because, as highlighted above, women get ripped apart once they ascend to the public eye?

And is that last question even true? Are Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg really treated more harshly/put under more scrutiny than other tech leaders such as Bill Gates was when he was running Microsoft, than Eric Schmidt and Larry Page when they ran/run Google, or than Jack Welch was he ran GE (they called him Neutron Jack in the early days)?

Is the desire to be a COO genetic disposition/difference between men and women that the former want to lead out in front and the latter want to nurture?

What do you think?

15 thoughts on “I’m Not Qualified To Answer This Question – Are You?

  1. Li Han Chan

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Rob. It’s really nice for a man to be putting time and, emotional and intellectual energy into this issue. I think my answers would be 1. Yes there is probably more work life balance scrutiny, and 2. no, I don’t believe there is a genetic lead outside vs. inside disposition. There is a difference in how we approach the “how firm are you willing to be a stand for what is possible, and be willing to make sacrifices” conversation. E.g Melissa doesn’t actually believe working every day in the office is better than some form of flexible work from home schedule. But I believe she is making a stand for a close knit, yahoo culture, where people really want to, and care to show up. It’s not for everyone, sure, and its’ not great always, but “being flexible” is less impt to her than reviving yahoo’s culture. Leaders take big stands, and face the fallout that normally falls out of big audacious stands. and perhaps, women don’t want yet, to make these big stands.

    Anyway, we should speak more. For what its worth, I’m going for CEO — http://www.dynaoptics.com
    and I’m going to have kids in a few years. :)

    Li Han

  2. Limor Elbaz

    Interesting question. Interesting findings…Especially since I think that most women (and men) don’t even get the question at hand (work/family balance) until they actually become parents. Before that, everyone knows “of” the challenge but does not really get that this is not the usual issue of finding more time in the day. It’s about where is your mind for parts of the day, and how do you make a new type of time – one that does not involve another person demanding your full attention. I am very curious as to the choice of COO – I wonder if it has to do with women vs. men in sales positions. Do these women perceive the CEO job as a sales job (which of course it always is…)?

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  6. B. P.

    Interestingly I’m COO of a company and was CEO previously and am a woman.
    The reason i chose to be COO was two-folded and I don’t really think there’s a gender reason. (1) we are a fashion company and my partner has luxury fashion industry background so externally it’s more credible for the luxury fashion press. (2) my partner has more experience having started a few startups and sometimes is more patient than I am in dealing with various personalities internally, which is a reason for him to be the CEO. Ironically I actually focus primarily on external relationship management whether sales, marketing or biz dev.

    1. Robert Siegel Post author

      B.P. – Thanks for sharing. I find your situation very interesting and unique. I’m curious – when you were younger did you think you wanted to be a COO when you grew in your career, or did it just happen?

      I appreciate your jumping in.

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  8. Chris Yeh

    On a related note, I wrote at length about the telecommuting ban and its aftermath:

    At the risk of wading into a morass (something I do on a regular basis), the average man is more competitive and driven to dominate than the average women. The situation has been getting better (witness the rise of women’s athletics) but we are still not at equality.

    Being COO can be appealing–make a difference without being the lightning rod. Until her recent book release, Sheryl Sandberg has gotten much less attention than female CEOs like Mayer, Bartz, Fiorina, et al. (Note that some of those CEOs are also more press-hungry than Sandberg, who seems to be courting press to increase the influence of her book; she certainly doesn’t need it to get a job)

  9. R.D.

    Like B.P. I am also currently a COO after having previously been a CEO (nonprofit Executive Director). I resonate with the reasons you’ve heard from other women in that I prefer the internal strategic design focus to the external public face role. I do think a lot depends on the CEO/COO relationship though- because without a good relationship the COO role can be very frustrating.

  10. Maithili Mavinkurve

    Hello Robert,

    Interesting post. I am a young mother of 2 kids, a current COO of a technology company (www.sightlineinnovation.com) I have thought about this a bit and I think it is a very interesting observation. I’m sure it has to do with a lot of different factors. If you’re interested in discussing further feel free to contact me.


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