On leadership, culture, and inclusion: a conversation with Raena Saddler, Lean In's VP of peopleFeatured

I spoke with Raena Saddler, VP of People and Managing Director at the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, which runs Lean In and Option B. Previously, Raena was Head of Product at Topix, an entertainment and news media company. Raena shared her advice and perspective on leadership, diversity and inclusion, the intersection of product and people, and building culture. On her favorite leadership lesson: Raena notes that leadership can come from anywhere and anyone. Too often people do not realize and exercise the extent of their own agency and power. They identify problems and wait to be empowered to find solutions. But real leadership is taking that next step of finding and implementing solutions without having to be asked first. By staying solutions-focused, adopting an ownership mindset, using their voices, and engaging in proactive problem solving, anyone at any level can affect real change. On showcasing your work: Raena notes that Lean In’s Women in the Workplace research clearly shows that women face greater challenges than men in getting the right visibility and credit for their work –and women of color in particular face the greatest challenges. Raena recommends sharing your initiatives and successes with your manager and generally ensuring they are aware of your progress and accomplishments. Document what you have done to have a record of your achievements (small and large) that you can share, especially ahead of critical conversations around reviews, raises, and promotions – this can help your manager and reviewers have a more complete picture and avoid recency bias. Another tip: it’s often easier for women to advocate for other women than themselves. If you work with others, highlight their accomplishments to their managers and they can do the same for you. On one of the most impactful projects she has done: Raena highlights her recent work with 5 other Black women at the foundation. Through this initiative, the team centralized Lean In’s years of data on Black women’s workplace experiences to help companies, leaders, and allies better understand the unique–and often worse–experiences Black women are having at work and through COVID-19. Moreover, the page gives a space for Black women to see their workplace experiences and obstacles reflected back to them and validated with data. This project had special meaning as it was the first all-Black project team Raena has ever gotten to work on - while many white employees go their entire careers working on all- or mostly-all-white project teams. On moving from product to people operations: Raena sees the many similarities. In fact, Raena started as head of product a year and a half after Lean In launched. As a mixed woman (Raena is Black and Filipino), she was always quite passionate about intentionally cultivating a sense of belonging at the company, which naturally led into her split role as VP of product and people.As a product manager and as a people operations leader, you manage stakeholders, egos, different personalities; you craft the culture of your team and navigate team dynamics; you leverage hard and soft skills to bridge the gap between different sub-teams; you hear all opinions while keeping the overall team focused and aligned; and you help everything and everyone come together cohesively. On building a culture in early-stage companies: Raena notes the importance of being intentional. Too often people think shaping their company’s culture is something they should do once their team is bigger, and they forget that a team of any size has a culture, even just a team of 2 co-founders. Everyone who joins the team after this point is inheriting the existing culture. It is the fabric of the company and influences things like how everyday decisions get made. Consequently, it is crucial to be incredibly deliberate in crafting the culture from the very start: companies need to articulate the values they aim to instill and represent, and define how these translate to regular actions. A company’s culture is a living, ever-evolving organism - and every person who works at a company can drive and shape the culture. If you are not building an intentionally healthy and inclusive company culture from the very ground up, it becomes more challenging to retro-actively add these elements in with each new hire. Raena encourages startups to start as early as possible in intentionally building this out.Earlier today, Raena and the team at Lean In published The State of Black Women in Corporate America report. The report draws on several years of their Women in the Workplace research with McKinsey & Company on the experiences of Black women, as well as research conducted in partnership with SurveyMonkey. It outlines specific steps companies should take to make sure Black women are treated fairly and given equal opportunities to learn, grow, and lead. See more here: SADDLER is the VP of People and Managing Director at the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, the non-profit that runs Lean In & Option B. For the past 5 years, she has helped Lean In launch initiatives that raise awareness on issues critical to advancing women at work, and developed programs to help companies build equal and inclusive workplaces. Prior to joining the foundation, she was the Head of Product at Topix, an online media technology company. Raena holds a Bachelor's degree from Stanford University, and a Master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School studying Religion, Ethics, and Politics. She lives in East Palo Alto with her husband, with whom she is raising three daughters to have a strong sense of social justice and a passion for driving social change on issues impacting women of color.
Thank you for sharing this experience!