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Joanna Barsh, the bestselling author of “How Remarkable Women Lead” and “Centered Leadership,” is an expert on fostering leadership, equality and professional growth in the workplace. Now a director emerita at McKinsey & Company, where she’s worked in various roles since 1981, Barsh has devoted much of her career to researching — and sharing her findings through teaching and writing — women and leadership in the workplace.
Needless to say, she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to professional relationships and how to address conflict at the office. Yet when she advised her own millennial-age daughters to read her books, they weren’t interested.
Many moms might not think twice about this kind of daughter-not-wanting-mother’s-advice interaction. But Barsh did. Instead of writing off her daughters as being spiteful, she thought more deeply about their reaction — and leveraged it for a greater purpose. “[I started] thinking about why my kids didn’t want to read my books,” Barsh explains. “My older one helped me; she says, ‘what do you know about young people?’ And I said, ‘You’re right.’”
That’s when Barsh decided to take the research she’d done on leadership in the workplace a step further; she resolved write a book that would actually resonate with her daughters and the rest of the millennial demographic. She’d spoken to a ton of young people about their careers, but realized there was a disconnect between what they were feeling and striving for — and what kinds of advice and role models they had access to. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized that these successful, top-of-their-game men and women [highlighted in my books] were not great role models for young people who have different issues,” Barsh says.
Like in her research process for her previous books, Barsh set out to conduct hundreds of interviews. She reached out to companies to coordinate conversations with 23- to 38-year-old employees. “The twist I took this time,” she explains, was that “I asked companies to connect me with two or three high-performing, high-potential people to speak to who they saw as role models for young people, plus one HR person.”
After speaking to 260 millennials in a year, Barsh completed her white paper last fall — and then set out to write her new book, “Grow Wherever You Work,” which will be released Oct. 20. She discovered a whole lot along the way, but one of the conclusions she was quickest to point out was that all of the stereotypes we hear about millennials — that they’re entitled or trophy hunters — are, in her opinion, completely misguided.
“Two hundred-fifty of [the millennials I spoke to] were amazing people who had come up from poverty or pulled themselves up or took amazing risks for things they really cared about or thought would help others. They took on challenges at work and did it with tremendous grace and elegance,” she recalls, adding that she ended up with a very diverse group of interviewees (approximately 20 percent were African American and Hispanic, 20 percent were Asian, and 40% were born outside the U.S.).
While she focused largely on marginalized populations, Barsh says she “fought to keep a few bros in the book.” Why? Because, in her words, “the world is run by bros. [But the bros I spoke to] are in the book and they’re pouring their hearts out, just like everybody else.”
The book is divided into five basic themes and explores the 12 most prevalent challenges Barsh identified based on her conversations. “Those challenges range from having no passion at all to getting a terrible review,” Barsh says. The five themes sound quite simple (think: preparing, setting your intention, taking small steps in any direction) — but you’ll hard-pressed to find a story or category you don’t connect with.
That’s because Barsh did such a wonderful job of bringing her interview subjects to life and getting to the heart of their stories — and she didn’t do it by accident. She made it her mission to get people to open up by her, and if she felt like an interview was falling flat, she’d simply ask — in the most straightforward of ways — “What is it like being you?”
What came out of the conversations — and went into “Grow Wherever You Work” — is concrete, practical advice for millennials based on insight into their peers. The tips that Barsh lays out are especially powerful because they derive from the real, nuanced stories she’s telling. “Almost every obstacle that you’ll face at work has been faced before — and chances are that Joanna Barsh has helped tackle them,” explains Adam Grant, who wrote “Give and Take” and “Originals” and coauthored “Option B” with Sheryl Sandberg.
Whether or not you’re a millennial, you’ll find some gems in Barsh’s book — particularly if you have millennial-age children or coworkers. Barsh herself says she’s garnered some key personal takeaways that have helped her approach her own kids. “I learned a very valuable lesson that, at 64, you would think I knew: other people are not you,” she explains. “People have very different lenses by which they see the world. I learned people are far more resourceful than we give them credit for. I learned the power of finding people to talk to. The process helped me understand my children better and not presume that I know what they should do.”
The bottom line that “Grow Wherever You Work” so tactfully illustrates is that people tend to avoid challenge — and that tendency is what most of us need to work on if we truly want to grow at work. “Challenge is painful and scary, and it means you’re going to be uncomfortable and you might fail,” Barsh explains. “Yet if you face your challenge, you will grow no matter the outcome.”
Sheryl Sandberg — who’s already praised the book — is totally on the same page.
“There is no straight path to success; we learn and grow from our mistakes,” she says. “Joanna’s book of wise stories and guidance can help all of us get closer to our full potential and dreams.”
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