As we reach the end of one year and enter into a new one, we all feel the need to recap on what has been and look toward the future – at what will be. Perhaps we are drawn to predictions as a way of helping us make sense of what is otherwise unknowable.

But I am a great believer in planning and action. It’s important for us all, as individuals and as leaders, to set forth a vision and follow that through with programs that help us all build towards that vision.

At the end of 2010, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, delivered an amazing address to the TEDWomen conference. As she points out:

  • Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world
  • Women on boards and in C-level positions sits at around 15-16%
  • Women political leaders and heads of state – about 0.5%
  • These numbers have not moved since 2002 and are trending down

While not downplaying the role of mentoring, training or other programs designed to encourage the participation of women in business, Sheryl suggests that there is no clear answer (even for herself) – but that an important aspect is to focus on our individual actions and responsibilities. What are the things that we can actually do? Sheryl suggests we take three key actions:

  1. Sit at the table – don’t underestimate your skills and capacities. You don’t make the corner office or get a promotion when you don’t sit at the table when decisions are made.
  2. Make your partner a real partner – statistics show that women continue to take on more work in the home while holding down successful professional roles. There is a need to strive for balance (and recognition of that balance) at home as well as at work
  3. Don’t leave before you leave – studies show that women often begin changing their working patterns well before they decide to have a family. As Sheryl explains, for a woman to return to a role after having a child, that job needs to be challenging and worthwhile. If you stop driving towards your goals early, chances are that you won’t have that interesting project or great role to return to. You’ll have the same job you’ve been doing for years.

For me, the interesting aspect of this has to do with behavior. What we need to do is look beyond what we say and even what we think about those small actions that have large ramifications for ourselves, for our careers, for our families and for our organizations. And the same rules apply regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.

Perhaps we need to look at the idea of personal leadership – turning the principles of leadership inwardly. Now, that would make for a fascinating future.

Nina Nets It Out: As leaders we often look to external factors as indicators of our success. But as Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg suggests, the greatest challenge facing leaders may well be to understand and act upon our own behaviors.