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Marissa Orr chose to 'Lean Out' to find happiness

In new book, Silicon Valley author tells women why it's OK not to 'Lean In' to find career path

Nicole Villalpando
Marissa Orr wrote "Lean Out" about her experience in tech and why not every woman wants to "Lean In." [Contributed]

It might feel to outside observers that Marissa Orr is chasing Sheryl Sandberg. They both attended the same grade schools in Dade County, Fla.; they both worked for Google and then Facebook. One wrote the new book "Lean Out" ($27.99, Harper Collins Leadership) and the other wrote "Lean In" in 2013. Both have views about women in the workplace. That might be where the similarities end.

Orr, 40, was in Austin last week to talk to the audience at the Business Tech Expo as part of the book tour she's on while her children — she has an 11-year-old and 9-year-old twins — are off at sleep-away camp.

When she sat down with us, she explained that she doesn't like the comparison between herself and the chief operating officer of Facebook. In fact, "Lean Out" wasn't her title for her book, which challenges the ideas of Sandberg and others that women need to be pushing their way toward the top of the business ladder. Instead, Orr writes, women need to find out what they're passionate about and forge the careers they want. They need to let go of the ideal of being the CEO, CFO or COO of a major Fortune 500 company — if they don't want to be one.

She doesn't like the comparison between herself and Sandberg, yet the prologue of her book is all about that time when she wrote an email in 2016 to Sheryl Sandberg and then met her. It's also about that time when she left Google to join Facebook and then was fired from Facebook.

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A blessing, she says, because it allowed her to pursue writing a book about how wrong a lot of the books about corporate glass ceilings and pay equity are.

"There's more variety of life goals," she says. Women might choose to take different life paths and be drawn to non-corporate roles such as nurse and teacher, and they might want flexibility or a job description that better suits their needs and personalities rather than just chasing money and title.

She says she finds that when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder and what is considered successful, corporations are wired to pit people against one another. The way the corporate world has traditionally allocated its finite amount of resources (i.e., raises and promotions) favors the extrovert who wants to lead and who can make the job the priority rather than an introvert who craves work-life balance.

Orr gives the example of her own job at Google in the marketing department. She loved the work she did, but as a newly single mom with three children, she needed to make more money. The only way that she could do that was to get a promotion, which would require her to manage people, which she knew wasn't her strength. "I knew I would have less impact if I managed people," she says. "I wanted to solve bigger and bigger problems, but it was interpreted as a lack of ambition."

One thing Orr noticed is that there are many areas of influence in which women are very supportive of one another: Think new moms groups or advocacy volunteerism. "Where women have a common goal, they are unstoppable," she says. The corporate world often is not one of these places. "The higher up you move, the more the spots become more scarce," she says.

Think about the evaluation process, Orr says: An employer grades an employee, often in a system that makes it impossible for everyone to get a good score. It's also subjective because many people play a small part in the success of the whole company. Can you identify which part of the success you and only you are responsible for?

"It's hard to know who is doing a good job," she says.

Yet businesses encourage employees to brag about the work they do or else get lost in the sea of other employees, which makes things like raises and promotions impossible.

Orr doesn't see the system changing anytime soon because of the people in power. "Why would they want an overhaul?" she asks. "It worked for them."

So, if the system isn't going to change, what else can we do? "Define success in our own terms," she says. "Real empowerment is figuring out what your needs are and where they are being met and where they're not being met and how to get there on your own."

"Lean Out" isn't a guidebook on what to do. Rather, it examines why our corporate system isn't geared toward women or men who don't fit a stereotype. The criticism Orr has heard is that women really wanted a how-to. "Women are searching for something, an answer," she says.

Her advice is for women to "really think inward and understand yourself," she says. "I was following a script of what my life was supposed to be. It took me years to understand what I wanted. Once you figure that out, you can understand what to ask for."

"We can be the authors of our own story," she says. "What are you being told without consideration of who you are?"

Orr also points out that often women are called out for their lack of ambition, with the misunderstanding that they don't want power or more money. "Power can be achieved in a different way," she says. "I feel more powerful as a writer with no money than when I worked at Facebook or Google."

When she decided to write this book rather than find another job in tech, "people thought I had gone off the deep end," Orr says. Yet she knew this was important for other women to hear.

Orr had confidence in herself because she knew she could market an idea — that's what she did at Google and Facebook. So, she read a book about how to write a book proposal, and she put one together. She also attended a writing camp in Austin to help her with the book. Harper Collins Leadership picked it up, and now her ideas are in hardcover form in airports and bookstores across the country.

Orr has yet to hear from Sandberg or any of the higher-ups at Facebook. "She has a lot going on. The company is under siege," Orr says. "If I were her, I don't know if I would reach out or comment. It only brings attention to my book."