Read the full interview here
Q. What were early influences that shaped who you are as a leader today?
A. I grew up in Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. It’s a very different life than the life I lead today. One of the early influences is this notion that life was not easy. Nothing really gets given to you. I didn’t grow up in a family of means, so it was a struggle. Education wasn’t a right. It is something that you have to earn and work towards. That created a drive and hunger for something better.
Q. What kind of things were you doing outside of class as you were growing up?
A. I’ve always had this thing for winning an argument. So, I decided in high school to join the debate team. As a child, if I saw something that wasn’t quite right, I have this need to course-correct immediately. So in a debate setting in front of many people, I was often pretty quick to correct somebody if they shared somewhat of a wild view and oftentimes it is not the best setting to do that.
I really enjoyed learning a topic and arguing my case.
But I’ve since learned to not do that in a corporate or leadership setting, because there’s something to be said about pausing and listening through someone’s opinion vs just course correcting.
Q. And how did your parents feel about your debating skills?
A. I think at times they were proud, and at times, I think they found it quite annoying. I’m a mother now, so you can only imagine if your child can out-argue you. That’s not a nice feeling most of the time.
Q. What are some headwinds you’ve encountered in your career because you’re a woman?
A. There were certainly more headwinds when I was starting out in my career than there are today. A lot of them are from people’s perceptions of your capabilities and your abilities based on the way you look, and your gender as well.
I remember one meeting with some very senior people. It was my meeting, and I was supposed to talk about the issue at hand. Someone looked at me and said, “Oh, it’s great to have someone to take minutes.” I kept quiet for a moment, and then explained why I was there, and the tone changed. Those biases still exist in corporate America.
Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned in your career?
A. First and foremost, leadership doesn’t mean that you are “in charge” of people. I think it’s the other way around. You are there to lead the team. You’re not there to direct people or tell them what to do. You’re almost there to provide that blanket of security for your team and to guide them to take risks, to create, to be innovative, to be successful.
So I always say to people who work for me that your success is your success, and if there are failures, I will co-own them. That way, people are more willing to put themselves out there and take risks.
A mentor also gave me good advice on running a team — that you have to be willing to let the china break. I tend to be a fixer. If there’s a problem, I want to help fix the problem. But when you are leading and managing a team, you have to allow for things to go off the rails sometimes and let the china break.
That way, people get to learn from those moments and deal with the repercussions. It’s about allowing your team to have that learning process and not to always be hovering and ensuring that everything is right.
Q. There’s so much disruption now. What is about your wiring that helps you survive and thrive in this environment?
A. I believe there is always opportunity in chaos. I’ve got quite a structured mindset, so that regardless of how chaotic or disruptive things are, I can always take a step back and figure out what can be done, and what’s the opportunity.
Given that we didn’t have an easy life when we were growing up, there’s not that many things that faze me. It’s the ability to know that things will get better. There’s a way out of every difficult situation.
Q. What is the most common mentoring advice that you share with other women?
A. I always tell women to master a particular skill. It could be anything. Hone in on the one or two things that you think you’re really, really good at, and make sure that transcends everything else. It’s great that there’s a lot of focus now on gender diversity and biases. Could there be more? Of course. Are we there in terms of parity? Not by a long shot. So as a woman, you want to earn your seat at the table and be recognized for the value that we bring to the table. No one can take that away from you.
Second, I will point out that there are a lot of people who say that women should lean in and be a bit more assertive and aggressive. I don’t subscribe to that. I believe that diversity is diversity. People have to be accepted and appreciated for who they are.
I put that ownership on managers to recognize talent as opposed to trying to change women to be more like men. Trying to get people to fit a mold is the antithesis of diversity. You shouldn’t feel like you have to be leaning in and really asserting yourself to get people to notice you.
Q. Do you remember the moment when you feel like you made the jump from a manager to being a leader?
A. It was through a pretty catastrophic failure that I had that “aha” moment to make that jump. We were embarking on a pretty large-scale project, and some people on my team made certain decisions that perhaps shouldn’t have been made. At that point, I had a choice to make.
And I decided that at the end of the day, it was my responsibility. It goes back to my belief that, as a leader, you have to co-own failures. I owned the problem and gave that blanket of security for the team. That moment changed the way how I look at leadership.