Permission to be Confident
Poised, expressive, engaging and personable, it is difficult to imagine that as a young girl, Vivian Wong, Vice President (VP) of Product Development at Oracle in Dublin, CA, was so painfully shy that she hid behind closed doors for hours while her mother entertained guests.
“No one believes I’m an introvert,” Wong said, “but I didn’t start coming out of the shell until I went to university.” And she didn’t fully come out of her shell to impact her career until just a few years ago.
For ten years, Wong worked as a computer engineer. She started out in Sydney, Australia, then moved to the U.S. in 1998 with her husband for work opportunities. At Peoplesoft (later acquired by Oracle), it wasn’t her direct manager, but her manager’s manager, Koby Avital, a VP at the time, who spotted her leadership potential.
“The saying that the harder you work, the luckier you get, is so true,” Wong said. “Koby insisted that I be promoted from a technical role straight into management.”
Wong was shocked. “I didn’t want to be a manager. I didn’t think I could give constructive feedback.” But she soon saw that being in management gave her the opportunity to “make a bigger impact, not just for myself but for everyone.” Wong’s natural affinity for relating with others quickly helped her form relationships with team members, figure out what makes them tick, motivate them to work towards business targets, and manage in times of uncertainty.
“Proactive communication is really important,” Wong said. “You have to be able to relay the good, the bad and the ugly.” This included speaking up for herself as well.
“[As] Asians, we tend to think our good work will speak for itself,” Wong explained, “but in corporate America, that’s only half the battle. The other half involves helping others see that good work and its business value.”
Wong has fought this battle not by relying on aggressive self-promotion, but by being herself and always focusing on the business outcome. “I’ve always operated with an inclusiveness mindset and that has helped me demonstrate impact across teams, broaden connections and build a support network. I try to encourage the same in my teams. I tell them all of our work combined is what customers get.”
“It has to come from within,” Wong said. “Do it because you believe in it. Start with considering what it is that you hold on to and whether or not it serves to build relationships and communicate your effectiveness.”
Facing internal fears
For Wong, this self-evaluation led to the annihilation of a deeply-ingrained belief about how she should relate to those in positions of power.
Less than four years ago, despite repeated promotions at Oracle and taking on greater responsibility for larger teams, Wong had a problem: she couldn’t talk to anyone who was above her manager’s level without breaking into a sweat.
With the help of a business coach, Wong discovered that the underlying fear had to do with her past. “My mother, my sister and I lived in what I thought was a domestic violence situation. Though we left my dad in China for Australia when I was eleven, that fear stayed with me.”
Looking back, Wong saw that a lot of her behaviors centered on fears of not being good enough. Wong became gentler to herself as she got older, but the fear of being imperfect in front of those with authority remained and paralyzed her. “The day I identified that fear and realized how it was affecting my career,” Wong said, “I bawled my eyes out.”
In a blog, Wong wrote:
“The key to overcoming fears for me is to give myself the PERMISSION to do it. (The fear may not go away, but I am not going to let it take control.) … In 2010, I am totally ditching the ‘What if I am not good enough?’ question.”
Some individuals of Asian backgrounds may relate to authority figures at work in a similar way to how we were raised. We bend our heads, keep our mouths shut, and wait for permission to speak up, to share views, to question the status quo, and to relate to others in a non-hierarchical way.
This may have been what was holding Wong back. Her father had not been a threat in her life for many years, yet the fear of him prevented her from truly connecting and communicating with the people who were important to her career.
Wong confronted her fear head-on. She visited her dad in China and “suffered a roller-coaster ride.” But the effort helped her understand that his past violence was circumstantial – a by-product of the power dynamics that were acceptable in her parents’ culture at the time. Her resentment of him dissipated, along with her fear of those in positions of power, and made it possible for her to call upon and project qualities that have helped her attain ever-larger leadership roles.
In 2010, a general manager at Taleo, a cloud-based talent management solutions provider, offered her a position as VP of Engineering. They had met in 2005 at a conference and connected over Facebook and LinkedIn. Although he quickly observed her potential for cultivating a collaborative and results-driven work environment, something he desired for his development team, Wong believed it was her willingness to open herself up to a discussion about opportunities at Taleo that landed her the job.
“It was one of the best decisions of my life,” Wong said. One year after leaving for Taleo, Wong was back at Oracle following its acquisition of Taleo for $1.9 billion. Her entire team of fifty engineers and managers followed her.
As difficult as it may be to dig deep and explore personal fears (with or without a business coach), Wong’s example demonstrates that we can all try to reach out to others and connect. It takes initiative which starts with giving ourselves permission to be confident with our abilities and instincts, to be less than perfect, and to fail. This realization has served Wong well and brought her to a place where she has been making – and continues to make – significant impacts.