Women Leaders Share Strategies for Success
If a senior manager asks you to sit down and explain why you are a good worker or should be promoted, what would you say? How would you say it?
For Vivian Tan, VP of Strategic and Capital Planning at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, this kind of scenario led to “the most uncomfortable conversation” she’d ever had with a manager. Yet it was also one of the most enlightening in her career–a moment in which she learned what it meant to self-promote.
“The manager blocked two hours and opened my eyes to the need to practice talking about myself,” Tan said at a recent Asian-American Women in Leadership panel in San Francisco. “With practice comes ease and familiarity. Don’t rush it, and don’t do it where you feel you become a different person. Over time, whatever you’re saying will become part of who you are.”
The art of self-promotion, along with introspection, being true to oneself and seeking personal challenges, were the dominant strategies for leadership and success discussed on September 29, 2012 at UCSF Mission Bay as part of NAAAP-San Francisco’s “Gateway to Leadership” Conference.
Moderated by Kimi Hirotsu Ziemski, President of Energizing Enterprises, the panel also included Leslie Yotsuya, Senior Vice President at Bank of the West; Margaret Chen, Partner at Accenture; Eugenia Rao, Partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers; and Elaine Law, President for the SanFrancisco Bay Area Chapter of Project Management Institute.
From resumes to performance reviews to meetings, the panelists made it a point to redefine the word brag. “It’s not bragging if it’s true,” Hirotsu Ziemski said.
Chen added, “Asians, especially, tend to be very modest and want to let our work speak for itself. Always think about how you want to self-promote and what your elevator speech will be.”
Rao shared her own experience learning this skill. In her first year at PwC, she was the only one among her peers who didn’t give herself an “excellent” rating on her review. “I thought I performed just as well as everyone else, but I rated myself middle-of-the-pack. My manager questioned me and told me that everyone else gave examples of how they were great in addition to giving themselves the best ratings.”
“That was an ‘ah-ha moment’ for me,” Rao said. “I realized that nobody will know what I’m doing unless I somehow get it out there. From then on, I learned to share subtly with people who can toot my horn for me.”
Perhaps that knowledge influenced her decision to reach out to a partner she didn’t know at a time when she wasn’t sure about her career path. “I felt my career hit a wall and went to talk to several people. One partner, after meeting with me for just thirty minutes, picked up the phone and supported me for a transfer to New York to serve as chief of staff for PwC’s U.S. Tax Leader.” That unexpected opportunity was a turning point in her career.
“Being yourself is important,” Rao said. “Anyone you meet could be your next sponsor. And sponsors are more than just mentors; they will put their name out there for you.”
“Each time you go talk to a sponsor, mentor or manager,” Rao advised, “tell them what you’ve done, then ask them what you can do next.”
Self-promotion and seeking opportunities go hand-in-hand. We tend to undersell ourselves, which means others don’t get to see our full potential. What’s worse, we don’t get to see our own full potential.
Self-promotion works best when it is a true reflection of who we are. It involves not just the ability to deliver a great elevator speech, but also introspection. Reflecting upon our accomplishments, failures, or detours allows us to see whether what we’re doing is done because it was set in our path, or because we chose to do it. This will allow us to take ownership of our achievements and feel confident when presenting our strongest attributes.
After graduating from Duke, Chen was on a pre-med track, but decided to defer medical school to work in health care consulting. It took five years of balancing work while taking med school-related courses at night before she finally let go of the idea of medical school.
“It was my parents’ expectation, not mine.” Chen said. “But it was only when I focused on what I wanted to do – what success meant to me – that I really came around to letting it go.”
We don’t necessarily have to know where we want to go; a lot of times it is about letting go of our fears enough so that we can take steps that will over time light the way. Law gave this advice – “Be willing to fail; be willing to be wrong.” This dares us to take on challenges that may not seem to offer any immediate or tangible reward. For her, success hasn’t been defined by the jobs she’s had, but by how she’s felt when doing something. “I realized my joy came from working with others to help them be the leaders they want to be; I can’t tell you the exact moment I realized it, but I know I felt it in my heart.” Law may not have known that moment if she hadn’t taken on the different roles she had – both paid and volunteer.
Tan echoed this with a story about a moment in which she stepped up to the plate while working for the Singapore government. “The senior speechwriter was out sick and nobody wanted to take his place. I volunteered.” The work occurred over just one weekend, but it gave her an opportunity to sit and talk with the official for whom she was writing the speech. Afterwards, he offered her a position on a team that was subsequently responsible for the deregulation of the entire Singaporean telephone industry.
“You never know when a small incident could lead to big things,” Tan said. “Live in the moment so that you can be aware of things happening around you and take chances.”
Introspection leads to opportunities because we can take advantage of unique circumstances that surface and are relevant to our goals and interests. One of Yotsuga’s key learning experiences as a manager was in her non-profit work. “I had to lead individuals who were not staying and doing things because I was responsible for their performance evaluations, pay or bonuses. They could walk away at any moment, so I had to find ways for them to march in my parade and be part of a shared vision. I was able to transfer that experience into my working career.”
Becoming a leader, it seems, is a constant process of putting yourself out there to do things that may be new, different, and/or uncomfortable. As Tan put it, “A leader is someone who sees the way, clears the way, and models the way. You have to enable others to do the work, so your job is to clear all the barriers.” To be able to clear the way for others, you must be constantly challenged and growing. Tan calls this being “happily uncomfortable.” You have to be happy – with who you are, with your work, with your decisions – but if you’re not uncomfortable, you can’t challenge yourself, and you won’t grow.
Hirotsu Ziemski wrapped up the panel with a final thought on leadership: take it into your own hands. “Don’t let the bastards get you down; there’s nothing you can’t do,” she said. “You may believe that these women are very high up in their organizations and lead not only from example but from a formal basis. The reality is: you can lead from everywhere. If you want anything in this world to change, to be better, to grow, you will find it within you. You won’t need somebody to say, ‘I hearby make you so-and-so.’ It’s really not an option, anyway. If you want this world to continue, if you want a safe and healthy society, you’ve got to lead the way.”