5 Tips for Navigating Career and Life and Intersecting the Future of Work

Golden Gate University Commencement Speech

Delivered on April 27, 2019

Thank you President Fike, Board President Merck, the Administration and Faculty of Golden Gate University. I am honored to speak with today’s graduates, their friends and families.

My name is Van Ton-Quinlivan.

I come by many labels. I share a few with you today in the hope that we find some in common.

I am a changemaker — I was named a White House Champion of Change by the Obama Administration for leading transformation in higher education; I was named California Steward Leader for bringing together the private, public, and civic sectors in support of social mobility for the residents of our state; and I was named Sacramento Magazine’s “Powered by Women” as a leader who inspires positive change.

I am an executive — My career spanned both the private and public sectors. In government, I served as the executive vice chancellor driving the workforce mission of the California Community Colleges, the largest system of higher education in the nation, and oversaw its growth from $100 million to over $1 billion. In the private sector, I was head of workforce development for a company of 20,000 men and women. I took the company from having no opinion in workforce development to becoming a nationally recognized industry-best practice.

I am a spouse and parent — My husband and I have been married for over 20 years. We have two teenagers, ages 13 and 17.

But the most important label I want to share with you is the label “immigrant.”

I am an immigrant — first generation into this country. This label has meaning because it lets you know that my journey began behind the starting line. And, if I could find my way to become a changemaker, an executive, a spouse and a parent, you can too, should you desire.

In 1975, war displaced my parents from what they knew. With three small children in tow, including me, my parents escaped out of Vietnam and arrived in the United States with not much more than the clothes on our back. Growing up, I remember how hard my parents worked to make ends meet. And yet, they never expressed regret for what they lost. Rather, they were always grateful to have the opportunity ahead.

Not surprisingly, my parents could not give us much advice on how to navigate career and life since they were new to the American way. So, after I finished college, I ambled into my journey of work and life, uncovering tips along the way.

So, if you are interested, I would like to pay these forward to you today.

Tip #1: Tame your internal voice of judgment.

I actually learned this phrase during my MBA from Stanford. The loudest voice that keeps you from realizing your own potential is not that of your boss, your parents, nor your spouse — but that of your own. In your head, you may hear this voice of judgment speak to encourage but beware when it discourages. Does it say “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not ready”, “I don’t look the part”, or “If I try this, I’m going to fail or look foolish”? As a Vietnamese female, my voice of judgment had a cultural overlay, telling me that I was not acting “proper” to be female.

One time at work, my voice of judgment was so loud that I blurted out, “I can’t. I’ve never done it before.” And, in a moment of coaching, my wise and patient boss replied, “You will figure it out.” He was right. I did figure it out (with some help, that is).

In the future of work, many things will need to be figured out. Retrain your voice of judgment to encourage, not discourage.

Tip #2: Broaden and deepen your expertise — With your GGU degree, you have gained a solid foundation on which to base your career journey. Don’t stop there. Keep learning. Stay current. There are many ways.

Remember to ask your supervisor and mentors for projects: “I’m interested in working with a high growth client so that I can better understand tax strategies for growing companies.” “I want to have a global assignment.” “I want to work on digital transformation.” Remember to ask.

Don’t limit your learning to just opportunities inside your organization. Attend workshops and conferences, take online courses to round out your knowledge, do pro bono work, and serve on commissions or nonprofit boards.

My road to becoming an expert took this latter, more non-linear route. I started with a desire to better understand the community colleges and its role in workforce development, then committed time to reading the research, doing pro bono work, then serving on commissions and boards — before turning the work into my day job. This learning journey got me positioned with the expertise and network to be the best person for the job when it came available.

Tip #3: Collect mentors along the way — My mentors don’t look like me. My two-time boss and mentor was a man, Peter Darbee, who was a Chief Financial Officer in his 40s when I first worked for him and hired me again when he became a CEO. Marsha Johnson was chief human resources officer of the Southern Company and a prominent African American leader in Atlanta, and we met through an executive development program. Gail Schoettler had stepped down as Lieutenant Governor of Colorado and got paired with me in a mentoring program. She gave me my first tutorial on how to navigate government. My mentors were of different ages, different ethnicities, different genders, different experiences, different strengths, and lived in different states. Thanks to them all, I made better decisions in navigating career and life and avoided common potholes.

Tip #4: Feedback is a gift. This one is tough. You don’t have to 100% agree with the feedback, but if it comes from a person of credibility (a.k.a., not from a random social media person), it is important to take it graciously and simply say thank you. After you emotionally process it, take the time to discern whether there is a nugget of truth in what you heard.

Back when I was a newly minted MBA, Peter Darbee told me I seemed nervous — I was too quiet during business meetings and that my voice trembled. I said thank you, and he actually offered to send me to a speaking coach. Later in my career, Marsha Johnson observed that I was repeating an unhelpful behavior that was holding me back. I said thank you, and began the work on myself to break the cycle. Feedback is a gift. Learn to say thank you.

Tip #5: Intersect the future.

We are all very busy the here and now. But, don’t forget to look up and outwards at the 10 year future. Consider what might look different then for your profession, your organization, or your industry in that future of work.

Play along with me. Imagine, what if in the 10-year future:

  • Everything rote and repetitive in your profession is automated and done by the machines. What kind of work will value the human touch?
  • Your colleagues can be humans, robots, or avatars. What skills make you a good colleague to them?
  • Technology platforms and their algorithms become the new middle management to assign and match work. This means your online reputation is a must, not a nice to have, because your reputation data is what an algorithm can read. How others rate you, what experiences are in your portfolio, your demonstrated competencies, your earned credentials, your ability to display who you are connected to and can influence, and so on. How will you build your online reputation?
  • You self identify through a personalized learning record not tied to any education institution or employers. By scanning your personal QR code, an employer can see your skills, experiences, formal and informal education and training — all verified and recorded in blockchain. How will you engage in lifelong learning as a way to differentiate you?
  • Workers increasingly go independent. Being independent becomes so commonplace that people no longer say they “go to work” — because that implies an outdated notion that work is a physical location with a physical boss. Instead, people will say they “do work” without expectations of going anywhere physical. What do you know about being your own business?
  • Environmental stressors become so pronounced that carbon emission becomes strictly enforced. How will work occur differently? Perhaps the virtual world becomes where you collaborate.
  • Because of distrust of the pervasive use of algorithms, organizations that emphasize transparency in their culture begin to stand out in a good way. What if everything you type and everything that you text for work becomes visible to the rest of the organization? Privacy norms will have changed.

Let’s come back from the 10 year future into the here and now. What would you do differently to future proof yourself and your organization for this future world of work?

Remember the tips:

  • Tame your voice of judgment….remember, you got this.
  • Broaden and deepen your expertise…especially skills valued in the future.
  • Collect mentors along the way.
  • Take feedback as a gift.
  • Intersect the future….periodically look ahead even as you focus on today.

We are all immigrants into the future.

Just know that we will figure it out.

Thank you.

Congratulations to all the graduate-level students who were conferred degrees from the Bruce F. Braden School of Taxation, the Edward S. Ageno School of Business and the School of Accounting.

Van Ton-Quinlivan was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Golden Gate University’s David J. Pike, PhD., on this date.