Chatting with a Chief of Staff

Katie Lin
Katie Lin
Mar 13, 2016 · 10 min read

By Katie Lin

Women have been involved in business officially and unofficially since the barter system was established hundreds of years ago. In the United States, there have been notable business women even earlier than full women’s suffrage was established.

Micaela Almonester was a real estate businesswoman in New Orleans by 1835 and the Pontalba buildings she oversaw now are some of the most recognizable in New Orlean’s French Quarter. Rebecca Lukens took the reins of Brandywine Iron Works after the death of her husband in 1825 and started it on the path to being a Fortune 500 company known as Lukens Steel. She was also inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame as America’s first female industrialist leader.

In modern times we can see women in the executive suite like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, Virginia Rometty at IBM, Ursula Burns at Xerox, Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, Gina Rinehart at Hancock Prospecting, Maria das Gracas Silva Foster at Petrobras, and more. For young women like me who are just starting their careers, it may seem daunting to imagine what the path to the C-Suite or other leadership roles may look like.

To help get some insight into how to make the most of my career, I interviewed my aunt, Gloria Chen, Vice President and Chief of Staff to the CEO at Adobe Systems, Incorporated.

She started her undergraduate career as a chemistry major, but after finding she was a disaster at organic chemistry, her competitive side drove her to the electrical engineering department, the hardest department to get into at the time. As an electrical engineering major, Gloria was drawn more to the algorithms, systems, digital designs, and software than the physics of electrical engineering. As graduation approached, she felt that most engineering roles felt more like grunt work and chose to get a Masters degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Electrical and Computer Engineering with a focus on computer aided design, specifically electronic design automation. From there, she (and her family) expected her to follow her dad’s footsteps and continue in academia for a Ph.D. However, she found that the masters program had two types of people: those who were truly passionate about the subject and loved exploring new space and creating new knowledge and those who used the program to get on the path to meaningful work and sponsorship in US.

She fit into neither category. After making the difficult decision to quit graduate school, she woke up the next morning feeling completely at peace. Next up was to find a job. Here she faced a fork in the road: choose something more customer facing (Accenture systems consulting) or choose something more technical (Cadence Design Systems). After deciding it would be easier to go from industry to consulting than the other way around, she spent two years as a software developer (for those of you familiar with programming languages, this was still the C era!) at Cadence. She began to wonder why innovation seemed to only happen after a company acquired another and decided to attend business school to better understand this and to help drive future business decisions. After applying to and attending Harvard Business School, she joined McKinsey & Company Consulting before moving to Adobe Systems. From there, she moved around the company taking on diverse roles from customer care to sales strategy to product management. Finally, she found herself in corporate strategy and in 2009 accepted the role of VP, Chief of Staff to the CEO.

What, exactly, does the Chief of Staff to the CEO do?

Similarly to the President’s Chief of Staff, Gloria helps interpret high-level goals into strategy for actual implementation. She works with senior leadership on both strategic and operational initiatives and essentially is able to be involved in many different areas without being too deep in any one field with full responsibility. This is key to her work-life balance and being able to carve out time for her son.

Read on for an edited version of my interview with Gloria.

“I’ve given away as much power as I’ve taken on — it’s less about power, size of group, budget size and more about impact.”

What is it like being a business leader in a technology industry?

GC: It’s very different than being in consulting or other industries. Classic strategy training starts by looking at the world, seeing a problem, planning a solution, and executing it. In technology industries, both the technology and the landscape are changing really quickly. What defines a competitor changes every day, companies who are friends can also be competitors, you have to be mindful of startups event if not in direct competition because how they do what they do can affect you. So being a business leader in a technology company is being able to take all these things, synthesize them, and frame it in a way that isn’t so confusing.

“Being able to find the one or two things that really matter is a really powerful skill.”

Technology is so fast moving. Who would’ve thought? There were major players in the industry that, back in the day, no one thought would go out of business or be acquired. Leaders today may not be leaders tomorrow; constant movement forward and thinking about and being able to disrupt your own successes and keep reinventing yourself is critical.

When people look at my resume at first, it’s hard to see what I’m good at. Most people take a linear path: be fabulous engineer, move up the ranks, be VP of Engineering and keep adding more product teams under their belt. For me, I’ve jumped around to a lot of different things. The unspoken thing on my resume is being good at leading and driving change: being plopped in a position; trying to find where the real opportunity, the real challenge, is; framing that and having people go “yeah, that’s what we need to do”; and handing off to someone who would be operating it.

How do you teach yourself the skill of being able to go in and pinpoint a problem?

GC: Consulting was a huge contributor since that’s one of the core skills you develop. There are general skills that leaders have, though, even if not a former consultant. A huge part of it is mindset. Some people’s posture when they come in a meeting or work session is “I’m here to defend my point of view and my team”. In some way, that’s what is expected because tension across different points of view and different teams solving for different things makes for vibrant discussion to hone and arrive at better answers. For example, no one team (e.g. finance, legal, marketing, sales) is more important or more critical; the real issue is how do you find common ground and find right balance. The least common denominator is not necessarily the right answer either.

When I go into a meeting, one of the things I really try to ask, and the hat I try to put on, is what would my boss (or more generally, the executives) are solving for. Look at not just what you are trying to solve for, but what is my boss or my boss’s boss measured on. What are we responsible for achieving as an outcome? Be able to take a step back and understand and appreciate the roles and functions each team plays and take the time to figure out what they are each solving for.

When people don’t understand each other, they immediately assume bad intentions and it becomes personal: “sales department just wants this because they are just crooks” versus “the finance guys are just blocking this because they think we’re crooks”.

I’m never going to be an expert in everyone’s field, but when I get the basics about the two or three things that are really important and why it’s a key factor in a particular project, I start to understand the underlying driver of what they’re solving for. When you know that, you can take a step back and solve for the entire system.

“But if you don’t understand half of the constraints, how do you solve for the problem?”

I was awful at linear algebra but at some point with any engineering or math problem, you have to take a step back and say “what’s the right set of equations to set up?” Analytical skills as engineers and scientists are very relevant in leading in a business setting: you just have to understand where the patterns are and what the analogies are. A lot of the inputs are not in numbers or problem statements, but in people’s heads what is known/unknown/explicit/implicit.

Practicing that skill of “thinking like an executive” before it becomes a responsibility is important. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to move up?” Don’t wait to be asked to think bigger picture from where you sit today. Don’t act narrowly in the box of your role’s responsibility, think outside. Think like your (hopefully, good) boss is thinking; get inside your boss’s head for what matters and why.

“Look around and see what other leaders are doing and pay attention to the leaders talking about the big picture and how they relate to what you do.”

When you express that curiosity, you’ll naturally start to ask how does that affect what I do and that means you start to get more strategic. Thinking about just what your job description does is the key to staying put. You’ll be seen as that person who is so good at what you’re doing that they can’t see you being used in some other role.

How do you overcome the stereotypes (and maybe reality) of being an Asian woman in business? Both Asians and women are culturally groomed to be more deferential of authority in general and you (and I) are Asian women.

GC: It’s funny because when I got to sessions about women in the workplace, my first thought is “this is both an Asian thing and a woman thing”. This idea that women are brought up with deference to authority is what defines being a well-bred young Chinese woman. To be honest, I’ve realized on top of that I’m a natural introvert, which really reinforces that.

What I found really helpful in my career came from one of my first mentors at McKinsey, who is one of few female partners. If you met her, you’d be shocked that she was a partner: she doesn’t seem very authoritative, doesn’t have a big personality, is a bit mousy, and a bit shy.

“Her advice: It just comes with practice.”

I remember hearing horror stories of partners who jump on young associates sitting in a meeting and not saying anything, and being like “what are you doing here”. I had very little public speaking experience, so I felt like I had to wait my turn to add to the meeting. What I found was the more I practiced speaking up, even if I didn’t have an official role to speak up, the more comfortable I got. For every meeting I mentally prepare two or three points that I want to make during the meeting. Since I have them already prepared, when the right time comes, I’ll be prepared to pop it in. If it doesn’t come up, then I’ll be like “I think there’s something we missed” and I’ll bring it up.

“As engineers and scientists we’re analytical by nature, we’re good at structured thinking, we’re thorough, what we say makes sense, and we’re smart. What I find is what we say is appreciated.”

In real life, older and more experienced people don’t necessarily know more or know better, but it’s easy to be intimidated of contradicting or questioning them. Asking questions is a more natural way to insert yourself into the conversation. By asking questions, you uncover disconnects and bad logic. People appreciate when you want to understand what they’re doing, so especially if you’re in a more junior role earlier in career, asking is a very natural thing to do and can be very helpful in moving the conversation along or catching something that they hadn’t thought of. You can take the posture of “I’m not sure I understand what you mean by x” or “this part is confusing because I’m thinking blah blah blah which means this but you’re saying this”.

Keep in mind, we’re not talking for airtime alone — don’t be “the hot air guy” in the room. Do it in a way consistent with who you are and what you want to get out of the meeting. The process of asking questions and talking in large meetings can be intimidating, but practice and making a concerted effort to improve helps it become part of your persona. Engineering and science environments tend to be full of logical people, so keep it about the problem and it’s a lot easier. Solve the problem by jumping in and pummeling them with logic instead of getting personal and political.

“The big thing is know your own strengths and build on that; shore up on things that don’t come naturally but at the end of the day, we can’t fundamentally change who we are.”

Go where you’re comfortable with who you are, but stretch and build capabilities where you’re lacking.

What’s the best thing about your work?

GC: There are a lot of different kinds of leaders, it’s important to find your personal strength and build on that. Some people are “flag planting, I’m painting a vision, rally the troops, build team spirit” type of leaders (these are good capabilities to build, so don’t ignore it!), but I’m an extreme introvert. I get told, “Gloria, you’re like a guy”. What they meant was when people come to me with a problem, I jump into problem solving. I’m not a shoulder to cry on, not a nurturing one. People know to come to me with a problem. I’m someone who helps guide people’s thinking and problem solving approach. There’s that spark that comes that’s like “oh that is what this is about”. In school, you work on problem sets with existing answers. In the real world, that doesn’t exist.

“Everything we do creates something out of nothing.”

Feel free to hit the recommend button (♡ icon below) or share if you enjoyed this article! Thanks for reading! #SASEPrints

Originally published at www.saseconnect.org.

SASEprints

The official blog of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers

Katie Lin

Written by

Katie Lin

Thinker, dreamer, doer. Problem-solver in training. I write for The Thought Lab, SASEPrints, and for myself.

SASEprints

The official blog of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers

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