Lisa Lai is a business advisor, consultant, and coach. She has held executive positions in two Fortune 500 companies, as well as multiple start-ups. Lisa has consulted with some of the world’s largest and most respected companies on strategy, growth, and optimization. She works with Harvard Business Publishing to facilitate corporate leadership development programmes for diverse clients on topics ranging from innovation and strategy, to execution and leadership. She also works as a strategist and mentor for Richard Branson’s Center of Excellence, and serves in an advisory capacity to The Wall Street Journal, McKinsey & Company, and other thought leadership organizations. More @laiventures.com
You believe we can stay true to who we are without sacrificing our success. Could you shed more light on that equation?
When you’re true to who you are authentically and commit to bringing the best you have to the table, you’re more likely to be successful. If you have to change who you are to be successful at work, you’re in the wrong company or the wrong role. The trick is to understand the company’s or your boss’s expectations, compare them with your own, and then identify if the gap is manageable. In most cases, it is. We all have the capacity to adapt to circumstances without changing who we are as human beings, but only if we’re willing to keep challenges in perspective, build strong and productive relationships, manage our emotional responses to workplace stress, and learn how to have our voices be heard. I’ve written on all of those topics, because it’s these types of practical skills that allow you to be both satisfied and successful in the workplace.
What behaviours in your view are core to achieving and sustaining success?
I think sustained success is best achieved with a few key behaviors. (1) Be informed. Demonstrate intellectual curiosity and learn about your industry, competitors, customers, business model and employees. Ask questions, listen and learn. (2) Develop a strong point of view. Assimilate what you learn to form opinions. Show up and share your point of view with others to support better, faster, smarter choices. (3) Engage others with respect to earn respect. There’s never a situation where it’s okay to be anything other than respectful of others. I’ve had missteps just like everyone else, but this is at the core of your reputation and it matters. I believe you have to behave your way to respect and without an intentional focus and commitment here you won’t achieve sustained success in any industry.
You’re achieving good success yourself but quite open about your failures too. I heard you share about how you were once fired from a high profile job. What did you do in the immediate aftermath of being let go and how did you bounce back?
I’ve been so fortunate over the course of my career to have some incredible high-impact opportunities. Ironically, I was let go right at the pinnacle of delivering on a multi-billion dollar opportunity. My performance didn’t matter and I couldn’t wrap my brain around it at the time. It was such a great lesson to learn at 30 years of age, but excruciating in the moment. When leadership changes occur, your “fit” matters equally with your performance – and it’s your job to make it work, not your new leader’s. My initial reaction was shock, followed quickly by anger. So I guess I’d say the immediate aftermath wasn’t pretty.
I figured out pretty quickly that I had to pivot to get over it. Here’s what I did. First, I forced myself to own the outcome. While it was easy and comfortable to blame my leader and play the victim, it didn’t serve me well. I had to own my part in that new relationship not working. Second, I had to get comfortable with explaining to others what had happened. This is often the hardest part for executives who are let go. By owning the outcome and acknowledging that I hadn’t managed a relationship well and learned a great lesson, I was able to make it a non-issue for myself and everyone else. Finally, I forced myself to tap into my network, tell the story, and ask about opportunities. With that I was lucky to find a consulting opportunity immediately and a new job shortly thereafter. It’s easy to wallow, play the victim, and sit in anger. My big lesson: the sooner you can get through the anger, own your part, and get comfortable talking with others – the sooner you’ll bounce back.
You talk about the importance of asking the right question. What makes a question the right one?
The right question is one that comes from being informed and thoughtful about exactly what problem you’re trying to solve or what opportunity you want to capture. It’s clear, concise, well understood by others, and it drives a discussion that leads to a specific outcome. We all have to fight the natural intellectual laziness that comes from being busy or just falling into the meandering flow of discussion in a meeting. My favorite questions to start with: What are we trying to accomplish specifically, and why? What does success look like?
I want to bring together two notions you believe in- importance of critical thinking skills and that of making tradeoffs and choices. What are some critical thinking skills that are key for making tradeoffs effectively?
If you’re informed and you have a strong point of view, you’re ahead of the game when it comes to making choices. I think the next skill is a little harder when you want to demonstrate critical thinking and make wise choices. It’s avoiding cognitive bias. What I mean by that is that we all have experiences and natural inclinations that inform our opinions. That’s valuable. But if we don’t challenge ourselves, particularly when we feel certain about a particular choice… we may be missing something that would make our idea even better or help us avoid a less than optimal choice. To avoid cognitive biases, I ask myself these types of questions: What might go wrong if I make this choice? Why isn’t this the best way to go? What other choices do I have and why am I not considering them? If I was an outsider looking at this situation, what would I likely suggest? Challenge your bias and you minimize risk in making your choice.
How would you describe yourself as a leader and what would you say are the keys/ingredients for becoming better and better as a leader?
One of the best pieces of advice I got fairly early in my days as an executive was to be intentional as a leader. How would you want others to describe you as a leader, and how do you have to behave in order for others to say those things? I learned to set my intention and I’ve always asked for feedback on how I was doing. This has proven invaluable to me and hundreds of leaders I’ve coached on the power of intention.
How would I describe myself as a leader?
- Smart –I try to be informed and have a strong point of view.
- Dynamic – I’m active, energetic, and committed.
- Respected – I try to treat others with respect 100% and earn it back in return.
- Influential – I’m committed to impact and outcomes.
- Engaged – I’m genuinely interested in what others care about and have to say.
- Kind – I try to be a good human at work even when circumstances make it difficult.
One of the pieces of advice you share is that people balance who they are as individuals with what their employer asks of them. Any steps you can share on how best to do that?
This is key to not eating your soul for breakfast every day as you walk into work. I spent many years taking a breath before I opened the office door to get in the mindset I thought was expected of me as a leader. And then I had a breakthrough moment when I realized I was a different person at work than I was outside of work. That lack of congruence was eating away at me. So I stopped. I got very clear about what mattered to me personally, what made me special, and how I could use my talents at work. The next step was to learn how to navigate conflicts (large and small) between what I was comfortable with and what was being asked of me. With personal clarity, your voice becomes more compelling to others and you’re able to show grace and navigate the landscape at work more effectively. To start: just bring a little bit more of your authentic self to work every day. You may be surprised at how well others will accommodate the shift and find you more interesting and unique as a result. Don’t fall into the bland middle ground by trying to change who you are to match others.
What would your steer be to an ambitious woman who wanted to get more out of their work and accelerate their career?
Three things I’d suggest. (1) Perform. Do great work and be known as someone who is smart, capable, and reliable. Leave everything better than you found it. (2) Explore. Get involved in special projects, initiatives, networking events, and other opportunities to learn and gain clarity about what you love to do and have a particular talent to do. If you aren’t clear on what you want, no one else will be either. (3) Ask. Sometimes we don’t feel comfortable asking for what we want. I’ve been there. Rarely will you be “gifted” big and important roles. Ask for what you want. Talk with others who are influential in the organization about their thoughts on a potential move for you. Come prepared with exactly what you want, why it’s good for the company, why you are the best person for the role, and what impact you’ll have. And if you don’t get option A, move onto option B and keep trying until you begin to navigate toward your ideal role.
You dispense daily wisdom on twitter. What piece of wisdom from others have you applied?
My favorite: From Iyanla Vanzant: Obey the whisperings of your heart.
Lisa in one word?