Global from the get-go and bridging boundaries ever since …
Born in Shanghai, I was loved by parents who survived the Cultural Revolution to sacrifice their professions – my Dad as a rural doctor and my Mom as an engineer – to give me a brighter future.
In their late 30s and speaking no English as it was not taught in their time, we landed in the US as political refugees. The immediate need to provide for the family, necessitated that they restart as helpers working all seven days of the week at Miami Beach hotels. Somehow, they saved enough to open a restaurant. From this first business sprouted more that were bought, managed, and sold. I worked in backroom operations or dealt in the front with customers. At a young age, I witnessed the ups and downs of running small businesses.
While we didn’t have much, my childhood was rich in one particular way: From the very beginning, my friends were global. An early Jewish friend Benjiman Brody took me around on my first days of school. Steve Arboleda snuck me into the Fountainbleu Hotel to swim in their big pool as an honorary member of his Colombian family. Alex Valencia’s mom took the South American beauty queen crown. Billy Kim, of Korean descent, was the only other Asian in all of elementary school. Thomas embraced me and Curtis fought for me. My Bahamian neighbor Fran Harris may have been a few inches taller than the boys, but she was head and shoulders more mature. I would ‘order’ take-out from my parents’ restaurant to treat my little friends. In third grade a full-of-heart Midwestern teacher, Ms. Dunkins, gave us gold stars to encourage our achievements. She created an environment where we were engaged, no matter our academic levels and English proficiencies. These were my earliest imprints: good people crossing cultures to share in each others’ foods, accomplishments, and affections.
As for inside the classroom learning, I was plucked and then dropped into magnet schools first for art and then for math. To this day, I have a fondness and respect for artists, musicians, performers, and writers. They reflect and bring out the world’s colors. My immigrant parents rested easier when I tested into a more academic program. This Ford Foundation sponsored experiment was set-up to educate the next generation of mathematicians, who tend to peak at age 25 with research that may be later recognized with a Fields Medal. That meant studying logic, number theory, group theory, ring theory, and matrix algebra starting in sixth grade. By high school, I learned I was good at math but not Fields Medal great. Where I more naturally gravitated and puzzled then and now is over how people think.
Likely due to my diverse friends, I got curious about cultures. Specifically why do different people have so divergent cultural beliefs? How do they conceptualize the world, how do their preconceptions influence their perceptions, and how do these interpretations impact their feelings and then their actions, including towards people of other cultures? This led to studying cultural anthropology at Stanford.
To this day I count among my close friends a smorgasbord from: Kenya, Israel, Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Britain, France, Ireland, Spain, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, PRC, Japan, Singapore, and not to take for granted the neighbors from Canada and Mexico. I’m a bit of a Chino Latino in this colorful bunch. My better and other half is first-generation Italian. And, yes, I am thankful for wonderful American friends who were born here and with whom I grew up in the burbs watching The Simpsons!
My career has been about discovering, inquiring, and interpreting differences to help us bridge within and across organizations. In a company, how does a Director rise from controlling resources as a manager of managers to setting direction as a Sr. Director who is a leader of leaders? How does he succeed by building allies with peers – some of whom were former rivals – to align the mid-term needs of the full function?
Moving from functional to business leadership, how does a VP come to value the larger enterprise? How does she collaborate across functions, negotiate priorities, and build long-term adaptive strategies, including with sales, marketing, operations, production, R&D, PD, BD, IT, Legal, Finance, and HR? How does she extend her reach globally?
Executive leadership further broadens the scope to include managing strategic relationships with business partners, investors, and the board. The higher up, the more complex web of relationships comprised of people with ideas, approaches, and agendas different than yours.
These are the challenges that jazz me: discovering differences from which to create, bridging boundaries in order to build, and coming together in service of a meaningful purpose.
It has taken +40 years. I love my job of coaching my clients: to build allies, access support, and get big things done!