Being too young, the only woman, foreign-born or just different often seems like a liability in business – but it can be a competitive advantage.
If you’re anything like me, you sometimes feel like a fish out of water. Maybe you moved to a new country, took a new job or found yourself in some situation that forced you outside your comfort zone and into new–and awkward–territory.
Over the course of my career as an executive coach specializing in cross-cultural management and global leadership, I’ve come to see this as a good thing. New situations teach you to adapt – which ultimately gives you a competitive edge. Leaders who embrace change and uncertainty learn to:
Alan Mulally left Boeing to become CEO of Ford Motor Company – leaping into a new industry then in mid-collapse. He adapted quickly and accomplished a historic turnaround, without the government bailout that saved the other automakers.
Elon Musk launched Tesla in Silicon Valley, not Detroit, and changed the paradigm for car companies.
Satya Nadella, the new CEO of Microsoft, was born in India and climbed the corporate ladder in a foreign country and culture.
Twelve years ago, I coached Darlene Solomon, a rising star at Agilent Technologies. Among her peers, she was the only woman and the youngest by at least a decade.
When she got promoted to vice president, she surpassed more experienced, also highly capable male peers. She was a true fish out of water, struggling through the potential resentment around her.
Darlene could have used her new authority to force her former peers to follow her agenda. Instead she met with them one on one to ask for their support and partnership.
She showed that she was open, flexible and willing to adapt. They became her valued partners, and she rose through the ranks to eventually become the chief technology officer.
I found it rewarding to watch her success because years earlier, I was a fish out of water myself. When I was 22, I moved from Taiwan to the United States to attend graduate school, and later worked as a management consultant.
I loved the work, but when I looked around at the other people in my field I saw only white men in their 40s, 50s and 60s. I wondered why no one else looked like me. I began to think the job wasn’t the right fit.
I happened to mention this discomfort to my mentor, the well-known executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. He thought about it for a while, then said, “You might think it’s a disadvantage to be young, Asian and female in this field, but I think these are actually advantages.”
After all, he said, I spoke fluent English and Chinese, and I have a multicultural background ideal for helping leaders work in a global environment. I began to understand that being different can be good.
Why try to think and act like a middle-aged white man? I should just be myself.
As a result I’ve had a fascinating journey through a career I love. Sometimes I still feel like the odd one out – but now I know that’s a good thing.