Deborah Liu – Newsweek
My high school English teacher Ms. Morris once asked me what I wanted to pursue as a career. I replied, “Maybe a paralegal?”
She asked me, “Why not a lawyer?”
Stunned, I asked, “I can do that?”
I grew up in a small town near Charleston, South Carolina. My parents lived simple lives. They had traveled from Hong Kong to America with a couple of suitcases, a few hundred dollars, and nothing else. My father told stories of how he would mix milk with rice for dinner because that was all he could afford.
My dad was an engineer. My mom, while college-educated, did whatever it took to help us make ends meet. Her side jobs included driving a yellow school bus, taking orders at trade shows, and working as a cashier at a food court hamburger stand. I knew I wanted more, but I had no idea what was possible. The idea of “climbing the corporate ladder” never even crossed my mind.
But now, as President and CEO of a global company, I have learned a lot about achieving career success. These are the four key lessons that helped me get to where I am today.
Focus on your destination
Growing up Asian American in South Carolina, I looked very little like everyone around me. I always felt like I was an “other.” If I ever forgot, someone would remind me. Strangers would shout at me and my family on the street that we should go back to where we came from. I would reply, “New York?” as we had lived there until I was six years old, but one day it dawned on me what they really meant.
I hated being different. The constant verbal abuse left me feeling angry, frustrated, and bitter. That resentment motivated me and I was determined to escape. I would graduate from high school, get a scholarship to college, move back to New York and never look back.
That singular goal drove me to achieve more than I ever thought was possible. I graduated at the top of my class and attended Duke University on a scholarship. My parents moved to another small town, this time in Georgia, but I had left that life behind.
Find your voice
I am a natural introvert. This was fine at school, where you are taught that if you do the work, your results speak for themselves. In the workplace, however, everything changes. Your success is tied to your ability to speak up, share, lead, and connect with others.
When I started my MBA at Stanford, I realized that being withdrawn meant I put the burden on others to do the work of connecting with me. So after grad school, as I began my career in tech, I made a change. I treated extroversion as a skill that I could practice and perfect, and gradually I began to open up.
I started advocating for my ideas and speaking up for my team. I taught myself to reach out and get support for my products. I found my voice. As I did, I gained confidence in myself and my work, but I still felt like I had something to prove.
Stop fighting, start listening
This desire to prove my worth propelled me over the years, carrying me from achievement to achievement. I had a chip on my shoulder from what happened growing up, and there was a lot of fight in me. I turned every conversation into a battle, and in the process, I pushed others away.
One day, after an executive review celebrating the unexpected success of one of my products at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg pulled me aside and said, “You can stop fighting now. You’ve won.” I realized then that the fuel that had been driving me for so long was now threatening to burn me up.
For years, my background had propelled me forward, but it had become a massive liability. I had achieved great things but I had burned a lot of bridges in the process.
At that moment, I took a step back and reflected on who I was beneath all that anger and resentment. I could finally release the pain of the past and embrace the future.
Careers are not linear
They call it the “corporate ladder,” but careers aren’t ladders. You don’t just climb until you reach the top. There are seasons in life and sometimes you have to take a step back to make room for other priorities.
For years, I had my career all mapped out. That went out the window after the birth of my first child when I had to step off the fast track. I gave up my job leading the product for the largest business at PayPal and I worked part-time for several years. Following the birth of my second child, I joined Facebook and went back to working full-time. While my career did not advance, I had an opportunity to work at a fast-growing company. But I had to take a step back again when I was pregnant with my third child and my father was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.
That was when I decided that rather than chasing titles and promotions, I would grow in other ways. I set out to learn new things and develop new skills, such as public speaking and writing, without the constant pressure of “making it.” Eventually, that period of slow growth led to me joining the leadership team at Facebook. From there, I went on to become the President and CEO of Ancestry.
My career has never been a straight line—it has had twists and turns and zigzags. By seeing them not as setbacks, but as parts of a larger journey, I have been able to progress further than I ever imagined.
My kids are now nearly the age I was when I spoke to Ms. Morris in high school. They see the world as a place where anything is possible, and there is power in that sense of possibility. Seeing role models enables others to imagine what they can do.
I was recently at a CEO summit where I was the only woman of color among over 200 CEOs. I hope that one day, someone like me will not be exceptional or unusual and that we will have leaders reflecting people from all backgrounds and experiences. Until then, we have work to do to close that gap. That starts with embracing what’s possible and having the courage to pursue it.