On Saturday, Women in Leadership Fellows and their classmates heard Lisa Im speak — the first of 21 senior executives slated to share their expertise through the WIL program. Ms. Im, an East Bay alum of ’91, is the CEO and Board Chair of the Performant Financial Corporation, where she calls upon over 30 years of experience in business leadership.
Ms. Im made one thing clear up front: despite her phenomenal success, she didn’t come from a family of privilege. Her parents, immigrants from South Korea, were an accountant and a nurse. “My parents were very, very supportive of education,” she said. “They scraped and saved so that their three kids could get college degrees.” That sense of self-reliance was clear in her talk, which she titled ‘Self Advocacy and the Glass Ceiling: A Fractured Fairytale’.
“What I want to share with you today is self advocacy,” Ms. Im explained. “Because I think, even though you may think this is a no-brainer concept, a lot of women, particularly, do not self-advocate.” Ms. Im maintained that the ‘glass ceiling’ — the colloquial idea that women can see higher positions available, but are prevented from reaching them — exists because of “actions that are taken and not taken by yourself and others in the environment.” In other words, “by changing your actions, you can change how your environment reacts to you.”
She spoke of her experience at a 360 Degree Leadership Feedback Retreat — an event where she was confronted with thorough and honest opinions of her leadership. “I will tell you I cried a lot,” Ms. Im said, “because I thought people just hated me.” But, she reflects, “Feedback is also known as criticism. Whether it’s constructive or destructive criticism, there’s something to learn always from that.” Ms. Im emphasized that it’s no use waiting for a ‘prince’ to save you — or a higher-up woman to help you get ahead. Success comes when you seek out criticism in order to improve. “You need to find someone you can trust,” she explained, “and say ‘Hey, so I thought that meeting went well, but I’m sure there are things I could have done better.’ And the great thing is that you will start to actually become viewed as somebody who seeks feedback and is trying to get better at what you’re doing.”
Ms. Im pointed out another mistaken fairy tale: The idea that hard work will always be noticed and rewarded by a ‘fairy godmother’ — or your boss. On the contrary, she said, it’s up to you to reach out and build a relationship with those higher up. “Even if you know that someone’s the CEO, and you think ‘Oh I can’t talk to her, she’s the CEO,’ you’ve gotta just say, ‘Hi, that was a great meeting,’ or ‘Thanks so much for the last post on Jostle.’” Ms. Im, now a CEO herself, can appreciate this tactic from both sides, and still swears by it. “People come up to me and they do that and I remember who they are,” she confirmed.
Ms. Im spoke to the feeling of a lack of control; the idea that one’s story has already been written. “I will tell you, nobody can control every outcome. But the one thing you can do is you can control the way you act and react to people, the way you act and react to issues, the way you act and react to challenges.” Sometimes, that means handling disputes with coworkers constructively. Ms. Im spun a hypothetical example involving Development Director Penny Peak and an imaginary coworker Jack. “At home, she can’t stand Jack, and has one of those voodoo dolls like — punching Jack with a pencil. But at work, she smiles, she fakes it. When he does a good job, she recognizes it.”
At the close, Ms. Im circled back to her Feedback Retreat, and how she handled receiving overwhelming criticism. “First of all, you can’t address everything — nobody can address like twenty things. But you’ve got to address the top three things. We created an action plan, a development plan. And when I went back to my organization, I met with each of my direct reports, and I said I thank them for their feedback. And I said, ‘When you see me doing something that you think I could do better, I want you to come to me after the meeting and tell me.’”
For more information on the program, please visit Women in Leadership Program, CBE.