"I always feel that I do not fit into other's mental picture of a leader, as a woman, an Asian, and a foreigner. Thank you for showing me that I am not crazy. So here is a thought: does it mean I need to work 6 times harder - 2 times for each deviation I have - to overcome the bias and get that promotion?" I was eager to know.
"Yes, it's true," she said in a matter-of-fact manner. I was crushed. I wanted her to commiserate with me how unfair the world is but she was not giving me any of that.
I went back to my room and cried. America had failed me. The reality that my skin color, accent, and ability to bear children colors others' perception was too harsh.
Can I just be like everyone else?
And then, a thought came to me.
What if I stopped acting to fit in and started bringing my whole self to work?
It felt risky. I was told that I need to leave my true self at the front door, right before I said hi to the receptionist.
But then I did not feel like working 6 times harder. I had nothing to lose by giving this crazy idea a shot.
What I found out surprised me. I couldn't have known that bringing myself made me happier at work. I would have never guessed that it is becoming a critical leadership skill.
I hope I can convince you to take a risk and try to be more yourself at work starting today?
1. Fitting in doesn't make me stand out. My quirky part is what made me valuable.
'Be Yourself. Everyone else is already taken" - Mike Robbins
The first 10 years working in the US felt hard. I wanted to fit in.
I took accent reduction classes, became fluent in Netflix, and tried to get myself into Super Bowl. Still trying.
I joked that I am the diversity jackpot, but it was not a joke. I hate that when the first question people asked me was "Where are you from?". I wanted to feel belong.
A 2015 McKinsey report found that ethnically and gender diverse companies are 15-35% more likely to have a financial return that is above their industry mean. Smart companies promote diversity. It is good for business.
But day-to-day reality feels different to me. I did not want to be typecast to "Asian" or "women" projects or roles, so I downplayed my difference.
And then I had an epiphany. All of us are different in some way. Mark Zuckerberg grew up as a white man in New York, but he is a bit nerdy. So, he double-downed on his nerdiness and created Facebook rather than trying to be a football star.
For me, I stopped trying to be an all-rounded supply chain professional and double-downed on my true passion: the role of technology and how it is changing the way we do our business. And I never looked back.
2. Knowing how to express deeply personal value is a new leadership skill.
I have a confession. I am a coffee snob. I will go to World Barista Championship events (Yes, I do know Charles) to support my inked up barista friends and I did not want my coworkers to know.
Why? No idea. I guess it did not fit into the "leader" image that I wanted to have.
One day, Mark, a co-worker that I was close to, ran into the lunch room and yelled, "Grace, hey, this reminds me so much of you".
He showed a laptop size picture of a very serious looking, fully mustached barista pulling a shot.
I was mortified. Oh no. I was scanning my co-worker's faces looking for signs of disapproval.
And you know what? Nothing happened.
I forgot that most people are too busy to obsess over my idiosyncrasies or urban hipster status. In fact, a few of them told me later it was super cool.
This was a silly episode, but it made me realize something.
It is ok to share more, even political and religious view.
In fact, some of the best working relationships are those who took the risk and share their very different political and religious view. We do not agree with each other, but we felt much closer as a result of sharing a piece of our true self.
Then I noticed that times are a-changing.
Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, started to advocate for LGBTQ rights, while Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A's CEO, was not shy to share that he is against gay marriage.
The old playbook that politics and religion are taboo topics in business is being pushed out by tweets and likes.
Consumers, powered social media, now demand their beloved brand to behave like a regular person with their own value and guide their action.
I really love Harvard Business Review January 2018 article the "The New CEO Activitist". We are all CEOs of ourselves, and there is much to learn about how and when to share our personal value with the public.