Leading, Her Way: Alicia Yi on Self-Advocacy
Leading, Her Way is a brand new Leadership Development interview series featuring a line-up of remarkable female leaders in Singapore as they share their thoughts on self-exploration, career development, overcoming failures and work-life alignment.
In our first interview of this series, we feature Ms Alicia Yi, Vice Chair of Korn Ferry’s Global Consumer Market. She also serves on the Advisory Board for the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society and is a frequent speaker on leadership, human capital strategy and Diversity & Inclusion.
She shares the challenges that she faced as a young professional, succeeding in traditionally male-dominated industries, and the importance of self-advocacy for personal and professional development.
Find out more about Ms Alicia Yi at: https://www.kornferry.com/about-us/consultants/aliciayi
How did your education or early professional experiences prepare you for the career that you have today?
When I was eleven years old, my family moved from my native country, Korea, to Minneapolis in the United States. Not speaking a word of English, entering my teenage years into what seemed like a new world was quite challenging, socially and academically.
As the saying goes, what does not break you makes you stronger. I think the challenges that I faced in my teenage years, of learning a new culture and language, have prepared me well for the global world that we live in and my international career.
When I had a chance to work in Zurich in my 20s, I jumped at the opportunity. Having worked across the United States, Europe and Asia, my ability to relate to people has been a huge asset to what I do now and the career opportunities that I have been given. If you find the opportunity to live or work abroad, you should just do it! It could open up a whole new world and a new career trajectory.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in this industry?
I started my career in HR management consulting, which was a good way to learn about organisations across various industries. About 15 years into my career, I was looking for a new challenge. That was when I was offered a position in executive search, which was the first time I learned about the importance of leadership and became fascinated.
I have seen leaders make or break companies. What makes a great leader? The debate continues to evolve and fascinate me - and is the most important work that I do with my clients.
Tell us about your earliest roles in your career. Did you ever face challenges as a woman on the job, and if so, how did you deal with them?
As a young professional and an Asian woman in Chicago, I often lacked role models that looked and felt like me. Generally, my bosses were older white men and I often did not have many social things in common with them. There were times when I felt like I was out of place or that I was not taken seriously. So, what I focused on was delivering results. I told myself that I was going to show them what I could do and at times, I had to put aside my insecurities and focus on my desire to succeed in the corporate world.
How would you differentiate yourself, especially for women working in particularly male-dominated industries?
When I was a young professional trying to prove myself, I felt like I had to act older or more ‘professional’ - in my mind, that meant I had to act like men. A decade later, I actually decided that being a woman in a male-dominated world had its advantages. At times, men are less threatened by you so they are more willing to collaborate. Also, I feel my emotional sensitivity can be used to read the room, or my sense of humour can be used to defuse tension during meetings.
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry can help you stand out – especially if you are good at what you do! The important thing is to embrace and show up as your whole authentic and unique self.
What was it like transitioning into a leadership role for the first time?
When I first became Managing Partner, I felt very uncomfortable being introduced to people as the head of the office. Somehow, I had difficulties owning my power and suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’ – the worry that people would soon figure out that I was not fit to lead.
What flipped the switch for me were the challenges that I faced. Very quickly, I found myself dealing with difficult decisions and all kinds of people and business challenges that I did not expect. At times, I felt as though I was drinking from a fire hose. But as I dived into the challenges of the role, it cured me of my imposter syndrome.
I did not get everything right, but I learned and grew a lot from my first leadership role. One big lesson I learned is that you do not have to have all the answers as a leader. If you are a caring leader, people will want to help you find solutions.
"The key is not wasting those moments; but making sure you take in the valuable learnings. Why did I not get the buy-in? What would you do differently the next time? Is there a better idea? These moments create a beautiful opportunity for self-reflection. That is how we get better and wiser."
Were there moments in your career where you grappled with self-doubt and questioned certain decisions you made? How did you move forward when you encountered pushback on your ideas or were told that your ideas or suggestions would not work?
Yes, there were many small as well as big moments of self-doubt or regrettable decisions that I had made, but what I try to focus on is what I have learnt from those moments.
We all face setbacks and disappointments. That is life. The key is not wasting those moments; but making sure you take in the valuable learnings. Why did I not get the buy-in? What would you do differently the next time? Is there a better idea? These moments create a beautiful opportunity for self-reflection. That is how we get better and wiser. After this exercise in self-reflection, pick yourself back up and think about your next move.
What advice would you give to women who find it challenging to navigate tough conversations in their professional lives (e.g. in terms of salary expectations, asking for a raise, or putting themselves up for a leadership opportunity)?
It is true that men in general (there are many exceptions on both sides), are more likely than women to ask for a higher pay or promotion. I think this is mostly due to social conditioning and unconscious biases at work. That said, it all starts from having a positive sense of self-worth that is aligned to the value that you bring to your organisation. Asking for a higher pay or promotion is not easy – whether you are a man or woman. What is important is how you frame the conversation and continue the dialogue.
Find the courage to have a discussion about your career openly with your boss from the very beginning. Tell your boss what your career goals are for the medium to long term (and please aim high and dream big!). Then, discuss what you need to do to get there. Ask where the gaps are so that you can work on them. Check in with your boss from time to time to see if you are on track or not and ask for developmental opportunities.
It ought to be an ongoing dialogue, and not just a conversation that you have once a year. If you frame it in a way that is growth-oriented and you align your goals with what your organisation values, then these conversations need not be tough. It can even be inspiring, as you discuss your dreams and aspirations. Remember, we are all a work-in-progress!
You have been a champion for greater diversity in boards and executive leadership. What sparked the desire to advocate for this important issue that appears to be a perennial problem in many organisations across the globe?
We are all experiencing great disruption and hence, undergoing deep transformation because ‘business as usual’ will not work. Many studies have shown that diversity in any group brings about better performance and more considered outcomes.
So, with all the global challenges that we face now and an unprecedented speed of change, it is important that Boards or leadership teams ensure that they are in tune with the diverse and changing world. Relevance is the word of the day and that applies to Boards and any organisational leadership.
Lastly, in one sentence, what does ‘Leading, Her Way’ mean to you?
It means showing up as my authentic self and finding my voice.