Innovation Junkies Podcast

Elizabeth Xu on The Role of Coaches & Mentors

The Jeffs talk with Elizabeth Xu about the role of coaches and mentors in career development. Key insights include: how to use perception to better understand your team, what you should really focus on before you consider something a win, & why it’s important to identify your mentors while developing a consistent leadership style.

Jeff Standridge: This is Jeff Standridge, and this is the Innovation Junkie’s podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategies and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Over the next half hour, we’re going to be sharing specific strategies, tactics and tips that you can use to grow your business no matter the size, no matter the industry and no matter the geography. Weekly, we’ll bring in a top mover and shaker, someone who’s done something unbelievable with his or her business and we’ll dig deep. We’ll uncover specific strategies, tactics and tools that they’ve used to help you achieve your business goals. Welcome to the Innovation Junkie’s podcast.

Hey, guys. If you’re looking to put your business on the fast track to achieving sustained strategic growth, this episode is sponsored by the team at Innovation Junkie. To learn more about our GrowthDX, go to innovationjunkie.com/growthdx. Now, let’s get on with the show.

Jeff Standridge: Hey, guys. Welcome to the Innovation Junkie’s podcast. My name is Jeff Standridge.

Jeff Amerine: And this is Jeff Amerine. Glad to be back.

Jeff Standridge: Hey, glad you’re with us. Glad I’m with you. I don’t know which is which.

Jeff Amerine: Every day is a good day when the Jeffs are together, right?

Jeff Standridge: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. Tell us who we’ve got today, Jeff.

Jeff Amerine: We’ve got just a fantastic guest coming on. Her name is Elizabeth Xu, and she is a public company board member and the CEO of A2C Leadership Group. She served as two chief technology officer positions for billion-dollar revenue companies, CP Group and BMC Software. She became a C-level executive back in 2005 at a publicly-traded company. She provides coaching in leadership, digital transformation, AI, and cloud. She’s also an investor for early-stage companies. Elizabeth has taught at Stanford for six years in leadership, is currently a guest lecturer at Stanford University teaching digital transformation at the Department of Engineering Management Science. She’s also an advisor for MIT Innovation Initiatives. She’s gotten an MS and BS degree from Peking University, and a PhD and a master’s from the University of Nevada. She’s a Harvard certified board member and attended the Stanford Executive program. Lots and lots of awards and the Presidential Award actually in 2019 for Global Leadership, just a variety of recognition and we’re just really lucky to have her on board with us today to talk about innovation.

Jeff Standridge: Fantastic.

Jeff Amerine: Welcome, Elizabeth.

Jeff Standridge: It’s great to have you with us.

Elizabeth Xu: Hi, Jeff. Can you hear me okay?

Jeff Standridge: Mm-hmm (affirmative), we can.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah.

Elizabeth Xu: And Jeff, it’s really great to have you and you. Yeah, you guys look like perfect twins.

Jeff Standridge: Oh, dear.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, well that’s not the first I’ve heard that today.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. So Elizabeth, we like to kick off each episode, when we remember to do so, with what we call a random musing, just something that’s not related to the podcast episode itself, a fun icebreaker. Today’s random musing is if you were going to do one or the other, would it be skydiving or bungee jumping and why?

Elizabeth Xu: Well, I would say that I would skydive, even though I wouldn’t do it at all if I had a choice. The reason is when you skydive, you can have your coach with you. And then I think having a coach would be awesome. Bungee jump – I didn’t see anyone having a coach with them, so that’s why I chose that one.

Jeff Standridge:
That’s very good. How about you, Jeff?

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, it’s a good question. So the bungee jumping, my fear there is that definitely as I put on weight as I’ve gotten older, maybe I’ll exceed the elastic constraint of that band that you’re on and just crack my head on the bottom. So I’d much rather get thrown out of a plane with a parachute on my back and skydive. And in fact, my kids are threatening to throw me out of a plane for my 60th birthday. So hopefully, that’ll be a good thing. We’ll see.

Jeff Standridge: Very good. Well I have done both. So the day that we moved my older daughter into college, into the dormitory for her freshman year of college, she and I went skydiving. We repeated it when my younger daughter moved into college, I went skydiving with her on her first day of college. And I’ve bungee jumped as well. And my favorite part of both experiences is the free fall, so just the complete and total free fall. And the unenjoyable experience of skydiving was the canopy, and I didn’t really enjoy that as much. So I would choose bungee jumping because it’s all free fall. And even the bounce back, you get to free fall multiple times, I guess I would say.

Jeff Amerine: Wow.

Jeff Standridge: So that’s it.

Jeff Amerine: Let’s stick with building startups or helping them, how about that?

Jeff Standridge: There we go. So Elizabeth, we certainly have your bio there, but maybe give us a little bit of how you got to where you are in A2C Leadership and a little bit more about how you engage with clients.

Elizabeth Xu: So I came back from U.S. because I lived in Thailand for a while and worked for the largest Thailand company, an international conglomerate. And then, when I came back, I pretty much volunteered all my time to Be The Change Foundation and also doing a lot of coaching and mentorship. And at one time when the pandemic started, kids don’t have computers and we started to get donations. And I said, “Well if you donate a computer, I will coach you. I will teach you how to become a C-level executive.” So we got 60 computers and in the meanwhile, people said, “You know what? Elizabeth, we don’t want just to have a one-time boot camp of eight weeks, we like to learn from you on a continuous basis.” So we started a company called the A2C Leadership Group.

And what I do every day is I send them career tips. We have a social network. We have a free Q&A session like this afternoon, at 6:00 to 7:00 PM Pacific time. And all our students signed a confidentiality agreement. And that means we can freely talk about career challenges. I just created a safe environment for people to ask questions and I can give them suggestions. And many of my students got into a VP level and most of the students got the promotion after a few months of my program. So that’s how I came to A2C Leadership Group.

How do I know a client? I think to listen to them. Listen to their pain point, listen to their needs. And they don’t know what they want because they haven’t seen what’s out there, they don’t know what’s going on. That’s why they came to me, asked for career advice. So listen to their problem, and really get to the pain point that you come up with a solution to solve their pain points based on your unique experience and the skill set. And that’s how I get to know the client. I’ve been dealing with that throughout my career, so we can share some later on.

Jeff Standridge: So tell us about some of your clients that you work with. Obviously, no names, but the types of clients that you work with most commonly.

Elizabeth Xu: I work with two types of clients. One type we call the B2C. B2C are the people who are in the mid-career. They have between three to five years. Some of them have even 15 years working experience. And when they have those experiences, they’re stuck in their career. And either they don’t know how to get their first promotion, or they’re stuck at the director level, don’t know how to get into the VP level. And then they usually have a poor relationship with their managers, or they have a very siloed view about their business. So those are my typical students.

Jeff Amerine: As you think about the wealth of experience you’ve had and being a board member, what have been some lessons learned for you about how to do C-level leadership well and maybe not so well? What are some key points? And I know it’s a myriad of things, but what are some high points from your experience?

Elizabeth Xu: Yeah, I’ve been at the C-level since 2005. It’s been a while. I was one of the very few female VP engineering or SVP engineering reporting to a CEO in the valley or in the industry in 2005. I think the number one thing that I learned was perception is reality. And then sometimes, we do things, we have good intentions, we tried our best, but the clients or our boss, our team members don’t view it that way. And that’s one of the first lessons I learned was perception is reality, that you truly need to step into other people’s shoes, or I call it the get into their virtual position to see yourself from that point of view. And that practice also helped me to build a win-win situation. For example, if you can step into other people’s positions to really understand their pain, understand their need, and then utilize your own skillset, your own experience, and come up with a solution, that is a win-win both for you and also your partner.

I think that’s the best way to work with clients, work with the team members as a C-level executive. And then that quickly gets into a certain position. For example, when I have a C-level executive e-staff meeting, I will quickly construct a persona. We are from Acxiom, we talk about the persona. We can quickly construct I call the virtual position or persona of my CEO, my board member, my peer, my team. So when we discuss certain questions, I will step into each person’s virtual box, a virtual position, and to think as if I was them. And then by doing that, I can quickly come up with the best solution that could potentially fit into everyone’s niche. So that’s number one that I felt it was a painful learning process, but I felt it was great learning for me. 

A second thing is what I call the four levels of winning. We, as C-level executives, only think about ourselves. We win, we win, we win. At the end of the day, we lose trust from everybody. So what I’ve been teaching people, what I’ve been training my team is to look at the four levels. You need to make your customer win, your company win, your bosses win, and then your team win. When all four stakeholders, all four groups of people win, you will be the biggest winner because you build a trusting relationship, a win-win trusting relationship with all of them. They trust you. And then they will do a lot more, do way more than regularly they would contribute. And also, when they discover some opportunities or when they have a new opportunity, the first person they will think about it is you. And then, by doing trust-based, win-win leadership, you can motivate your team better because your team knows that you always think of the win-win. You always want them to win. That’s the two things that I felt I learned the most that really helped me.

The third thing is mentorship and coaching. I have a lot of coaches. I have a lot of mentors. I have more than 20 mentors. And then they’ve been great for me. And what they have done for me was to teach me how to become a good executive before I even became a C-level executive. So throughout my career, I was lucky enough to have my mentors teaching me. And before I became an employee, when I was at graduate school, they taught me how to become a good employee. Before I became a manager, they taught me how to become a good manager. Before I became a CTO, they taught me how to become a good CTO. So having that coach, when you do the skydive, you get a new position, you look at it, “Oh my God, I’m going to have this deep dive. And I may die.” But if you think about it, your coaches are right there. If you forgot to turn on your equipment, someone will turn it on for you. So that is the beauty of having a coach, having mentors.

Jeff Amerine: Hey, folks. We’ll be right back with the episode. But first, we want to tell you about a limited opportunity to take advantage of our GrowthDX. For a limited time, we’re offering a free strategy call to see whether our unique diagnostic tool is right for you. Go to innovationjunkie.com/growthdx to learn more.

Jeff Standridge: So let’s unpack that concept of mentors a little bit. I too am a huge proponent of mentorship, and I know Jeff Amerine is as well. A lot of our organizational work is based around mentorship, particularly on the startup side of the house. Have you worked in organizations before where they attempted to assign mentors to employees versus having employees search out and find those mentors? What experience have you seen there in that regard?

Elizabeth Xu: It’s all over the place. My first job at IBM, I had two mentors. The first one was Josephine Chan. Later on, she became an IBM Fellow. The second one is Beth Smith. She is the head of Watson Research Center right now. So I was lucky enough to have two women leaders assigned to me at the beginning of my career. So that’s why I got a promotion within two years of joining IBM and became a first-line manager. And then later on, I found out I learned so much from my mentors. So I approached many people, whether it’s at my workplace, my formal bosses, or my speakers. And it could be one of you to say, “Hey, Jeff, would you please be my mentor to do the podcast?” Right? And later on, let’s see, BMC Software assigned me a career coach because I became the group CTO and chief architect for the whole company. They assigned me an executive career coach. The rest of the companies were basically you find your own coach. But I think either way, they all work really well.

Jeff Standridge: I have felt in some of my experiences that if we could train employees how to find and properly utilize mentors, I found that to be a pretty successful approach because I have multiple mentors, many of whom I’ve never had a conversation with them about, “Would you be my mentor?” We just fostered a relationship together. And we would go and I’d say, “Hey, can I buy you coffee and pick your brain on something?” And so I found that to be a very natural yet very effective way to leverage mentors.

Elizabeth Xu: Yes. As an executive, I have large organizations and the largest organization I had, it was over 1,000 people. I assigned mentors for most of my key players. And we do cross-mentoring. For example, our senior-most people will mentor the next levels. When they want to get a promotion, one of the criteria I have is have you mentored anyone? I think mentorship is so important because good leaders must be teachers. If you cannot articulate your teachable point of view, if you don’t have a leadership philosophy, or if you don’t have a technical best practice so that you can teach others, you’re not a good leader.

And so that’s why being a mentor to others and being a leader and being a teacher is so critical for me because that’s one of the ways, one of the methods I use to train my leaders. I taught classes within my team. Actually, when I was at Acxiom, and also I gave talks about the leadership classes to the new hires as well.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah. I remember we overlapped at Acxiom for about, well I guess what? 17 or 18 months you were there. Did you leave in 2013?

Elizabeth Xu: Yeah, something like that. Later on.

Jeff Standridge: I left about three years after that.

Elizabeth Xu: Yeah, yeah.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah. I remember you joining here. You were in our Foster City office I believe, weren’t you?

Elizabeth Xu: Exactly, exactly. And we probably met each other when I visited Little Rock.

Jeff Standridge: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Elizabeth Xu: Yeah.

Jeff Standridge: So go ahead, Jeff. I see you getting ready to ask a question.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. I was going to say one thing Elizabeth did in my long career – I’ve been in multiple different organizations and military startups and Fortune 500s – the thing that has always been clear to me is the coaching and education we give leaders to become better leaders, occasionally they take that as they have to play a certain persona, which may not be true or innate to their personality or the way they are naturally. And I’ve seen that. It’s almost like watching a caricature or someone acting rather than genuinely being who they are when they’re providing guidance or they’re interacting with people. What are your thoughts? And what advice would you give to emerging leaders regarding how to take in all that advice and guidance and mentorship and coaching, but still being genuine and authentic? What advice would you have?

Elizabeth Xu: Yeah. Jeff, that’s a great question. One of my leaders, one time we had a one-on-one, I said, “What’s your leadership style?” He said, “I can be any style, whatever style you want to be.” I said, “You know what? This is one thing that will accelerate your path to failure.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because people feel like you are unpredictable.” And as a leader, you need to form a style that people know that at a certain circumstance, you make certain decisions rather than you make decisions all over the place and then you interact with the people differently. And the people will feel like you’re changing so quickly that we cannot trust you. So this is why I think forming a good style is good. I think another thing is when you take advice, you need to take advice in a way that is the spirit of advice, right? For example, perception is reality.

My mentor taught me that. What I’m going to do, am I going to create a perception that one minute I’m a very articulate leader, another minute, I’m very introverted, I don’t want to talk to anyone? Versus I have a consistent communication style, either written video, voice, text, whatever, and you publish to the whole company this is my preferred, this is the best way I communicate with the others. I think as long as you pay attention that you can anticipate, or you can observe the other person’s observation about you, that you wouldn’t hurt other words and you would pick the best way to communicate with the others, then that perception or the reality from the other party probably will reflect your true skillset or your true capability.

Jeff Standridge: How have you helped? So you have that direct report or one of your coaching clients who comes to you and says, “Oh, I can be any style.” How have you helped them? Or how do you help someone really hone in on what is their style? What is their best style and how can they cultivate that?

Elizabeth Xu: So the combination of a self-assessment and as well as the group assessment. We will have helped them to do the assessment, their leadership assessment. We have three assessment tests for people. And also, we have a 360 survey. And because I interact with my client on a group basis at least three times a week, I definitely have a lot of observation. And then we do a lot of class practice, like breakout rooms, a group presentation, so I can observe their style. I encourage people to communicate with the style that they’re comfortable with. But also, we have a step by step challenge. For example, if they are not familiar with making videos to have short videos, we have steps. First of all, you say, “Hi, I’m Elizabeth.” And then you put the slides up, but you can read their script.

And then at the end, they say, “Hi, I’m Elizabeth,” again, that, “If you have any questions or thoughts, please ask me using this email.” So just showing that step-by-step approach for them to feel comfortable and confident that they can communicate it in a video format, right? And then you wouldn’t stretch them to say, “Okay, now you need to train your presentation skill, you need to get on the stage in front of 20 people, 200 people, just talk, and we’re going to record your video and then put this on your YouTube.” That will scare them. It’s like you put them on the airplane, open the airplane door, say, “Jeff, jump,” without any coaching.

Jeff Amerine: It raises another good point. One concept that I’ve heard that I agree with is that good leaders are those that can take the complex and make it simple and easy to understand. And they can communicate it in a way that doesn’t alienate anyone rather than throwing in the kitchen sink of every particular concept. I remember during a political campaign, a Republican presidential candidate, this is a couple of cycles back, had a 12 or a 14 point plan. Nobody’s going to keep track of 12 or 14 points at a strategic level, three or four things max that are really big initiatives. What are your thoughts about that? What have you seen and what could you convey? How can a leader take the complex and make it simple?

Elizabeth Xu: Well Jeff, this is a great question that takes a lot of practice. One of my second line managers when I was at IBM at the very early of my career, he said, “Elizabeth, on each slide, you have a maximum of three points, and your presentation should not exceed 12 pages.” I had this practice from day one. And another thing is you have to be familiar with a different level of languages. For example, when I was at Thailand, we had over 350,000 employees and I was the group CTO. One of my jobs, one of my charters is to train them on digital transformation. Then we’ll develop the level of vocabularies. For the executive, you need to come up with the vocabularies that is more abstract, more strategic. For the middle level one, you will have some of the strategic, but most of them are more detailed execution-oriented.

For most of the regular staff members, they’re not particularly in any leadership positions, they are at the very tactical level. So we will give them very specific and detailed information saying that this is the training you need to go through about your job, and you need to learn those things. I think over time, as the exact tip, you really need to develop three levels of vocabulary to communicate certain points. For example, if we were going to talk about cloud technology, I probably will talk about cloud technology adoption. Even though I’m a cloud certified technologist, I wouldn’t go down to the details about how to set this feature, how to set this feature with you guys. I hope those examples speak for that.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, that was great.

Jeff Standridge: Very good. Well Elizabeth, it has been a really big pleasure to see you again and to have you on our podcast. I’d like to maybe give you a final question. Given all that you know about leadership and your experiences over the years of leading multiple levels of employees, what’s maybe one of your best nuggets or one final piece of advice or guidance would you give to aspiring leaders who are really looking to grow their careers if there’s anything else that you’d like to give them advice wise?

Elizabeth Xu: All right. I think just be brave. But being brave is not being foolish. Get the right advisers. You need to build a career ecosystem. The ecosystem is not about you. It’s your advisors, mentors, formal bosses, and peers in different particular areas. They are the experts in each area. And then when you get a new assignment, you can say, “Oh, Elizabeth, I don’t have that knowledge.” But I will say, “You know what? I can call Jeff. I can call Beth. I can call Pat.” And together, you have a strong team and then you become fearless and you can jump all up that plane without being scared, because you have a great or the best in the world, advisors and mentors either with you. So let’s jump.

Jeff Standridge: Very good.

Elizabeth Xu: And enjoy your freedom and enjoy your success.

Jeff Standridge: Well thank you again so much for being with us. That’s fantastic. We appreciate you for taking the time to spend it with us and our listeners today.

Elizabeth Xu: Okay. Thank you, Jeff. I hope that the recording is smooth and I definitely wanted to have some collaboration with you guys. And we each can contribute the different puzzle pieces of that career leadership ecosystem.

Jeff Standridge: Fantastic. Thank you so much. This has been another episode of the Innovation Junkie’s podcast. Thank you for joining us.

Jeff Amerine: Hey, folks. This is Jeff Amerine. We want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying the Innovation Junkie’s podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now and please leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us. And don’t forget to share us on social media.

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