There seem to be different views on leadership in the business world. It is often seen that a strong leader demonstrates their business prowess by being loud, unapologetic, and charismatic on stage. They often demonstrate strength and power by having a large share of voice in group settings. And I’ve seen individuals struggle with these typical leadership expectations, including myself.

Through my own story, I’ve learned that there are many more leadership characteristics that make a good leader.

The value of speaking up meaningfully

While the business world is driven dominantly by traits of strong masculine bravado, I have steadily developed my career achievements by celebrating gender and cultural diversity in my own subtle and authentic way. I believe my leadership style has created a welcome change, while others may see it as a shock to the conventional view. There is a saying “change is the only thing constant” and I hope to represent that change in small way.

During the early stages of my career, I had a great manager who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I had a lot of ideas to offer, but tended to observe silently. She challenged me to speak up in every team meeting. She also encouraged me to speak my truth, first by asking questions, stating that there was no such thing as wrong question. Through this encouragement, I felt I was in a safe environment to put her expectations of me into practice.

I am grateful that I got that explicit coaching very early on in my career.

Woman speaking on stage in front of a group of people, public, speaking, Hoa Ly, adidas, woman, leadership, leader, Sourcing, Asia
Speak out, share your experiences and your point of view.

Having grown up in a traditional Asian environment, I’ve observed that speaking up and participating in group settings is often difficult for Asian colleagues. At the same time, the quiet colleagues may have deep insights, experience, and knowledge to offer. With this understanding, I tend to make a concerted effort to encourage them with a saying: “Don’t just bake the cake, decorate it and show it off!” In a multi-national company, you need to develop the ability to not only do great work, but to communicate what you do, why you do it, and to inspire others. For many Asia-based talents, the opportunity lies with being able to connect to your audience without changing the core values that make you who you are.

My American manager, for one, taught me that being a quiet, introverted person doesn’t mean I am less impactful. Learning when to speak up meaningfully is what gives your words impact and shapes your image as a leader.

Women wearing medical mask and maroon jacket holding a microphone and giving speech in front of crowd, Hoa Ly, adidas, employees, Sourcing, women
Talking to your team at eye level will help to build the relationship.

The power of empathy and vulnerability

Years ago, I was promoted to Senior Director in Footwear Sourcing and moved from Hong Kong back to my birth country of Vietnam. I was quite apprehensive about this new role, as my predecessors were technical experts in the industry. They were also powerful and mostly male. I didn’t fit the typical profile for such a position in the industry back then.

My background was from the business side. I knew I was breaking new ground as the first person who didn’t come with technical experience and was the only woman on the leadership team. However, I believed that I was chosen for a reason. The challenges of the role already were apparent even before landing in Vietnam. I got word that part of the organization may not accept me with open arms because they didn’t think I was qualified to lead such a large organization and that I got the position because of who I knew.

So, how did I survive to thrive in my new position? I chose to show my vulnerability and focus to add value in areas of my strength. What I brought into the role were my experiences in strategy and other areas of the business, as well as my ability to bring in different perspectives to manage the business holistically.

People standing on stage in formal attire in a row, leadership, conference, formal, meeting, Hoa Ly, adidas, employee, team
The input of each individual will help deliver success for the team.

The first thing I did was to meet my team (collectively and individually) and set forth a handshake agreement on how we would work together.

I openly talked about my weakness and let them know where I needed their help. On empowerment, I made sure they understood that they are the stewards of their area of responsibility, but that I expected – as a minimum – that they keep me informed on major topics. My role was to support, clear roadblocks and amplify their work towards senior leadership.

Empowerment and trust

One mantra that I have maintained in my leadership style is to not micromanage day-to-day operations. Even today, I focus on the value I bring to the team to enable success. These values are my network in the company, my global experience, my relationships with individuals, genuine care for people and my passion for developing talents. I am known for brokering the first conversations with my direct reports, asking them to be explicit about their career aspirations. For the top talents, I will even go as far as to ask if they are interested in becoming my successor in the future. With that, I provide feedback and developmental support to help them towards their aspirations by being their champion. With these values, overtime I earned the respect of my team.

Woman speaking in front of a group of people, public speaking, talk, woman, leadership, Hoa Ly, adidas, employee, Sourcing
You need to earn the trust of your team.

On the topic of trust, I believe trust needs to be earned, but traditionally subordinates are expected to earn the trust of their superior. However, I flipped the script. I choose to trust the team I work with so as to earn their trust in return. Of course, when trust is violated, I drive the consequences as well.

Taking on the first large scale leadership role in Vietnam taught me that characteristics such as genuine care, being empathetic and allowing myself to be vulnerable doesn’t mean that I am a weak leader. Rather, these characteristics have shaped my leadership style and make me a stronger leader – one people are willing to support.

Group of people looking at a fabric from a worker in a factory, Hoa Ly, adidas, Sourcing, employee, Asia, Southeast Asia
Everyone brings a unique set of skills.

Be the boss you’d choose for yourself

Being a thoughtful leader requires you to be willing to be vulnerable, to show empathy, and to be thoughtful of others. This is how you build genuine relationships. These characteristics are not exclusive to a specific culture or gender, and I believe they will pave the way forward to leading today’s organizations.

Don’t just focus on building your own career. Rather make genuine connections and empower your team – be the leader who creates an environment in which your team can thrive. Your success comes from the success of your team!

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