How This Tech Leader Found Her Voice and Took the Reins of a Major Company
Deb Liu shares the most important lessons she's learned from her career in tech.
I'm always excited to talk to women CEOs who have been as successful as my guest for the
recent episode of my Leadership Lessons series, because I know their life lessons will include
wisdom they've had to pick up from the extra hurdles placed in their way. I had a great talk with
Deb Liu, CEO of Ancestry — the largest private online genealogy platform, which allows users to create virtual family trees to trace their lineage and get "hints" about their ancestors and others who might be related to them.
With nearly 20 years in the tech business, Liu has held senior roles at Facebook, PayPal and eBay. She is not only an author, but she also serves on the boards of Intuit and Ancestry and is a seed investor and advisor to several startups. Actively involved in promoting diversity in tech, Liu founded Women In Product, a nonprofit that connects and supports women in the product management field.
"What's special about Ancestry is that it's focused on helping people connect," Liu tells me. "We've gone through a couple of tough years where we lost a million people in America to Covid, and we've gone through a lot of time in lockdown where people haven't been able to see their family. But we are all part of the human family, and how we can connect with one another takes away our differences and focuses on our commonalities."
During our talk, Liu's passion for her company and leadership blew me away. Here are 10 terrific leadership lessons Liu relayed to me during our hour-long conversation:
1. There's a major dichotomy in the minds and lives of many leaders
Many successful people spend their lives shielding their families from the very things that made them successful. This is a huge dichotomy. Liu says that in the end, most people wouldn't take away their own painful, formative experiences because they know what those potholes fostered.
2. Rough seas make good sailors
Liu uses the maritime imagery to remind us that it's the tougher economic times that prove a leader's strength and that of their teams. A good tide lifts all boats, but choppier seas favor the outfits that have prepared for downturns.
3. It's never time to stop learning
If you can remain flexible and open-minded to feedback and new ideas no matter how far you've come in your career, you'll never stop growing and improving yourself. "Your role in life is so much more than just doing your job today," Liu says.
4. Don't create a dependence on the CEO for answers.
A CEO is there to answer big-picture questions that only they can, but it's not helpful in the long run if team members can't replicate that kind of answer when they're not around. Remember, these are the people who are spending the most time on this particular issue, and they should be the
best prepared to answer big questions themselves.
5. Spend more time on staff meetings than on one-on-ones
Liu says this avoids asymmetry of information. She says staff meetings are an opportunity for everyone to share important conversations and demonstrate transparency around information. They can also break down silos, as opposed to lengthier and more frequent one-on-ones.
6. A CEO's purview is unique
For most employees at a company, big decisions around company events and remote work plans "just happen," but the CEO is the one who has to weigh the pros and cons of these things and eventually decide. He or she makes the choices that shape the culture, which can be a very new experience for someone new to the role.
7. Workplaces have a natural bias for extroversion
Liu told me she struggled early on with being a natural introvert but says she learned quickly that those who can respond on a dime to a question are the ones who get asked the next questions. Although the introverts on staff might not be as comfortable talking in larger groups, they have answers in their heads that are just as good or better. As the leader, you need to find a way to access those ideas.
8. Give your staff a framework for decision-making, and use meetings to synchronize efforts
Liu says her team uses a traffic light framework of "red, yellow and green" that can be used to describe issues being faced by different teams during staff get-togethers. At first, there will be a lot of "red" issues, but Liu told me this framework quickly paves the way for more "green" lights and many issues being resolved even before a meeting begins.
9. Team members need to be present at meetings
One of Liu's friends has noticed a particular strategy in meetings, where someone won't show up with anything to add and then proceeds to frown the entire time to drain the energy from the proceedings. Meetings often break up a day's workflow, and if someone is being asked to be present at a meeting, they need to bring their waking self and be receptive to what is being imparted.
10. When explaining things to their team, a leader should learn to frame each issue in three points
It's a fantastic trick and a discipline both Liu and I learned and still practice to this day. The idea is to become more comfortable speaking in front of a team, and to be able to better articulate a problem. When the team asks a substantial question, start on point one and know you're ending on a third point. Even if you don't have three things in mind when you start speaking, you'll get to a point where anything — even things that are made up of more than three ideas — can be pinned on this framework in a way that is reassuring to the team.
And for more from my talk with Liu, watch the full webinar here. The growing collection of episodes from our series gives readers access to the best practices of successful CEOs from the biggest brands, including Foot Locker, Heineken, GoodRx, Headspace, Zoom, Chipotle, Warby Parker and ZipRecruiter.
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