Debbie currently works as the Vice President of Professional Services at Achievers. She’s the first of Achiever’s women I’ll be interviewing this year as part of the Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) efforts to highlight female leaders in different stages of their career throughout the organization. From the moment I met her, Debbie’s energy, warmth, and her openness to sharing her experiences really stood out to me. I was intrigued to learn more about her journey from a management consultant to a VP of a software company, some of the challenges and learnings she’s gone through, and her ideas around inclusiveness and equality at work.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey so far.
I grew up in London, in the UK; my mum is Chinese, from Hong Kong, and my dad is Greek, Cypriot, but they met in England. I went to University College London and I actually didn’t do a business degree – which surprises many people. I did a Bachelor of Science in Geography, but ended up going into Management Consulting because I loved project work, variety and the prospect of travel. So that was my initial entry into the workplace.
I married a Canadian, and moved to Canada about 5 years ago. And we have a daughter who’s 21 months old. So yeah, I’m a British National living in Canada, who has a Chinese parent and a Greek parent, married to a Canadian of Irish descent, with a daughter who is now very mixed up [laughs]!
Who inspires you, and why?
People who stand up for social justice and inclusiveness, believe in something better, and are fair – especially in adverse conditions.
Nelson Mandela inspires me because of his resolve and ability to forgive. I went to his prison cell in South Africa and couldn’t fathom how he would come out and still have forgiveness in his heart after so many years of incarceration.
I was very inspired by a book, A House in the Sky, about a Canadian woman, Amanda Lindhout, who was abducted in Somalia and how she came out at the other end of that. Michelle Obama is also an inspiration to me – particularly in the current environment. She’s just so incredibly and unbelievably poised, intelligent, and courageous.
There’s also David Attenborough – he’s a wildlife commentator and I wish he was my grandfather [laughs]! I’m so inspired by him and what he’s done in his life, but also because of what he’s been able to share and make accessible to the world. He’s just a pioneer, and I love him.
Looking back at your life so far, are there any pivotal moments that helped shape your life or who you are today?
One of my most character building times was right after my school years. After I was done school in 1999, I took a gap year and went to volunteer with a youth development program called Raleigh International for a volunteer expedition to Ghana. The experience was far beyond anything I could ever imagine. As part of the program, there were 90 people from the UK and about 30 from the host country – none of whom I knew. So you’ve got all these people coming from all different walks of life, expected to live together for 3 months under a high-stress situation. Over the next 3 months, we worked on 3 different projects with different members of the group in rural parts of Ghana – often inaccessible by road. I’d never felt so isolated and alone; up until that point in my life, I had been surrounded by people who had known me since I was 4 or earlier. And now I couldn’t get to my family or friends – I only got a letter from home every 3 weeks.
One memory that really stuck with me was during my first project when I worked with a roving cataracts eye camp doing cataracts eye testing. We ran an operating theatre at one point and I remember, very clearly, a kid waking up during surgery and having to hold him down while they put him out again – which was horrible. So these are the kinds of things that I experienced; I’ve been to like 46 countries in my life, but still nothing compares to those experiences.
My biggest takeaway from that expedition was realizing how deep I can dig for patience and understanding, and how to find a way forward no matter how hard it is. Nothing since then has come even close to the challenges I faced and the things I saw there. The physical endurance built so much mental strength, resolve, and determination in me. So while I do allow myself to get upset when things get tough, I have a very deep reserve.
In my About section, I spoke about the various barriers I put up for myself. Is that something you relate with?
Taking risks and feeling qualified is challenging for me. I certainly have the well-documented female confidence issue where I see myself as unqualified if I don’t know 110% of something. I’ve seen people – often male colleagues, in my experience – who may know only 80% of something, but are confident that they can run with it when it comes to interviews or jobs. If I only know 80%, I feel like I’m unqualified for the role. That’s just how I perceive it; nobody is telling me that – it’s just a feeling from deep down. And it’s definitely something that can hold you back if you’re not mindful of its negative power over you.
This feeling also comes up when I have to speak in front of large groups of people I don’t know. Most people are surprised by this because I appear to be so outgoing. The thought that often runs through my mind is: what could I possibly know that I could share with these highly intelligent people? And then a small voice in my head reminds me that I’m the VP of professional services; I’ve helped make many clients and companies successful, so I do have a fair amount of experience and insights to share – some of which will be helpful.
So I definitely have the imposter syndrome – I think about it every single day. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling that. On the plus side, it’s also what drives me to be better, learn more, and keep growing and experiencing new things.
Before working at Achievers, you had the experience of founding and managing your own consulting company. What were some takeaways from this experience?
I left my job at the consulting firm because I wanted to control my own fate. I had had a great run there, and I liked everyone I worked with, but I wanted to able to choose my clients and projects, to some extent, so I started my own consulting company. It was terrifying; I remember breaking down in my family living room and my brothers hugging me. But when I actually started, I was surprised that I could actually do it! And I realized that my feelings, while completely understandable, weren’t as founded in reality.
So I learned that taking risks is rewarding, and that you don’t have to have everything figured out. We tend to think we have to have it all figured out before we can make the leap. I’m not suggesting that everyone should just go and quit their jobs [laughs]! First of all, I had the luxury to take that risk – I knew that I could move in with my brother, or something, if I had to. I also made sure to take some steps to prepare and plan; I asked myself what kinds of dialogues I needed to have that would help – whether from a coaching standpoint or building a pipeline for my future business – and started working on those early on. So as long as you’re methodical, and you work hard and utilize your whole network, you’ll be fine. It’s a combination of hard work and opportunity. I read this quote once that says: luck is where opportunity and hard work meet. There’s certain quotes I live by, and that’s one of them.
Can you describe what your current role entails?
My title is VP of Professional Services within Achievers. We sell engagement and recognition software to our clients. My department is responsible for the design, build, and implementation of the software, and ensuring our clients are successful when they roll out our solution.
My role is, at the VP level, to ensure that I’m supporting my team and enabling them – and our clients – to be successful at the most fundamental level. That includes supporting my leaders and having a strategic view and vision for where we’re going, and how our team needs to change organizationally to get there – whether that’s succession planning, building organizational capability, expanding services globally, or building new service lines and areas of expertise. From an operational standpoint, I support our leadership team through any internal challenges; I also act as an advocate for my team at that level and try to be a voice for the things they need – appreciating that there are always competing priorities. I’m also often involved in a lot of customer interaction as an executive sponsor for our biggest, most high profile implementations. Finally, I try to help build the Achievers brand in whatever way I can – be it through speaking opportunities, doing things like this, or going to conferences to represent our brand.
What would you say are the values or principles you’ve held onto that have allowed you to grow into this leadership role?
When I first got to Achievers, it was really hard because the business was in a very early state; we didn’t have any systems or consistent processes in place and so it was a challenge because you had to learn to swim quickly. I remember telling myself – put your head down, and deliver results. Don’t spend your time worrying about what may or may not happen; you have to figure it out and work hard. Delivery is totally agnostic; there’s no subjectivity or bias to it – you either did or you didn’t. So I focused on that as my guiding principle.
I also strongly believe in leading by example, respect, collaboration, and always doing everything you can do to help yourself before going to ask other people. I believe in never expecting somebody else to come in and save you; it’s important to understand that you’re really the only one that’s accountable for your success.
Another thing is using all different kinds of approaches to get a job done. Sometimes knocking on just one door won’t work. So persistence and tenacity – and adaptability – are absolutely key in working with people and achieving things. It’s all about building relationships with others, understanding their motivations, and understanding that maybe sometimes people won’t want to or can’t help you; in that case, pivoting and figuring out how else to get to your next step is key. There’s always a way forward.
How have you been able to navigate moments in your career where you’ve been faced with challenges related to how women are perceived in the work environment?
I’ve worked in entirely male dominated fields and, in my experience, there are biases. I remember having a heart-to-heart with someone I worked with who told me not to wear dresses. Because I’m a pragmatist, I wasn’t offended; I was actually intrigued and asked them why. They said that because everyone else wore suits, I may not have been perceived as professional in a dress. So I decided to conduct an experiment: I was going to wear a suit every day to see if there was any difference in how I was perceived. Suddenly, my feedback and scores started changing [laughs]! They perceived me as more professional and as having more gravitas. Nothing else had changed, but apparently shoulder pads and a suit will do that in such environments! And that’s really something that could happen anywhere that has a very old school, corporate environment.
People might say – how dare you say my clothing is representative of how or what you think of me? That’s ridiculous! And it is, I agree; but it’s also the reality. There’s a social conditioning at work where people associate capability and gravitas with certain things. It goes beyond attire to things like the way you communicate, your tone, your energy, and so on. And I’m not saying to adhere to it – absolutely not; but understanding how other people’s perceptions are carved is important, because only then can you exert any control over how you’re going to be perceived. Some people will say that’s playing the game, but I think it’s more about being aware that there is a game – you don’t have to play it.
You’ve helped a wide variety of companies implement successful recognition programs. Are there any insights you’ve learned that can transfer to other company efforts such as diversity and equality in the workplace?
When it comes to diversity, or any kind of change you’re trying to achieve, the resistance to change can be countered by a really compelling vision, clear and measurable ways to get there, and continuous transparent communication. So instead of just saying we need to be more diverse, we have to answer the question of why this is important.
I was recently at a conference where Ashley Berg, the VP of Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement at Coca-Cola, talked about the language of diversity. At Coca-Cola, they promote inclusiveness because they believe in having a variety of perspectives. And by saying that perspectives are important – not gender, not diversity – then more people are going to relate to that because the point is perspectives. That’s something that changed my mindset because when you talk about diversity to me, I think – that’s me; I’m an ethnic minority in a minority – i.e. women. But I’m sure someone like my husband would say that he doesn’t identify with that. So it provoked thought in my mind that the language we use is important because if you exclude one group, then you’ve kind of failed the remit; you’re always going to have a group that’s left on the outside, or, worse still, see it as a backlash against them so they naturally fight back or dismiss it. To be truly inclusive, you have to listen to the opinions of people you don’t agree with; you must be open to the opposing dialogue. Someone has to back down first, so be that person; not to knock down your own values, but to say – okay, challenge me.
You are a VP, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister – the list goes on. How have you been able to navigate these roles while maintaining your health and sanity?
I don’t have the answer to finding the balance, but I think you do the best you can and try not to be so hard on yourself. I’m lucky at Achievers because the company is at that stage where we’re not running around like crazy trying to solve problems and always dealing with crises – certainly not in my department. So I have a normal working day and I also have the flexibility to come in late if I need to drop off my daughter, for example, because my team and colleagues understand. There’s trust that you’re doing the work but recognition that you’re also working around your own life. I think that workplaces need to be built around the whole person; if we become more progressive like that, the strain on women – particularly those who may have to leave the workplace for a period of time to physically have a baby – would be reduced.
What was your experience like coming back to work after having your baby? Did you have any fears or reservations?
I wasn’t scared, but going back was difficult at first because it feels like you’re starting from scratch. In many ways, you are, because significant time has passed, the team and organizational dynamics have changed, and the contributions you’d made become a distant memory. And you’ve also changed – your life and your priorities have changed; it’s a really sensitive adjustment period with this added feeling of insecurity that you’re not needed anymore, at least for me it was.
I remember someone asking me whether I was there during a particular crisis, not realizing that I had driven the project to resolve the problem across the organization. Truth be told, I was a little sad about it; it’s hard when an achievement is forgotten. But I tried to rationally think about it. It’s likely that they’d been occupied by other things in the company, and didn’t have space to remember my contributions because the last 9 months was all they remembered! It’s probably what I would remember, as well! So I really had to try remove my personal feelings and remind myself that if anyone left the workplace for a long period of time – if a man left to look after his kids for a year – I’m sure they’d come back and face the same issues. I had moments where I felt like I wasn’t needed there anymore because of that; I thought about staying at home with my daughter and focusing on building my home. And it’s not like that’s a bad thing, but you do consider everything at times when you question your value at work. But I love my job and my team, and time has a way of helping you through things; it was a big adjustment, but I was able to find my feet again. One thing that’s really been a comfort for me is that whatever difficulty you’re facing, it will always change; hard moments will eventually pass, and so will good things – so enjoy them! It’s a dichotomy that helps you appreciate when things are good.
What is your definition of feminism?
Nothing annoys me more than people telling women what to do – including women. So feminism, to me, is about empowering women to do what they want, whatever that is, and not judging them for their choices.
There’s people who say things like – you give feminism a bad name because you want to stay at home with the kids. To those people I say, how dare you tell a woman what to do? That’s the opposite of feminism. So because they’re not meeting your agenda, you now have the right to judge them? For anyone that thinks that, I have a very strong message: don’t be a hypocrite; do a gut check and ask yourself why anybody should be a slave to your agenda.
Why do you think there’s such a gender disparity in many leadership teams both within and outside of tech?
I think it starts very young; I’ve read the book Lean In, and one piece that really stuck out to me was the praise and lack of reprisals for boys taking risks and doing silly things. So they learn very early on that risk is necessary and, should you fail, nothing’s actually going to happen to you; it just means you’ve got to get back up again. I think many girls are treated differently. I’m amazed at the gender conditioning happening all around my daughter through TV, clothes, and so on; it’s all very powerful in conditioning a young mind.
I also read this book – and excuse it’s title – called Why men don’t listen and why women can’t read maps. It’s a hilarious book, and it’s main point is that men and women are different. They should be treated equally, and given the same access to opportunity, but they’re not the same. That’s why I can physically give birth to a baby, and my husband cannot. And that has some biological implications that happen to impact my work. For example, I have to take at least a day off to have a baby – and usually a bit more, having gone through something that physically traumatic. And that has an impact; some women leave, and they don’t come back for various reasons. Childcare is really expensive, so sometimes it doesn’t make financial sense for some mothers to go back to work. For some, there’s also the added feeling of guilt when you’re leaving your baby to go back. And the world doesn’t help men either; men frequently don’t get paternity leave. If they did, and society at large made it okay for men to do so, then it would help even things out. So there’s a few things related to children that could contribute to that disparity.
I also think many women, at least in my experience, intrinsically have this feeling that if they’re not 110% qualified for something, they won’t even put their hat forward. So even when the opportunity arises, maybe not as many women are going to go after it. And sometimes you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t; women who embody typical leadership qualities like being passionate, having intensity, or voicing their opinions can be seen as overly emotional or domineering, whereas the same qualities demonstrated by a man are simply seen as him feeling strongly about something or being forthright. You don’t often hear about fabulous female leaders, you know? There’s just not that many because of that negative perception of the same exact qualities and behaviours in a woman when compared to a man. There are certainly more now than in the past, so things are changing. But it takes time to change society and the workplace.
What advice would you give girls/women looking to pursue a career path similar to yours?
Do things that scare the absolute daylights out of you! If you’re terrified, you should probably do it – even if you don’t feel qualified. If you look for certainty, you’ll never move or progress. Get comfortable with the fact that you might fail, and try really hard to learn from those times.
Look also for opportunities that aren’t just so obviously progressive. To get where I am, I took a side step. I really knew nothing about software or technology, but I went to Achievers determined to learn about it. If you’re scared because you don’t know something, that’s the easiest thing to solve: Google it! I always tell myself that if you’re scared but kind of excited about something, that’s called growth. Growth is a little bit of pain, but the kind of pain that you can endure and leaves you feeling amazing when you come out of the other side.
The last thing would be that it’s important to have someone close enough to you to be vulnerable. My best friend, Dina, who I’ve grown up knowing and happens to be the most emotionally intelligent person in my life, has been that close confidant to me. She challenges me, calls my bluff, and tells me things I sometimes don’t want to hear; I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her. So you need to seek that, and be open to being vulnerable. It’s painful, but it’s also about being able to access the parts of yourself that will probably give you the most power.