Embracing Authentic Leadership Styles

Leadership isn't one-size-fits-all. In fact, successful leadership starts with embracing uniqueness.
Life at Choco Feb 22, 2022
Amanda Lin - leadership

Last year our Senior Product Manager, Amanda Lin shared her experience defining her leadership style with the WomenTech Network. And given the state of the world, we believe her story is only becoming more relevant.

So whether you prefer to watch the video recording or read our summary below, we have a feeling this is a story you won’t regret reading. Without further ado, here’s how Amanda ended up finding (and keeping) her groove.

Breaking away from the leadership mold

I started my career in Silicon Valley, but my journey to becoming a leader started far earlier than that. It started in a small town in NJ as a first-generation American with Taiwanese parents.

From there, I went to a competitive boarding school for high school and then went on to earn my Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Stanford University in Symbolic Systems and Computer Science. I worked hard, and I was committed to having an impactful, successful career. But everywhere I looked along the way, I usually saw only one model for successful leadership.

As I entered the workforce, my journey continued to be dominated by this single image of male leadership. This signaled to me that in order to succeed, I needed to emulate a masculine model of leadership - a very specific expression of myself, of my voice, of my vision.

But, I didn’t -- I got lucky. I got lucky because I had a really hard time fitting this mold, and I got lucky because I met incredible mentors along the way who helped me realize that not fitting in was precisely my superpower.

Three lessons I learned on my path to becoming an authentic leader

As it turns out, embracing what made me different was the path towards an impactful career. This was a very different story than the one I had previously internalized. And it took me a while to accept that new story and to find my voice. That said, here are 3 lessons I learned along the way that helped me do that:

-> Find superpowers in our differences

-> Navigate our system well

-> Hold our companies accountable

1. Find superpowers in our differences

Growing up, I felt bad about being different. As a kid, I was bullied for being Asian, bringing “disgusting” lunches to school, and having parents with thick accents.

In boarding school, I was ostracized for being one of the few students who was on full scholarship and couldn’t afford the extracurricular activities my classmates could.

At Stanford, I was consistently the minority in my computer science classes, both as a woman and as someone who didn’t start coding at a young age.

In job after job, I've often been the only female voice in the room, whether in Product, in Tech, or in a position of leadership.

“Coming from a different culture taught me to respect - and value - diversity of thought. I welcome different ways of approaching a problem, as having new perspectives reveals our blindspots and helps us think more creatively.”

Although I was often told my empathy made me too soft to be a leader, I have found the exact opposite to be true. Being highly empathetic has actually made me a much stronger product manager, as so much of my role is about understanding users’ pain points and experiences.

I often heard that my openness to vulnerability would be my downfall. But in my experience, I’ve found vulnerability to create more inspiring leadership and deeper connections. People want to know you’re human.

So what makes you unique? What experiences have you had that give you a different perspective? How might these differences be used as your superpowers?

2. Navigate the System

The first part of navigating our system well is building a cohesive team.

This means more than just getting to know your team on a deeper level, though that is incredibly important. Building cohesion also means committing to regular feedback and open communication. Everyone works differently, and as leaders, it’s our job to learn how to meet people where they are and bring out the best.

We need to learn to communicate effectively with people across all walks of life, even if that requires adjusting our style. Receiving and giving feedback gives all of us the chance to be cognizant of how we come across, address it, and adjust our behavior where necessary.

The other part of navigating our system is finding the parts of the system that work for you, even if that means moving on when something doesn’t fit. Even if you don’t know what is a fit just yet, trust yourself and try something new.

When I left Silicon Valley in 2016, it was for many reasons. It was a place filled with incredible talent, but most of that talent seemed funneled into problems I wasn’t looking to solve. After some time, it also felt very homogenous. I couldn’t walk into a single bar, cafe, restaurant without overhearing someone discuss the valuation of the latest “Uber for X”. In contrast, Berlin has a lot of heterogeneity. It’s immensely international, and the city revolves around so much more than just work and tech. Parts of me feel more alive than ever. And although many thought me radical and foolish for leaving SF, the heart of the tech ecosystem, I knew I had to give up my life there to find the part of the system where I do belong. Don’t force yourself into a role or environment just because you’re told it’s “the right thing to do.” The first step is recognizing what is and isn’t a fit.

How can you leverage your superpowers to bring out the best in your team? What can you do to become a more effective communicator? Where can you be more honest with yourself about what isn’t working?

3. Hold companies accountable

If you have the option, don’t default to the sexy brand name company just because it looks better on your CV. Go for the company that’s doing the work you care about, whether in the product or within the company or both. Work for the ones that shape the world closer to your north star.

There are two steps you can take to hold our companies, our ourselves, accountable:

Step 1: Choose a company that’s aligned with your values.

I chose to work at Choco because it’s creating a more sustainable food industry. Sustainability has long been incredibly important in my personal life, so I felt committed to finding a job that helped fight climate change.

I was often told I’d have to choose between meaning and making money, largely because very few companies actually try hard enough to combine the two. But that’s a misconception.

“The reason I was immediately drawn to Choco is that by the nature of its existence, food waste will be reduced, and by the nature of its success, the food eco-system will become sustainable.”

Choco’s mission is fundamentally aligned with my own, and I feel that much more driven each day to work there as a result. If your goal is to find a company that marries money with meaning, there is a way to accomplish it. If the company doesn’t yet exist, you can be the one to start it.

Step 2: Do your part within the organization

Companies benefit from diversity in large part because of the diversity of opinion, which is why I lead Choco’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion group on the tech team.

Data shows that teams are 158% more likely to understand their customers when they have a team member representing their target group’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or culture. Companies with greater diversity in management earn 38% more revenue.

It’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake. Our products touch so many people around the world and have the capacity to do so very quickly. It’s so important to have diversity in the room because the product is a reflection of our values.

But keep in mind, talking about diversity and inclusion is one thing, actually doing something about it is another. Beyond our DEI group initiatives, I try to hold myself and my colleagues accountable. In the past, I spent many a meeting gritting my teeth through cringe-worthy comments or inappropriate behaviors, but staying silent only signals to everyone else that it’s okay.

If you’re uncomfortable, chances are someone else is too. Whether it’s as systemic as a toxic work culture or as small as a one-off interaction with a teammate, it’s important to have these difficult conversations.

Ask yourself - are we creating an inclusive environment? Are we listening to diverse opinions? And if not, how can we make it that way?

Wrapping it all up

Remember, no place will ever be perfect, but you can find a place that empowers you to be the type of leader you want to be.

Instead of encouraging me to fit some specific standard, Choco embraces my leadership style. The company brought me on not just because of my skill set, but because they understood that it is exactly my different perspective that makes me a stronger leader.

People will continue to tell you that being a woman in tech is difficult, that there are racial/cultural biases, that you’ll hit challenges because you’re different. That is all true. But my journey to becoming a leader was about choosing a different story for myself - gaining confidence in what makes me who I am, knowing that I belong and that I have a right to be a leader.

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