Sample the inspiring story Mai-Huong has to offer in the Scrappy Women in Business book right here in the comfort of your cozy computer! – Kimberly
When you were growing up, how many times did someone tell you to “Keep your eye on the ball”? I have heard it about 500,000 times … not that I’ve been keeping track. Rounding off to the nearest hundred thousand, let’s just say too many times … from my teachers, coaches and teammates. The point of them telling me this, of course, was to get me to focus on the particular task at hand. Over the years, to me that phrase has come to mean, “Keep going for what I want and don’t give up”. As a result, I was willing to take risks, step out of my comfort zone, and try new experiences. This has made my life a far more interesting adventure than I ever could have imagined as a young child growing up in Asia.
Protective Roadblocks – Other People Protecting You from Your Own Success
The week I turned 16, my sister drove me to apply for my first job at an amusement park. I applied for and received a job in the food concession department. I was not assigned to a particular restaurant or section, but rather was assigned to a backup team. My job was basically to go work in any restaurant or food area that was short of staff on any given day, doing whatever was needed. They couldn’t have found a better person than me to do this job since I was a quick learner and able to adapt to new situations rapidly.
After a year of cashiering, serving drinks, making food, waiting on tables, scrubbing grills and washing floors, I decided that the measly minimum wage I was receiving wasn’t enough to make up for the crummy work conditions. I set my sights on the games department. The jobs there seem to be a lot more fun, there was less dirty work, and employees even received incentive dollars to buy fun merchandise.
When I told my manager that I was going to apply there, she looked at me and, to my surprise, told me that it was very difficult to get into the games department. The interview would be tougher, and I would have to pass an audition. My manager didn’t think I was going to make it through the interview. She asked me to stay in the food department working for her. I remember quite clearly my answer to her. I told her that I was going to give it a shot and that I was going to make it into the games department.
The next day I got an interview and went to the tryout. Not only did I pass, but I was also given a prize for my audition. My work and social life in the games department was fun, and I received an enormous number of bonus dollars to buy cool merchandise during my career there. Instead of letting my manager limit me to what she thought I was capable of, I believed in myself, took a risk, and got what I wanted. It wouldn’t be the last time.
In my first corporate job, I applied for an overseas position. These positions were highly coveted, since they allowed you to work 30 continuous days on then have 30 continuous days off. The company would fly you to the overseas location, and fly you back home or anywhere else in the world that you would like to go instead for your 30-day break. This seemed like a dream come true for me, since I was eager to travel the world.
I told my manager that I would like to apply for one of these positions, and asked him to recommend me—part of the bureaucratic process at the time. Several weeks later, I found out that he didn’t throw my name into the hat for the job because he was not sure that I would be able to handle an overseas job. He thought it would be best for me to stay in my current role. (Gee, thanks!) He then proceeded to apologize to me for not nominating me. As it turned out, the nominees submitted by other managers were not as qualified as I was. In the midst of his apology, he told me that I was a better developer than the other candidates, and that “I was not the Asian woman he thought I was.” You can imagine how uplifted I felt by that remark! Apparently he had found out earlier that day that I was a Black Belt who fought at national level competitions, and I had won first place in a Taekwondo competition over the weekend. I think it’s safe to say that this new insight into my character transformed his image of me from someone who needed his protection to someone he’d better not get into a bar fight with.
Unfortunately, his revelation came too late for me, and his protectiveness of me cost me a great opportunity. That experience taught me never to assume what people know of me, but instead to always tell them why I’m a good candidate for a job, sharing what experiences I had that would make me successful in a new role. Needless to say, I don’t leave my advocates’ perceptions of me to chance anymore. I don’t go around wearing my Taekwondo outfit at work, but I do make sure they know I can break a board in half with little more than a flick of my finger.
Several years ago, I received an invitation to join a Fortune 500 company. The job description didn’t resemble anything that I’d done before. I wouldn’t manage any development, test, or operational teams. Instead, I would manage virtual teams of people from various disciplines such as program management, engineering, test, operations, product planning and customer support. I’d also be supporting an entire suite of online services products and platforms rather than just one.
When I visited my brother the week before starting this new job he said, “That sounds like a hard job, are you sure you want to do that?” I remember telling him with confidence, “Yes, it will be quite difficult, but I’m prepared to do it.” In fact this job was just what I needed! It was a great next step in my professional career. It would allow me to let go of some of my technical skills in engineering and design and focus on my business leadership skills, such as influencing, negotiations, and managing without authority. It would also test my communications skills, as I would be working remotely from my team members.
Ultimately, it turned out to be one of the more challenging and rewarding jobs of my career. This experience gave me the chance to be completely responsible for creating and implementing strategic and tactical plans to beat our global online services delivery competitors. This job also afforded me the visibility to engage with senior executives across various product lines. Looking back, this position was a natural progression for my career, and I’m glad I took the plunge.
Follow Your Instinct and Take That Chance
Those six simple words, “Keep your eye on the ball,” have helped me achieve so many goals in my professional and personal life. I learned not to take no for an answer, but instead to interpret no as meaning “not right now,” or “need more clarity,” or “it’s too complex, simplify it.” The power of focus and my drive to accomplish each objective energized me and gave me the strength to forge ahead, confront new challenges, and ultimately succeed. Making plans and reviewing my calendar helps me to mentally and emotionally prepare for the challenge ahead, whether it be a hectic day, a difficult meeting, or a long road trip. Being open to feedback from my coaches, peers and employees allows me to reassess myself, change my tactics, adjust my game and win. I’m far from perfect, so there’s always room for improvement.
I’ve never regretted following my instincts and taking a chance, and hope you will learn to trust your instincts, too. Stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new can produce unexpected surprises. It did for me. It opens new paths, possibilities, and enjoyment that I didn’t know existed. I always gear up for the next challenge by telling myself that it won’t be easy but I can do it, so don’t give up. My life is much more interesting today due to the many challenges that I undertake. Of course, there’s always the next irresistible challenge beckoning to me!by
I love Mai-Huong’s story. I was also taught to have low expectations and have broken past them and have surpassed all my dreams and expectations of myself. I continue to stretch, grow, and am a happier person for it. I enjoy the challenge of become my personal best. I encourage others to do the same regardless of what others think.
Getting a mentor can also be helpful and/or talking to supportive friends. This Scrappy group is great too!