Are you as adaptable as you need to be?
Life throws obstacles and sometimes flat out blocks you from your goals. The question is, how do you react when things don’t seem to be manifesting the way you thought they would? Rolling with the punches is harder than it seems, but cultivating your agility in new circumstances is paramount to getting where you want to go.
Connie Tang immigrated to the US from Hong Kong when she was about a year old, and today she's the first woman President and CEO of Princess House, a multimillion-dollar direct selling company. Her core philosophy of overcoming fear enabled her to consistently shatter glass ceilings throughout her career and resonates with the 25,000+ business consultants that she leads daily. Her new book is Fearless Living: 8 Life-Changing Values for Breakthrough Success.
I recently interviewed Connie for the LEADx Podcast where we discussed the importance of adaptability, agility, and owning up to your shortfalls. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You emigrated to New York with your parents from Hong Kong when you were one year old. What were some of your memories growing up in New York City?
Connie Tang: My memories of growing up in New York City, and I spent all of my formative education years there, was always one of diversity and having to adapt. If there was one common thread that I can pull from my elementary school years, middle school, junior high school years, to my high school as well college, is I was always required to adapt. I'll give you an example. When we first moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, back then it wasn't so cool and hip as it is today.
It's funny you ask this question, because just last week I was in New York for meetings and I was early meeting my mother for lunch and I took a walk over the apartment that we lived in and took pictures, and said, “Wow.” The synagogue that was next door is still there, even though when we lived there, it was a completely Hispanic and African American neighborhood. We were the only Chinese family, so everyone knew us. We were the little Chinese family.
I remember very specifically how everything was different from two blocks over in Chinatown. Folks warming their hands by the garbage drums downstairs, having a lot of rats in our apartment, the food, the smells. The cooking was very different. Language, of course, was very different and that actually then translated over into even going into Brooklyn. When we moved into Brooklyn, we found ourselves still as the only little Chinese family because then we moved into an all American, Irish Catholic and very traditional neighborhood. We had third and fourth generation police officers and firefighters, but once again, this time I was one of two Chinese kids in the entire elementary school.
Once again, I had to adapt because what is this about people having Sunday dinner at 5 p.m. and then they eat supper? They eat again? So different. That makes no sense to me. Why would you eat at 5:00? My parents aren't even home from work at 5:00. And then you eat again. What's supper? Isn't that the same as dinner? It was really culturally different from a Catholic religion standpoint, predominantly Catholics in my neighborhood. But even again, the traditions as well as the customs, day-to-day customs and lifestyle was very different.
Then, you fast forward into high school, and Brooklyn College for me was very, very diverse. I would say what I remember is there was always something different that I had to learn and I had to adapt to. That included learning how to develop relationships as well as language and to my great fortune, growing up on the Lower East Side was where I began my Spanish speaking skills. At two years old, a babysitter from the apartment upstairs–because everyone worked in my family–became my caretaker and she was from the Dominican Republic.
She didn't speak anything but Spanish, so I remember pointing to things, and she was saying it in Spanish and that's how I learned. Then of course at home I learned Chinese, and those carry through into my adult years. But that was something that I would say that transcends. Even quite serendipitously into my professional development as I went into international development for many, many years of my professional career. Adapting became something I had already had a lot of practice at, and it helped dramatically when you open up a new country, when you're bringing a brand to a consumer base who's never heard of you, you're working with a staff in a language that's not your day-to-day language, and you have a workplace environment that's also very different.
But my parents were a very classic lower middle-class family. My father was an accountant, spoke some English and of course, went to work for a bank. He actually worked at World Trade Center in one of the towers. My mom was a seamstress because even today, she's still not completely fluent in English and she sewed in a factory. Today, she actually still, at 70+ years old, finds her social network as going back to the factory in Chinatown to go sew.
Kruse: Then you got married and moved to Texas, of all places. What was your husband doing at the time? Why did you end up going to Texas?
Tang: My husband was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. He also was not fluent in English. He came and immigrated to the United States in his mid 20’s, so very different from me. I grew up, I was very fluent of course. I always thought of myself as an American. In fact, I told my mother, “I'm never marrying a Chinese man.” Not only did I marry a Chinese man, I married one who wasn't fluent in English. Never tell your mother ‘never.’
He was a waiter, I was working for Lancome at the time. At the time, there was a lot of activity happening at large corporate retail levels. Federated Department Stores was a very large corporation that, at the time, had owned Macy's and Bloomingdale's, and still do. I worked for Lancome in a retail chain called A&S, Abraham & Strauss. They had at the time, just announced that they were going to purchase and acquire the entire chain of Abraham & Strauss stores. These are all legacy, 100+ year old department store chains. Now, that's important because there was change happening.
Even though I was not aware of anything yet, I heard rumblings. You hear rumblings going on in the buying office, and you hear rumblings amongst your boss and the higher ups. Timing was in the mid ‘90s and we went to Texas to visit my husband's cousin, who was born and raised as an all-American, non-Chinese speaking young man who was a software engineer. He went to Texas. He went to Dallas, Texas. Plano to be exact, and that was where there was an immensely growing community of software engineers, in the telecom industry. You had MCI, you had Xerox, you had Texas Instruments. A lot of technology companies were sprouting up, lot of job creation, and a booming housing market.
So, the community, it literally was green fields. It's like going to out to pioneers to the West, one minute it was green grass, the next thing you know it was a subdivision, and big box stores, etc. We went to visit him on vacation. For years, he had been saying, “Leave New York, leave New York. Come to Texas. Houses are cheaper. There are less people, less traffic. You never have to look for parking.” We went to visit him, because I had no notions of ever leaving New York. My mother's side of the family was all there, I had lots of cousins, lots of aunts and uncles.
My husband, I think, had a different mindset. He had lived in Belgium where his brother had immigrated to. He of course was new to the US, and when we visited, we were very enticed, excited and attracted by the newness of it all. The, “Wow, houses are seriously less expensive, wow, look at this super Walmart, super Target!” We'd never seen anything so big. Space is such a commodity in a city like New York and we were excited at the prospect of maybe, one day, owning our own home.
Kruse: Where were you living in New York? You didn’t own a place there?
Tang: No. We were renting a studio apartment where the landlord put up a wall and two doors and rented it to us as a two bedroom in Brooklyn.
Kruse: I would have assumed that you would go out there and take the first job available, because you need money, right? But that's not what you did.
Tang: That's what my mother said. “Take the first thing that comes along, even if it's a supermarket job,” and I didn't. I didn't. I will tell you, my husband in all his wisdom said, “We can make this really big move. It's a big commitment. Don't take the first thing that comes through the door. Think about what you think you might want to do that's going to be meaningful. There's never a guarantee, but don't take the first thing that comes through the door.”
So I signed up for a temp agency, because we needed money. We really had nothing. We had to borrow money, in fact, for that move, from my brother-in-law. I signed up with a temp agency so I would get some income, but also the flexibility to continue to interview. In fact, I ended up turning down… I think it was four or five jobs. One was as a pharmaceutical rep with SmithKline and Beecham. One was the Executive Director role of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce. One was a Manager of Events at the Dallas Botanical Gardens, and they all just didn't feel right.
I don't know what “right” felt like, but it didn't feel right to me. I had decided that I would for sure have to give up beauty and cosmetics, because after all there wasn't a center of excellence for beauty in Dallas, I didn't think so. Took the time, I became a master networker. I knew no one, my software engineer cousin knew no one. He sat in his room with cans of Red Bull, all day, all night. He wasn't very helpful.
So, I signed up to attend Dallas Chamber of Commerce events. Became part of the Women's Business Issues Group. Then, I also signed up with–at the time it was very popular–a career services group that helped me do a resume. I actually never had to do a resume. I had a job waiting for me when I graduated college, so I had to do a resume. Back then, you go to a library and find a list of corporations to send letters to. The letters were an opening and a reason for me to cold call, to ask for advice. That was one of the things that I learned to do, was I made a call and said, “I sent you a letter. I told you I would call, and I was wondering if you would have 10 minutes to just give me some advice.”
I was very fortunate. I had the entry of saying, “I recently relocated to the area. I don't know anyone.” Through those advice calls, I think I maybe got through four of the letters. From there, it just went from one referral to another to another to another. The key was, “Don't end this call without asking ‘Is there anyone else you think would be helpful as I get to know the job market in the area that would be good for me to talk to?'” I never got a ‘no.’
Kruse: These days networking seems to be about selling your services, and not so much about asking for advice and introductions. I like that.
Tang: And it's very tempting to say, because you know you want a job. You really do. It's very, very tempting and learning the discipline to not ask for a job is to ask for the opportunity for them to get to know you. The guard comes down. Emotionally, they're much more willing to give you and you can then receive very fully. You're absolutely right.
Kruse: What's your advice to young women or men who want to have a career trajectory like you've had?
Tang: I would say there are a couple of things that applied for me, and maybe I wasn't even intentional about it. A lot of it had to do with my drive and my desire to grow and to develop, but in hindsight, I can tell you that number one is recognize opportunities as opportunities, and that opportunities come big and small, and sometimes can be masked behind the guise of a project or can be misinterpreted as more work. What I mean by that is when you're given an opportunity to do something, you have the opportunity to take it with the right attitude.
You can look at it as, “Great, another thing I've got to do. It's not like I don't work long enough hours” versus, “Awesome, I've never done this before. Let me try and figure this out. Let me do this so that I can deliver something. Let me add this to my portfolio and my toolbox of tools, and on my resume, of things that I've been able to learn to do to accomplish and achieve that.” Opportunities are very often masked. Listen, they don't come with a shiny bow and glowing halo and wings. They are masked as work. That's really it, right?
You've got to have a good attitude where you're really open to opportunities. Lots of times I think today people wait for an opportunity to drop, or that notion of opportunity's knocking at my door. Sometimes you've got to seek opportunities as well. There's an opportunity waiting for someone to take it. Have you ever been in a meeting where somebody says, “Yeah, we've got to figure this out?” Maybe an initiative is to say, “How about I take the lead on that?” Just ask. Just ask for that. Sometimes opportunities are there waiting for someone to take it and seize it, and when you have those opportunities, you also have to own it and see it for what it is.
I spent almost 13 years opening up global markets in Latin America and Asia Pacific. I traveled a lot. I spent three months straight in Hong Kong and Taiwan for about four years, opening up those countries. Yes, I was married, and that's probably why I'm still married 25 years later, because I actually haven't seen him for 25 years. But I could have, I actually had colleagues who said, “Oh, my God, I can't do what you do. You're never home, you never see your husband. You have no life, blah, blah, blah.” I never saw it that way. I always saw it as, “Yeah, I work hard,” because when you're there for a week, you try to cram three months of work into a week.
I saw it as, “Look at what I get to do. Look what I'm learning. Look who I'm working with. Look who I’m influencing. Look who I'm teaching.” That really became the premise for me having a– even to this today–I call it an ‘insatiable curiosity to learn,’ and to know more about everything. Even today, I read constantly. Whether it's an article about formulations, whether it's healthcare trends, whether it's HR management, whether it's new startups, lean startup processes. You've got to have that drive to learn, because you don't know what you don't know until you've had an opportunity to learn it.
Then, the third thing is really agility. Practice not only learning, listening/learning, but applying. It's one thing to sit through class. I'm a trainer, I think, at heart, and I've always believed that training is a process, not an event. A lot of people think that, “I'm going to get trained when I go to this class. When I'm done with this course, I made it. I've mastered it.” That's nothing. You've got to put the work and the time and the diligence and the determination and discipline to practice it, to really get good at it. Having agility, learning agility and change agility is key, because what you learn inevitably should prompt you to maybe change some things you're doing, or how you think and how you behave.
Kruse: What advice would you have for a new consultant who's just getting started? How can she start to grow her team quickly?
Tang: That's a good point to make first of all, is that direct selling is another entrepreneurial opportunity to start your own business. While it is oftentimes simple, it's not easy. Just like any other home business ownership, or your own business, whether it's a restaurant or a laundromat, or a gas station. It takes work, so it's not easy. For any new consultant who's looking to build her team, because essentially she has self-decided that she wants to be the CEO of her company, right?
And to build the team means you've got to bring in talent. You also have to be willing to share the gift of your business and the opportunity with everyone. One of the key things is do not block your own opportunity. Oftentimes, I find that a well-meaning entrepreneur and consultant wants to build the perfect team, so there is such a thing as production before perfection, because perfection is an obstacle, and quite possibly never possible.
Offering someone, asking someone to be a part of your team, giving that away freely and more often is usually the first obstacle they have to overcome. We try so hard, most of the women we will work with try so hard to find the perfect person that it delays them in making progress, right? That alone becomes an obstacle, because who's perfect? You're never going to find the perfect person.
There's fear. Getting comfortable and getting confident about asking people to be part of your team, part of your mission, part of your goal and finding people who have the same goal as you, and together, you can achieve it together, that's key, but that takes practice. I mean, how do you build confidence? Doing it over and over and over again, getting good at it, right? How do you get comfortable? Not being unfamiliar with it, and that it takes practice. That's the first thing, is really getting the opportunity and offering it freely, openly, without judgment, without making a decision for others.
I've had women who say, “Oh, she would never do it. She would never be without it.” How do you know?
Kruse: You don't want to take yourself out of the game before it starts.
Tang: And they decide, without even giving them a chance, and that's wrong. I've had women who have been longtime customers who have said, “Do you know, I've been buying your product for 40 years and no one's ever asked me would I like to make some money doing it? No one ever thought to ask me, to offer me that.” So, if you're really thinking about growing, first you have to give, and then you'll receive. If you give that opportunity, you will get commitment. If you give coaching and mentoring, you will get commitment. If you give your time and your training, you will get productivity. It's a very reciprocal relationship.
Kruse: You have determination, accountability, drive for results, passion, collaboration, agility, respect, and compassion. Can you to pick one of those and share with us why you think it's so important?
Tang: I think accountability is critical, because it starts with you. Once you can master accountability of yourself and your own actions and your thinking, and your behavior, you can then translate that to the relationships you have with others. Accountability for me is exactly as you even alluded to it earlier, about making the difference, the shift in your mindset of taking a victim mentality, or owning a situation, owning where you are, owning why you're here, and taking responsibility of controlling your own actions to change that, if that's not where you want to be, or you want to change that situation.
Whether it's career development, whether it's starting your own business, whether it's even in your personal life. If you're not happy about where you are in your relationships, with your family, with your parents, with your siblings, with your spouse, with your significant other, own that. Take responsibility and be accountable to yourself, and that's hard, because it is just so much easier for it to be somebody else's problem.
It is very difficult because it requires a lot of hard, I call it ‘tough love’ on yourself. But then it also requires you to not be afraid of what you find, because maybe what you find is not exactly what you had hoped you would find. And then, not having the fear to change that.
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to get just 1% better every single day. Challenge us?
Tang: In my book, the first chapter is determination and I would challenge the LEADx listeners to think about a skill that you believe is critically important for you to improve. Whether it's to move up in career, whether it's to improve in your personal relationships, whatever that is. Whether it's communication or it's an actual business acumen skill that you need. Think about what you don't know enough of, a lot of, or anything of. Decide what that is, and determination, for you to achieve results, requires discipline. Put yourself on a plan of discipline to master that skill or that behavior, or even the mindset of how you think to change that.
Discipline is doing it when you don't want to do it, ‘doing it’ is doing it well all the time, not sometimes. All the time, and doing it with intent. If you're running a race, if you want to train for that marathon, you're not going to get there and be successful if you don't do it with consistency and you do it well all the time. Be intentional, be disciplined, with frequency, and hold yourself accountable for that discipline, and determination will lead you to achieving whatever that skill, that milestone, that goal is.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.