Yanbing Li describes herself as a “high-tech girl in high heels” and proudly celebrates her feminine side. As vice president and general manager for storage and availability services for vCloud Air, the public cloud platform for VMware, she’s the only woman to hold a key leadership position for the software company, based in Palo Alto, Calif.
It’s pretty lonely at the top she told attendees at April’s IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference. So much so that she compared herself to the last remaining male Northern white rhino (recently featured on CNN). Less than 15 percent of executive positions at the Fortune 500 companies in the United States are held by women, she pointed out. Companies in Silicon Valley lag behind more traditional ones like General Motors and IBM when it comes to promoting women to top management spots, as I reported in a previous blog post.
“The hard reality is that high tech doesn’t always go well with high heels,” she said. “If you want to pursue leadership in a management capacity as a technical woman executive, the number of openings is very small. The reality is far from ideal.”
In her keynote address, Li shared some lessons she learned as she pursued what she calls her career North Star, which refers to her finding direction and meaning in her profession.
“Leveraging my deep engineering knowledge and translating that into leadership has been my journey,” she said.
THE CLIMB TO THE TOP
Li has held various management positions at VMware including senior engineering manager, managing director of the company’s China R&D center in Beijing, and vice president of central engineering. “While I was a good engineer, I had a stronger passion toward leadership and interacting with people,” Li said. “Later in life is when I realized that’s where my true passion was.”
When she was in her early 40s, she was offered a position to run a division that had 1,000 employees, but she felt she’d hit the glass ceiling. “Going from 300 people to 1,000 people seems like a powerful expansion, but at that time I felt I was typecast into a particular type of engineering leadership role,” she admitted. “The role offered was hugely strategic and important, but it didn’t line up with my career North Star. I wanted to run a company some day and be a CEO, but I realized the path I was on wasn’t going to help me get there.”
Instead, she negotiated with the company and took on managing a smaller organization with less than 200 people but one that was focused on emerging areas of product development. VMware sent her to Stanford’s Executive Program to get more education in general management.
“Through communicating with my employer and proactively managing my career path by taking a smaller job deeper in the organization, I felt I’m starting to really make progress toward my goal,” she said. “I’ve learned that it not only helps to strategize with myself but also with my company.”
LESSONS LEARNED ALONG THE WAY
While climbing the career ladder, she told attendees that doing a good job is, well, not good enough. You also need to let others know how good you are, she noted, which women have a hard time doing.
“I feel deeply that we are not doing a good job until people around us recognize we are doing a good job,” she said. “To be successful, you also need to pay attention to make sure other people are saying you are doing a good job.”
According to my post, “Ten Ways Women in Technology Can Increase Their Visibility,” one way to do that is to consult with mentors, your manager, and other colleagues you trust about ways to pitch yourself. Develop a succinct way to describe your strengths in a variety of situations.
Li also emphasized the need for those who want to pursue leadership positions to strengthen their EQ, or emotional intelligence.
“I felt all the years I spent learning about technology was the only thing that was needed to be successful, but that clearly isn’t enough,” she explained. “EQ, or how we work with people, how we lead, how we communicate, and how we build relationships turns out to be an equally important factor because technical knowledge is the foundation but these other skills count as multipliers.”
She encouraged attendees not to just emphasize their technical competences but to also make sure they invest time in learning leadership and other soft skills that will take them much further.
STOP THE GUILT
Li admitted that she has finally achieved a level of inner balance by stopping her feeling of guilt about pursuing her career, sometimes ahead of her three children and husband.
“My husband and I decided we are both entitled to equal career pursuits. It doesn’t depend on who makes more money or who has a better job. It depends on the fact that we both want equal opportunity, and we’ve arranged our family in that fashion,” she said. ”I chose a balance I am comfortable with, and that my family is comfortable with. And I’m not going to be ashamed about it, I’m going to celebrate it.”
Li also runs a monthly leadership luncheon for all the women at VMware. The company also runs several activities at the grassroots level to encourage women to pursue leadership positions. And senior leadership now has increased accountability for promoting women, according to Li. Last year VMware began transitioning that grassroots initiative into a top-down CEO-sponsored program called VM Women.
“I felt it was a core turning point when VMware started to hold all our senior leaders accountable for how we advance women’s careers,” she said. “This is a great time to be part of the company.”