“You can succeed with smarts, scruples, and style.”
Research scientist, business leader, mother and now author, Shaz Kahng has led an extraordinary, challenging and fulfilling life. In preparation for the release of her first book 'The Closer', Shaz took the time to reflect on how she got here…
What’s the correct way to pronounce your name?
Shaz has a short “a” and rhymes with “jazz.” My last name Kahng is pronounced as 'Kong' (like in “King Kong”).
What made you want to write this story?
Frustration. In nearly every fiction book I’ve read where there was a female leader or a successful woman they were always portrayed as evil, or cunning, or deceitful. Or they were allowed to be good at their jobs but were required to be neurotic or desperate for a man. I personally know so many smart, successful, honorable women leaders and I wanted to write this book for them. It was important to me to create a positive female role model and I believe you can have a character that is accomplished and has integrity who is still a fascinating person to learn about.
As a minority woman in big business, you have faced much of the scrutiny that your character Vivien encounters in the book. What are some real life episodes you have experienced?
Too many to cover in one interview. But one situation really stands out for me because it was so outrageous. I was a manager at a consulting firm working my way up to being promoted to partner level. I was leading a project for a retail client in Atlanta and had just sold a huge follow-on engagement that was the largest project in our firm’s history. The CEO of my firm called me in for a chat. He congratulated me on selling the biggest project ever, but then he dropped a bombshell. He told me that the CFO of the client wanted to replace me with a new leader or they wouldn’t sign the contract. Confused, I said, “But I delivered the first project ahead of schedule, under budget, and with nearly three times the revenue benefits we predicted. They were happy with the project, and I assume me, or they wouldn’t have bought more work. What’s the problem?” It was sickening to learn what the client’s problem was with me—my gender and my race. They insisted upon replacing me with a white male manager…and my firm was going to accommodate the client’s request. After all my sweat equity and the great performance I turned in for my firm, they were not going to stand up for me. That stung. The CEO said, “What other choice do we have?” I said, “You can do the right thing and tell the client you’re walking away from their business over their unreasonable request. If I can sell this size project once, don’t you think I can do it again?” The CEO was too afraid to lose the business and told me he was sorry but was moving forward with his decision. I said, “You have a daughter, don’t you? Well tonight when you sit down at the dinner table I’d like you to tell your daughter about your decision and see if she thinks you make the right choice.” I was so disgusted with the experience I knew that once I made partner I was out of there- I would not stay at a firm without values.
A funny postscript to the incident was that they did bring in a white male manager to replace me and when he started struggling I was asked to “coach him from behind” which meant I was working on the project without the client’s knowledge. After two months they were so unhappy with the white male manager that the client CEO requested to have me come back and lead the project. At that point I was already leading another client project so I wasn’t available.
You’ve worked in a number of male dominated industries as a scientist, strategy consultant, ebusiness builder, brand builder, and executive. What enabled you to succeed in each field?
I ignored naysayers. When people told me “It can’t be done” or “You can’t accomplish this” it would only strengthen my resolve. I’m a pretty stubborn person and I like proving people wrong. There’s nothing more satisfying than taking a disaster of a situation and turning it around much to the surprise of others.
At Nike you were in charge of the global cycling business and were the first woman in that role. What was it like taking that leadership position?
It was interesting and challenging. The business had been run for seven years by a former professional track cyclist, but had never made a cent. The team was mostly male and certainly not welcoming of a female leader. I had to do a number of creative things to get the team on board, transform the business, and get results. In my first full team meeting I knew I had to get the team to recognize the many problems with the business, so I took them through some exercises that made them rethink how they were approaching things and to open their thinking to new ideas. Ultimately, we grew revenues 300% and got the business profitable in a year.
You inherited a troubled business when you ran Lucy Activewear, yet you and your team turned it around and made it profitable for the first time in history. How did you accomplish that?
It was not easy. I was the third CEO/President in three years and the business was struggling- bleeding cash, dealing with product problems, experiencing poor performance at retail, and having so many other issues. We also had to physically move the company to the Bay Area, hire a completely new team, change all our business processes, move onto new IT systems, and change our factory sourcing base- all in the first quarter of my leadership. My team and I worked hard to completely overhaul the business and set it on a new path and we actually got the company profitable within thirteen months, which was one-third of the time expected by the corporate parent. Also, my husband and I had twin girls and I took only a two-week maternity leave, which I definitely do not recommend to other new moms.
You wrote this book when you were working and had newborn twins- what was your writing process like?
I did most of my writing in my head. I’d think about my writing first and then capture everything on my computer when I had a chance. My twin daughters were less than a year old when I started working on this book and we didn’t have a full time nanny, so things were busy. I outlined the book and then would think about a chapter and how the story would unfold, then when they girls were napping I knew I’d have one precious hour to sit down and write it all down. I found that doing the writing first in my head made the physical writing process was fairly quick and I finished the book in about ten months. Of course the editing process was a lot longer and more painful than that.
As a woman leader what are some of the pitfalls you need to watch out for when taking a new and visible role?
For some reason when people, especially some men, encounter a new female leader they don’t expect certain things from her that are key to being a great leader. They don’t expect her to come with a bold vision for the business. They don’t expect her to be strong and determined. They don’t expect her to be decisive. They don’t expect her to hold people accountable. They don’t expect her to be tough when necessary.
The upside is that people are very often surprised when they encounter a female leader who actually does bring these characteristics- it may throw them off a bit at first, but when they start to see the results she’s getting they tend to get on board pretty quickly.