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How Deb Liu Stopped Fighting And Stepped Into Her Power

Haley Paskalides  |  April 8, 2024

Deb Liu shares why making genuine connections with your coworkers is just as important as mastering the job.

Finding out about our family’s history can tell us so much about ourselves, and our place in the world. For a long time, Deb Liu felt like a victim of her history. She grew up in South Carolina as one of the only Asian-American kids in school, and was often made the target of pranks and bullying. She had to fight for her place in the world. Eventually, her drive led her to get a scholarship to college, a primo job at a consulting firm, and then onto business school. “It was all about achievement, but I lacked the connection and relationships,” Liu says. 

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Fast forward years later, Liu credits Sheryl Sandberg, her mentor at Facebook, for helping her come out of her shell and embrace her true self. One day, after a meeting Sandberg pulled her aside and said, “You can stop fighting now. You can be gracious.” 

Liu says hearing this flipped a switch for her. She realized that throughout her career: “I had been fighting other people to say, ‘I need to mark my space. I need to mark my territory.’ But what makes you successful in the workplace is not winning and getting everything right, it’s actually building connections because this is a team sport. Are you playing for the name on the back of the jersey, or the one in front?”

After spending 12 years moving up the ranks at Facebook, Liu took the job of CEO of Ancestry.com, and her bestselling book “Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work” chronicles not only how she took control of her narrative, but also the lessons she wants to teach other women as they climb. 

One of the patterns she recognizes the most when talking to female leaders is something she calls “strategic ambiguity,” or never asking for what we want because it’s safer to not know (and stay where we are) than to be rejected. 

“What if, instead of asking a question that demands a yes or no answer such as ‘Can I have a raise or a promotion,’ I said, ‘I’ve been working with you for a long time, and I’d like to know the steps you think it’s going to take for me to get from here to the next level. How can we partner so I could demonstrate those skills?’ Suddenly you’re my ally,” Liu says.


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