In honor of Women’s History Month, I sat down with Debbie Ung, EVP of sales and professional services at The Ken Blanchard Companies, to talk about her experiences being a female leader in various industries.
What motivated you to become a leader?
I became a leader out of necessity. I was working for a startup organization that was growing quickly; we created leadership roles to manage the increasing number of people and projects. I have always been driven to perform at a high level and to make a positive difference in the workplace, so being thrust into a leadership role made sense. I was fulfilling a business need. Being a leader wasn’t something I sought out, it just evolved. I’ve always been fortunate to work with organizations that had a very clear purpose and mission. These organizations knew what they wanted to accomplish and I realized early in my career that the only way to deliver on purpose is through people working together to drive impact. I was comfortable leading teams to help organizations reach their goals. I could do more as a leader than as an individual working on a team.
Who has inspired you along the way?
The COO of the startup company I mentioned before taught me the importance of hiring really good people. I learned to hire people smarter than myself; people who would challenge me to be better; people I could count on to show up and get the job done in a way that was respectful to our organization and to clients. I believe when you hire the best and brightest, your job as a leader is to help them all work together efficiently to meet the needs of the customer. A high performing team dedicated to the mission ensures that organizational vitality is secured.
The COO also taught me about followership. The role of the leader is to serve the needs of their people, remove obstacles, and help them work together to achieve goals. Leadership is about being others-focused, not self-focused.
This might seem counterintuitive, but I’ve also been inspired by leaders who weren’t so great. Anyone who has worked with an ineffective leader knows how much difficult situations can negatively impact their entire life, both at work and at home. Those experiences helped me understand what I didn’t want to be as a leader. I didn’t want to cause stress for my team members. I wanted them to succeed. So I learned the leadership behaviors to avoid as well as the behaviors to emulate.
And of course, I was inspired by my parents, who encouraged me to do what I was passionate about, focus on results, and deliver my best performance regardless of the activity.
What’s your definition of leadership?
Ultimately, being a leader means being focused on others and not yourself. As a leader, you need to be aware of how you are developing your team members so they can learn to lead others, too. That is what followership is all about. A leader has the responsibility to create other leaders who are going to inspire other people.
Do you think gender and age bias are still an issue for women in leadership?
I’ve been in leadership roles for more than 25 years. I can see that we have made improvements in age and gender bias, but they are slight improvements. Women, especially women of color, are still underrepresented in leadership roles. Unfortunately, the pandemic actually increased this gap. Research has shown that women have experienced burnout at a much higher rate than men. There are many causes for that, but the truth is that the gap just got larger.
My experience with age bias occurred in my first leadership role. I was much younger than my mostly male team and at times I felt imposter syndrome taking hold. I sometimes doubted myself. It took me a while to trust my own voice and to push myself through the challenging times. Looking back, I clearly see that most of the perceived barriers I thought I was fighting were actually assumed constraints. I succeeded in that time by being super clear on my priorities and trusting my own judgment, which built my confidence and in turn my competence with being a leader.
How can women support other women in their organizations?
I love mentoring young women and I’ve found it doesn’t have to be a documented mentor/mentee relationship. I encourage women to build strong networks and alliances—it can be as simple as starting a book club or social club. Providing the opportunity for women to come together to create dialogue helps to form relationships, build trust, and fuel confidence. And this doesn’t have to be limited to women. Men and women should mentor each other, too. We have a lot to learn from each other.
You have young twin granddaughters. What is your hope for them and for future generations of women who will enter the workforce?
I look at my granddaughters and the crazy world they have been born into and all I can hope is that they are confident, kind, and caring. I hope they find a way to contribute in any way that positively impacts others. I want them to feel good about themselves and the contributions they are making. It doesn’t matter what their job is as long as they contribute to society in a kind way that brings them happiness.
OK, just for fun: beach or mountains, Beatles or Rolling Stones, and vanilla or chocolate?
Hmmm, definitely beach and Rolling Stones. And chocolate—is there any other choice?