Growing up in a small South Carolina town, Ancestry CEO Deborah Liu learned early on that if she kept her head down and didn’t make too much noise, she could successfully avoid criticism and ridicule. Being part of one of very few Asian families in her neighborhood, she says, “I thought if I got smaller, people wouldn't make comments and bully me.”

That mindset stayed with her throughout the early part of her career, until she realized that playing it small was preventing her from making it big. “I see this happen with a lot of women who faced adversity in their early years,” says the author of Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work. “They think, ‘If I just did the work, I'll be appreciated.’ And that's not how the work world works. When you're in school, you can get a 100 on the test and never say anything in class. But in the work world, we're judged so much on showing up, on intentionality, and on what we say.”

In a conversation with Chief Member Erica Rooney, Chief People Officer at Blue Acorn iCi, Liu talks about finding her voice as an executive, overcoming a ‘small’ mindset as a leader, and why she believes being passed over for a promotion can be a necessary wake-up call.

On Dealing With Promotion Bias

“When I had kids, I didn't get promoted for six years. I just felt stuck. I wish, in some ways, people just said, ‘We're not going to promote you because you're a woman or you're a mom or we don't think you're committed,’ because then at least the truth is out there. Instead, what's out there is this feeling that you're failing, and that's what I struggled with the most. It's not overt discrimination as much anymore as it is, ‘We're not going to promote you for two and a half years. Instead, we’re going to give you seven managers and each of them is going to give you a different bar.’ So is it you or is it them? And when you look at your male colleagues who are promoted, you ask, why?

“I really fought against that for years. I felt like I was climbing and climbing and falling backwards. One of the things I hope for women going forward is that we call it out. This is why I think having a circle that you trust is so important. And having Chief to say, ‘Hey, is it me or is it the system? Because that's what helped me get through a lot of that. The support to say, ‘Maybe it's not me. Maybe it's something in the system, and I need to work on that.’”

I had to evolve my strategy, which was to put my head down and get appreciated for the work. That is what we are taught that good girls do at work. But when we look at what powerful women do at work, they show up, they have impact, and they have a voice.
Ancestry CEO Deborah Liu

On Pushing Past a Small Mindset

“One of the things I tell women today is to really show up if you're going to show up. Be intentional. How many times do you walk into a meeting and think, ‘I'm not going to say anything. I'm just going to sit here in the back.’ How many times do you go in and say, ‘Well, I hope no one notices me. I'll just be here to take notes.’ If you're willing to invest the time, don't be invisible.

That is why I had to evolve my strategy, which was to put my head down and get appreciated for the work. That is what we are taught that good girls do at work. But when we look at what powerful women do at work, they show up, they have impact, and they have a voice.”

On Harnessing Power for Personal and Peer Success

“We have so much more power than we think we do. We have the power to shape other people's ideas. We have the power to help each other and lift each other up. Women who band together can elevate each other's voices. When I was at Facebook, we did that. There were very few women VPs, and we regularly chatted about what was happening and would say, ‘Hey, you know, she needs support.’ We would amplify each other and say, ‘That was her idea. She brought it up first.’ If you feel uncomfortable empowering yourself first, how about empowering the women around you? How about lifting up those who have been talked over?

“It’s so important to feel comfortable having a voice for yourself and for the people around you. I see a lot of women say, ‘Well, I don't want to rock the boat.’ Or, ‘I don't want to tell people they're talking over me.’ But what if we were advocates for each other? What if we said to each other, ‘ I'm going to have your back,’ and vice versa? It would totally change the game for everybody.”

On Rejection Being a Gift of Clarity

“I did every job I wanted at Facebook, but one. And when the job was open I went to Mark [Zuckerberg] and he said, ‘I don't think you're the right person for the job.’ I had to decide what I was going to do. Years later, that job opened again and they told me they appointed a different person. Again, I had to decide, ‘What do you want to do with that? Do you allow that to crush you? Do you allow that to tell you it's time to leave? Or do you create the job that you want where you are?’ I decided I was going to create the job that I wanted. It was hard because there were moments where I felt like he closed the door on that opportunity. But in so many ways, I love the fact that he did that because I focused on something else.

“A woman came up to me because she read my book and said, ‘I asked my manager for a promotion and he said, We will never promote you here.’ I said, ‘That is a gift. He made it clear where he stands. Now you have to decide where you stand.’ Sometimes we allow ourselves to live in this strategic ambiguity of, Can I get it if I just worked a little harder? But that woman was given the gift of clarity. She could walk away from her manager because he did not support her. Mark did not give me that job because he didn't support me. He didn't give me that job because he didn't think it was the right job for me, and he wanted me to focus on other, new things. But her manager did not have her back. She got a job someplace else. How many years would she have hung on trying to win this person's favor if she had not gotten clarity?”