Sometimes, you have to zag when everyone zigs.
Consider the following scenario:
You’re a young and driven manager at a consulting firm, working hard to become partner. Months of late hours and passion for the job lead you to make the biggest sale in the history of the company. When the president calls to meet with you, you expect a hearty round of congratulations.
What you’re not expecting is to be pulled from the project. Despite delivering the project ahead of schedule, under budget, and with three times the revenue benefits, the CFO of the company you’ve been working with doesn’t want to work with you specifically. If you don’t step aside, the company won’t sign.
You’re asked for your opinion, and you recommend walking away from the unreasonable request. The president disagrees. You’re out.
What about this:
It’s a short time later at the same firm, and you have the highest sales numbers in the history of the company, including among the partners. Your mentors come to you and say you’re going to be getting a promotion, but it’ll have to wait at least half a year.
When asked to explain their reasoning, they say it’s because you would be the youngest person with the shortest tenure ever promoted. You have to provide an ultimatum to get your well-deserved promotion: if you don’t get it, you’ll walk with your revenue stream in tow. You are, begrudgingly, promoted.
The CFO from the company she made the sale to didn’t want to work with her, and instead requested a “white, male leader” from the company take over the project. The president of her company agreed to the switch.
“I was shocked. I had learned and truly believed from a young age that if you worked hard and delivered superior results that you would be rewarded,” she said. Although those days are long past her, and she has truly established herself as a leader, I could still hear the lingering surprise in her voice.
“He asked for my opinion on what to do, but he had already made up his mind. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him to tell his daughter about the decision he was making, to see her reaction.”
The worst part? Just a week before this conversation, the president of the consulting firm had made an appearance at a women’s group and stated that he supported women leaders and believed it was important work they were doing.
In a surprise to no one, within a month the new manager was struggling with the project. He hadn’t been involved since day one like Shaz Kahng had, and it was showing.
“I was asked to lead from behind. So I would get on conference calls, not announce myself, and coach the manager on what to do.”
Two months in, the CEO of the client wanted to bring her back on the team. But Kahng was already onto the next big thing and leaving the country to lead a project in Japan.
“I was surprised by the values of my firm. Even if I made partner, I knew from that day forward that I wouldn’t remain there. That taught me my first big business lesson: if your values are not aligned with the company for which you work, it’s not for you.”
Nearly every business opportunity Shaz Kahng has built for herself has also included textbook examples of the sexism and racism that still run rampant in corporate America.
“I’d almost say that I’ve been successful despite my race and gender,” she said.
By adapting to each challenge or turning each sexist situation on its nose, Kahng found success. It was her hard work, perseverance, and qualities both innate and learned that helped her build the path she’s on today.
Since an early age, Shaz Kahng hated losing or failing—at anything. Her drive to be better and learn as much as possible came from her father, who came to the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship. English was not his first language, and yet he excelled in his law school program and ended up working towards a number of different degrees.
“I admired his perseverance,” Kahng shared. “His determination was inspiring. I was the recipient of a lot of racism when I was young. It was my father who told me to not bother trying to convince people I’m better: I had to show them.”
With college in front of her, Kahng considered medical school. She really loved science, and thought it would be a good path. Her father advised her to instead do an undergraduate degree in something that could be diversified in case she decided medical school wasn’t for her.
Turned out, it wasn’t.
“I picked up a paper and saw that there were a lot of ads for food scientists. It sounded interesting, and everyone has to eat, you know?”
Shaz Kahng studied chemistry at Cornell University and started at Kraft General Foods in its technical innovations department right out of school.
“It was a really fun group. We invented and tested new products, prototypes, and packaging. Every few months we presented our ideas and findings to headquarters.”
She quickly realized, however, the products that the executives were choosing to fund weren’t the most consumer-focused or didn’t have the most potential, at least in her eyes.
“I wanted to learn why they were making these decisions. I told my mentor, who was head of marketing, that I wanted to run a business someday.”
The only hang up was that she didn’t see any scientists running companies, so she worked towards her MBA from the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania. Shaz Kahng hasn’t looked back.
Time at Nike
Her LinkedIn page reads like a who’s who of high-profile companies. During Kahng’s time in consulting she worked with clients like Tiffany & Co., Levi Strauss, and Calvin Klein. She moved her way up as managing director and head of brand strategy at a couple of firms before the execs at Nike brought her in to lead the resurgence of its cycling brand.
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But it was a tough culture at a senior level. Shaz Kahng lived in New York and was relocating for the job. The movers that the company hired to relocate all of its senior level employees had a foreboding message for her: they always came back, usually within a year.
“Some of the senior team had worked at Nike for decades—they went to school together. It was heavily male dominated, and it took a while to figure out.”
But the company’s culture that was known for its intense desire to win fit Kahng’s personality well, and was something she enjoyed about the company.
“I’m a very competitive person. The match made sense,” she said.
The team in the cycling business, however, was de-motivated, and had not been profitable since its inception. Through her push to foster accountability, collaboration, innovation, and teamwork, Kahng was able to get the division profitable.
The mostly-male team was not very welcoming to start, but her tenure and leadership style convinced many. When she wrapped up her time in the cycling division, many said it was the best team they had worked on in their professional lives.
Her biggest lesson from her time with Nike was that if you believe in a concept, have the strength to see it through.
“You can’t grow a business that isn’t offering sustainable value. Without a clear, strong strategy, you’re just zigging with everyone else. Sometimes you have to zag.”
The cycling team was finished with a product and ready to launch it to the public, except, according to the team, it wasn’t the right time.
“The marketing team shared that everything was ready late in the fall, but we were going to hold onto the new product until April. The reasoning behind it was that no one introduced new products in January. I said, ‘Great. Then it will be easy to get marketing space.’”
Just because everyone else does things one way, doesn’t mean you have to follow. Shaz Kahng has made this example in nearly every company she’s been apart of.
Shift to Lucy Activewear
As she gained pull within Nike, another brand that needed reinvigoration sought the the assistance of the first female executive in sports apparel.
It was a predominantly female team with a different style that was much less intense than Nike. But Lucy needed just as much of an overhaul as Nike’s cycling team.
“On one of my first few days at Lucy, the team hosted a waffle-making party as a team building exercise. By the time our executive team finished with the meeting the line for waffles was pretty long. My team told me that I should just cut to the front of the line, as I was the head of the company.
“This was an event to build team morale and equality in the business. I asked my team how it would affect future efforts of collaboration and equality if I went to the front. We went to the end of the line and missed out on waffles, but I established exactly what I was looking for from the brand and its leaders very early.”
Kahng’s push to set the standards and expectations for culture early led to a work environment that eventually supported her view of a more collaborative workplace where everyone was held accountable for their actions.
“I think a lot of people expect female leaders to be nice and lenient. If that was the approach Kahng had taken, it might never have met its goal.
“Lucy was a turnaround. We had three years to make the brand profitable. The people at the top were not going to wait six years to turn a profit,” said Kahng. “I’m really proud of the team—we were profitable by month 13.”
A Role Model Emerges
After conquering the boardroom, Shaz Kahng set her sights on a new goal: author. Her first book The Closer, the first book in her Ceiling Smashers series, details the professional journey of Vivien Lee, a strong, determined professional who encounters many of the same professional roadblocks due to sexism that Kahng has experienced.
But the book was about more than addressing sexism in corporate America: it was about giving women the heroine for whom they had been looking.
“One of the main reasons I wrote the book is that female business leaders are always depicted as evil career crushers of other women who won’t work with them. Sometimes they’re neurotic or basketcases. Male characters, on the other hand, are allowed to be unapologetically successful.”
Shaz Kahng mentioned that she personally knows so many great female leaders and positive role models that it’s ridiculous that these stories and books don’t reflect reality.
“Women are starved to see a female character in business that reflects themselves. I had one publisher ask me to turn the main character into a man. Others asked me to make Vivien obsessed with shopping, or make the story about her wanting to get married. That’s not the reality for a lot of women.”
She’s been a part of a lot of executive teams for a while now, and is seeing this shift inside boardrooms as well.
“Years ago, when there were so few women in senior roles, it seemed like they didn’t want to help each other—they saw other women in executive roles as competition. Today I think you see women helping women and being more collaborative. The #metoo campaign is also driving more solidarity between professional women.”
To all the women sharing stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment, thank you for your bravery to speak up. You are not alone. #MeToo
— Women’s March (@womensmarch) October 15, 2017
As the mother to seven-year-old twin girls, Shaz Kahng sees the workforce of their future as entirely different, one that supports this solidarity, and more equality.
“I’m also seeing a lot of really sharp, assertive women going out and creating new businesses. It’s heartening to see that some choose this path instead of working through a large corporation and being subjected to the politics and bureaucracy that comes with it.”
Shaz Kahng recounted these and many other roadblocks to her professional journey; but she always persevered.
“The key to my success has been resilience, no question,” she said. “Leaders are the ones who encounter a challenge or a failure and bounce back quickly. Strong leaders are the ones who come back with solutions and other options.
“I have encountered people throughout my career that told me I couldn’t do something, or that what I was doing had never been done before. I proved them wrong. I’ve always enjoyed overcoming challenges. My advice to anyone in a similar situation? Be relentless.”
Her current gig at Gymboree is another turnaround, in which she is working closely with CEO to return the company to its heyday.
The future for Shaz Kahng will undoubtedly include more expert business advice to companies that need them. She’s also looking to add another book to her Ceiling Smashers series.
“I love doing turnarounds and growth plays, so I wouldn’t rule those out for the future,” she said. “I’m also open to other things. I would consider another CEO role if it was something I was passionate about.
“Whatever might come next, I’m all in.”