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How Your Experiences Shape Your Leadership Identity with Sunny Lu Williams

Sunny Lu Williams, President of TechServ Corporation, saw the toll that leadership can take on you early in her life; her parents were both entrepreneurs. Now, as the leader of her organization, she’s taken those experiences and the lessons they taught her to create a culture that’s sustainable and fits what her employees need.

In this episode, Sunny talks about how her past colors her work ethic and influences how she leads others. Along the way, you’ll learn about the value of documenting what you’ve learned and how experience, not age, is something we should acknowledge more.

After You Listen:

Key Takeaways:

  • Make a list of the things you aim to achieve in the future to build your confidence
  • Understand and communicate your company’s vision clearly
  • Listen more than you talk

Things to listen for:

  • [3:52] Lightning round with Sunny
  • [10:20] Understanding your required identity as a leader
  • [14:34] Navigating how your upbringing affects your leadership style
  • [18:23] Adapting to a company’s culture as a leader
  • [25:27] Sunny’s advice for her younger self
  • [29:31] Craig’s takeaways

Sunny Lu’s Transcript:

[00:00:00] Craig P: He looked us in the eyes and said, you’re not at my level. I don’t talk to you.

Welcome to Executive Evolution. I’m Craig Anderson. I’m an accidental leader who found himself with a 20 plus year career in corporate America and ever-growing leadership roles, and I learned a lot of lessons the hard way, and I created this podcast so that you don’t have to.

When I was a young leader in an organization, I always was looking to get things done. I thought that’s why I was in leadership was to problem solve and get things out of the way for my people. And I can clearly recall a time that I went to, I think I was a director and I went to a vice president. Of another division to work on solving a problem for one of my people.

And as I began the conversation, he said to me, I’m sorry you’re not at my level. Your boss is at my level. I don’t talk to you. that is the situation that came up to me in my interview. Coming up with Sunny Lu.

Sunny talked about how as a young leader, you can’t always influence the culture of your organization as much as you would like to, but she had a great solution for that that I’ll talk about later after you listen to the interview. She’s a great interview with a lot of energy and a lot of great ideas leaders to help evolve their leadership style.

So let’s jump right into the interview with Sunny Lu, the president of TechServ Corporation.

Sunny, welcome to the Executive Evolution podcast.

We’re so glad to have you

[00:01:30] Sunny Lu Williams: Thank you Craig. It is an honor to be here. I’ve been following your podcast and I’m excited. to share a little bit about my story.

[00:01:37] Craig P: I can’t wait, and I know our listeners will enjoy it. So, sunny, before we dive into the lightning round questions, can you tell us a bit about TechServ Corporation and the work that you do there?

[00:01:47] Sunny Lu Williams: I’d be happy to. So, TechServ Corporation started in 1992, was actually founded by my grandmother, Judy Lu, and I did not know that until we were literally going through. Redistributing stock certificates when I took on the company in 2018. So that was a beautiful walk down memory lane. I actually had the opportunity later that year in 2018 to visit with her in Taipei and just have the conversation about like, how did this come to be?

Why are you the original owner? And, and so, and so mom ran it for 20 years, very focused on public education. when I took over in 2018, my love was really in healthcare and so we took a book of business in public health, merged it with public education, and as we transitioned and looked at the core training curriculum development in public ed and the workforce training and specific pathways in public health, we decided to apply that to public safety. Really through the vein of community paramedics. So that’s where our public education and public health came together. And then we went from training paramedics and EMTs to training law enforcement officials because we now had brought in the mental health component of public health. And we were looking at all of these incredible innovations in crisis response teams. With first responders partnering with mental health and healthcare systems to really deliver better care in a non-traditional way to our communities. So with all that said, TechServ is a project management and consulting firm focused on public health, public safety, public education, really on transformative change in those systems to better deliver overall care, education, and safety

[00:03:34] Craig P: Wow, that is such important work such an important leadership component too, in helping get them to the point where they can start leading and growing and being trained and everything else. So wow. Kudos to you for that

Sunny, are you ready to dive into the lightning round to kick us off today?

[00:03:50] Sunny Lu Williams: on

[00:03:51] Craig P: let’s do this. What is the best leadership book you have ever read?

[00:03:55] Sunny Lu Williams: So best leadership book has to be Good to Great. I’m sure everybody has stated this book, but I read this book through three very different formative tranches in my life. Once an undergrad was gifted to me by an entrepreneur, that that was going through some huge changes.

And so he had highlighted some pointers and made some notes in,sidebars. And I thought, you know what, this absolutely applies to me and. That was one of the components that really pushed me into saying, I don’t know what I don’t know, and I need real tactical information to grow my business at the time when I was still a telecom exec, my first employer, that was really one of the components and catalysts that made me go to. Business school I ended up at Kelly. And then I reread it fairly I was acquiring different companies kind of build up the overall portfolio of what we do.

And so I reread it through the lens of. Partnership and how to develop good partnership. So the intent of why I read Good to Great each time was very different and I took different messages from it.

[00:05:00] Craig P: That’s what I think is so amazing about the book. I quote it so much. I think people think it’s the only business book I’ve ever read. But the lessons are so important and in different stages of where you are in your evolution as a business. the flywheel to right seats on the bus and they’re never not relevant.

It’s such a great book for business.

[00:05:18] Sunny Lu Williams: what is so evocative is that it really applies in every transitional journey that you have as a business leader. And I think very few books can be navigation point at any point in the journey. there are some good books that are very specific to startup phases, right?

There’s very good books of, failures what should take from those failures. I think the Titanic effect with professors Saxton and Michael Corn, local authors here. Very good about taking look again and say hindsight, what could you have done differently and using that hindsight from others that have gone through that journey. How do you use it as a prevention? Well, good to, great to me has always been a. what is this piece of advice? How do you want to apply that to your current stage, current state? And I think that itself in my ability to be reflective on the journey that I’m going on now has been something I have had to develop. because over the years I’ve either been, full board or no, I’m hesitant. I’ve not had an opportunity to really pause and reflect on why those were essentially fight or flight responses or why I wanted to move forward without maybe better information or a little bit of a pause and research and or why I was so hesitant in why that gut reaction. good to Great has been here is what you are doing and why you are doing it now. But in order to do it better, you need to be more self-aware, more curious about the environmental scan of what you’re doing, how will impact and really have formulated a strategy behind that. And so for me, who was very impatient, that’s a very hard lesson to keep relearning

[00:07:07] Craig P: Yeah. and the market will teach you that lesson verve often. Okay. Question number two. Who is your leadership crush?

[00:07:15] Sunny Lu Williams: My leadership crush is interestingly enough. Any person that has ever ran for office

[00:07:23] Sunny Lu Williams: because I think that there’s a level of external access and visibility that CEOs and other business leaders have, but it’s not 24 by seven as it is on the political stage. And I was really thinking through this to say, you know, could I really name one single person? And I debated across money, well known figures, my own family and so forth. But I think for me, my crush is really anybody that has embraced their ability to be their external selves, their internal selves, with that level of servant leadership and stewardship that they’re able to perform. a political office rule, ongoing. Now

that doesn’t mean I have a crush or respect every single person that holds political office. I think that there are certain people that if you’re doing it for the right reasons and you have really set a platform and a counter for that platform and wanna move forward on that platform, and you’ve shared your personal vulnerabilities on that storyis incredible to me. because I’m not yet there in my own journey to be able to say I can be on and vulnerable and both available in my internal and external personas all the time. I had the pleasure of listening to Representative Robin Shackleford story for why as a state rep, she decided to run for mayor sure monstrous crush on that woman because she has done so much for our city. but she’s always been behind the scenes and the goal of her as a representative and the goals that she carried out through her many pieces of legislation on maternal and child health, on overall standards of living, basic, healthcare access and so forth, around, benefited our state. I think in. other political offices. I think Judge Ships judge Gail Bardock Kerry Stiller and others. They’re doing it for really the ability to bring judicial processes into our communities that are actually serving the community.

They’re very clear that they don’t know all the answers. but their training helps them to look at what are the appropriate systemic processes that need to be in place. I think it’s incredible for anybody holds elected office, that they have to combine who they are as an individual. Their office is responsibility unto themselves and external to themselves. Right? And then who are they as a individual, and how do they show that vulnerability and showcase that they are themselves, continue learning in this position

[00:09:56] Craig P: it is an interesting thing about the 24 hour nature of it and the vulnerability of it is we’ve seen that vulnerability kind of evolve now into good business leadership, and also just that whole 24 hour nature of being a leader where everyone is looking at you.

To set tone, to set the culture, to set the practice, and when you start to realize all the things that sit on you as a leader, it can feel a little overwhelming.

[00:10:18] Sunny Lu Williams: it can, but that’s when as a leader, and I can only say from my own perspective, so let me, instead of saying you as a leader, I would say myself as a leader having grown through the different types of organizations that I’ve led. there is a required identity of a leader based upon the organization that you’re employed with that dictates what kind of leader that you are.

My younger years, I didn’t give enough weight to that culture was steering in me. versus thinking very kind of bright-eyed that I had any sort of real impact on what that culture is from a perception, a transformation, a shift, et cetera. And so today as a leader in an organization that’s much smaller and that is rooted in very kind of almost cult of personality, right? Rather than a very formative company culture. It is much easier for me to say to my team, here is the facts, here is the information I’m going to share with you. You tell me how you’re gonna perceive that. You tell me what

the direction of the pathway should be. I was in my twenties all the way through to my early thirties, leading an organization of 200 in a company of over 1700. I didn’t have much bandwidth to really look at culture and intentionally creating culture as much as I had to say, we just need to get this job done. We need to get

this work done. We need to get to the next goals and accomplishments and so forth. But because I was both not looking at it, and quite frankly, in hindsight, not ready that was probably one of my first experiences in leadership in management. I wasn’t yet ready to say, here is who I am as Sunny, to impact and influence that. It was less prescriptive and intentional on my side as more so just others viewing how I did my work, and that wasn’t really a positive impact. When I look in hindsight, was a single minority woman running a 24 by seven operation, so I was setting a bar that was unachievable. for parents that had children. I was setting a bar that was unachievable for anyone that Like I was traveling overseas and showing up the next morning after Reddi flight in the office. That’s not sustainable. And it was a portion of my youth, My personal circumstances that I was able to do so and willing to do so. But at that time, not considering that there are people that don’t wanna do that and that there are people that can’t do that because they have other obligations. And then now setting a bar that our board and other executive management would compare and say, well, look at their numbers.

Look at what they’re able to achieve. This is the best way that I explained that in that what were we working towards, right? What was the overall goal? Is it numbers? Is it projections? Is these components? Sure. And that’s exciting for a while, but every great business leader, business manager, every great business leader has a vision for why they’re doing what they’re doing. and I didn’t have that but what I did always capitalize on is the opportunity and seeing what that meant for. Our team members and what that meant for individuals that could move on from us and get incredible opportunities with our clients and our partners.

So in that environment, I negotiated a lot of transfer placements for individuals that previously didn’t even have a college degree, but were making high five figures because they were able to learn on our projects. get the workforce training, get the experience. And then I certainly as a vendor to our clients could have said, no, you’re not poaching our people. But in a positive connotation, that’s the greatest single compliment that you wanna hire our team members. but utilize our certification-based programs and processes to get into incredible placement. what I’m hearing in some of this is you were a very high level individual contributor, pushed yourself really hard. To get things done, pivot into a leadership role, still have that attitude and realize not everybody around you does.

[00:14:34] Craig P: I’ve had the pleasure. of graduating during every major recession. And so students that graduate during every major recession have a different outlook than your traditional student because during every recession, I had to look back and go, oh, well I just finished this great course of study. I now cannot find a job on the areas that I’m interested in. So the first time that recession occurred, I was an undergrad, which made me choose not to go to law school and put myself in further debt, but rather to just get a job and

[00:15:05] Sunny Lu Williams: to just get a job made me have to really maximize my other skill sets that I had not been honing, but maybe had been peripherally using. so I check on a job with my then employer, Teleman. My very first job was a part-time. Trade show marketing support because I lived in Chicago and they had a major conference coming up in Chicago and they needed that support. That transitioned into 13 years later I’m, on the senior exec team,

It wasn’t even, is this the best job for you, but. in every situation of adversity, the most resilient people are those ones that can see the opportunity through adversity.

my parents were entrepreneurs, so this is kind of the history of it, and I saw them struggle. was Feaster famine, right? I. , we would get Christmas presents in April because that was a better quarter than it was during the actual holiday. And so that’s fine, but I didn’t want that. , I don’t want that for my family.don’t want the experiences I had as a child impact my children. And so, there are things that you kind of gate and say, okay, well, I do these things, but I’m not necessarily cognizant of the fact that these things I do are actually skills because I don’t really want to do them So Craig, I’m a hell of a salesperson. But I didn’t wanna do sales because that was too close to the impacts of entrepreneurship that were negative to me as a child, that I didn’t want to really go into that kind of career. So what felt okay for me was project management. That’s not really sales.

But it’s sales with an existing client and you keep growing and expanding and looking at how scope continues. Cuz without a scope, it’s not a project. Well a project, what are you managing? Right?

And so that just developed further. Into just comfort level with business development. And in hindsight, it could have made a lot more commission if I had just said, Hey, this is what I am, I’m a sales role. So with graduating, in these recessions, in having these core skill sets in sales, marketing, what am I really positioning here?

What am I really promoting?

in that context, I had a better gauge of, for myself as a business leader, what my identity was and how comfortable I was in really providing a directed message of here’s who I am, here’s what I do, here’s why I’m passionate about doing what I’m doing, and here’s how we can partner to get it done.

[00:17:33] Craig P: As you were going through that story of just graduating into recessions and living through recessions and the. Impact of having a parent as an entrepreneur. You know, I had a father who was a corporate guy and then became an entrepreneurial guy.

And boy that made me never want to be an entrepreneur. It took me until I was 50 to take the leap. we look at that and that kind of influences those early things shape, know, our career decisions and our leadership style so many ways. But as you said, even if you have kind of an innate view of a leadership style as a young leader in an organization or a lower level leader, You really have to kind of work within the larger culture, so it may be, I want to be very servant leadership, but if my culture is very different from that in business, I either have to adapt to that or go work somewhere where I can be a servant leader.

[00:18:15] Sunny Lu Williams: I would clarify that TOMA was not my first employer, but they’re my most formative during

and the employer that I spent the most time with consistently. I would say that during that timeframe, to your point on. What is the culture of the organization? How does that culture of that organization begin to mold you as a leader versus what does it require of you as a manager? And then how do you begin to have enough self-awareness and recognition to begin thinking, this is the culture, but I would prefer to do it this way. This is the. Accepted performance response leadership styles, but I would like to do it this way. So I began actually very early on kind of jotting down some things of here’s absolutely. If I were to start my own business, I would absolutely have. I loved the employee stock option plan. I loved the culture of this small group teaming. I loved the ability to be cross-functional. with different groups cuz that was kind of at the heart of the entrepreneurial dynamics within an organization that grew from when I started roughly 120 million to when I left about 840 million. Right? So that’s

a very short timeframe for exponential growth. And I think in any scenario where you are going through a learning curve, you have to at that time document because we forget, once we get to the other side, our memories allow us only so much clarity into That level of tactical, qualitative assessment. And so I’m forever thankful to my younger self of just writing things down because I wasn’t quite clear on how to approach it or I wasn’t quite clear of how this would impact, but I needed to make a note cuz it was either impacted me so much at that time, but I didn’t have a formulative strategy or approach. Or it was just something that made me curious or something I didn’t really liked or something I really didn’t like. And those notes have been incredibly formative to my later self as I’ve started New Ventures, as I’ve grown teams and as I’ve said to myself, here’s a kind of company, not just kind of company and culture, but the size of company I wanna run and

the type of urgency. Whether or not we have, client prescribed timelines or deadlines or whether we just take on a full project and we create the timeline and so forth, and having the allowance and the permission not only to myself but my team to say, this is how we run our organization.

[00:20:44] Craig P: how has it gone for you implementing some of those things from the book? Are they still relevant? Were they all relevant?

How did you choose and how did you implement some of those in

[00:20:52] Sunny Lu Williams: So we don’t have a full esop, but we do have a 401k with bonus share and other line items. Right. So really that was one very tactical to say. I want this early on. So it’s a priority in the structural setup and it required some learnings for myself.

But ultimately those financial products already existed and it just required me to find the correct 401K advisory and the right administration to support that. So those are some easy decisions.

On the other hand, were some things that were very specific that I didn’t wanna do. And so one example was I didn’t have great board experiences in the past, and so what I was very careful of is to ensure that, own hundred percent equity and the way the governance structuring of each of our companies works is that a board is supportive and they’re there for advisory, And so we do have advisory board members to support each of our sectors, but they are not a board of directors. And so there are some things that I think in my notebook I really had to look at and say. I wanna honor the people that are doing the work. So we have five year succession transition plans where each of our major groupings can be spun off into its own LLC with direct managing principles later on.

I have to give time for. new owners. So when I say new owners, I mean literally employees that are gonna have equity share and be spun off LLCs to be ready and prepared to take that on because my greatest opportunity in learning is not a trajectory that I would put on anybody else. I, I have always had to learn by fire and you are a different type of leader and you’re a different type of doer. if your genesis is always something broken and here’s the urgency to fix it. So I am a fixer, right? And when I start new entrepreneurial ventures, I put a totally unrealistic expedited timeframe on things because in the past I didn’t have a luxury of time,

And I am very good at turnaround operations because of that, but I don’t want every single business that I touch to be a touchpoint of crisis, I tell my teams very specific personal questions. I say for. The director that’s gonna be leading our marketing agency, I go, you have five years in that timeframe. All of your daughters are gonna be in college. So what does that look like for you financially? What type of salary do you have to make? Because if you need to make this type of salary, my corresponding is the agency has to make this type of revenue. what I mean by being a real owner. We just started an animation studio we wanted to do some things with the marketing agency that we really just made more sense having a totally separate organization.

And so with Lucky Vision Studios, I literally just had a one-on-one with one of our employees, and I said, Hey, you love this space and you have team building chops. You’re 23, but I already see it, right?

years from now, does that mean in you leading our animation studio? What does that look like? And really your impact of. if this is the pathway for you, what does that mean? And some people might be like, that’s a lot to put on someone. Right. But that’s always been the opportunities that I’ve had. Somebody’s along the way has always come and said, this is what’s happening.

This is what we need to do. Do you wanna do it? haven’t yet had the luxury of this is what I wanna do, until very recently. But, you know, I’m not mad about it. It totally. Created the person that I am today from a business acumen and the ability to judge an opportunity, an idea, or even, you know, I’m gonna be very open and honest here,

I’ve interviewed over 1400 people in my career. So you develop a little bit of something when kind of judging character interaction when you’ve met and interacted with that number of people and you inherently have a good gut feel on just how will this person actually do in this environment. And when you have so many kind of adverse experiences, you have a developed prevention system for yourself to look at and say, okay, these are the things that are red flags. These are the things that have to be, accounted for. Not to say that it’s not resolvable, but they have to be addressed and communicated early and upfront.

[00:25:17] Craig P: So you take all that in a young leader in that formative leadership role, taking the notes, pulling all this together, the real life experience, graduating in recessions, all these tough things that you’ve had to deal with as an owner or as a president of the business. ,

What piece of advice, one piece would you take back to young Sunny would make a huge difference for her in how she grows as a leader?

[00:25:40] Sunny Lu Williams: Listen more so these were. Hard lessons for me because I had failed.

And in hindsight, where I am now, there were telltale signs and there were things that we could have done, intervened, pivoted, et cetera, et cetera. Early on, if I had developed that, Ability to listen because what was happening in here was I’m the only woman in the room.

I’m the only minority in the room. I’m only except I’m the blah, blah, blah, blah. All of these identities that were more head trash than anything else that was preventing me from really listening. but was really pushing me to be like, this is what you need to say and say it now. make yourself substantiated in that environment.

But I think to be a little bit kinder to younger me, you really don’t develop that wisdom until you’ve been in that room. Enough times un until you are comfortable and vulnerable enough to say it’s not about me. Right? It’s not my win. it’s what we’re doing this and why we’re doing this collectively together.

And so I finally found a environment and work that I find meaningful that at the end of the day, it’s not about just numbers. Come on. I ran a private sector company, so it is about numbers, but that the overall. Focus is how do we do this sustainably in support of transforming our systems to support our communities I didn’t have that big mission purpose back then, I think everything I learned and experience to this day allows me to put forth those experiences and skillsets towards a bigger mission than myself, a bigger mission than my organization.

[00:27:22] Craig P: Those big picture opportunities and building an awareness of that, even if we can tell the young leaders that to start getting into that mode, because that’s where the winds are, is when you’re really seeing that big

[00:27:34] Sunny Lu Williams: Absolutely. And I would go a step further and say that it’s really not about age. For me it was my experience level at the time, and I think that we sometimes equate experience to age. Just kind of chronologically and naturally, but the reality is our generations now and coming up have so much more access to storytelling and these phenomenal lessons your podcasts, other podcasts there’s a TikTok on project management. right? This is not all nonsense and social media. This is how we as human beings are ingesting our education differently. And if I can watch a series of these storytellers experiences and so forth, I’m learning something Even if I’m not experiencing that in the first person.

But I can have a prevention system in place before I do meeting one. I can have these, Hey, here’s what’s happening in the marketplace without having to experience it firsthand and just be aware of these things.

But then Direct experience. really requires some clear time to process, reconcile and say, okay, but what does this really mean to me and what am I gonna do about it the next time?

[00:28:53] Craig P: and that is the exact reason why this podcast was created to get those stories out there to help young leaders. Maybe understand our mistakes so they don’t have to make those. They’ll probably make other ones, cuz we all do. But you know, where we can help the young leaders start to get this stuff, to get these pieces together so they can figure out what is my leadership style?

What is important, should I be thinking about versus what I am as you said in your meetings, what was in your head? And what you probably should have been doing were two different things and now we know that. So

thank you, sunny. I appreciate you being on the podcast. This was a great interview. Thank you for sharing your experience and if people wanna find you and follow you, where are the best places for them to go to do that?

[00:29:34] Sunny Lu Williams: 100% LinkedIn. If you direct message me on LinkedIn, I’m very responsive. And I’ll probably just say, hi, how are you? And send you a Calendly. That, gets you on my calendar for a virtual meet and greet.

[00:29:46] Craig P: As always on the Executive Evolution Podcast, I’d like to leave you with three takeaways from every episode of the podcast, and I’d like to frame those in the area of leadership, confidence, competence, and calm. And there are so many great ideas to take away from our interview with Sunny.

one of the things that I loved about what Sunny talked about was what she did when she realized she didn’t have all the influence that she someday later would have. She made a list and that leadership competence of having a list and keeping track of all the ideas you want to have for the future.

Is a great way for you to build your confidence. So when you have the opportunity to build that company, that culture, that business that you’ve always dreamed of, you have all the rules that you want to follow in the area of confidence. I really appreciated how Sunny talked about communicating and having a clear vision for your people and for the business Vision is so crucial to success because no one can align behind a weekly portrayed vision. And then finally, in the area of calm, sunny, talked about.

Listen more than you talk, and that actually does help to build that sense of calm because you’re experiencing the conversations as they happen. You’re not always planning your response and your retort, so it’s so important for you to just sit back, sit down, and listen, and then respond, because that will help you to calmly approach every challenge that you might face.

If you would like to learn more about how you can build your own confidence, competence and calm, I’d invite you to follow me on LinkedIn. Let’s get connected, catch all the content, and if you’d like to have a meeting, let’s jump on and have a discussion.

Just hit me up in the direct messages on LinkedIn And remember, you can go from being an accidental leader to the greatest of all time leader. All it takes is building your leadership. Confidence, competence and calm.