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I’m an Asian American mom and an executive. This is what I’ve learned about successful leadership

While on maternity leave with her third child, Lorrissa Horton got promoted to SVP at Cisco beating the odds that AAPI women are the least promoted in corporate America.

I’m an Asian American mom and an executive. This is what I’ve learned about successful leadership
[Photo: Getty]

When I was growing up, my Filipina mother would always tell me that one day I’d have to pick between career or family. For some reason, I didn’t quite agree with the statement. To this day, it’s been my goal to prove her wrong and find a way that I can have both to the fullest. It hasn’t been easy, but I feel that I have the best of both worlds today. In fact, I recently gave birth to my third child and, while I was out on maternity leave, I got promoted to senior vice president at Cisco. This is probably something that you don’t hear too often in the workplace, especially as Asian American women are the least promoted to upper management in corporate America.

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While statistics tell me I’m probably at a disadvantage for many things including my career, I’ve found a system that works for me as a mom and an executive, and one that beats the odds any given day.

Work/life is about integration, not balance

You don’t hear often about a female leader who, like me, brings their newborn baby into executive-level video meetings. I recently led our staff meeting just like I normally would. The only thing that was different was that I had a new meeting participant sitting in my arms dressed in his sleep sack. I can talk business and make decisions while holding a child, and even while nursing (camera off). And my ability to multi-task has gotten much sharper with motherhood. Some women ask me, “How do you do it, Lorrissa? Don’t you feel weird about bringing your baby into an executive-level meeting?”

My response is, “Not at all. I’m an executive who needs to run my business. I am also a mom with a little one who literally can’t live without me.” While I understand the concern of my newborn being a distraction for me or others, it is my responsibility to ensure we are just as productive as when the baby is not in the meeting. That is different from needing to be a mom vs an executive: You can be both, at the same time, in the same place.

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As a working parent, I love what I do and how I do it. I worked my way up to this upper management position at a Fortune 100 company, being under the age of 40, and with three young children. It’s all possible, but I do not claim to do this alone–I have a ton of support. This is where my husband, and family, are a key ingredient to my success. Having a strong support system around me enables me to focus on my career goals and progression.

While my career is super important to me, I don’t want to miss important meetings or decisions. My family is my life. My philosophy is to bring my whole self to work and, these days, that includes my 3-month-old son. That is why I choose to work the way that is best for me and have fully embraced hybrid work leading with work-life integration.

Professionalism isn’t about appearance

My day is packed with work meetings and family commitments. I must choose wisely where I spend every minute of my day and make tradeoffs aligned to my goals. For example, I might choose to show up to that important early meeting after getting the kids off to school, but that likely means I’ll ditch the “getting ready” time, so I show up in a hoodie and ponytail instead. Other areas are micro-time and comfort savings, like dressing for a keynote in my Eccos or Nikes because heels slow me down and are less comfortable. (Also, why should men be the only ones to give presentations in tennis shoes?)

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At times, my Filipina mother gasps that, at my age and in my role, I should be better dressed. To her dismay, it’s all I can give at that time and for me, it’s enough. Despite my Asian parent’s definition of professionalism, or a woman’s definition of “ready for work” based on appearance and politeness, I have optimized for being my whole self as often as possible and not being in one role from 9-5 and in another for the rest of the day.

Navigate work and family on your own terms

As all women navigate their careers and traditional families like mine, I think there are definite challenges along the way. For one, I think that we grow up from a very young age with these pre-conceived ideas of what we’re supposed to look like, how to act, and certain rules to follow. We carry these unconscious biases throughout our lives, and they show up in our careers and in the workplace.

For example, I see men naturally speak up in meetings and feel comfortable saying whatever might be on their mind. For some women, I see them holding back in meetings, not advocating for what’s important to them like their salary, that next promotion, or flexibility to work remotely so they can better manage life and family. Each person is in control of all these things—so it’s important to be our own advocate and to establish how we want to work and live in the world. My advice to those who struggle with this is to simply practice. Practice what you want to say and start speaking up. The more you do it, the more you’ll grow in confidence and be comfortable in your own voice.

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Don’t apologize for being you

I defied odds to get to where I’m at today in the sense of my background as an Asian woman from an immigrant working class family. But that started with accepting who I am and being my authentic self, as well as challenging norms and notions when people would say otherwise.

My biggest advice to those reading this is to be yourself. Know who you are, know what you want, and don’t apologize for it. Really ask yourself what’s important, what do you not want to miss, what do you need to be present for? What titles or labels will you be given and are you comfortable with them?

Work/life integration is not well understood and might come with labels like “bad mom,” “bad employee,” “bad partner,” “bad manager,” “bad daughter,” etc. These labels are based on societal definitions of how a mom, wife, sister, daughter, and employee should look and behave. You need to be comfortable redefining expectations for every label there is for a woman, and just find what works best for you.

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This said, I know there are some who may feel that they can’t show up as their authentic selves. Reasons vary, but there’s nothing wrong or invalid about feeling that way. My advice to you is take time to reflect on your goals for your life. Not just for your career, but also for your family.

Give yourself room to learn how to meet those goals as your full self throughout the day. It will take some trial and error to really understand what you are or are not comfortable with. Sometimes, discomfort comes from your own perception of how people will react; test that theory out. Maybe go to a meeting without makeup one day and see what changes, if anything. Other times, discomfort is directly tied to a reaction you have experienced in the past; test whether this is still true today, and how you can manage that reaction if necessary. For areas of discomfort, really ask yourself where is the friction point? Is it something you can change or impact?

Every week, I check in and ask myself which goals I did not meet: maybe I didn’t spend enough time with the kids, or not enough one-on-ones with my direct reports. Where do I need to adjust to better meet all my goals? What’s preventing me from doing that? How do I achieve those goals based on what I have to balance in my life and how I want to show up?

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It’s going to take a bit of work upfront to achieve your dreams of being an executive while a busy parent. But, once you’re able to get into the rhythm of being your authentic self, your life will be completely transformed—especially in being less stressed and feeling more in control over your decisions. Leading comes from within so it’s up to you to set your own agenda for how you want to work and live.


Lorrissa Horton is the SVP and general manager of Webex Calling and Contact Center.


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