I was born into a very large Vietnamese family in Saigon – 10 children squeezed into a three-room home. We didn’t have much – some of us slept on straw mats and meals were often sparse. Nonetheless, my father and mother were able to provide for us, and we all were given the chance to go to school. We were happy.
In 1975, my world changed. The South Vietnamese had fallen to the North, so at nine years old I was evacuated as part of the American “Operation New Life”. I vividly remember camping out at night on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhat airport, along with a large group of people waiting for the flight to the United States. Soon dawn was upon us and the shadow of a giant four-propeller military aircraft rolled toward us. I recall people started to run toward the plane with whatever belongings they could carry. When the belly of the plane opened, somehow, we were all crammed in and each person took whatever space we could on the cold, checker plate aluminum floor. Soon we were airborne heading for America. My parents decided to stay in Vietnam because it was their homeland. They selected five children to go with the hopes of providing us with new opportunities and a better life. We were led by my eldest sister (Mai Hoa) who was only 25 years old at the time. I was the youngest. The five of us were part of the 130,000 Vietnamese evacuated during the operation and we were off to a new country, new culture, and new way of life.
We ended up at Camp Pendleton, a US Marine Corps Base located near San Diego, California. For four months, our days as children were filled with exploring the dry brush hillside chasing rattlesnakes under the hot sun while at night huddling as a family to sleep while fighting off the bitter cold of the region. We ate what the soldiers ate, and on occasions were treated to an outdoor community movie on the dry grass field. I recall on one evening, some of us kids were hanging out near a Coca-Cola vending machine without really knowing what it does. Two Marines walked up to the machine and placed coins into it and like magic, bottles of soft drink appeared. One of the soldiers waved for me and as my friends and I approached him, he gave us each a coin. Moments later we were enjoying our first bottle of Coke and thus a first introduction toward experiencing a part of the American culture.
As the weeks and months go by, for many people living in the tent camp this was not the life that they had expected. For most Vietnamese, America’s reputation of “land of opportunities” had only heightened their expectations, yet only to be met with the harsh realization that this “New Life” journey will not be easy. As for me, there was an internal sense of optimism. My courage and hope were because our family was still together and that everyday I saw examples of kindness displayed by the US soldiers. Through my eyes, they had represented the finer aspects of America.
Despite pressure to split up, my sister insisted on keeping us together, even if it made it difficult to find a sponsoring family. This was a promise that she had made to our dad. After waiting months, a family in Washington State with five children of their own took us in. We were so grateful for the chance to move off the isolated camp and into a real community and a real house. Most important was that all five of us were still together. After about six months living with our sponsors, John, Susie, and their loving children, my sister was able to gain employment and we soon had our own home, a modest two-bedroom loft on the second floor of a house in Tacoma, Washington. This was our first step toward the American Dream.
After the war, the United States had withdrawn from Vietnam and there was little to no communication between the two countries. This meant that we had no way of connecting with our parents during this time. In fact, we couldn’t even send them letters until about 10 years later. While not knowing what had happened to our family who stayed behind in Vietnam was gut-wrenching enough, reflecting back as a father, I can’t fathom what our parents must have gone through not knowing whether if their five children were dead or alive for more than a decade.
Finding my way in America
I soon began third grade, but with zero English proficiency, I didn’t really understand much of what was being taught, except for math. Other students of similar circumstance and I were soon enrolled in an ESL (English as a Second Language) program. Our teacher Ms. Thomas was an incredibly patient, kind and caring African American lady who often treated us with candy for simply pronouncing her name correctly. I was thankful that she accepted my Vietnamese name (Mai Phuc) without requiring me to anglicize it or her pronouncing it like profanity. It was because of her that I was able to learn proper English. I ended up excelling in math, science, and sports throughout middle and high school, eventually playing varsity tennis, basketball, and dabbling in American football.
Weight training was an essential part of my sports regiment, but I enjoyed it so much that it soon became my passion. Because of my age, size, and symmetry, I was able to enter both the teen and men’s open categories at my first bodybuilding competition in 1984 – a state championship. I ended up winning both competitions in my first outing.
Next thing I know I was sponsored by Gold’s Gym and competing for Mr. Teen USA at West Palm Beach, Florida. It was an incredible experience seeing the world-class athletes on stage together. And despite my inexperience, I had earned second place. Following this competition, I was offered multiple sponsorship deals including a movie role, which I eventually declined as I was loyal to my first sponsor – Gold’s and to my coach. I guess you can say that loyalty was part of my DNA. We remained committed to each other for the next 8 competitions with a great track record.
While all this was taking place, I learned that I was accepted into the mechanical engineering program at Washington State University. Recalling my commitment to my father, I decided to pursue a formal education. It was the first time out on my own, and it was difficult. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I relied on loans and financial aid for school and living expenses. I worked as a part-time fitness instructor to make ends meet. My determination to gain an education and constancy of purpose was what kept me going.
I pursued engineering for my Dad, who had always wanted us to become engineers, but I didn’t love it. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and was offered a job at the Boeing Company to work on wiring systems, but I did not accept it. It was a great opportunity with a great company; however, even back then, at the age of 23, I realize that if my heart was not into something, and without passion, it would have been very difficult for me to succeed.
Putting my head down and earning my stripes
My professional life instead began with United Technologies – Otis Elevator Company in technical sales. Otis was a world-class brand and I chose it for the 6-month training program and the opportunity to regularly interact with customers.
For 15 years in the United States, I kept my head down and focused on doing my job. It was the culture of the company that with good performance, came more opportunities to expand and grow. I was still single then, so moving from place to place was not an issue. In 1998 I had earned an MBA through the company’s scholarship program, after which I was promoted to lead the Silicon Valley branch operation in California. Whether if it is in sales, project management, branch or regional P&L, I went where the company needed me to and remained focused on doing my job and doing it well.
In 2005, I was given an opportunity to move back to Southeast Asia and be responsible for the Malaysian operation for Otis. This was the first time in my career that I was tested as a leader as I was leading a country and that many people looked to me for leadership. It did not take us long to build up a strong team and soon after that, bookings grew with multiple significant project wins. In fact, our performance in two years earned Malaysia the President’s Award for growth.
Two years later, I found myself responsible for 10 countries – the ASEAN region. I really needed to step up, because ASEAN was a complex region with diverse cultures. We had business in each country and some with country leaders who were older and more experienced than me, reporting to me. I had to earn their trust and respect. It was a struggle for the first 12 months or so, but from there the organization aligned and started to grow. Orders, revenue and earnings went up. Customer satisfaction and employee engagement improved while attrition went down. Employees were happy that they had an identity with a winning organization.
In the middle of 2010, Otis transferred me to Hong Kong to run its sizable business there, which also included Taiwan and Macao. Unlike my previous 4 roles, the mission in Hong Kong was not to rebuild, but rather, it was more about accelerating growth and expansion.
Then, in 2013, United Technologies consolidated the commercial businesses which included Otis, Carrier and Chubb Fire and Security brands. I was asked to integrate and run these companies. I realize that in order to drive collaboration and teamwork, I had to align the leadership which started with earning the respect of all the senior leaders involved. This did not take long and we soon realize that we were sitting on significant synergies to grow the business. All we needed to do was to unleash the organization’s potential and create value for customers. We ended up driving top-line growth, while improving profitability by streamlining the organization and removing cost and waste. It was a major challenge for the team, but together we forged a leaner, more disciplined organization well-positioned for further growth. I was fortunate to have worked with some excellent leaders during those years and they were some of the best of my 28-year career with UTC.
However, while the business model worked in Hong Kong and in other spots globally, it didn’t really gain traction as a whole. The companies were eventually unlinked, and I was then asked to move back to Singapore and served as regional president for Otis responsible for South Asia Pacific. I became a member of the global executive committee representing the 20 countries in my region.
A change in professional philosophy – redefining “Success”
Three years after taking on the regional role, I had experienced a shift in my philosophy and mindset. The tipping point was when I woke up one morning in a hotel room and for a lingering moment, I didn’t know where I was. This was the mental strain resulting from travelling on average 3 weeks a month for work and living from hotel room to hotel room. While I had charted what most would consider a successful career with wealth, power, and prestige, I was not truly happy. I realized that with each promotion, with each move, I had really disrupted my family – the lives of those I love most. It was easy for me to transition from office to office within the same company and coming in as the new leader provided leverage; however, each move was increasingly more stressful for my family. The uprooting experience every 2 to 3 years had negatively affected my relationship with my wife and now teenage daughters. Their lives were unfairly disrupted, and they had to make sacrifices with not having a stable home, mid-year school changes, and giving up their circle of friends, simply because I was pursuing my career.
Despite all the business “success”, I felt a real sense of emptiness. It was time for a change, and I felt like I needed to reinvigorate my thinking and redefine what it really meant to be a successful husband, father, brother and simply as a person.
Through some research and discussions with a dear mentor, I discovered Harvard Business School’s AMP (Advanced Management Program) – a course designed for senior executives. I had always been fascinated by higher education and in particular cutting-edge leadership principles. Thus, HBS seemed the obvious next step in my journey. However, to be accepted into Harvard was not easy and in particular the AMP, since it was such an exclusive program with strict qualification requirements that I really wondered whether I would qualify. Thankfully, the admissions board found merit with my history, background, and experience that indeed I was admitted and thus off to Harvard I went.
It was during the Authentic Leadership module of the program that I began to understand my leadership style and how I had become who I was as a leader. It really crystallized for me that my traditional leadership approach of “command and control” was not exactly the most optimal way to get the best out of people, much less inspire them. I was also keenly reminded that without passion and purpose, no matter how hard you try, true and meaningful success will always be elusive. Imagine a Venn diagram of three rings. One is your education, knowledge, experience, and set of skills. Another is wealth, power, prestige, title, and external rewards. The third is authenticity, passion, and purpose. Where they overlap in the center is the Sweet Spot. It was transformative when I realize that the real reason I had felt that sense of emptiness was that along the way I had forgotten and not value enough that third ring: authentic leadership with passion and purpose.
Finding a new home at Siemens
When Siemens reached out to me, I was ready for a change. The recruitment process was excellent. With each conversation with the company leadership, I developed a greater and greater sense of excitement about the company and the role. I ended up in Zurich for meetings with key leaders. During one of those meetings, I was introduced to the Siemens Leadership Compass, which the company was getting ready to roll-out. To my surprise and deep appreciation, many of the principles of the Compass were key areas that I had been working on and learning about during the AMP. The central theme is demonstrating Caring and Respect for everything that we do and for those we serve. This reinforced my optimism and positive sentiment for Siemens as a company.
However, learning from past mistakes of my unilateral decision making, I wanted to have my family involved in this decision. I had a heart to heart conversation with my wife and our daughters. To their credit, they were all very supportive and agreed that this was the right decision to make for our family. Once I graduated from the program, Siemens brought me on board. Here I am, one year later, and it has been fantastic.
There has been a lot of growth, learning and building up trust. I’ve put what I had learned at Harvard to the test, and for the most part, it’s working. I let people know who I am as a person. I share my vulnerabilities as well as my strengths. I am more patient and strive to get to know the team beyond their jobs and titles. I inject encouragement and positivity. I look for the best in people and no longer exert the command and control style that can be so detrimental and demotivating on so many different levels. I look to build teamwork and collaboration and guide the organization to focus on the positive and really experiencing satisfaction when we see results. There is an old saying in bodybuilding “No pain, No gain”. One key difference between leadership and bodybuilding is that with leadership, you can truly gain as a team and as a leader, without exerting pain onto others.
We still have work to do in terms of reshaping some of the leadership mindset of our team – these things take time. Many have embraced the new leadership style though, and some have told me that they’ve never felt so motivated and inspired. It’s a great feeling to see genuine progress.
The culmination of an unconventional journey
Looking back over where I have come from and what I’ve done, it seems that where I am today was almost destiny. The challenges I have faced gifted me grit, determination, and purpose. The experiences that I have had armed me with the tools I needed to not only succeed, but also help others achieve their best. And the knowledge gained has made me a better leader and a genuinely better person. I am grateful for my wife and profoundly proud of our daughters who are pursuing their own endeavors at college. I also feel very fortunate to have such a great team at Siemens. I only wish that my parents were still around to see that the sacrifice that they had made 45 years ago, has really afforded their five children a “New Life”, indeed this is my story.
I’d like to think that I will keep being challenged, keep honing my leadership skills, gaining knowledge and experiences, and continue to make a difference in my role at Siemens.