Thear Sy – Senior Executive, Accenture
Traveling Miles to Major Success
By Caroline Cox
Thear Sy knows a thing or two about independence. When her family moved to the U.S. from Cambodia in 1981 after the country’s devastating civil war, she was thrust into an unfamiliar school environment at the age of eight while her parents, who didn’t speak English, worked minimum wage jobs to support her and her four siblings.
But there’s no doubt her adolescent hardships were instrumental in making her the successful leader she is today. As a senior executive at global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company Accenture, she leads the company’s Custom Software Delivery practice and has worked with clients like FedEx, Kaiser Permanente and VISA.
She manages a practice of more than 500 and broke all kinds of stereotypes about women leaders when she temporarily relocated her family across the U.S. for a nine-month project opportunity. She serves on the advisory board of the Dallas chapter of Back on My Feet and works with the Asian American IQ Executive Circle to advocate for the advancement of Asian American leadership.
Here, she talks to PINK about growing up as a war refugee, getting comfortable with power and why she’s the nicest person she knows.
PINK: Tell me about coming to the U.S. as a war refugee.
Thear Sy: I was born in Cambodia. My family lived through the Cambodian Civil War, which took place from 1975 to 1979. Millions died in our country from executions, diseases and starvation. After the war, my family spent about two years in various refugee camps. I came to America with my family in 1981 at age eight – a church in Dallas sponsored us. I grew up with my basic needs being met, but not much else. I was basically given a crash course on being independent. I essentially had to do everything myself other than putting a roof over my head and food on the table. Throughout school I signed my own report cards and field trip forms because my parents didn’t speak English.
PINK: What did your parents do once your family got to the U.S.?
TS: My father’s first and last job was being a janitor at an elementary school. He was a janitor for 25 years. My mother worked two jobs. Her first job was cleaning hotels and her second was in a cafeteria. She was injured on the job and became disabled after working for several years. My parents, who made minimum wage throughout their entire career, raised five kids. I give all the credit to my parents, their perseverance and everything that they’ve done to give us better lives.
PINK: What did that teach you?
TS:I learned to appreciate what I have and not to focus on the things I don’t have. I also learned I was capable of taking care of myself and making good decisions at a young age. I also wanted to be optimistic and give back because, through my younger years and through college, I’ve had lots of help along the way. Many individuals and organizations assisted me, so giving back is instilled in me and important now that I have the means to do it.
PINK: What’s your success secret?
TS: Optimism, flexibility and a willingness to try new things with an open mind. If we operate with those three things in all we do, we can be successful. When I was expecting my first child [Zachary, now 9], I was certain I needed to quit my job at Accenture because it required me to travel. When it came to decision time, my husband and I decided to do our best to continue with our careers and try to make it work. We knew we could make a different choice if and when needed. I’ve been with Accenture for 15 years now and, after having three more sons [Ryden, 8, Mason, 4 and Alex, 1], we’ve found multiple ways to make it work.
PINK: What do more women need to learn to be successful at work?
TS: Women must build relationships that will result in sponsorships. By sponsors, I mean people who will advocate for you and get you into key roles that will help you become more visible. There are plenty of high-performing women who have great mentors. The challenge is building the kind of relationships to get the right sponsorships, which are needed for advancement. The advice that I give to other women is to build those relationships and take leadership training to round out your skills.
PINK: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
TS: Working hard and producing good outcomes can only get us so far. To get the recognition and the rewards for what we do, we need influential decision makers to know who we are and what impact we’re having on the organization. Whether it’s in a small or large group setting, we should actively contribute by making a comment, asking a question or even signing up to take on a leadership responsibility.
PINK: What’s your leadership style?
TS: I have a collaborative leadership style. I seek active participation in all my team members. I truly believe people will support that which they have had a hand in creating. A leader who has a collaborative leadership style can be more influential as opposed to someone with a ‘command and control’ style. Within the practice and teams I lead, I create leadership roles to provide my employees opportunities to contribute. I also help make them visible to the executive team – I do that by encouraging them to actively participate and reminding them how important it is.
PINK: What’s your biggest weakness as a leader?
TS: : I sometimes struggle with claiming power and competition. It’s uncomfortable for me. I want to be collaborative and work with everyone. I want everyone to win, and that’s not always possible. When there’s tension around competition, that’s uncomfortable for me. I do realize that having, claiming and owning power is about being able to get things done, and it’s a good thing when used responsibly.
PINK: What’s the biggest career obstacle you’ve faced?
TS: Self-confidence. I choose everyday whether or not I’m going to raise my hand for something and whether I’m going to take certain risks. I think having the courage to take risks – to take on jobs and positions that maybe I don’t have a lot of experience in – requires confidence that you can do it. I try to overcome this by participating in leadership training and having conversations with different people about my situation and getting their take on it. What I often find is that I am much more capable than what I give myself credit for.
PINK: What’s the craziest thing you’ve done for your career?
TS:Temporarily relocating my family to California for about nine months. I’ve always been based out of Accenture’s Dallas office. After my second son, I made a choice to not travel for work while they were young. Then, I was provided with an opportunity to be in charge of a pretty large effort for a very important client. In talking with my partner I was working with at the time, he asked if I would relocate the family for the duration of the project. They felt I was the right person for the job. My husband [Eric Suzuki] and I didn’t know what we were going do with our home in Plano. We decided to stick with the theme of continuing to try new experiences until we couldn’t make it work anymore.
PINK: How did you make it work?
TS: It was a great experience. I worked hard, but I got to see my kids every night. We had my mother in-law with us, who helped with the kids while we were at work. We got to experience a different city. And this project set me up well for a promotion to the next level. The project was successful. Then we moved back to Dallas and continued on with our lives. In life and in your career, it’s difficult to plan everything and have things happen according to your plan. You have to be flexible and open-minded, particularly if you are interested in advancing in your career.
PINK: How do you manage the Work/Life balance?
TS: I strive for effective Work/Life integration. Balance is hard to achieve and when you do achieve it, it’s temporary. To me, Work/Life integration means you bring your whole self to work and your whole self to your family and personal life. You blend the two in order to have meaningful experiences with both. Your personal life doesn’t stop because you have work, and your work doesn’t stop just because something is going on at home. My strategy includes outsourcing household chores. I put my family time on my calendar and make sure I commit to them. And then I tell myself I’m OK with the choices that I make every day and I don’t try to do things perfectly.
PINK: Do you have a favorite book?
TS: A recent book I read is Powering Up: How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders. The author Anne Doyle talks about where women have been in the working world and what we need to do to power up into leadership. I like it because it’s a call to action and it talks about the importance of women supporting women.
PINK: What’s one fact about you many people may not know?
TS: When I came to America, I started school in the third grade. During the first two years of my schooling I was embarrassed because I was in ESL [English as a Second Language]. I don’t think a lot of people know about that. I realized later that the important thing is to do my best and that each experience is an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade.
PINK: What’s one goal you still want to achieve?
TS: My ultimate personal goal is to make a significant impact in other people’s lives through leadership and nonprofit work. Currently I’m serving on the advisory board of a nonprofit called Back on My Feet, which Accenture supports through our Skills to Succeed corporate citizenship focus. Back on My Feet promotes the self-sufficiency of people experiencing homelessness by engaging them in running [to help] build confidence, strength and self-esteem. They have chapters in five cities and will launch in NYC this April. We launched the Dallas chapter in February 2011.
PINK: Do you have a favorite quote?
TS: I tell people I meet that I’m the nicest person I know. It takes people a while to catch on and then they’re like, “Oh wait, you’re the nicest person you know?” It’s an easy way for me to break the ice with people. I use that quite often to get laughter from people and to make them feel comfortable to approach and talk to me. Sometimes when you’re in a top leadership position, people are hesitant or afraid to take too much time from you.
PINK: What does success mean to you?
TS: I’ve been asked that before, and it has changed over the years. I think success is finding your purpose in life. It’s not necessarily making the big money. It’s not necessarily having the top job. It’s finding what your purpose is in life – happiness is the bi-product of finding that purpose. If we spend the majority of our time doing what we love, that’s success.
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