Influential Voices: Christiana Shi

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Influential Voices: Christiana Shi

Nike executive reflects on taking risks

by Alison Perlberg on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 - 2:50pm

The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research is committed to empowering women’s voices and leadership on the Stanford campus and beyond.  To promote this goal, the Clayman Institute is publishing profiles of our Advisory Council, women and men who have volunteered their time and energy to creating greater gender equality.  Over the course of the year, student writers will interview council members-- representing many communities, including financial, legal, non-profit, and entrepreneurial. We hope these profiles will inspire, as well as begin a dialogue with our readers about what it takes to exercise voice and influence in the areas that matter to you.  We will ask each of the council members to share their histories, paths to success, and career advice. 

Christiana ShiTaking risks

Christiana Shi didn’t get to where she is today by playing it safe. As Chief Operating Officer of Global Direct to Consumer (DTC) at NIKE, Inc., Christiana oversees DTC’s Global Store Operations, Real Estate, Finance, Supply Chain Operations, and Information Technology. When asked what proved most helpful in arriving at her current position, she replied, “I asked for what I needed. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

Christiana took a number of risks throughout her career. As a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, Christiana built a deep expertise, established a supportive network, published numerous articles, and became well-respected among her clients. But after returning from maternity leave, Christiana almost quit her job: “I didn’t get to the point of quitting casually. It just wasn’t working. I wasn’t spending enough time with my son, and I was exhausted.” Her boss stopped her by asking, “what would it take to make you stay?” This question revolutionized Christiana’s approach to her career.

When flexible schedules were barely beginning to emerge into public consciousness, Christiana asked to work a 40-hour four-day workweek. “I was sure the firm would say no,” she explained. But with the support of her mentors, she was able to create this non-traditional schedule. “You can’t even imagine how many people told me that was just career suicide, completely.” She expected the firm would only allow such an unusual schedule for a few months. But Christiana worked this schedule for nine years, and she was the first woman with a non-traditional schedule to be elected to Partner and then Director (Senior Partner). Soon others followed in her footsteps; now more than 30 men and women have been elected partner on flexible or part-time schedules. By taking a chance, Christiana was able to achieve greater balance in her own life while paving the path for others.

Transforming challenges into successes

When asked about other risks she’s taken—besides working a compressed work week—Christiana enumerated many examples: helping to build a new retail practice on the west coast where none previously existed, moving to LA, and going “off-track” by renouncing her Director title and taking on a more “administrative” role. “I decided as my son went into high school, I wanted to be around. I didn’t want to travel.”

“So I went ‘off track’ and agreed to be a Principal again, which I hadn’t been for five years.” Her colleagues were concerned about the potential dangers to her career: “if I wasn’t doing client service in a client-serving firm, then was I going to be invisible?” However, this role created new opportunities for Christiana. “It was the first time in my career that I had more of an operational role…so when I actually ended up talking to Nike last year, they were as interested in those three or four years of operational experience as the 20 other years I spent serving clients.  Who would have guessed?” Instead of damaging her career, Christiana’s “administrative” role introduced her to new skills and opportunities that positioned her to take on the retail COO role at Nike.

I asked Christiana how she was able to leverage her “off-track” experiences to make herself more marketable. “You have to play the game you can win,” she replied. “I tackled each thing as an experience and an opportunity to learn. Every time you’re good at something, you create options. What options are you creating for yourself?”

Christiana Shi and familyAdvice

Christiana advises those just beginning their careers to “take a leap of faith.” “You have to have a no-fear attitude. Compassionate, but no-fear. You can’t be afraid of downsides. I think people overestimate career risks. People stay in unhappy situations at work too long and are afraid to ask for the change that they need.”

She admits she never could have achieved what she did without the help of her mentors. When asked how to cultivate a solid mentoring relationship, Christiana gave simple advice: listen to your mentors. “If somebody’s mentoring you, part of the compact is, you have to take their advice sometimes. They have to see that their advice is paying off. It’s a give-get kind of relationship. If you’re going to be a good mentee, you can’t always say ‘thanks for the advice, but I’m going to do my own thing.’”

If you do decide not to listen to a mentor, Christiana advises explaining your reasoning. Make sure your mentor knows why you are choosing to go another direction, and demonstrate how his or her advice helped you reach your decision.

Thus relationship-building and networking are key skills Christiana used throughout her career. “Becoming a Senior Partner in a management consulting firm is about really being able to serve clients well. Having terrific interpersonal skills—and I actually think women have an advantage in that way, because I believe we’re more attuned to gaining relationships, building them, deepening them, and being interested in people as people.” Christiana also believes the best consultants ask thoughtful questions. “If you’re a good listener, that’s going to help you be better at asking thoughtful questions.”

The value of a Stanford education

According to Christiana, her Stanford undergraduate education played an instrumental role in preparing her for her future endeavors and helping her build such skills. “I think Stanford is a very relationship-focused place. You’re used to working in a team, the way the curriculum is developed. You have organizations and clubs that teach you how to build a network.” As a student, Christiana also took advantage of the opportunities offered by the world-class companies that interview on campus. “Employers come there. I don’t think I ever would have gotten a job at Merrill Lynch in New York all the way from Palo Alto if Merrill wasn’t willing to interview at Stanford. It changed my option set, and it changed my expectations of what level I should be aiming at. It re-set my own expectations of myself.”

The Clayman Institute would like to thank Christiana Shi for her time, energy, and smart advice.  We hope that she has inspired you as much as she has inspired us!

We’d like to hear from our readers – what did you hear that inspired you? Do you have further questions we can address in this series? What else would you like to know?

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Alison Perlberg is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology. She is part of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team covering gender topics at Stanford.