Corner Office: Lisa Su on the Art of Setting Ambitious Goals

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Corner Office


This interview with Lisa Su, chief executive of AMD, a semiconductor company, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Q. What were your early years like?

A. I was born in Taiwan and came to the United States when I was 2. Like many Asian parents, mine were very focused on education.

My dad would quiz me with multiplication tables when I was about 5. I did a lot of engineering things, like taking apart my brother’s model car when I was 10. I also played the piano for about 10 years. I auditioned for Juilliard but didn’t get in.

Tell me more about your parents.

My dad was a mathematician, and worked for New York City as a statistician. My mom was an accountant, and eventually started her own business in her mid-40s. She linked manufacturers in Taiwan to companies in the United States that needed those types of products. She’s still running her business today.

They were very focused on making sure that my brother and I always achieved at a high level. There were expectations that you should get all A’s, that you should go to the best schools and that you should get a Ph.D. They weren’t questions like, “Do you want to?” They said, “You should do those things.”

And you were O.K. with that?

At the time, I wasn’t rebellious. I just thought, “Wow, that’s a lot to do.” In hindsight, it really helped shape who I am, in terms of always believing that there’s more that you can achieve if you just put your mind to it.

And you ultimately did get your Ph.D.

I did. But after that, there are two paths you can go. You can either become a professor, or you can go into industry and build products. It became clear to me that I really liked to build products. I wasn’t a theoretical kind of person. I was more practical.

What was your first management role?

I was the lead engineer on a project for one of IBM’s next-generation microprocessors, and became a manager a few years later. I always found the specifics of directing a project relatively straightforward.

The softer part of management was always more of a learning process. Early in my management career, my boss pulled me over and said, “Lisa, do you talk to your people?” And I said, “Yes, I talk to my people.”

And he said, “Well, but how often?” “All the time,” I said. Then he asked me, “But do you ever ask them how do they feel?” And I said, “Am I supposed to ask that?”

I was treating people the way I expected to be treated, and I don’t expect anybody to ask me how I feel. I just expect to talk about the work. So he said, “Lisa, you have to know that to get the best out of your people, different people need to be managed differently.”

That was a revelation to me. I say this now to my team: “Our jobs as leaders are to get 120 percent out of our teams. We’re supposed to make the team better than they thought they could possibly be.” The way to do that is to treat everyone as an individual, in terms of what they need to be successful and how they need to be coached.

How would you describe your leadership style today?

I like to set very high standards and expectations. What’s inspiring to me is working on something that is really, really hard, or really, really important, and then working with the team to figure out how to reach that goal.

There’s an art to doing that, because sometimes those stretch goals can seem unachievable and they can make a team less motivated.

That’s where the intuition comes in. I can’t say I’m an engineer anymore, but I started as an engineer, and so I have enough intuition about just where to set those goals.

And if I use my analogy of we’re trying to get 120 percent out of the team, I think you can use that in just about any situation. If the team thinks they can do something, then they can probably do 20 percent more.

The art is showing them that it’s possible and being somewhat understanding if we fall a little bit short. Even if you fall a little bit short, you did much more than you thought you could. That’s the balance.

How do you hire?

There are a lot of really smart people, so beyond their qualifications, I look for hunger and passion. I’ll ask: “Why are you here? Why do you want this job?” I want to understand the challenges they’ve taken on, and the risks they’ve taken in their career.

Do you find people try to put topspin on their answers to those questions in ways that don’t feel authentic?

The more spin you put on your answers, the harder it is to figure out what’s underneath. I tend to look for apolitical people. In our world, technical capability is really important.

And the people who really stand out as leaders are the ones who try to think about their job much more broadly than it’s defined. Those are the most valuable people. In every context, when you think about what truly makes projects successful, it’s the people who can bridge the gaps. Those are the people you really reward.

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

The best piece of advice I got when I was a young engineer was to run toward problems. Many people tend to shy away from problems. To advance in your career, you need to be smart and capable, but you also need to be lucky.

And you can make your luck. The way you do that is to do a great job on something that’s really, really hard. Don’t be afraid to take that risk. Some of my best work was done under an enormous amount of stress, but it brings out the best in you. So I tell people, “Look for those hardest problems and volunteer to help solve them.”