Victoria Pao

From Pianist to President of Platts

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Key takeaway: Take initiative. By seeking out what’s needed for the company to succeed, you can create your own position

Top 5% in the world at: Building and leading teams

Right after graduating from Harvard, Victoria learned an early lesson: just because you get the pink slip, doesn’t mean you lose your value. Throughout her career, Victoria rose the ranks at record speed by consistently taking the initiative, landing her the spot as one of the youngest Presidents at her publicly traded company. She is perhaps best known for her time as President of S&P Global Platts, a former division of McGraw-Hill that provides data on the energy industry. She shares her career journey with us, starting with her days as a student studying piano at The Juilliard School.

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How She Did it

I was born in Houston, TX, and then moved to NYC when I was 7 up until 18. I grew up as an Asian-American and learned how to navigate the eastern and western cultures. Growing up, my interests were very much in music. I went to Juilliard for Pre-College. I was a classically trained pianist; I was also very into science. That was my identity growing up as a teenager — music and science.

I think we all know what we’re good at and what comes naturally to us; for me, that was music. But at the point when I had to make a decision, I didn't believe I had the same passion as others who were committed to spending 5 hours practicing their music on a daily basis. I wanted to keep my options open until I knew myself a bit better.

How did you pick your major?
So I ended up double majoring in East Asian Studies and Economics. I took a class my freshman year on Chinese history, which got me interested in learning more about the history and culture of my heritage. Economics, on the other hand, gave me a good foundation. No matter where you end up in your career, having a broad understanding of the economy is always a good thing.

Summer internship: My very first summer job was as a Microfiche Operator for a large reinsurance company on Wall Street. After a few weeks of copying files, the head of HR asked if I was interested in trying something different. Of course I said yes, and after that I ended up in the newly formed Actuarial Department. Even though I wasn’t a math major, I decided to take the offer. I did exceptionally well there and got hired back for the following summer.

Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do after college?
Not at all, which made me feel really nervous! I was thinking about international relations or international trade - something that would allow me to pursue opportunities and jobs that involved Asian companies in some way. Retail made sense because, at the time, all of the trading, textiles, and manufacturing was located in Asia. I was also attracted to retail because it provided a solid foundation on how to run a business.

I completed a 4 week training session and then basically jumped right in as a sales manager in the Roosevelt Field Department store. With no prior management or retail experience, I ran a staff of about 20 people ranging from a 70 year old grandma to high school teenagers working part-time shifts.

What did you learn as a manager?
As manager I was always striving for efficiency — finding the best approach, doing it, and then moving on. I think being a manager at such a young age really forced me to be empathetic and understand people with different backgrounds and different cultural expectations.

It was a pretty difficult program. The pay is low, customers are yelling at you, the boss is yelling at you. At the start of it, there were 40 management trainees. After a year, we were down to 10. The promotion path they had was sales manager, assistant buyer, a group manager, and then a full buyer. I was determined to get higher up, so I stayed at Macy’s for 5 years. There’s no set time frame for when you get promoted. For some, it took 10 years. A lot dropped out. For me, I got promoted 4 times in 5 years and became Macy’s youngest buyer.

Why did you leave after 5 years?
Macy's went through a lot of consolidation and bankruptcy. In their merger with a competitor, they basically laid off half the jobs and used tenure as a key criteria. I was the youngest newest buyer, so I got the pink slip. I was so devastated. Oh my God, I did everything right and was even the only one to get promoted!

That experience taught me a big lesson: just because you get the pink slip, doesn't mean you lose your value. I quickly realized that thing will happen in your career that may be unfair, but it’s not a reflection of you. Looking back, that was probably the best thing that could have happened to me because it gave me time for reflection. I thought to myself, “What should be my next step? Do I go back to school and change industries, or do I find another job?”

Why business school?
Going to business school was always in the back of my mind, and now that I had 5 years of professional experience, I thought this may be the perfect time. I didn’t want to wait another 5 years.

Business school felt very different from undergrad because I was at a different stage in my life. I came in with a lot of experience in business, so it was interesting to then sit in a marketing class and learn about the academic framework around it. I was also able to reflect on my retail experience and think, “oh, this is why I did that” and “oh, could I have done that differently or a bit better?” I definitely think having that solid experience before going back to school was a real plus because I had a lot to draw upon.

Why McGraw-Hill?
I tried consulting recruiting for a month and realized it wasn’t for me. I discovered that I really liked commitment, meaning I really wanted to see myself making a difference for just one company. Intellectually, consulting seemed right, but in terms of making an impact, it just didn’t seem like I would be fulfilled.

McGraw-Hill offered a training program that gave me exposure to different business units. They only hired 4 associates from top business schools. My first position after training was similar to being an internal consultant. I did a lot of projects for the President, but he never called me a consultant and I never called myself a consultant. But essentially, that’s what I ended up working on.

How did you become the VP of Marketing and Business Development?
People often wait for their next job to be well-defined with a nice title in a nice package. I instead essentially created my own job by working on a project alongside the President to revive the construction business unit. By working closely with the President, he was able to see how I interacted with his senior team. I didn’t come in acting like I had all the answers, but instead, worked to understand the main challenges of the business. Sitting in on all the business reviews, I could see where all the gaps and holes were. I was then selected as the talent they needed to execute our proposal.

How did you become President of S+P Global Platts?
This was where my internal relationships and demonstrated work came into play. The Executive Program gave me a lot of exposure to Senior Executives, including the CEO and Chairman, and I used the opportunity to build strong relationships with many of them. I had already demonstrated my success in growing the business, so when the position opened, these mentors encouraged me to go for the job. It’s important to have relationships with different executives throughout your tenure and add value to your conversations and meetings.

I was one of the youngest Presidents at McGraw-Hill, the former parent company of S&P Global Platts. My kids then were 4 and 6. My husband’s schedule was a lot more flexible than mine; I was traveling internationally all the time. There came a point when my husband was getting recruited to Vanderbilt, so we came to visit Nashville and I thought I could see myself taking time off from the corporate world. At this point, my kids were 8 and 10, and I wanted to spend time with them before they left for college.

Why angel investing?
I thought, well, I want to spend time with the kids but what else can I do in my free time? So I got involved with the startup community, which goes back to my original love of running my own business. Now I advise startup CEOs on their strategy and business plan.

Advice for your career launch

Take initiative
Don’t wait for the boss to say, “Okay, here are the 5 things you need to do.” Instead, proactively seek out what you can do to make an impact on the company or its clients. By taking initiative, you can also create opportunities to structure your own positions. A lot of times, the best jobs are not advertised or even well defined.

Don’t take rejection personally
Corporate layoffs, changes, mergers, and acquisitions — everything’s happening even faster than before. If you do get a pink slip, don’t take it personally. The business is going through cycles. Keep moving forward. Look at it as a blessing in disguise and a chance to explore new opportunities.

Provide a fresh perspective 
To add value to mentor-mentee relationships, think about how your knowledge and ideas can bring value to your conversations. People assume that whoever is at the top knows everything. No, they know what their people tell them. For example, in our fast-moving digital economy, it’s vital to keep up with how new technologies impact the industry and how they can enhance your business model. Millennials, as digital natives, can help executives by giving perspective on the new technology trends.

Help others
Getting promoted also has to do with helping out your colleagues. If you’re on a project team, how the people on your team perceive you and how you help them go a long way. Often, when you’re being considered for a promotion, your reputation precedes you.

It’s ok to take it slow 
Don’t panic if you don’t have absolutely everything figured out. Just take one step at a time, be fully present, show up to opportunities, and meet lots of people. Through the course of doing all that, you’ll figure out different paths and opportunities. Things will present themselves.

Be confident as a woman
It wasn’t until I moved to McGraw-Hill that I was often the only woman in the room. I think part of it is to, ironically, not think of yourself as a woman. Don’t let thinking about being a woman act as a barrier, but rather, do the best job you can from a professional standpoint. Have confidence and know that you have a lot to contribute.