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I’m a severe introvert who climbed the ranks and became CEO of Ancestry. Here’s how I overcame my fear of being in a highly visible leadership role.

  • Deb Liu became the president and CEO of Ancestry during the pandemic.
  • She hesitated to take the role at first because she is not an extroverted leader.
  • Liu wondered if she could live up to the demands of a role which required so much human interaction.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I’m a natural introvert. As one of the few Asians living in a small-town community in South Carolina, I learned early in my life that my voice was better off not heard.

From the relentless bullying and taunts of my classmates at school, to the strangers coming up to my family on the street and telling us to “go back to where we came from,” I came to believe that invisibility was a gift. 

Through years of practice, I learned how to stay out of the spotlight and not draw attention. I taught myself from a young age to relish my introversion. I wished to disappear, to go unnoticed by those who bolstered their own self-worth by tearing down mine.

I learned to keep my head down, to do the work. This mentality helped me earn a scholarship to college, and I never looked back.

I left home to study engineering at Duke University, and it suited me. Problem sets, papers, and exams solidified my mastery of the topic without requiring me to speak up. I graduated with honors, my introversion intact. 

When I started working at Boston Consulting Group, cracks began to appear in the barrier I had so carefully built between myself and others.

Being a quiet engineering student was one thing, but strategy consulting required a level of connection with the customer that I had a hard time sustaining. While I was a strong associate, I struggled with the “client” part of “client service.”

Socialization was part and parcel of working in consulting, and my attention-averse nature made this incredibly stressful. 

I went on to study at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the cracks turned into fissures.

In business school, speaking up and required class participation were components of the final grade. When I first found this out, I panicked. I needed a way to overcome my introversion or risk performing poorly. 

I decided that the best way to find my voice was to force myself to learn.

I made myself speak, even if it was just to give a meaningless comment, while keeping an ongoing tally in the corner of my notebook. Eventually I worked my way up to making salient points and even participating in debates.

Knowing that my success in business school was on the line required me to learn to put myself out there, even though it wasn’t easy. 

Business school was also a turning point in another sense. I took a class called Organizational Behavior, which focused on how companies worked and how people were promoted and rewarded within them.

I assumed companies were about the work and output, but I learned that companies are actually about people and the interpersonal interactions between them.

Strong work performance was no substitute for learning to function within the ecosystem of a company with its accompanying culture and reward systems.

That was when I realized that what had gotten me to this point would no longer take me where I needed to go.

While keeping to myself had led me to Stanford, I knew my career would’nt thrive without building new skills for the workplace.

On the final exam, there was an essay question asking, “What would you change because of this class?”

I wrote the first sentence with conviction: “I will be an extrovert at work.” 

When I became a product manager at PayPal, I forced myself further out of my shell.

My team was a close-knit group, and I felt comfortable learning to speak up among my peers. 

On a larger scale, however, it was a different story. I remember the dread I felt in the pit of my stomach every time I needed to influence or sell my ideas. Even when I knew I had a strong case, I often hesitated, and it took a tremendous amount of energy to overcome my natural introversion.

Each time I felt myself holding back, I had to make a concerted effort to open up.

Although it felt fraught at the time, looking back, I can see that I owe much of my growth to the fact that PayPal was a safe environment for putting myself out there.

When I joined, there were only about 300 employees in the Mountain View headquarters. I could and did know nearly everyone, and within the dozen or so product managers, we built a close community.

The tight knit and welcoming group made it easy to onboard and also to feel safe sharing my point of view, without the weight of judgement from those around me.

Just after Bethany, my second child, was born in 2009, I joined Facebook, where I faced an even larger challenge.

The social network itself was embedded in the workplace

Influence meant more than just speaking up; it meant constantly posting and sharing your thoughts. In fact, in the early days, it was commonplace to friend request everyone you had just met in a meeting.

Facebook was all about speaking up and you had to push for what you wanted to see built. I remember multiple high-stakes conversations where it felt like everything hung in the balance.

Over the 11 years I was there, many of the things I pitched ended up not being built. I shared my idea for creating a marketplace at Facebook in my interview with Sheryl Sandberg, but it still took me another five years to get the green light, and we were told “no” countless times. Today, Facebook Marketplace has over a billion active monthly users.

As a product leader, I learned to pitch over and over, even when I heard “no” repeatedly.

This is every introvert’s worst nightmare: putting yourself out there only to be shot down.

I had to change the way I framed those experiences, reminding myself that in the end, it was about what got successfully built, not how I felt along the way. The discomfort was momentary, but it led to products that have made a lasting impact on the world.

When the Ancestry CEO position came along, I hesitated at first.

I had this preconception of a CEO as an extrovert, someone who was willing to stand in front of an entire company and deliver broad and inspiring messages. I imagined someone far removed from who I was day-to-day.

I’m not a charismatic leader. I am much better in small groups and one-on-one conversations. I’m a doer, not a speaker, and I worried that I would not be able to step into the role and do it justice. 

I thought long and hard about whether or not to take the role. I loved the company and the mission, but I worried about my ability to inspire the teams and someday perhaps take the company public, which involves an extensive roadshow process.

In the back of my mind, I wondered if I could live up to the demands of a role which required so much human connection and interaction.

I realized, though, that just as I had adapted to each previous phase of my career, this, too, was something I could — and would — learn.

I forced myself to get comfortable speaking to thousands of people live at F8, even though I nearly passed out from nerves before walking on stage. I taught myself to pitch strategies over and over, even knowing that many of them would go nowhere. I learned to connect with people on far-flung teams even when I wasn’t sure I was up to the task.

I accomplished each of these things by treating them not as talents I was born with, but as skills I could and had to obtain.

  • I met with speaking trainers and invested countless hours rehearsing in empty rooms.
  • I forced myself to write pitch decks year after year for products that may never see the light of day.
  • I worked with my career coach to learn to read rooms and speak to people even when it felt like I could not connect well with others.
  • I taught myself to be warm and open, even when it felt fraught.

I was born with few of these natural skills, but gradually adapted until it became second nature.

I’ve been a CEO for five months now and it’s a new challenge, but I’ve chosen not to shy away from it.

In some ways, starting this journey during the pandemic and from the comfort of a four-foot space in my son’s bedroom allowed me to ramp up for it without the physical feeling of dread I sometimes get in crowded rooms.

We are all much more adaptable than we think.

If you had asked me when I started out my career whether I aspired to be CEO, I would have said no, because my natural introversion seemed to be at odds with what I imagined a great CEO to be.

But now I know that I can be an introvert, yet still adopt the skills needed to be successful in this highly visible role.

Rather than being a fixed set of talents that someone needs to be born with, the work of being a leader is something that can be learned and honed over time. 

I may not be the most extroverted leader, but I know that I can be what Ancestry needs as we write the next chapter of the company together.

Deb Liu joined Ancestry in March 2021 as the President and CEO and as a member of the company’s Board of Directors.

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