Coke’s Brand New Chief People Officer, Lisa Chang, Speaks Candidly About Knock-downs, Life Lessons and Making Your Voice Heard as a Powerful Woman in Leadership.

When you talk to Lisa Chang today, what you hear is the poised and confident Chief People Office of The Coca-Cola Company. But, it wasn’t always that way.

Earlier in her impressive career, she went into a meeting with her CEO and was stopped in her tracks. He said. “You know I’m a little disappointed that I’m not hearing your voice in the room. You were put at this level because it seemed like you had all the makings of a great contributor to the team. But when we go around the room and everyone is giving their opinions, you don’t seem to be speaking up. I’m not sure if you have nothing to say, or if you’re afraid to say it.”

The rebuke hurt. But Chang took up the gauntlet and met the challenge. She has had much success as a human resources professional.

Among her many accomplishments, she’s worked for The Weather Channel, Turner Broadcasting, Equifax, and the A&B group (Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United).

I wanted to talk to Lisa to get her take on how women in business can be more effective communicators. I met Lisa at Coca-Cola headquarters. She gave me some honest insights into life at the top of her game.

Women I’ve spoken to often talk about having problems making their voices heard in the workplace. Some feel they’ve been conditioned not to speak up. Does that reflect your experience?

I’ve had exactly those experiences. I think a lot of it has to do with the conditioning of girls. In my case, I was a middle child. I was a people pleaser, a rule follower, speak when spoken to… etc. While those are really great attributes to have as a compliant child, they don’t translate particularly well when you get into the corporate world and into the boardroom. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve had several inflection points. I’ve really had to take stock of why am I not being heard and reckon with things that I may have done to constrain or hold myself back, versus some of the things the organization could have done to support me better.

What do you see women struggling with? Is it presentations, is it one-on-one meetings?

I see a couple of things happening. One is around perfectionism and pleasing and just wanting to say all the “right things.” There’s a hesitation to speak up, for fear their ideas may not be supported, or they would be frowned upon. The other thing I see holding women back is their fear of lack of support. They don’t seem to have as many supporters in the organization. Let’s just be frank, when you’re in a senior level meeting, you may, if you’re lucky, have one or two women in the meeting. The comfort of speaking up when you’re the minority and the rest are men is sometimes tough. It gets scary at times and if you don’t have that confidence, it’s just safer not to say anything.

Where did you get your confidence from?

A couple of knock-downs along the way. I was promoted to a leadership position and when I had my first performance review with the CEO, he told me, “You know I’m a little disappointed that I’m not hearing your voice in the room. You were put at this level because it seemed like you had all the makings of a great contributor to the team. But when we go around the room and everyone is giving their opinions, you don’t seem to be speaking up. I’m not sure if you have nothing to say, or if you’re afraid to say it.”

I’m not going to lie. It hurt. To have someone say, “I’m disappointed you’re not doing what I thought you could do.” But he did me a favor. I’m very fortunate I had a CEO who was willing to say that to me. I had to take stock, and I realized I was being deferential. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say.

He also said, “On the occasions that you do speak, your voice has meaning and value and you bring up really critically interesting points. I encourage you to do more.” It was the kick that I needed to say to myself: “Hey, if I’m going to play at this level, I’m going to have to overcome some of that.” I realized I couldn’t continue to sit back. I’m in a position of leadership where the expectation is that I will speak up.

Research shows, even among Supreme Court justices, women are interrupted more often by men. Do you see that?

Again, to be balanced, there are some men who feel it’s okay to interrupt and they’re more inclined to interrupt the quieter voice. Do I think that men are just naturally a little more assertive in their approach? Yes. Men are just generally bolder with their communication style. They’re less tentative in tenor and voice, so you’re less inclined to jump in and question them. Women famously add caveats: “Well, I know this may not be a relevant point but…” “I’m sorry but…” Those tentative remarks open up opportunities for someone to just jump in. Instead, being factual, deliberate and confident in your response doesn’t leave a door open for challenge.

You give presentations before large groups. Do you get nervous and how does it manifest?

Absolutely. Like a lot of people, I talk fast. You want to get through it as fast as you can. Sometimes I’ll ramble. I’m not as articulate about my points. I’m going to say it a couple of times until I beat them over the head with it. Also, as I’ve progressed in my career, I actually get more nervous speaking in front of other women than I do speaking in front of men. I think it’s because I feel an enormous amount of responsibility to make a good impression on women, because I recognize I’m in a position of authority. I want to be a role model, right? Then the whole imposter syndrome and self-talk takes over again. “Oh my gosh, maybe they’ll find out that I’m actually just a normal person. And I don’t have the superpowers that everybody thinks I have.” The human mind is a crazy thing. It will sabotage you every time. As women, we constantly have that voice in our head that just doubts and questions. You have to have the ability to quell that in order to overcome it.

Have you learned to “fake it till you make it?”

Success takes work. Presentations are a perfect example. People say “you’re so lucky because you’re comfortable speaking in front of crowds.” That did not happen overnight, it takes years of practice. With preparation, you can tell yourself, “You got this, you know the content.” If the words don’t come out exactly the way you scripted it, that’s okay. You should walk in with, “What do I want them to hear?” And if they ask you questions, be able to answer the questions. That’s more credible than worrying that you forgot to say this word or skipped this sentence.

I’ve coached some fabulous women on Coke’s wonderful, global women’s leadership program. Tell us more about how that?

We have several initiatives. We have publicly made a commitment that our aspiration is to be 50% led by women. That is something that our CEO James Quincy and our executive leadership team have agreed and signed on to. Women make up 50% of the workforce, but certainly not at the senior leadership levels. Programs like that are designed to prepare women at that mid director level for the next level of leadership. The focus is on self -awareness as a leader, building confidence, communication skills like presentations and all the requisite skills they’re going to need to play at that level.

At Speechworks, we’ve had great success with a new Women’s Executive Communication Workshop that tackles specific communication challenges for women. What is your ultimate advice to upcoming women leaders to make their voices heard?

I think it goes back to being the authentic self. There are so many different communication styles. You can take a class on how to deliver a TED talk. There’s a certain methodology, a certain phraseology. But if that’s not how you normally speak, it’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to struggle with it. The most important thing is to learn the tools of the trade of how to be an effective communicator. Putting together the framework of what you’re trying to say, and how, as well as storytelling and examples.

Find your authentic voice. Don’t try to copy somebody else or mimic their style, because it’s very transparent to people that’s not who you are. Sometimes when you’re more junior in the organization, you look up at leaders and think, I have to walk like them, I have to talk like them, I have to dress like them. The message is no, the only person you have to walk and talk and message like is yourself. A training program can help provide the toolkit for effective communication and give you feedback on how can you amplify your natural talents.

Julie Lindsay

Julie LindsayJulie Lindsay draws on a long career in television news to help clients speak in a way that is simple and persuasive. She began her journalism career with the BBC in London, reporting on everything from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, to war zones and revolutions. Next, came a move to the U.S. as anchor and editor on CNN International.

She also served as Chief Managing Editor with WebMD in the U.K. and then programming editor of Global Health Frontline News, making documentaries about kids fighting curable diseases around the world.