Lara Lee (What a Chief Culture Officer sounds like)

Lara Lee was until recently a principal associate of Jump Associates and less recently the VP of Enthusiast Services at Harley-Davidson.  

I first heard her speak at MIT in 2009, and was impressed with her intelligence and clarity.  I thought, “This may be what a Chief Culture Officer sounds like."  

I interviewed her in San Francisco on January 21, 2010.  All the quotes below are from this interview.

Here I am, this young, Caucasian woman from the East Coast, suddenly in Singapore trying to speak to you in Mandarin and help you fix your business problems. And you are the owner of a fish processing company who buys from Indonesia and sells your finished product to California.

This is Lara Lee.  Miles from home.  Twenty-three years old.  Trying to get the job done.

Lee may be out of her depth but she has an advantage.  She can see into the world of her Singapore client.

I seem to be able to relate to all sorts of different people, and I think that stems from a natural curiosity and a lot of natural empathy.

Still, she is up against it.  Especially back at the office in Singapore.

People were very friendly on the surface, but I found actually a lot of resistance to my presence just beneath the surface. I was 23 years old and highly educated and flown across the world to come and work in this nascent consulting group. It was like "What is she doing here?" "Why do we need her?"

Lee solved this problem as she did the fish processor’s problem, with curiosity and empathy.

I came to understand how all the social skills you use in the wider world … show up in the business world.  And that was sort of a mini epiphany.  I became fascinated with finding out how to make those emotional connections in the context of business.

For Lee, empathy makes everyone transparent, colleagues, customers, consumers alike.  Empathy, it turns out, is an all-access pass.

Lara Lee makes it looks easy, seamless, obvious, but her career is, I think, a small miracle.  In the early 1980s, when fellow students were pursing Japanese language training, Lee wondered whether Chinese might be the better bet.  (Now, of course, she looks prescient.  At the time, she was the only Chinese major at Brown.)

That Lee is doing business at all is remarkable.  A lot of kids coming out of Brown in 1985 regarded business and global culture as the enemy.  (This remains an article of faith in many Liberal Arts programs.)  Lee demurred.  She believed that business was where cultures meet.  Lee has what the Victorians used to call an “independent cast of mind.”

[More to come!  Came back soon to hear how Lara Lee served as a CCO at Harley Davidson.]

This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle.  It was reposted December 26, 2010.