Alfia Ilicheva, Co-Founder of WIN: Women in Innovation, talks with fellow Scholar Thear Suzuki, Americas Advisory Talent Leader at Ernst and Young, about her life and experience during the PLS program in 2019.
Alfia Illicheva: Who are you and what do you do?
Thear Suzuki: I inspire courageous actions in others so they can lead more impactful lives.
Growing up, I had a view of myself as someone lesser than others. I had to work hard to build my confidence. Courage is a leadership attribute that I need for myself and want for others. According to Mark Twain, “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” Courage is the willingness to stand on your beliefs and values, move forward despite your inner critic or others disagree, and do the right thing even when it is uncomfortable and difficult to do so. In my personal and professional life, I work to be courageous and inspire others to do the same.
I am passionate about increasing leadership and philanthropic capacity in others to improve lives. At EY, I serve as the Americas Advisory Talent Leader, where I work with a purpose-driven team to create an inclusive environment for our 21,000 professionals to lead authentically and use their strengths to bring out the best in themselves and others. I also enjoy engaging and giving back in the community. It is an honor and privilege to serve on the boards of the Dallas Holocaust Museum, National Boy Scouts of America, Circle Ten Council, SMU Lyle School of Engineering, the National Asian/Pacific Islander Chamber of Commerce & Entrepreneurship as well as Co-Chair of the Texas Women’s Foundation Economic Leadership Council.
I get energy from connecting with people who seek opportunities to help others be successful, in business and in the community. I live in Plano, Texas with my husband Eric and our four growing boys ages 17, 16, 12, and 9.
AI: What inspired you to apply to PLS?
TS: I see myself as a lifelong learner. I am always looking for ways to become a better leader and how I can best contribute to a world that has given me so much. I learned about PLS through Diana Mao, an alum from the 2015 inaugural class. I was inspired by her compassion for others and impressed by the work of The Nomi Network, a non-profit she co-founded to eradicate modern day slavery. Diana shared how the PLS experience and connections helped her scale the organization and deepen its impact. After that encounter I researched the program and applied.
AI: What did you learn from the PLS experience?
TS: My PLS experience left me feeling inspired, challenged, and hopeful.
I loved being in the company of people who believe in something bigger than themselves; people who see a need in the world and believe that they can do something about it; people with the courage to take action and work hard to change what’s not working in our community, country and world. These are my fellow scholars and seeing their work has challenged me to press forward with mine.
I learned that the former Presidents and their staff are people who chose careers in public service because they care deeply about making our country better. They want to serve. In the context of my personal leadership project (PLP), this was the most impactful learning, hearing from both political sides and how they worked to find common ground to move forward.
AI: Can you elaborate on your personal leadership project (PLP) and how you were able to leverage the PLS program to advance your initiative?
TS: My PLP is engaging men in the conversation about invisible gender differences and how women and men can work together to solve the gender equity issue. Diverse and inclusive leadership is critical for success and fully leveraging the talents of women is the biggest opportunity in our world today. While significant progress has been made since the ratification of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920, now in the 21st century the pace of progress in America has slowed.
While most men are supportive of diversity, I believe we need men to actively engage at a much greater degree and tackle gender equity just as aggressively as they do other business issues. In my experience, a large number of men still view gender equity as a women’s issue and therefore not their issue. All leaders (regardless of sex) need to understand that it is a business issue and as leaders, we need to be held accountable for delivering on this important business outcome. Male leaders care deeply about the growth and success of their wives, sisters, daughters, and team members; with greater awareness of unconscious bias and a better understanding about how women and men lead differently, men will not only become stronger allies and advocates, but leaders who will drive change.
I was encouraged when I learned that PLS was intentional about creating a very diverse (visible and invisible) cohort across gender (47 percent female), ethnicity, geography, sector, profession and experience. PLS brought people together who would never have met otherwise. Our class is special because of our diversity. The deliberate steps the PLS staff took to create a highly diverse cohort and design an environment where all scholars feel free and safe to actively and fully engage is exemplary of what we need to see and experience more of in our corporations, governments, military, and hospitals. Though a microcosm, the PLS program helped remind me that with the right leadership decisions and execution, gender balance is possible.
AI: What are the top leadership lessons learned from PLS?
- Leadership is not something you do to someone, but it is something that emerges from interactions with others. Leadership is about seeing the other person, truly listening and getting to know their perspective and their story. President Clinton reminded us that you always have to start with someone’s story, as every person has a unique narrative that shapes his or her thinking.
- Just because you believe in something, doesn’t mean others do too. You have to educate and listen to their perspectives, experiences and ideas. You have to remove your own biases. Have dinner with someone different from you; it is important to spend time with those you disagree with. You do not have to find agreement, instead look for shared understanding and common ground to move forward for the good of those you serve.
- Build relationship capital; do things for people before you need their help. To persuade and influence, you have to know the person you are trying to convince; you have to know what is important to them, what they care about, and what position they hold and why. To drive impactful and sustainable change you have to establish credibility and trust.
AI: What advice do you have for other passionate civic-minded leaders committed to making a positive difference in the world?
TS: Have a good understanding of your personal strengths and be clear about what matters to you. Our strengths are not what we are good at, but what gives us energy and brings us joy.
Whatever your passion or cause, get started, avoid comparing yourself to others, and learn as you go. Each of us has gifts and talents that can make a positive difference.
PLS looks for people who want to make the world a better place. If this is you, check out how PLS can help you build on your ideas and projects.