May 27, 2022 - MoFo Diversity

Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month – Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage with Professor Laura Huang

San Francisco Litigation partner Bonnie Lau recently hosted a webinar with author and award-winning Harvard Business School Professor Laura Huang to discuss her book, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage, also MoFo’s theme during the month of May in celebration of AAPI Heritage Month.

Laura opens the discussion with a brief synopsis of her book, the premise being that, if we can take people’s perceptions and biases and flip them to work in our favor, we can create our own edge. Perceptions can be positive or negative, and there are certain clusters of both positive and negative attributions that belong to the same family. For example, the attributes ambition and conscientiousness typically have positive connotations and are also clustered with negative traits, such as deception, egotism, and shallowness. Laura’s research suggests that we can take certain cues to reroute negative perceptions to be viewed as their positive counterparts.

The framework for developing an edge comes from understanding the paradigm: Enrich, Delight, Guide, and Effort. By understanding and practicing each component, we can create our own edge for success. Effort alone really speaks for itself, so when we are able to enrich, delight, and guide, that’s when our effort, or hard work, begins to help us create an edge.

Laura has done significant research analyzing the role of gut instinct in making choices. During the discussion, she explains that there are a lot of different gut feels, and we must understand when to trust our gut instinct and throw out the analytical data to pave a path for success. Laura highlights an important term, “bricolage,” taking lots of disparate things based on our own experiences and putting them together in a unique way to create an edge. This is important because we are resource-constrained no matter who we are, and our ability to use what we have in a unique way enables us to enrich others.

When it comes to delighting others, Laura shares that it is not all about humor. Delighting, she maintains, is something that “stops the music,” pointing to her first ever ride in an Uber as an example of a moment she was truly delighted. Put another way, “delight is cracking the door open slightly so that you can enrich and guide.”

Laura provides an anecdote of the first time she met Elon Musk as an example of delighting others. She was scheduled to meet with Elon to talk about her research on the emergence of private space, and she put substantial effort into preparing. When Laura showed up to the meeting, Elon took one look at her and said, “No, get out of my office.” Taken aback, Laura started laughing, and to her surprise, Elon started laughing as well. In that moment she realized Elon was looking at the gift she brought him and then knew he had no idea who she was; he thought that she was an entrepreneur coming with a product prototype.

When Laura asked, “Oh, you think I’m an entrepreneur?” he responded, “Well, aren’t you?” She replied, “No, and you think that I want your money?” Elon’s response was, “Well, don’t you?” to which Laura wittily replied in a way that most others likely wouldn’t: “No, you have money?”

Elon thought it was so funny that he started laughing even harder, and then said, “Please, come into my office.” From that point on, they had a great conversation where she truly was able to enrich and provide value to the point where he was offering things that he was originally adamantly against. Laura was able to authentically delight Elon and also guide his perception that she was not an entrepreneur.

Laura also shared that over-planning reduces our propensity to delight. Rather than planning to get to a very specific point, it is better to have two to three overarching points and then be able to dynamically maneuver in the moment. It benefits us to be inquisitive and understand directionally the quadrant we would like to end in rather than focusing on a single point to be made.

The ability to guide individuals is largely dependent upon our ability to understand the perceptions and stereotypes that others have about us. Laura explains that typical stereotypes that people face, such as those around gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., account for 60% of ascribed characteristics for how people are perceived, yet the other 40% of characteristics are based on a lot of other factors. So it’s really about understanding people’s underlying perceptions of you that can help you to guide how others perceive you. The same philosophy applies to partner/associate relationships. Mentors and mentees can significantly improve the relationship by authentically providing feedback to one another to guide the mentorship for determining what works best for the partner (mentor) and associate (mentee).

Towards the end of the discussion, Bonnie asked how women, minorities, and those feeling disadvantaged in the workplace can seize opportunities for growth. Laura pointed to the fact that there are many ways to organically make connections, and it’s about finding ways to authentically connect with others by being your true self. Taking action that is more suited to how you are as a person—while it may be an atypical way of interpersonally engaging—can successfully demonstrate who you really are in order to add value, delight, and guide others.