As a vice president at the Silicon Valley giant, Oracle, for 17 years, Liz Wiseman learned to say no to any commitment that wasn’t work, church or her four children. Now as an author and managing her own leadership consultancy, Liz works with her husband at home and recently visited her 32nd country. She feels her greatest honor, though, is putting everything she’s learned to work for the benefit of the Church.
I graduated from BYU with my master’s in organizational behavior back in 1988 and, against the grain, went to work for this little maverick company called Oracle. There were a couple thousand people at the company at the time – it wasn’t a meager startup anymore – and I thought I’d work there for a year or two and get a “real” job somewhere. But I fell in love with the culture, which was an absolute meritocracy of “We don’t care if you are young or old or male or female or Christian or Muslim or LDS or evangelical, we just want you to be good at what you do.” Nobody cared. If you were driven and bright, there was something for you to do.
I’d been working there a year and a half in a technical role and at 24 years old, my boss came to me and said, “Liz, we want you to start up an internal training group. Larry Ellison wants Oracle University, a corporate university and we need you to build it.” I felt so overwhelmed. I had no clue had to do this and no experience to draw upon. But somehow that lack of experience, coupled with having someone believe that I could, fueled something in me. I built a team and a year later we were taking Oracle University global to the 120 countries Oracle does business in.
Can you describe Oracle University and its purpose?
It is the corporate education group. Its job was to ready the workforce to build and deliver Oracle technology and to grow the talent inside the company. Its early mission was to absorb the massive number of college graduates (most with graduate degrees in computer science) who were coming into this unique culture and prepare them to be successful in a community environment. Oracle University taught new employees about Oracle products, helped them build professional skills, and how to be successful in the company culture. As the company grew, our focus expanded to include the professional development of the workforce which had ballooned to 20-25 thousand people. I spent a lot of my time working on the development of strong management capabilities in our leaders.
Did people attend your classes only when they were starting or were they required to attend at certain points during their careers?
We would invest about 2-3 weeks of training when someone started, but they would come back throughout their careers at Oracle, with the amount of on-going training varying based on someone’s job role. But coming in and out of the University was part of everyone’s regular work life.
I ran this organization for a about a decade, growing it, making it work around the world. I was still very young. Then I had my first child in 1994.
So you met and married someone locally there in the Bay Area?
I had met my husband when I was 17 years old. I had graduated from high school and I went to my first young adult church dance in Santa Clara, CA, and met a boy who had just finished his first year at BYU and had a mission call. Of course, I thought, this is perfect: a little summer romance, maybe I’ll write him a letter in the Missionary Training Center, I’ll never see him again, send him off to Japan… and he was thinking the same thing: I’ll get cookies in the MTC! Here we are 28 years later with four children!
You’ve been living in the Bay Area that whole time since marrying. In American culture today we think there’s such virtue in having different experiences and moving around and trying a new job every couple of years and taking a break to go to grad school. You’re kind of a testament to the power of staying put.
Very much so. I did get married young in the grand scheme of things – I was 22 – and in exchange for that my husband and I decided that we would work a bit before having children. We came back from BYU to the Bay Area because our families are both here. Other than 6 years at BYU, I’ve been here in California my whole life.
But, I’ve been given opportunities to see the world through my work. I just got back from Kuala Lumpur, Mayalsia and it was the 32nd country I have visited. When I was first assigned to take Oracle University international, I didn’t even have a passport. Since then, I’ve been to Asia 15 times, Europe dozens of times; and have recently completed a book speaking tour in the Middle East.
How do you do that with children?
There are a few fallacies about working and mothering that I’ve discovered. One is you can’t work and be a mom. And I’ve just found that not to be true. My experience is that being clear in my priorities at home has allowed me to be really effective at work.
I remember coming back to work after having my first child and telling my boss, “Anything I’ve accomplished up until now is because I’ve put in the time. I now have to split my time between work and home and I can’t solve my problems just by working harder. I really need to think about my work differently, and I am clear that if my work and my home ever come into conflict, my home is going to win. My job is to keep them out of conflict with each other.” Establishing this upfront felt liberating to me.
For me, there was such incredible clarity in knowing that my family came first. But just because something takes first place doesn’t mean there can’t be a second place. It’s not a “winner takes all” game. But there is a clear priority: my family, my home. I discovered that I became so much more effective, and dare I say powerful, at work because I was so clear that I was a mom first. I came back from my first maternity leave and I had no time for nonsense, for time wasters, for office politics, and my staff who would squabble and fight. I’d say, “We don’t have time for this. Let’s get to work because I have a cute little baby waiting at home for me.” I think I had a detachment to my job that was so different from how absorbed other people felt. Perhaps this no-nonsense attitude allowed me to have a clarity and objectivity around my work that made me a pretty good executive.
Which leads me to another fallacy: that you can’t be an executive and be a mom. I haven’t found that to be true either. When you are in a senior position at a company, yes, you hold a lot of responsibility and face a lot of pressure, but if you are smart about how you work, you can have a good team around you and you delegate. During the years I was a Vice President at Oracle and the mother of three young children – I had my fourth child a little later – I wasn’t working till 2 in the morning (I couldn’t, I was too busy taking care of kids then!). I went home at a reasonable hour and had dinner with my family and put kids to bed. I delegated.
You said when you went back to work after your first child you told your boss that if one had to suffer, it would be your work. Were there any specific boundaries that you made personally or publicly to your work team about how you would keep the two out of conflict?
Absolutely. I had a few strategies for how I managed my team and then a whole slew of rules about what I said “yes” and “no” to doing. I treated my work time the same way I treated school work in college: the work week is for work and the weekend is for family and church. I approach work the same way: Monday through Friday is for work. I was always home in the evenings. Sometimes I had to go to business dinners or functions and in those cases I would get up and leave the event early with polite excuses. In the 17 years I worked at Oracle, I almost never worked on weekends. I had a rule that I didn’t do external conferences, I didn’t participate in networking groups, in women’s groups, book clubs, any reading for fun… anything that wasn’t my job or my family or church, I just said no to it. There was a whole set of activities I had to give up. I couldn’t do it all.
Would you tell me about your husband’s perspective on all of this?
I have an amazingly supportive husband. In the 24 years I’ve been married to him, he’s never said anything unkind to me. He’s just a very kind person and supportive life partner, which has allowed me to I’ve spent our married life free of marital strife. He has never added to my stress, which is so important to a life like mine. He’s never expected me to take care of him, so he hasn’t added to my work load that way. In all the years, not once has he ever made me feel guilty or stressed.
His work in real estate and investing has been flexible, so he has worked out of our home office since 1998. There was only a 2-year overlap where we both left the home and went into offices. Other than that, one of us has always been working at home. Today, we run our own consultancy firm and we both work from home. We get to walk our kids to the bus stop and one of us is here when they get home. We have a partnership in the fullest sense of the word. It’s lots of fun, but I’m sure our kids get tired of us “talking shop” at times at the dinner table.
What impact has your work had on your children? Has your example affected the way they see their own potential?
I think it has. I made the decision to leave Oracle almost 6 years ago. I was ready to leave earlier, but my husband suggested that I should stay there because it was such an easy job in which to put our family first. We were both concerned that if I went out and started my own company, it would be consuming and the family would suffer.
For years, I delayed leaving, but finally got up the courage after I went to an executive coaching program at Wharton and my coach there – who has no LDS lens to put on this – said, “What better example to your children than having them see their mom doing something she’s passionate about and she’s good at.” It made me realize that it was a gift I could give my children. They have cheered me on as I took on the herculean task of researching and writing a book.
I’ve been a working mom and an active member of the church my whole motherhood experience. My kids are certainly no better than anybody else’s kids, but there are definite ways they’ve really benefited from my working. They are put together, confident, and independent, it’s not by accident. They’re this way because they have to be. They don’t have me looking over their shoulders making sure they do all their school work or reminding them to bring their soccer shin guards. I don’t have time to micromanage that for them. My husband and I support and enable, but they’ve got to take responsibility.
My work travels have also created amazing opportunities for our family to experience the world, because I often find ways to take the kids on international trips. My daughters came to China with me when they were six and eight. My little seven-year-old boy has never had a birthday in the United States! He turned one in Japan, two in Costa Rica, three in Mexico, four in Indonesia, five in Thailand, six waking up in Guatemala and going to bed in Belize, seven in Honduras and this summer he’ll turn eight in Australia. Our children definitely share our love of travel and our over-active sense of curiosity and adventure.
I have been my own watchdog for years: Am I short-changing my family? Are my children suffering? I check in with my children all the time: Am I working too much? Am I traveling too much? They help me stay in balance. For years I watched to make sure my children weren’t paying the price, always ready to let go of work if they were. But, my children are fantastic and our family is strong. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it the one who was probably paying the price was me not them. Yes, I’ve made some sacrifices and I’ve missed out on some of life’s quiet, precious moments. But you can’t have it all, and have to be comfortable with both your choices and their consequences.
How do you see your spiritual mission being fulfilled in the actual work that you’re doing?
I have always felt at peace spiritually with working. I have inquired of the Lord, we have talked about it as a family, and I have never felt I’ve been making the wrong decisions. At times I have wondered how I can feel so right about this, but the message to me was, “Liz, you are to do what you’re doing and there’s a reason for it.” It’s a message of permission, of allowing, and a vote of confidence that I can do both. I’ve never felt I was to work instead of raising my family. It has always been in addition to raising my family. I’ve always felt that through my professional endeavors I was being prepared to do work that would benefit the church, that this work would build on everything I’ve learned – how to run an education organization, how to coach, teach, operate around the world, how to connect with people of different faiths and backgrounds… It’s all for a reason. I can’t tell you what that reason is, but I feel an inner peace.
I look at the work I’ve been able to do since I left Oracle and went out on my own: I’ve written a book and taken a message about leadership out into the world. And I’ve recently been invited to put my professional skills to work helping the church administration develop strong leaders. I was delighted to be specifically invited to bring a female perspective to this effort. There are so many ways I can pay tribute to the Lord. He’s growing me, but these experiences aren’t for my benefit (or even my family’s benefit) but rather to help build the kingdom. The energy level I’ve needed to sustain all of this has been given to me for a reason.
I have lived my whole life in the Church and I love the gospel and the members. I realize that I don’t fit a certain stereotype and is can be easy to feel like you therefore don’t fit in. Yes, I sometimes feel a bit judged by others who wonder “How good of a mother are you?” or by some men at church who don’t quite know what to make of me. But, I’ve learned that it is more important that we understand the Lord’s will for us and tune our lives to His voice rather than conform to the world’s or a neighbor’s definition of success. I feel at peace with who I am as a wife, mother, a daughter and as a professional. There is so much integration between who I am at home, at church and at work that I just feel like myself. The women of the church have so much to teach, both within the church and out into the world, and I love being part of this.
At A Glance
Location: Menlo Park, CA
Marital status: Married 24 years
Children: Four (ages 16, 14,12, and 7)
Occupation: Management author and educator
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, Bachelor of Science, Business Management (finance); Master of Organizational Behavior. Executive Education programs at University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania (Wharton), MIT, and Harvard
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.