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  • Writer's pictureChristina D. Warner

Leadership Edge with Duke Executive Director Sanyin Siang

Sanyin is a CEO Coach, Author, and the Executive Director of Duke University’s Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at its Fuqua School of Business and a professor at its Pratt School of Engineering.

Sanyin coaches generals, C-suite executives, and Olympic champions. She also works with entrepreneurs as an advisor for GV (formerly Google Ventures) and other startups. Her thought leadership has appeared in Forbes, New York Times, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN. She is a 2017 & 2018 LinkedIn 2017 Top 20 Global Influencer with more than 1 million followers and a 2018 Thinkers50 On the Radar.

Sanyin’s board service has included those of The Emily K Center, The Museum of Life & Science, Duke Children’s Hospital & Health Center. She has spoken in venues from the White House to Global Sports Management and Owner's Summits.

Her book The Launch Book: Motivational Stories for Launching Your Idea, Business, or Next Career, uses behavioral science principles to help readers build the mindset for addressing major change.

Sanyin received a BSE in Biomedical Engineering and an MBA from Duke University.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was that kid who always had a plan. In high school, I’d planned out all four years of courses my freshmen year, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Going into college, the plan was to go to medical school after graduation and become a physician. I didn’t know what it meant to be a physician, but I knew that I loved helping people, and I loved science.

Then, I went through a significant failure. Failures can be a great thing because they force you to step outside your comfort zone. They force you to stop, evaluate and rethink your assumptions. I had a class in my junior year that wrecked my GPA and derailed my plans of becoming a doctor. In my senior year, I didn’t have anything planned. It was hard seeing my best friends, all so sure of their paths, heading to medical school, law school, or investment banking when I had no clue what I was going to do next.

But that was good because, for the first time, I was forced out of the planning mode. I was forced to become aware of the moments. And aware of what was in front of me.

I believe that there are opportunities for luck all around us. We just have to be prepared to see and leverage the moments. After graduation, I worked in science policy in a xenotransplantation lab and then in science and tech policy in DC. From this experience, I went to an executive MBA program at Duke. My last class was a strategy capstone, and at the time, the deputy dean of the school, Rick Staelin, was the professor. He asked, “What do you want to do after graduation?” I said that I didn’t know. All I know is that I don’t want to go to government affairs and biotech, which is the normal path for someone of my background.

But remember, I had stopped planning at this point in my life.

Rick said “Well, we just started this multi-million dollar center on customer relationship management (CRM), and we are looking for a managing director. Would you be interested?” I didn’t know anything about marketing. But I knew I can learn. So I said yes, let’s do it! And I loved it! I loved it because it was a new field at the time and we were working with scholars and practitioners. It provided me with the opportunity to translate between science and practice, which leveraged a superpower of mine, fostered by my technology and policy background.

Then a year later, Duke’s Fuqua School of Business started the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics(COLE). I was attracted by the ethics aspect, and having worked on issues at the intersection of science, ethics, and law – it will be familiar ground. I thought to myself, ‘let me just go and talk to the dean about it.’ And that’s how I got the job. It wasn’t planned. It was pure luck. And being prepared for luck. As I helped build the center, I learned about the art of and the science behind leadership.

Leadership, although a soft skill, is tough. It is so intangible, yet critical to success. There may not be many leadership jobs like mine, but every career is a leadership career.

At the end of the day, what I truly love to do is help people reach their best potential. That’s why I love being in academia. That’s why I love being a mom. An educator, a CEO coach, an author.

So, that’s how I came into this field. Pure luck.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

From where I sit, I get to see many different stories, and I have the opportunity to draw a pattern among them as to what works. And one thing I’ve noticed is that successful leaders are purpose-driven, and that purpose is not drawn from their platform (or their title). But rather, that purpose is drawn from the meaning they find in what they do. It’s a larger purpose. And because of that, it compels others to gravitate toward them. It’s what enables them to leverage their platform for the greater good.

One of the most meaningful mentors in my life is Frances Hesselbein. A Presidential Medal of Freedom Awardee, Frances became CEO and turned around The Girl Scouts. She would truly listen to different points of view and then go out and bring the best people to help the organization achieve its mission.

One of my favorite stories is about when President Reagan asked her to serve on his cabinet. Imagine when so many vie to be a cabinet member. Instead, she responded – “The Girl Scouts need me right now. I’m sorry, Mr. President, I have to turn you down. But can you help host a luncheon at the White House for our Girl Scouts?” And that’s just how she is.

Frances believes in human potential. And it’s a series of stories about Frances that speaks to me. She’s one of the most remarkable leaders I know.

I also see that pattern in Coach K. Many years ago, Coach K had turned down a $40 million offer to be the coach of the Lakers because he felt that staying at Duke would be a stronger platform for him to serve his purpose – as a teacher of leadership. Throughout the years, because of his values and a sense of purpose, he continues to make a lasting positive impact on so many lives.

The stories could be distilled into this: As Bob McDonald, retired Chairman and CEO of P&G, once told me – “don’t ask me how to be a CEO. Ask me how can I best be of service to the organization I am a part of.”

Thank you so much for sharing those stories! Turning our attention to your book “The Launch Book.” Could you share the fundamental principles in your book?

I wrote the book because we all are dealing with transitions, whether in CEOs I’m working with, students I’m mentoring, or friends’ going through life changes. We are all dealing with change, which is uncomfortable. But we have to learn how to embrace and leverage it because constant change is happening more and more around us.

The way to deal with change is to launch into a different trajectory. We can’t stay on the same trajectory anymore.

And you know, if you want to launch into a new career, there are books on resumes. If you’re going to start a business, there are books about developing business plans. But what we don’t have is a book on the strategies, tactics, and mindsets to launch. And we have to address the mindsets first to allow us to make that shift.

The main focus of the book is how to develop that mindset to help you deal with change. There are four aspects. First, you have to understand your why and your purpose. If you are going to start a business, you have to have an understanding of why. How does that business relate to you? How does it fit into your purpose and meaning? What is your origin story?

Second, we don’t launch alone. You can be talented, but in today’s world, it’s not enough. We can only succeed through teams. And so, we launch with others, and we have to invite others in.

Third, reimagine the possible. We have to be able to pivot and rephrase. The world is changing so fast. What we are launching towards and our purpose stays the same. But you have to allow the journey there to pivot and turn.

And lastly, think about the next play. One of my favorite quotes is, “We are not yet what we shall become.” Part of this last principle is about how we address successes and failures. How do we move forward, launch forward? How do we learn from failures? And if we do succeed, what can we learn so that we can continue to improve? Success does not guarantee future success.

Core to all of this is answering the question, “is this launch me? Is it consistent with my beliefs? My strengths? My values? My purpose?”

Thank you for that! How would you apply the principles of your book to healthcare?

Healthcare is big right now. It is changing because of new technologies, problems that are scaling, and policy changes. And in this environment, when so many pieces are interdependent, the key is to bring in a diversity of thought. Let’s take a look at you. I would encourage you to not only speak and continuously learn from people within your organization but also go out to others that you might consider on the periphery of what you do. They might have an interesting point of view and data to inform you of the big picture and how the healthcare ecosystem works. And with those insights, you can understand how you can be the best contributor and what your next play (area of growth) is.

Great! How do you think leaders need to be different in the healthcare industry?

For healthcare leaders, it’s understanding the intersection between government, public and private sectors. I call it the tri-sector language. To be effective, you have to be able to speak to all three stakeholders. Understand what’s in the public sector, private sector, and social sector, and engage with leaders from all three sectors.

What are the five things you wish you knew earlier in your career?

That’s a good question!

1. Don’t be afraid of not knowing the answers. When we enter into any role, we think we need to have all the answers. Even though you may not know the answers, be confident that knowing the answers is only a matter of time because of your ability to ask questions and to learn.

2. Don’t go at it alone. No matter what projects, what opportunities you want to leverage, or what challenges you want to overcome, don’t go at it alone. Invite others to co-problem solve with you and co-create the solution.

3. When we work with mentors, we often want to go in and show perfection. Learn to be vulnerable in sharing a challenge you are wrestling with and invite them to share their advice.

4. Know the priorities in your life, and know that priorities can change depending on what stage you are in.

What is your mission?

It is not to chase greatness. I stopped that a long time ago. My mission is to enable greatness in others. It is something we can control.

You have done a lot in your career. Do you have advice for work-life integration?

We are all ambitious and driven, and it is easy to lose sight of what’s truly important in life. One of the things I’m proud of is my family. At the end of our lives, what do we wish for? People very rarely wish that they could have worked one more day. More likely, people wish they could have spent more time on [you fill in the blank.]. It can be more time with my parents, my children, and my friends, and volunteering. Whatever that blank is, you don’t have to wait until the end of your life to realize what that is. Realize it today and act on it. There is nothing that stops you from acting on it today.

How can our readers follow you on social?

  • On LinkedIn, I often share strategies, insights, and 1-minute video interviews.

  • Instagram: @SanyinSiang

  • Forbes Blog at:

  • Website:

  • You can also buy The Launch Book here.

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