What Makes Xiaofei Tang Tick

In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.

Xiaofei Tang grew up in Harbin, a city in the north east region of China, famous for its winter ice festival. She attended the world-renowned Peking University in Beijing, where she studied Political Science at Undergraduate level. After graduating from Peking she moved to Guangzhou, a city in the southern part of China, where she would take her first steps into the world of business. She took on a role working for Procter and Gamble, and stayed there for 6 years.

“P&G was an incredible experience for me, and my first taste of business. I managed a couple of big brands, such as Olay, and Rejoice, the largest haircare brand in China. After P&G I applied for business school, and that’s when I went to study at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I thought at the time that I would be just getting a degree from Wharton, and then I would return home, but after graduating I found a job in American Express in New York. I lived in New Jersey for many years while working in New York. While I was enjoying the American way of life, I was always aware that China’s super train was moving rapidly, so I got to a point at aged 40, when I felt like if I don’t return soon, I would probably miss the train. Then the opportunity to join EF came along.”

Xiaofei is the Executive Vice President of Operations for EF English First, where she directly leads a team of 200 people, and is primarily responsible for EF student learning experience and outcome, and the service and education team’s (close to 2,000 employees in China) career development and job satisfaction.

“Marketing was actually my area of expertise; I used to do a lot of brand marketing, product management, and innovation. EF was very untraditional and different in terms of what I had been used to, and their methods appealed to me, so when I looked for opportunities in China and this role came along, I felt it would be a good opportunity to open new avenues of learning for me, and to continue my career development. So, 4 years ago I came back to China, and here I am.”

Xiaofei was kind enough to take the time out of her immensely busy schedule, to answer some questions and share her insights. 

How did you make that shift into business after graduating? 

I was planning to join a prominent Chinese government organization upon graduating, but then P&G came to the campus to recruit. At that time, we didn’t really know all these international companies very well, but they were renowned for having incredibly strict hiring procedures. I wanted to learn what these companies were doing, and why they were so hard and so selective; I think I wanted to find out more about their interview tactics. I think there is something in me- a curiosity and an ambition maybe- so I entered into their infamously difficult interview process, both to find out more and to perhaps test myself.

There were 4 rounds consisting of paper tests and interviews, and then they flew us to Guangzhou for a final round. I think at the time hundreds of students applied for the Brand Management department, and in the end only 2 got offered a job, myself and another young woman. P&G Brand Management is a core function of the entire company, so through this whole process, looking back, I feel like I got to learn about business and the inner workings of an international company.

I also found that, you know, the word is unknown but exciting. It kind of opened up new opportunities for me, and I jumped right in. So that’s how I started on the business path, and I’ve never looked back. I think the curiosity and the determination to win, that’s what got me started along the path.

Where does your competitive nature come from? That determination to win? 

These days I often talk about the book Grit, by Angela Duckworth. I would say I probably score high on the grit scale. I naturally stick to whatever it is I choose to do, and do it to the best of my ability. I love what I do, and always want to get the most out of every choice I make. During all of my studies, throughout elementary, middle and high school, and my work at each function or company, I always wanted to learn and grow. Whether it was homework, or a presentation, or a project of some sort, I just wanted to do it to the best of my ability, and soak up all the knowledge that I possibly could. I think it’s just part of my personality, something I was perhaps born with. I wanted to really know it all inside out. I feel my life is more fulfilling when I continue to improve my skills.

You mentioned personality. What kind of person would you say you are? Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

I would say I’m more extroverted. I’m quite outgoing and I really like to get to know people; I’m very interested in people, learning about people, and making more friends.

How does your personality come through in your work? 

I’m very passionate about what I do. When I look back on the work I’ve done, or life in general and the places I’ve lived, that passion has always been there. In terms of the environment I live in, it’s about getting to know the people who surround me, and just enjoying the passion of life; I always feel like, every day is life. My tagline on my WeChat is just that, “Every day is life”.

I feel like every day is life, every choice is life, and I’d like to get the most out of the choices I make and the life I live. In life, we have so many choices, right? And you can only follow one path at any given time, because you don’t have a second life. So it’s very hard to say what is wrong, or what is right.

What are the values you hold dear, that have helped make those decisions?

I think one big thing for me is growth, and opportunities for continuous learning. When I look back on my journey thus far, whenever I’ve had to make a major decision, it kind of opened a different world to me. It opened a business world with P&G, for instance. And when I moved to America it opened up a whole new world in terms of culture, and a new working environment. I worked in the marketing department for a top Fortune 500 company. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a foreigner working within the core of an incredibly competitive, successful company, who is using their second language while doing so and had never lived in that country before; it certainly was not easy, but to me it just opened up a whole new area filled with opportunities, and that really excited me.

And then going from financial services to the education field, a totally different industry, and coming back to China to work for EF in the operations department. It’s all new, and each decision had led me to a new area, opened up a new opportunity, and I feel there is so much to learn and many opportunities with which to make an impact.

What does success mean to you? How do you define it? 

So for me, the success comes from when I learn something new, and then in turn using this new knowledge or these newly acquired skills to make a positive impact on lives. I know it sounds a little bit cliche, but this really does drive me.

For example, right now I develop a lot of initiatives to improve our student experience, and also to improve our staff satisfaction levels. And when I see those initiatives actually making a positive impact, where more and more teachers stay with EF for longer, and our service team feel more satisfied so they can serve our students better, and our student satisfaction scores continue to increase over the years, and then you go to the schools and find that the environment is always improving, you know all these things really connect, and it motivates me.

What’s the best book you’ve read, and why?

I’ve been reading a lot of management books these days, and one book I really love is called Pour Your Heart Into It, by Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks. The reason why I love this book so much is that he created a company not with the purpose of creating a company, but to create something that he loves and cares deeply about; he wanted to create this space where people could connect. The whole idea came from a trip to Italy, where he was enjoying plenty of good coffee I’m sure.

The passion he put into this business, and the good things he wants to do for his people is something to behold; he refers to every member of staff at Starbucks as a partner, and he gives a percentage of equity to all staff. His was the first company to provide insurance to every member of staff, and in China they will even give insurance to family members of staff.

The other book I really like is by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, entitled Lean In. It’s very much written to women and for women, and she suggested women to sit at the table and make her partner a real partner, and to not leave before she leaves. I think any career woman would benefit from picking up this book, there are some great insights in there.

Who had the most influence on you at a young age, and why?

I don’t have a specific person who has influenced me the most, but in every stage of my life, in every company I’ve worked for, I have had kind of a mentor type of person in my life. I would actually proactively reach out and find a mentor for myself, it’s not like somebody arranged a mentor for me. And it wasn’t like we had an official mentor/mentee relationship either, but they were very senior people. I would usually reach out to them when facing some difficult decisions. I always had somebody to talk to, and usually these mentor types would provide some really good insights for me to consider.

What makes a good mentor? 

I would say a good mentor would have to have a richer life and work experience than you, and because of this they tend to have had more learning experiences, so that usually when you come to them with a problem it’s often the case that they have had a similar experience or have seen other people go through a similar experience, so that allows them to ask the right questions; I find that really it’s more about just asking the right questions. They will ask questions so you can think things through yourself, that to me is a good mentor. It’s not someone who can tell me what to do or how to do it.

And I should also mention that I believe friendship is really critical, and investing in those friendships. When I look back, the girlfriends that have really played an important role in my life, are the ones with whom I have shared some critical life experience with. For example, one friend and I applied for business school together, and we would share our frustrations about taking the TOEFL exam, and having to work while studying, and all the pressures that go with it. You know, we went through all this together and we talked almost every night, we shared our experiences, and through that year we formed a very strong connection.

I think these special moments really define a friendship. I really encourage young people to invest in true friendship. It’s a lifelong investment.

What was the most significant learning experience you can recall having?

So very often I get asked this question, sometimes in a different form, like the biggest setback I had, or the most important experience, but I think when I just started working in the US, that was a huge change. I was entering into a new world, whereas in China I was the expert and I knew the market inside out, I knew the consumer, I had great connections, I speak the language, but in the US I was a foreigner, speaking a second language. It was very difficult in meetings for instance, where people don’t slow down to accommodate the foreigner, it was a completely new market also, consisting of many unknowns. And then outside of work just even thinking in simple terms, things like how to rent a car, how to buy a pair of sunglasses, going to see the doctor, all of these things posed a challenge. And back in the office, with how people think and act, culture wise it’s so different to what I was accustomed to. There was a period of huge frustration particularly at the beginning, but looking back those experiences were also where I learned the most.

One thing I learned upon reflection is the importance of maintaining that belief in yourself, that element of self-confidence; it’s really critical. It’s important not to let those difficulties knock your confidence; of course there were times where I would say to myself, “I don’t know that, I don’t know that either”. Then I would think OK, I recognized an area that I was lacking knowledge in, but it’s not like I don’t have the skill, or the capacity to learn these things. The ability to think critically and creatively, and to solve problems, all these things were built up within me from past experiences, so it was a matter of maintaining the confidence and belief in myself, and to give myself some time to climb that learning curve, but always have the confidence that I could do it. I think this is the critical point. I think when we face into challenges, it’s important to have inner peace and to remain confident throughout.

The other important thing is to not be ashamed of what you don’t know, because you always have that capacity to learn. Be curious as to what you don’t know, and keep learning. During that period I really pushed myself to immerse myself in my new environment, and make new friends, and ask questions, and read a lot.

What advice would you give to the younger generation, who may find themselves at a  crossroads in life, unsure of what path to pursue?

I think it’s very common for people to not know what they want to do in the future. It’s very normal, I think. Take myself, if you were to ask me what do I want to do in the next 5 or 10 years, it would be difficult for me to give you a definitive answer. So I would say to follow your heart first and foremost. When you are young, you will gradually find out what it is that motivates you, and what it is that you’re passionate about. So above all, follow your heart.

Another piece of advice to younger people, especially in China, is I think they need to be more patient. I’ve seen a lot of young people that come in to a job, and maybe they meet a bottleneck down the line or some frustration, and they say “OK this is not right for me, I’m leaving”. I meet a lot of these young people who change jobs every few months; it’s important to be more patient. Whatever job you are in, really drive and work hard, and persevere to the point which will allow you to overcome at least 2 or 3 difficulties in that job; then you can look back and realise that you conquered something that seemed impossible, and this will inevitably give you confidence. And maybe after that if you still feel it’s not right, then perhaps yes, move on. But if after the first difficulty you meet you are looking to move on, I would say that’s just an excuse. So be patient, and look to instil a growth mindset.

I would also say especially to young people in China, they should never stop learning. I find that an awful lot of young people stop reading these days, they spend too much time on their phones. Look at you for instance, you read and write and have this incredible self-learning platform, your readers read your content and this motivates you to continue I’m sure, you also have interaction with lots of different people, which is no doubt incredibly rich. But I’ve found that a lot of young people these days just spend too much time on their phone- immersed in WeChat and other forms of social media- and if I ask them about a book they’ve read recently, they wouldn’t be able to give me an answer.

In any line of work you need to have the brain power to be able to figure out solutions to problems, you need to have creative ideas, you need to be proactive. But if you stop learning, and you stop engaging your brain, well then how can you tackle these challenges and issues, and work effectively.

Last thing I would say, is in terms of motivation. I wrote an open letter recently to students about maintaining your motivation. There’s a book I read recently, entitled Peak, and it goes into the secrets of how to go from beginner to expert in anything. It’s a really good read. Basically it talks about how you can get good at anything, and it boils down to having to do deliberate practice. And what is deliberate practice? The practice should have very defined and specific goals, you need to be 100% focused, and you should seek for feedback constantly, even for small progress. Lastly, you need to go beyond your comfort zone- without stretching yourself too much.

There’s one chapter in particular that I really love, about maintaining your motivation, where the author recommends breaking down your goal into smaller tasks. For example, one current goal of mine is to read a book every month, which isn’t actually a lot. But these days I think if you ask how many people read 12 books a year, it’d probably very few right? Anyway, the way I do it is I follow the author’s practice. I break it down by reading just one chapter every day, rather than thinking of it as one book each month. Following this practice, I’m currently reading my 9th book, so I’m on track.

So we have to find a way to maintain our motivation, no matter what our goals are. We need to avoid the New Year’s resolution effect, of being highly motivated for a period of time, only to give up after a month or so. It has to be maintainable. The author suggests that in order to increase the level of motivation you have, you need to strengthen the factor that you want to continue, and decrease the factor that you want to quit. For decreasing the factor of wanting to quit, the number one piece of advice the author gives is to make it part of a routine, practice for one hour a day and make it a habit. This is where the discipline comes in.

Research cited in the book suggests that people cannot maintain intensive practice for more than one hour a day, but make sure you do it, every day. So I would interpret that as, even if you do ten minutes a day, just do it; make it a habit until it gets to the stage where you feel like you have to do it, and if you don’t do it, you will actually feel physically ill. At that point, it has become a habit.

We recently moved house and had been busy unpacking up until midnight one night, but when I realised I hadn’t read my chapter yet, I instantly felt like something was missing; I could literally feel it in my body that something wasn’t right and that I should read. That’s maintaining the routine. For strengthening the factor of wanting to continue, the author suggests making yourself socially accountable. I will tell everyone in my social circle- my friends and my colleagues about my intended goal- and this becomes my social motivation. Those are really practical tips, I think.

What are some proud moments, moments to remember or defining moments from doing what you do? 

You know the moments that have made me most proud in my life, have been the moments shared with my daughters. Really, if you ask me what is the best thing that has happened to me in my life, I would say having my two girls. It’s a lot of work and it’s challenging, and there’s that struggle to find the balance between work and life, but I think having children just gives me so much more perspective, and my life is so much richer. It’s so much more fun. I feel like I have a purpose now to work as hard as I do, and to continue learning and keep growing. My two girls make me proud beyond words.

What is your purpose now? 

I want to be a good role model for my girls. Of course I enjoy my job a lot, and a huge part of the reason why I work so hard, is that I want them to see that you have to work hard to get what you want in life. I try to show them that working in my field can help a lot of people change their lives, and that this work is meaningful. I often talk to my girls about my work, my eldest is 10 years old and she understands a lot, my 6 year old maybe doesn’t understand as much, but before I go away on business I will talk to them, tell them where I’m going, what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. My 10 year old always says hilarious things to me like, “Your work just feels like you’re sending emails all the time, that’s not work!”

So, my purpose right now is to be a really good role model for my girls. I want them to be proud of their mom, and I hope they can learn some things from their mom.