Level Up Leadership: Jimmy Cheung

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Level Up is a podcast for anyone interested in improving their leadership skills. The series is designed to help you get to know the leaders of Experian and gain insight into the skills needed to grow your career.

You can subscribe to Level Up Leadership on iTunesGoogle PlaySoundCloud and Spotify.

Most recently, we spoke to Jimmy Cheung, SVP of Technology and Engineering at Experian Consumer Services, North America. Jimmy is also the executive co-sponsor for Experian’s Asian American employee resource group (ERG) and passionate advocate for Experian’s mental health ERG, ASPIRE. Jimmy has worked at Ticketmaster and Live Nation prior to Experian.

Here are some takeaways from our conversation with Jimmy:

Your EQ—or emotional intelligence—is just as important as your IQ.
In some instances, it may hold even more importance. Like Jimmy pointed out, your EQ is what will make you a great leader. Knowing the ins and outs of your profession is important, but can you gather people together with one goal in mind? Do you have the ability to build trust and make meaningful connections with your team? This is where your EQ will make you a great leader.

A humble and grateful attitude go a long way.
Jimmy’s greatest teacher is his father. He was able to learn how to work hard and persevere by observing the way his immigrant father led and provided for their family. It’s important to remain humble and remember that no job is below or above you.

Situational leadership is the way to go.
Like Jimmy pointed out, there is no “one size fits all” approach to leading a team. What works for one employee may not work for another. Jimmy believes it isn’t the employee’s job to make sure they fit within their leader’s box, but the leader’s responsibility to make sure their leadership styles can change from person to person.

Being able to adapt to change is a big part of leadership.
In the age of COVID-19, work looks very different for everyone, and the changes will have a lasting effect on what culture, collaboration and leadership look like post-pandemic. Your ability to adapt to change as a leader is what will decide whether or not your team can thrive in the new normal.

We were so happy to have the opportunity to chat with Jimmy for Level Up.

Check out interviews with other Experian leaders.

Full Transcript

Patty: Today we’re speaking with Jimmy Cheung, SVP of Technology and Engineering for Experian Consumer Services, North America. Jimmy is also the Executive Co-Sponsor for our Asian American Employee Resource Group here at Experian.
Patty: Okay. Jimmy, if you could just start us off by describing your educational and professional background for us and how you got to Experian.
Jimmy: Yeah, sure. I graduated from California State University. Both my undergrad and graduate degree in Economics. And it was one of those unfortunate things, so I can definitely relate with the current unemployment picture because when I graduated back in ’92, it was one of the worst employment markets of the decade, or even prior decade. So I wasn’t able to find any work in the economics world but I was fortunate enough that I was starting to get involved with technology. As I started doing that, I rode the dot-com boom and I went into the text code. So, I’ve held on to technology for almost… I’ve been working in this field now for 20-plus years.
Jimmy: I came over to Experian because of Joe Manna. Joe Manna was hired by Experian about five years ago and Joe Manna and I have been working together for almost 16 years-
Patty: Oh, wow.
Jimmy: … and before that I worked for Joe in two other companies. Both companies in the Event Ticketing industry. We worked at TICKETS.COM and also Live Nation, Ticketmaster. So, that’s kind of how I got connected with Experian.
Mike: You got your degrees in Econ-
Jimmy: Correct.
Mike: … and then what made you shift into the tech space?
Jimmy: Well, first of all the availability of jobs. Like I alluded to earlier, when I first graduated… and my focus in economics was in real estate. And unfortunately in the early ’80s it was just a really depressed real estate market. So I really had to pivot and adapt to any kind of industry sector that had more job growth. So technology, even in recession seems to be the segment that has the higher job opportunities. So that’s when I came into technology and it was serendipitous that I made the transition, really got involved in technology and the dot-com boom. So it just propelled me into more opportunities within technology.
Jimmy: And technology is such a dynamic field, there’s so many different facets to it. So I really enjoy this segment and the challenges that technology offers. So that would be a SAPP and successful transition for me from economics to… And then I’ll be honest, economic training and the cognitive thinking that’s required for economics, those skills are very transferable to any industry.
Patty: You said that you worked with Joe Manna at a few different companies. Can you speak to some of the leadership qualities in Joe, or even other people around you that have inspired you to be the leader you are today?
Jimmy: Sure, sure. So, specifically with Joe, what I really admire in Joe is the ability to be objective. And I always say is Joe’s color blind, in good way. He really doesn’t care about your race, he doesn’t care about your gender, or whatever may be. His focus is on your performance, your ability. And he’s given me those qualities consistently in the 16 years that I’ve worked with him. He’s very demanding, you know? Most of you that know Joe, he’s extremely demanding in terms of the type of performance and output he wants from his leaders. But he’s fair about it. What I like about is his empathy. He’s one of those leaders that’s really sincere about empathy and it shows. That’s one of the qualities, traits I should say, that I really want to adapt from Joe.
Jimmy: In terms of other leaders, or other role models I have, I would say one of the strongest, the one that really served me all my life is my father. My father is one of the greatest role models I’ve ever had. I think some of you are aware that I’m a immigrant to this country. My father had to leave his stores to immigrate us to this country because he knows that by doing that, he could give my sister and I a much better life and a much better opportunity for our career goals. But at his age where that decision needed to be made, he knows that he’s not going to be able to have a job, a white collar job of the kind that he had back in Hong Kong. So, he came over here and something I’ve always noticed in my father is, it doesn’t matter if he’s the manager of a shoe factory in Hong Kong versus a busboy or a prep chef in the US, he’s always the best at that. You know, he’s always the best manager, the best busboy-
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: … the best prep chef, you know? And he did it with passion and he did it without any kind of bitterness. He never really actually told us about any of that stuff. My dad’s always been like lacks emotion. He’s all about just his action. So, that’s the kind of leader that I aspire to be and sort of that person that I try to be. I feel like that’s been one of the strongest influence for me.
Patty: Right. You said that your dad knew that he wasn’t going to have the same kind of white collar job he would have back in Hong Kong when he moved here, and I know you said he wasn’t bitter about it or anything, but did you ever feel a pressure to make it because he gave up so much for his family? And if you did, how did you kind of move past that and make sure you did succeed?
Jimmy: Yeah, first of all Patty, definitely. Without a doubt. I mean that pressure was nothing he ever said. It is for me to go to my dad’s restaurant, right?
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: [inaudible 00:10:03] for me to see my dad used to be the king of the factory-
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: … where everybody was just admire my dad, praise, really looked at him as a superior to the restaurant busing dishes and I knew just that… I knew what the sacrifices he made. So my sister and I, we applied a lot of pressure on ourselves. And that’s not unique in any immigrant. I feel that I will have to say, especially Asian immigrants that’s something that’s innate in our culture. It’s about eating bitter yourself so your offspring can have a better life. And that’s just kind of ingrained in generations and generations of our DNA. And yeah, I definitely feel that pressure.
Patty: Right. While we’re on the topic, I would love to talk about something that you mentioned before and I’m hoping you can explain it to our listeners, but something you said that always resonated with me in the past was, “It’s not always about your IQ, sometimes you have to really focus on your EQ.” Can you talk a little bit more to that and explain what you meant by that and how someone might be able to kind of intentionally focus on bettering their EQ?
Jimmy: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I’m going to use technology as a career as an example. Is that when you first start in technology your IQ, your technical knowledge is very important. That’s going to really sort of separate you or distinguish you from the others. Your ability to solve problems, your ability to be creative in terms of the type of coding you’re doing or any of the technical tasks you’re doing. But as you start advancing up your career ladder you’re going to feel a tension where you’re going to have to make a choice. Do I want to grow in the managerial aspects of technology? Do I want to stay technical?
Jimmy: But if you want to grow in the managerial perspective, meaning that you want to become a director, a vice-president, a CTO… your IQ becomes less important. Your EQ is now the quality, the trait that you’re going to be evaluated on. You know it’s your ability to be able to claim success, okay, not necessarily using your intelligence but using your emotional intelligence to be able to bring success among others on your team because you can’t do it yourself.
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: So you find in those positions you’re really there to be the catalyst to be able to bring success to the company by the results of the group. That’s a challenging skill, especially when you think about in technology you’ve always been graded on your intelligence, your IQ and I think that’s where you see a lot of failures, where promotions are done based on those qualities. Then you come into a leadership role and they don’t have the emotional intelligence, then all of a sudden, “Wow, this person that used to be a pride as an engineer, they’re now barely making it as a director or a-
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: So I feel that… and it’s not just I think that the enterprise is really sort of missed a step there. You look at all the training that most companies provide to their employees, it’s really there to increase and augment their IQ or their technical skills or so forth. But you look at how much investment companies make in terms of programs and training to elevate an individual’s EQ, it’s not there, right? I think Patty was in one of my talks where I talked about McKinsey’s, they did a survey. The survey took about, I think almost 10 years for them to do. It measured the business success of companies and what’s attributing to that business success. And what they would find is that 85% of business success is attributed to EQ, not IQ.
Jimmy: But you think about what I said about business investment in training, you have probably the opposite. 80% of that is geared toward the IQ and technical knowledge. So I think that pendulum or that scale really needs to be tipped. I think Experian is starting to really realize that and you’re seeing that through our Master Course and some of the High Performance Training. We’re starting now to really understand the power of EQ and it’s encouraging to see the company’s making the right investment in terms of training it’s human capital.
Patty: Right. When we first talked about this, it was in the context of the Asian community being more susceptible to this problem than most just because we were raised to be like, “Get straight A’s, you’re going to be tapped on the shoulder. You’ll be chosen to move up. You don’t need to do anything else, just work really hard, right?” But I feel like that’s an issue beyond Asian community. So like you said, in technology there’s a huge focus on IQ and whatnot. So this is something anyone could benefit from. I’m wondering if you have any tips for people who are trying to expand their EQ, any intentional things they can do to be better at that?
Jimmy: Yeah, I think the good news about EQ versus IQ is that you’re born with your IQ. It’s very hard to be able to go from a 100 to 260 on a Mensa exam. But the good news with EQ is that you can absolutely learn to grow your EQ. What I would start of with is that there’s a lot of different literature that’s out there that addresses EQ. I would first go to Amazon Books or whatever may be, anywhere and start just searching for any kind of material related to EQ. Then you’re going to find a whole lot of references on things like situational leadership. Things like that. All of those kind of things that would be a part of that EQ framework. So I would say start with that.
Jimmy: And look also at Experian’s training site has a lot of different curriculums or a lot of different classes. There is a category that’s specifically on topics and subjects like EQ.
Patty: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jimmy: So I think those two, you don’t really have to go out and search expensive classes or anything like that. I think that it’s more valuable to really take just a couple of those books or a training and the key is start practicing them. You know?
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: And it’s easy. Some of the things it literally is, they call it 1-Second of Success, it’s what the athletes use. You can define as when you’re listening to people or when you’re ready to say something, the 1-Second of Success means that pause for a second and then speak. Because a lot of times we [inaudible 00:18:29] there’s even a principle about you feel is that you know your senses, what you touch and what you process, right? That hits a certain part of your brain behind your emotions. Your cognitive, your processing is behind the emotional element of it. So if you take a second, pause a second, a lot of times you may not say the things that you almost said. So someone cuts you off-
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: … you want to do something immediately. Pause for a second. Look around the environment. Maybe there’s a reason why that person cuts you off, because he’s trying to dodge from hitting a pedestrian or something like that. So those are the kind of things that I could speak at you by just the literature and the training out there. And start practicing it and getting good at it. And I’ve been doing that for 20 years of my life and I still have a lot of areas that I can improve on.
Mike: Jimmy, how about if you just share a little bit about maybe some of those EQ skills you worked on or helped others as you’ve mentored people around EQ?
Jimmy: One of the strongest I feel that’s a tool in my EQ tool belt is the situational leadership. What situational leadership means is that there’s actually a very empirical model that’s been developed on this subject area, where you assess an individual’s technical aptitude and their ability to perform. And based on that criteria, you apply certain type of leadership quality. For example, if someone was starting in the business, you might have to provide a more directive type of management style versus someone that’s been here for a while, that knows what he’s doing, that has desire to execute. That’s more of a delegation rather than management style, right?
Jimmy: The key there is you don’t want to have those size pitfall. I think that’s the biggest hurdle or pitfall that all managers get into is, they always think there’s [inaudible 00:21:04]. “Susan’s okay with my management style, why isn’t Ralph okay with my management style?”
Patty: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jimmy: So it’s not up to the employees to change their style to accommodate your leadership style.
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: As a leader it’s up to you to understand that particular individual’s aptitude and desire to execute. Then you go back to nurture about, you say “Oh, wow. I need to be more tutorial. I need to be more a mentor and coaching style. Oh, this guy all I need to do is delegate because he already knows everything, right? Because it’s important because if you become too sort of tutorial to someone that’s been here for five or ten years, dang you’re going to have issues all right? So it’s not like different strokes for different folks. It’s different strokes for the same folk depending on where they are in their career development or their knowledge development.
Mike: Jimmy, I think when you’re managing a very small team, you can spend a lot of time getting to know your team, you could have great one-on-ones and that could be very helpful when you’re managing someone because I know what motivates them just because you get to know them intimately. But that becomes really, really hard as your teams get bigger and I’m wondering how does that situational leadership work as it gets more difficult as you have more people to manage?
Jimmy: Yeah, you got to be able to scale. So what you start out with, I mean even in my role right now, I have close to 140 employees. But where I start off with is, start with your directs and then skip level first. What I mean by that is that if you haven’t as a leader [inaudible 00:23:01] size have had one-on-ones, at least one. And if it’s through directs, I would those need to be at least monthly, right? I would start off this that population first and really get to know your directs and also your skip level directs. Once you do that, then what you could do is you could probably even get deeper lower down the ladder and just try to do like I’m going to pick once a month, I’m going to spot, I’m going to pick some of the individual contributors that stand out right? You can’t do them all.
Jimmy: It’s like any survey, it’s about sampling, right? So if you do this consistently and you do this, say “Hey, you know what? I’m going to talk an individual contributor, at least one every month,” you’re going to get a good understanding across the board how well the managers are managing those individuals. Then you have a group of more frequent one-on-ones with your directs and your skip level. And understand how they’re growing and where they are in their vocational maturity ladder. And then you are going to see, “Okay, you know what? Start talking to them, you can understand how your skip level employees, how they’re interacting in their grow ups. They’re managing, right? And then you kind of get a snapshot of those guys are managing those people.
Jimmy: Then once you do that, then you’ve got to provide that feedback group back to your directs. Because I am a firm believer in the process and the same with man is, I will talk to my directs and have them execute the optimizations and the improvement based on the feedback that I gather from them, and then I will keep them accountable, right? To themselves, based on that feedback. What I expect them to do is make sure that A, this counts, their directs because I’m going to be checking on them. Because I tell them up front, “Hey, I have skip levels with all my employees,” so they know.
Mike: I haven’t heard that term, skip level, before.
Patty: Yeah, me neither. That’s so cool.
Jimmy: Yeah. It’s a pretty common term. Yeah, and I was just saying before we dropped, I was just saying that it’s amazing that when you tell your directs that, “Hey, I’m going to have skip level one-on-ones with your employees. Even if you haven’t had ever done one, they all of a sudden are a lot more conscientious and they’re a lot more focused on making sure that A, you know what? Some of the things that I’m talking about, Jimmy’s talking about in these meetings and I’m going to make sure I’m communicating now just because I’m spot checking, right? I mean, that’s the whole idea, right?
Jimmy: So it works. I mean look, these are all the things that I’ve seen other great managers and other people at Experian that are doing this.
Patty: I would love to know what situational leadership looks like to you in the age of COVID-19 and how you’re overseeing your team and the skip levels now. Now that we’re all working from home.
Jimmy: Yeah, I have to say definite Patty, that I’m a very people kind of a person. And why I say that is I love to interact with people face-to-face.
Patty: Yeah.
Jimmy: I’m a face-to-face kind of a person. So, this kind of a COVID environment it’s definitely taken some of my ability to do that. But it didn’t sort of remove my time commitment to meet with those individuals. I still do the one-on-ones, but now I’m doing it through WebEx, and unfortunately sometime it’s audio only because the video is not working very well.
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: And even right now, we’re not getting a lot of the energy, the [inaudible 00:28:32] and the benefits of being in-person. But you still got to do it. You know that our work environment in COVID may not ever go back to what it was before, right? We’re going to have to adapt to some modifications to the way we used to work. So I would say that we need to look at ways to engage, that the meetings that we have now and at the same time that shouldn’t completely keep you from realizing who it is and methods like situational leadership, those type of tools and practices in your tool belt.
Mike: Yeah, I told Patty, I love being around people. I love seeing Patty in the office. I really miss those times, because there’s so much happens that all are non-verbal communication and just being in the same room. You know, be able to shake a hand… I miss all that. But I even think about how we’re talking about when we do return to the office during COVID, we’ll all have masks and that is also hindering. Even when I go to the market, I’m smiling but the people have no idea I’m smiling. I can’t get a sense of, is this person happy or are they sad? That’s going to be the hard thing I think when we do come to the office and we’re all wearing face masks.
Jimmy: Yeah.
Mike: I’m going to miss that one a ton inoperable.
Jimmy: Yeah. Yeah, I’m with you. I’m with you. We’re going to have to find ways. I think we’re going to have to find ways to sort of compensate for that lack of telemetry. Yeah, and I’m sure there’s going to have to be some kind of dine-in options. Maybe some of that talk will have to be done over food in a restaurant or something like that because you know you can’t have a face mask when you’re eating.
Patty: Right. Right.
Jimmy: [crosstalk 00:30:48] Yeah, so we’re going to have to be creative.
Patty: I think what’s interesting is that this whole work from home thing has, I don’t know about you guys but I feel like it’s forcing people to be more vulnerable with each other. Like when you ask each other “How are you doing?” You don’t get the, “Oh, I’m fine,” like water cooler talk. It’s more like, “Oh, I’m having a hard time working from home.” Or, “Things are hard and I’m like trying to cope.” So I feel like even if there might be that barrier when we get back, I feel like enough of us have been vulnerable with each other that we’ll have that connection when we get back to the office hopefully. I know, that’s me looking at the silver lining, right?
Mike: Yeah.
Jimmy: Yeah, I agree, Patty because I have to say this is one of the rare video conferencing sessions that I’ve done where I’m so well dressed. Normally, I have a tee shirt/pajama top, you know?
Mike: Yeah.
Jimmy: And my hair is like everywhere. So that I actually put some hair gel for this particular session. So I have to agree with you, when you start seeing people in that type of condition so to speak, you almost feel like you’re now sort of beyond just having a professional relationship, right? You now have personal relationship with these folks. You’re seeing them, to your point, sort of this vulnerability, very non-businesslike sort of décor and appearance. Sometimes I see dogs running around.
Patty: Yeah.
Jimmy: Their kids are running around and it really puts a touch of personalization and we’re all sort of humans now, right? Even Ty. You know even Ty’s dog’s out of control. I think we’re all sort of now in touch and on the level, I think parity-
Mike: Yeah.
Jimmy: … that we’re on.
Patty: Right.
Mike: That’s right. We always talk about “Bring your whole self to work,” and that is definitely the case right now. We are all-
Patty: Bringing our whole self to home.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah.
Jimmy: But now it’s more like “Bring your whole home to work.”
Patty: Yeah, yeah.
Jimmy: It’s not even your whole self, it’s like your entourage and animals.
Patty: Right, bring your pet. Bring everyone else who’s quarantining with you.
Mike: Like you were saying, I’m finding I will jump on a call with somebody and normally that call will be like a couple minutes with a friend just to catch up really quickly. Now it’s turning into what I thought would be a five minute call, sometimes an hour, hour and a half.
Patty: Right.
Jimmy: Yeah, right? Right. Yeah. I’m definitely seeing more group interactions now because it’s so much easier to get a Zoom or a group virtual happy hour through WebEx or whatever the collaboration platform is. Now I’m seeing that not only with work but with my families. I’m seeing more of how the COVID situation actually has brought more of these type of touchpoints or interactions with families. More than used to, where the only option before was I need to make a drive all the way out to my parents or my in-laws house or wherever. Now it’s like everybody’s okay getting together ad hoc and across the country over video conferencing. So I think there’s definitely some positive aspects of this in terms of bringing people closer, not only at work but with families.
Patty: Mike and I have talked a lot about what work will look like once we come back. It feels like work from home will be a big option for a lot of people now just because we’ve seen the capabilities of working from home. I would love to know personally for you, what do you think about your leadership style will be different because of COVID-19 once we return to whatever the normal world will look like?
Jimmy: Yeah. I have to say that the large in-person meetings are definitely going to have to change. They’re going to probably have to modify and that is a very powerful tool and capability for a lot of leaders. To just be able to have all hands, the VP stand-ups every week where you have a large group of folks that you’re interacting in-person to go over all of the different initiatives and what’s going on with the company and all that. So, that’s [inaudible 00:36:04] but I still don’t know how it was with the surrogate for that is going to be at this point. But that’s one aspect I think is definitely going to have to change.
Jimmy: And even smaller meetings, when you have to maintain that social distancing and all of that, I think it’s going to affect people in terms of their willingness to want to do in-person meetings. So, I think the good thing is that right now, we’re getting all the practices in, in terms of how do we do meetings virtually and so forth. I think more and more we’re just going to have to continue doing what we’re doing virtually. And in certain cases where you just absolutely need to have that in-person interaction, you’re going to need to do those meetings, but I feel like they are going to be a lot fewer of that kind of interaction.
Mike: I want to ask you about being in the office, it’s easy just to stop by somebody’s desk and just say “Hi,” and just keep nurturing certain relationships. Right now I’m finding that to be sometimes more difficult because not everyone wants to Face