+00:00 GMT

The Impact of Mentoring & Paying It Forward

with Li Fan

October 5, 2021


Li Fan CTO @ Circle

Li Fan is CTO at Circle, a global fin-tech firm enabling business to harness the power of digital currencies and public blockchains (Circle is the principle operator of USD Coin). Prior to Circle, Li was CTO at Lime, an innovative technology company that connects and empowers urban living through mobility.

Before Lime, Li was SVP of engineering at Pinterest leading all 600+ engineers to execute technology strategy and deliver company priorities. Li was a Senior Director of Engineering in Google, accountable for Google’s popular image search and was Vice President of Engineering at Baidu.

"I would say you just have to think about the longer term. Because the world is small, you can identify those people who have a big potential. You can not really stop them. You might as well help them to move fast.

And then hopefully... in most of the cases I see, they will pay it forward. And in fact, they will turn back and help you in many other ways."

- Li Fan

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Show Notes

  • Why this conversation with Li Fan is so special (2:02)
  • When has a mentor made a meaningful difference for you? (3:30)
  • How mentors help show you what’s possible in your career and life (6:29)
  • How mentors inspire and shape your leadership (10:00)
  • Mental models for a successful mentor relationship (13:29)
  • Paying it forward and becoming a mentor (15:19)
  • How to balance your team’s retention and your mentee’s career growth (19:12)
  • The hard-to-imagine long term impact of mentoring (25:20)
  • Staying in touch with your mentors and the people you mentor (29:17)
  • The long-term ripple effect when you “pay it forward” and mentor others (31:22)
  • Finding the right mentor and creating mutually beneficial relationships (36:04)
  • How Art influences Li’s approach to engineering leadership (39:51)
  • Rapid Fire Questions (44:17)
  • Takeaways (47:38)


Why this conversation with Li Fan is so special

Patrick Gallagher: Li, welcome to the engineering leadership podcast! It is such a joy to have you on the show.

Thank you so much for being here

Li Fan: Pleasure is all mine! Thank you for having me!

Patrick Gallagher: I think what's so special about this conversation is, this is a really exciting moment in time for you. And you’re recently coming from some time away where you were advising different folks. And now you’re transitioning into a new role as CTO at Circle. And you’re working on some pretty incredible technology... which I'm sure will come up in the course of our conversation.

But, the purpose of our conversation and what we’ll be getting into is a little bit different in that we're focusing on mentors and the impact of paying it forward.

And so what’s special is we get to really take a moment to sort of pause and reflect and look back on the people that’ve really impacted us and the ways that our own mentorship have impacted other people. In hopes that those listening in can get sort of the long view of why this is so important and why this is so impactful. Um and hopefully inspire them to take action and actively mentor somebody else.

And, I wanted to note one more thing, Li. I think what was special about this conversation is that this topic was sort of inspired by a comment that you made during the 2020 ELC Summit when Bill Coughran was speaking. And he was sharing about some of the ways that he was managing and mentoring people when he was at Google.

And you mentioned in the chat that you could verify all of the things that Bill had done, because he was somebody who had helped to mentor and support you. And at that moment... I just thought about the impact that we have when we mentor and support other people across long timescales is incredible! So thank you for inspiring this conversation!

When has a mentor made a meaningful difference for you?

Patrick Gallagher: So, okay. That was a long-winded walk up to, to sort of wind us up to the beginning of this conversation, but love get in first Li, is there a story or a moment where a mentor made a meaningful difference for you?

Li Fan: Sure! So I think that the difficulty in your question is share one. But I think I'm lucky enough that when I grew up in my career, I had so many people who supported me, mentored me, and it really just pushed me forward.

So it is harder for me to pick one but let me try. I think again, by no means it was comprehensive, I just want to start since you mentioned Bill Coughran. He was my manager for a long time but then, since I moved on from Google and come back Google and even no longer being my manager, he had mentored me, advised me pretty much every step of my career change.

He would give me advice. And he also would connect me with the right people and be my reference and a recommender, all sorts of things. So I cannot say enough how grateful I am.

And there's also many other people like Angela Lai is my second Google manager, and Amit, JT, just numerous people. It's just hard to give one example, per se.

But I just want to say that mentorship can cover many, many things. And one of the things I feel mentorship meant a lot to me is I felt they gave me the encouragement and the confidence that I know there's such a wonderful, experienced and talented leader who believed in me. And that gave me some confidence, say, "Oh, okay, I'm probably not too bad. I do have potential to be like them." And I think that really pushed me forward.

So one thing Bill helped me with was... At the time he was my manager. He was the one who first pointed out that I was avoiding conflict. And he noticed that, he didn't use the word but he basically said...

"You agree too much and you're trying to make a trade off. Try to please everyone. But as a leader, you really need to have your own opinion and be firm and you shouldn't avoid a conflict."

He used very subtle wording. But I got it and I realized that was me as a junior manager trying to do it because I thought managers were supposed to make everyone happy. And that's not true! And I think that stuck in my mind as a leader for a long time.

And frankly speaking at some point I feel like I may go overboard. Being a little bit too strong, but I think leaders do need to make tough calls. So this is something I learned from Bill.

Patrick Gallagher: The gentle guidance of a good mentor. I think that's such a special story, Li.

How mentors help show you what's possible in your career and life

Patrick Gallagher: So I'm so glad you said it's really hard to nail down one story because my followup question was going to be "Well, are there other mentors that have made an impact on your career and perspective?"

I think what's so special is that those stories and those moments... because when you share the story of how Bill helped to give you the guidance of "You're agreeing too much!"

...The difference that makes in the long trajectory of your career, implementing that advice and feedback from a mentor, it's really hard state profound of an impact that is.

What other stories you have?

Li Fan: So would say one aspect is mentors give you encouragement and support. The other aspect, they show the way, they show you can be this way or that way, and you can be yourself and still be successful.

The other example I want to give is Angela Lai. She was a manager, VP of Google, who hired me a second time when I went back to Google. And she's a very, I would say, strong minded women leader who I feel like wow! Her mind, and her commitment is so strong. I'm a different person in my opinion.

But once I started working with, and particularly once I'm not working with her...

because the first thing that struck me strongly is of course, when she's recruiting, she's trying really hard. But what's really impressive is when after one year I worked for her, I decided to take another job in Google because I really want to work on image search, that was my passion. We can talk about why is that later.

But then I talked to her, I was like, "Angela, I know you recruited me hard." In fact, she waited nine months for me to go back to Google and took the position. But after one year I'm like, "Angela, I'm thinking of moving to another VP and I want to take that role."

And it's surprising enough she's very supportive. She's like, "Look, I'm disappointed but I know why you want to change. And I'm glad you express your feelings, and you find what you love."

And she had this wonderful, all hands to thank my contribution. And she said, "Look, it's harder, I will have to try harder to find a replacement but I'm so happy for Li."

And even after that, moving forward she stayed in contact with me. When I had questions navigating Google's organizations because she's been a very experienced VP, she would help me. And in fact, when I tried to leave Google for other jobs, she's the one who was very supportive and said, "Oh, okay, I understand that's what you want to do, and let me see what I can do."

And she actually played a critical role in my landing of the Pinterest job. So I'm extremely grateful.

And then she herself started to work in startups, she became the CTO for GRAIL. And she shared with me why she was really passionate in the area.

I think from her, I just learned how a strong leader who knows what she wants. And she told me her choice of next step may not be classical, or like the natural choice, but that's what she wants and that's what she felt was a fulfilling thing to do in life. And I learned a lot from her and basically understanding who you are, what makes you happy and fulfilling.

So one of the things I want to say about mentorship is also in terms of they show you what's possible.

How mentors inspire and shape your leadership

Jerry Li: Those are the inspiring moments of interaction. I was wondering how those interactions shaped your leadership style afterwards.

Li Fan: Yes. I will say the most important thing is I learned to spend time with those people who you believe are worthwhile.

So sometimes these people may or may not report to you. And they may or may not be willing to join your team right at the moment. Many of them have the talent, and have the potential to be successful in their career.

And if I can contribute just a little bit, I feel good. Because there are so many people who did their fair share to really help me, even when I moved on. As I said, I don't report to them anymore, I don't work for their company.

For example, Ben Silverman, we still talk. When I was thinking about my own startup, he offered advice and he connected me with a board member. This kind of thing.

There's a lot of people who generously spend their time and their connection to help me. And I realized this is a wonderful thing to do! And I also enjoy this kind of feeling that I can help others.

Jerry Li: It must feel really great to be able to contribute to the career development for people that they believe in. I think that's the most beautiful thing in a manager.

Li Fan: Yeah. And a part of me, because when people talk about success or not success, it's harder. In Silicon Valley there's so many wonderful, talented, successful leaders and sometimes it's hard to measure.

But one thing that I feel good about is when I can share my experience and share my lessons with someone and I can tell like this person learned something. And I feel like oh, this may help her to advise, and I feel good about it.

Jerry Li: That reminds me of a quote from a hall of fame NBA star. He said "Our success is the sum total of individual interactions we have with people and also the quality of those interactions. And we have total control quality we can choose to make it a positive or negative. If we choose to make it as positive. That's what eventually comes back to us."

Li Fan: Totally adds up. And I used to joke that it is karma. So I like to help people. People helped me be and I feel like, you may not be a total inaudible but it's definitely that we're going to move forward and things will get better.

Patrick Gallagher: Yeah I think that's such a great point, Jerry, because our community really wouldn't exist without engineering leaders who made the decision to care and want to pay it forward and share their knowledge with folks.

I think that's also what's really special, Li, about reflecting on a lot of these moments, because it really comes down to individual interactions and choices to believe... I really love what you said about having somebody who believes in you. Cause I think belief and belief in a person is one of the most important things that you can give somebody. Because no matter what sort of tactical decision has to be made. If you have somebody that believes in you, whether it's a moment or an elated moment, an excited moment, belief is what's going to propel you through all of that.

And also I really valued what you shared about mentorship shows you what's possible. about some of the mentors in my life, I have my worldview of what I thought an interesting career or what a leader should be. It all came down to a mentor or a role model showing that style of life or what that should look like.

Mental models for a successful mentor relationship

Patrick Gallagher: We're sharing some really powerful stories, but I also can't help myself but ask some mechanical and tactical questions to see if there are ways to help set up mentoring in a way that's really impactful.

With the different mentoring relationships that you've had, formally or informally, are there any sort of mechanics or frameworks or that those conversations were structured that you found to be really effective or impactful for you? Like, is there any sort of, I guess I'm looking for a recipe, is there a recipe for good mentorship?

Li Fan: To be honest I don't feel that I have a recipe per se, but I do have some principals. One, I appreciate most about people, they're extremely busy. So I don't really go out of blue to ask something for nothing.

For most people in the valley the most precious thing is time. So when you ask people for their time and their brainpower, you need to be very cautious, it's expensive. So I feel like I'm very, I would say careful not to waste people's time. I literally... I have advice to ask for, I have questions, I need help. Or I can help them, I don't want to waste people's time. This is one thing.

And the second I would say just be grateful. And I think anything and even if I asked a person and he or she at that moment may not have a good answer and may not be able to help you right at the moment, the fact he or she agreed at the time, is already gift! So I'm always very grateful. And I realized when I help others, I also appreciate the gratefulness because you don't take people's time for granted, and I see that attitude helps.

Paying it forward and becoming a mentor

Patrick Gallagher: So Li, one of the things you'd mentioned... and I think has been consistent in this conversation is just really acknowledging the generosity of people giving their time and intention to support other people. And so beyond just mentorship and being changed as a leader and growing as a leader because of it.

I think the other part is when you zoom out, that moment where you pay it forward and support somebody else and to see that impact start to carry forward...

I was wondering if we could talk a little bit more about how you've paid it forward and other ways that you've mentored or advised other engineering leaders.

Are there certain stories that you feel most proud of? Moments of mentorship that you've provided that you felt like you've paid it forward in a way that was really meaningful for you?

Li Fan: Yeah. So first I would say, I would start saying those things happened very naturally. I was not thinking about, “okay, I'm mentoring these people…”

It just... when someone comes to you and asks for help, and you naturally feel like, “Wow, this is a person who is really worthwhile! And then he or she really needs help, and it happens to be I can contribute to my insight of my experience. And I'm extremely happy to do so.”

And one of the examples I'm very proud of... again, this is part of a tricky situation because I was his manager. But there was a time he wanted to leave Google to start his own company. And he was a superstar on my team, obviously. I'm actually not too happy because I am going to lose a superstar! But then he trusted me enough and he just shared, "So hey, Li, I'm thinking about it. I don't know whether this startup idea is going to work or not, and I have a great path in Google, what should I do?"

So I have all the selfish reasons to keep him here in Google under me. But I listened to his idea. Frankly speaking at that time, I was not too convinced. I felt it was a little bit too low tech at that time. However, I can tell he does have that fire within himself. He wanted to do something.

So I told him, " I personally do not necessarily support this but I think you're ready to do something new. Why don't you do this... I will encourage you to not only think about that startup, but also look around. Maybe there's other startups who can use you as a senior leader. But also look around in Google. Maybe you will find something new that will excite you. Maybe my team, unfortunately, cannot excite you anymore."

And also, I encouraged him by saying, "Look, this is something hard. It is not easy." Although, with his caliber, he can come back to Google quickly. But go back and forth, you will lose a lot of benefits in Google along the way.

I'm like, "Why don't you take time off."

Because he's been at Google for a while, and is entitled to take a long sabbatical. I'm like, "Why don't you take advantage of this benefit and I will allow you to take an extended leave. And think it through. And if you still want to do it, I will support you. But look around not to stick with this idea and look around what are the other things out there that will help you."

And he did. Three months later, unfortunately, he came back saying “No, I'm going to do my startup.”

And I supported him. And in fact, later I became his company's advisor. But I will say he actually turned out to be extremely successful, it’s a great outcome and became a great public company, a well known consumer product that a lot of people use. And I'm very proud. And I'm very proud I didn't... for selfish reasons try extremely hard because he was young, he was looking for my advice, I think I did my best to let him choose his own path.

How to balance your team's retention and your mentee's career growth

Patrick Gallagher: I think the last line that you mentioned, Li, that I think is interesting is you took pride in the fact that you helped him find the path that's right for him. I feel like that balance may be really hard for folks. Like balancing the self-interest of "How do I keep this superstar on my team" that of " How do I make sure that I helped support them to find the path that's best for them and to grow in the way that I know will help them the most successful version of self that they can be." How do you balance that, that sort of management self-interest of preserving superstardom and supporting the growth and developments and helping that mentee move on?

Li Fan: Yeah. I would say you just have to think about the longer term. In some way I always joke this is a long-term benefit for me because the world is small. You can identify those people who have a big potential. You can not really stop them. And maybe you stop them for this month or for this year. You cannot really stop them long-term. You might as well help them to move fast.

And then hopefully, in most of the cases I’ve seen, they will pay it forward. And in fact, they will turn back and help you in many other ways. And that example I gave... now he's a successful entrepreneur. They're actually a couple of cases my own company needed to work with his company. And like it's super easy for me just to pick up the phone, say, "Hey, we need this, tell me what do you need. Or tell me in this space, what do you know?"

And he actually started to give me, in some way, his advice and in certain areas that I'm not aware of. So I think the roles on the position changes and we become friends, and a really learn from

Jerry Li: What's really interesting you just shared about, is the perspective you take because that can be a really big challenge. People may not know how to decide. But you look at a long-term view and you think about this is a long relationship, right now in the next three years, but lifelong. Then things become a lot clearer. I think that's a really powerful perspective to have in moments like that.

Li Fan: Yeah. And then frankly speaking it's kind of similar when you recruit people. Because now I've been several times in a startup. When I recruit people, I always try to be as, I will say, objective as possible because I imagine on the other end receiving those recruiting pitches. What is real? What is most likely to happen?

And of course, we will need to be inspirational but also want to be very transparent... "I believe what you can get from this company, and what you may or may not get from this company."

So that when people join, and they don't really... They're always up and down, but they at least will believe in what I told them. And this has been one of my, I will say, strengths or reputation in the Valley. Like I told them at least what I believe is true. And I really... I almost never say, "Hey, this is going to be 100 times stock value or something, this is never going to be my pitch."

Jerry Li: I heard those pitches before. It is quite common.

Li Fan: Yeah, I know. But it won't last long because you cannot predict it. But what you promise... for example, when I hire people into Lime or into Circle, I promise you will have tremendous growth opportunities, you will learn a lot because the company needs to expand. There's a lot of challenges in a startup. But I promise I will give you scope to learn and I will mentor you. And that's what I did.

The hard-to-imagine long term impact of mentoring

Patrick Gallagher: I had a quick follow up question Li because human beings are notoriously bad at being able to predict long term impact. And so, just to get a quick sense of the timescale. So for the relationship that you had mentioned how long have you had a relationship with that person? Is it multiple years?

Just to get a sense of first mentoring, that person to then, like, I guess to now? How long has that timescale been?

Li Fan: That is... I would say, fourteen years ago? Actually 15 years ago, he was one of my team members and then quickly established as a superstar.

I think one or two years in he started to think about the next step. And ever since then we kept in touch. And in fact, he's in China and in the US probably once a year... Sometimes it's literally a once in a year phone call. But that's okay, we know that the other side will be there when you need help.

Patrick Gallagher: 14 years. See, I think , my bet is that most people... like I have per I guess I'll speak in terms of me. I have a horrible time imagining "what would my life be like 14 years from now? And how will the thing that I'm doing now make a big impact..."

I guess my follow-up question is you remind yourself of long-term impact that happens from the investing in people now? Is there like something that you think about? Or is it that you've just built this habit in a relationship and pattern that for me as an engineering leader, what I value is mentoring? And so that's going to be a consistent part of my practice. Is there something that you do to help that fourteen-year impact forward for you help generate different actions?

Li Fan: Part of it because it's a positive reinforcement. When you have a positive story like this.When you have a really good feeling, and I really want to help others to be in that position.

But a part of it actually naturally happened. Like of course, 14 years before, my team had 20 or 30 people.

Most people I don't have a connection anymore and I'm not bad at that, it just happened to be that we don't have the opportunity to connect that closely, right? So, And I'll give you another example, Bill started to become a manager in 2003 so by now is 18 years old. And when he manages, he directs more than 100 people, 100! Of course, he's a ... saint I cannot do that.

But I don't know how many people continue to have a connection again, because he's a saint, he probably is still connected with a lot of people. But it is a natural selection process because I feel I have a need, I was lucky to have him continue to mentor him and long after he left Google, I left Google. And the same story with the person I mentored, a long time after he left Google, I left Google. But it's like just phases and you naturally, people are staying connected and naturally some people may or may not stay connected.

But if, say five years later, someone will reach out to say, "Li, if you remember, can ask a question?" I would still do it. Because I think it takes a lot of, I will say, actually courage for people to ask for help. Because when I think about... as I said, I'm very cautious, I don't want to waste people's time, so if I reach out to someone, it takes me courage to say, " Can I ask you a question," right? "Can I ask for a favor?"

And I feel the same thing with other people. So whenever people reach out to me, and I feel like okay, this person already gathered all the energy and asked me, so I will reply. I pretty much reply to everything.

Patrick Gallagher: I found the same thing that, more often than not, if I muster up the courage and the strength to ask somebody for help, more often than not I'm met with either a yes or I would love to talk. And so I definitely want to plus one the generosity and goodwill of people found reflects that they're more than willing to help if you ask.

Staying in touch with your mentors and the people you mentor

Patrick Gallagher: I had a mechanical question about this. You had mentioned sometimes you catch up with your mentee, maybe it's once a year or so. How do you stay in contact with folks? Like, do you have reminders set for like, ah, I need to ping and stay in touch with this person?

Like, do you have a process set up or is it a little bit more of like, oh, I saw something in the news about this person I'd love to catch up with them. Do you have sort of a methodology for how you stay in contact with the folks that you've been mentoring?

Li Fan: Good question. I don't think I'm very good at it...

I will say again, everyone's busy. I was thinking about being regular, but I feel like, as I said, I don't feel like reaching out to people when there's no solid reason. And the only time I sent a check-in or hello or whatever message is during say, New Year time and then Christmas, New Year or Thanksgiving and because I reflected who I should send in my life and that's the time.

But otherwise it is, I always joke when I'm thinking about changing job or when people reach out say, "I'm thinking about changing job." Like last night I received a WeChat say, " I need to ask you something, can you help me?" And I have to say, "Sure," this is my older friend that we haven't talked for half a year but if she needs help, of course!

So those are the moments I don't mind that you just ask me a question when you need to because we are all busy and it's hard to keep connection with so many people all the time.

And also, I recognize that as you move on to different phases, you will be closer to a certain group of people more than others. It's not like you want to forget about them, it's just your life, your work makes you want to connect closer with some specific group of people during that moment.

For example, now I'm in FinTech, I talk to my friends in Coinbase, Stripe more than my friends in Pinterest, Airbnb, it just naturally, it's not ditching or something. It's just that I happen to need those conversations to learn about this space.

The long-term ripple effect when you "pay it forward" and mentor others

Patrick Gallagher: We've one more mentoring phase to talk about, Li. We've talked about your experience being mentored, we talked about paying it forward. I think when you think about the long-term impact of mentoring and paying it forward, the ripple effect. It's the second and third order impact of mentors where some really interesting things can happen that I think many of us are unaware of or unconscious of.

So I was wondering, when you’ve been observing the people you’ve mentored and the success that they’ve had and the way that they've paid it forward. Are there any stories that come to mind or observations that you've had about the impact the people you've mentored have had on other people as they have then turned to, to pay it forward?

Are there any stories or moments that come to mind?

Li Fan: Yeah. So one of the things I did during my break, which I feel pretty good, is I try to spend as much time as possible in those communities or forums like ELC certain groups, let's say, Women in Technology, let's say, the Eng leadership, Asian Engineer Group.

So there's one forum is by Tsing Hua alumni, they asked me to be their mentor, they have a mentor mentee kind of setup every year. And I joined the last two years ago as a mentor. And that year, I mentored a group of eng managers and the directors. And I feel it's really interesting to hear their issues, and I then help them.

But then the second year, two of those members were, I forgot, senior manager or director. They themselves become mentors for this community. And one of them in her talk and as she mentioned my name, say, "Hey, I learned a lot of things from my mentor Li, now I'm going to try to pay forward and help others."

And when I hear that I'm really happy that it just happens naturally! We have this forum where we can literally, generation after generation even, not generation, per se, but I think that's class by class, we are helping that next younger class to grow in this space.

Jerry Li: I think to a certain extent is shaping culture. One small action has a ripple effect. And those are not going to stop.

Li Fan: Yeah. So actually, this topic, I want to say very cool, Jerry and Patrick, what you're doing cause I... Jerry, I still remember how many years ago we met first and when you reach out to say, "Can you be part of it?" I don't remember, I think it's when I was in Pinterest or something?

Jerry Li: Yeah, maybe at least three or four years ago.

Li Fan: I think when I look at your website, it looks cool and I believe in the mission. But I do remember it's a prominent community yet, right? And I don't think Patrick, you are part of community at that time.

But I remember I started to be part of the things and I try to attend some of the activities over the years, and look at how big it is and how prominent.

Because I actually have met a few people when I interview for Circle or for other things, they will say, "Oh, yeah, I watched your ELC, whatever event." I'm like, "Oh, okay, good." Because I joined so many events, I don't really know who's watching. But more and more often people mentioned that "I watched your talk and here and then there!"

I'm like, "Okay!

Patrick Gallagher: Li, thank you so much for taking us on the journey to, to connect the impact. Just to go through the whole story of mentoring from being a mentor to paying it forward, being able to witness the people you've mentored, pay it forward.

It's rare moments in life, where you're able to see how all of those things connect together and impact.

And so it was just really thank you for opening up your world and in sharing those stories with us, it was really incredible

Li Fan: It is my honor and it is a rare opportunity to talk about this. Because I've been talking about leadership for many different forums. And this is the first time we concentrate on this. And I think this is one of those areas I feel mostly good about.

As I said, I'm not necessarily those senior leaders who helped me land the next great job, and they did. But more importantly, I feel the, again, the special gift that they gave to me by feeling that someone just generously passed down confidence and their, I will say, trust in you and then you can pass it on to others.

Finding the right mentor and creating mutually beneficial relationships

Patrick Gallagher: I have one more question to put a bookend on our mentoring conversation. And then I also really want to ask you about art, because I know that's something that we had talked about. And you're gonna have both, both big fans of arts, but so we'll get to that in a second, but to close off the mentoring conversation.

For those listening, who maybe are hesitant to intentionally mentor other folks or to ask to be mentored seek out help in that way. Do you have any final words of encouragement, a final thought you'd want to share with somebody to help them take action, to ask, to be mentored or to go out and to invest in other

Li Fan: Yeah. I do. I feel like my learning it's naturally going to happen and you make it small first. Because... I give you examples, I gave. It's almost never happened say, I will say, "Hey, can you be my mentor?"

"Oh, yes, I'm going to be your mentor."

It's not that official. It is really say, "Hey, I have this thing, can you help me? I need your advice, I need your input."

And people will be more than happy to give that. But instead of having an official contract, "I'm going to be your mentor," you know what I mean? It's not that commitment, it's just making it too hard.

And also, there needs to be some connection. As I said, many of my mentor, mentees start with work relationships. We have some mutual understanding and a trust, then going a step further will be very natural, even if we will no longer work together.

I sometimes receive lengthy messages to say, "I'm in this university doing this PhD or in this company, can you be my mentor?"

I'm like, "But, I can't, I'm sorry. It's not because I don't want to help you. I do not think I can help you. I don't know you. I'm not in your field... the effort for which you warm up all that fast. And then realize I'm not even in the position to help you it is not a good use of either of our time."

So I will feel like the mentorship has to have some connection that both side to feel it's going to be a fruitful relationship. That's my learning. I actually do receive calls like, "Can you give me my mentor?" out of blue.

I'll give you example, there was one lady who I didn't know before. But she was working also in high tech and she eventually also right now became a leader in Google.

She sent an email saying, "Who and who referred.. and I heard about you. This is my background, this is my struggle now. Can you help me?"

And I will read through I'm like "Yeah, I think I feel connected, even though I really don't know her but she did enough homework. And I feel like yeah, this is something I can help."

This is a woman leader who struggles in particular issues that actually have some learning. So I started to meet her, actually on a few occasions that gave her advice. And she actually is doing very well in Google right now.

So those are the moments that I feel connected. But most of the time I'm sorry, I just don't know you, I cannot help you.

Patrick Gallagher: Well it goes back to what you shared at the beginning with honoring people's time and that if you're reaching out for help doing that homework ahead of time. understand why that person would be meaningful and help you solve that particular problem, Is so important because it demonstrates care and consideration and thoughtfulness that "I'm reaching out to you for a really intentional purpose, because you CAN help."

And so I think that's a really great thing to acknowledge.

How Art influences Li’s approach to engineering leadership

Patrick Gallagher: I have one, one more burning question on my mind. we know that. And I think Jerry for Jerry and I, art has played a really important role in both of our lives. I'm on a non-profit board related to dance. Jerry's wife, Sienna has painted the picture that's behind him and also does a lot of art herself.

So art has been a big role in, our families. How. Art influenced your career path as an engineering leader, or what, your work at art, how has art influence your engineering leadership or your career path?

Li Fan: Yeah. So first of all, I want to tell them I'm an artist want to be, by the way.

When I was a young kid, I really wanted to be an artist. And I trained very hard, I have regular art class after school mostly painting and sketching. But of course, not sure if I shared it everywhere, I just have a Asian type of mom who insists I'm going to go into engineering and computer science. She doesn't really care about computer science or whatever.

But in some way, I'm grateful. I think it is, to be honest, a very good career and I find a lot of success and accomplishment in the career I take. But I always have this urge to want to go back. And if any course I want to find a next one, I always say, "Maybe it's time for me to go back to art school."

But I have to admit that I'm chicken hearted, and eventually say, "Hey, I can still do a lot of engineering management, still have a lot to learn in the high tech and so I stay in this path."

But fortunately, during my break between Lime and Circle, I did find a time to actually practice my painting. I actually have a few oil done and I'm very happy.

What I really learned with my own experiences is people are not what they look like, right? You may find someone who's extremely good at programming or technical but fundamentally, he may be a musician, he wants to do handcraft or something. I think it helps me to calibrate people who are not, on the surface, what they look like. And they have a different facet everywhere in life and they present themselves this way, but they may have the other way.

So I feel like it's really different in my empathy for different people. If they are different, I can totally take it because I'm not what I look like, right? People will say, "Hey, you're a woman in technology."

But if you ask me about my passion in life, computer science is the second! My passion in life is art. But unfortunately, I'm not an artist. I didn't train myself hard enough and spend enough time. But this is something top of my mind. So part of me, I think it helps me as a manager to understand human beings are complex.

Just because people were saying, "Hey, work is not my top priority," doesn't mean this person is not a good employee at all, right? It's okay to say, "I like sailing most." And he or she can still be the best, most productive engineer in your organization. So that perspective really helped me. I think this is why I feel I'm more easily connected with a lot of people.

When I interviewed with Pinterest, I felt instantly connected with Evan the co-founder, because he's a designer, I started to get excited to talk to him about designing things.

Patrick Gallagher: That's incredible. I love that insight and perspective Li because, you know, I think about like when you go and meet new people, especially in the valley, usually one of the first top two questions that come up is like, what do you do? And it's like, I have a friend who. His practices instead of saying, oh, what do I do?

I, you know, work for this company? His response is, oh, well actually just finished playing Ultimate Frisbee. And I did this and like, it answers it a little bit more literally. And people are like, well, no, like what do you do? And he's like, well, I'm more than my job. And I'm more than my career.

And I think, you know, what you shared that human beings have so much more dimension to them than just their work and to be mindful of that is such a special gift to carry with you. And so that's incredible. I love that.

Li Fan: Better get something from my childhood dreams!

Rapid Fire Questions

Patrick Gallagher: Li we've prepared quick, rapid fire questions. I'm going to do my very best to withhold commenting and going down rabbit holes out of respect for time.

First question... What is a trend that you're seeing right now, or you're following that's really interesting or hasn't hit the mainstream yet.

Li Fan: Innovation in the fintech space. I think there's a lot of innovation already but a lot of it is incremental.

Part of the reason I'm excited about Circle is we are doing something really disruptive and I think many of them haven't realized the potential. It's not a commercial! This is how if I get convinced and frankly speaking I just believe the trend. And I think a lot of people haven't seen that trend yet.

Patrick Gallagher: That's fantastic.

What's your favorite or most powerful question to ask others or to be asked yourself?

Li Fan: I would change the question, because there's a question I always ask myself, and I find it very challenging even myself to answer this is, “what makes you happy?”

A lot of my great mentors when they tried to help me were asking what makes you happy? And I realized what makes me happy in the different stages is different. Even sometimes, if you ask me in the morning or at night, it might be different. And I recognize this is a hard question to answer.

But that is such a powerful clarifying question, and I try to ask myself constantly to keep me centered on why I'm doing what I'm doing right now.

Patrick Gallagher: I love that

I love that last one, Li. there a quote or mantra that you live by or a quote that's really resonating with you, right

Li Fan: So many I feel so connected... But one thing I actually, recently I did feel very powerful is, " be the change you want to see.”

I feel that when I grew up as engineer or as a scientist, you have a very strong sense of what's right and wrong. And sometimes you get very upset like why society or life is not this way or that way and you feel upset.

But as I get older or get mature, I realize I can be part of the, in fact, I can be a strong drive, a strong effort, a strong force to make it happen. And this is what myself and I encourage others to just be the change that you want to see. And just lead the way. And it's hard but that's how you're going to make it happen.

Patrick Gallagher: I think that's an incredibly empowering way to conclude our conversation only the. You want to see, and it's so thematic to our conversation about mentoring. that when you support and invest in other people, you're helping empower them to be the change you want to create together. And so, Li, thank you so much for your time, your stories, the generosity of and insights. It has been an absolute joy.

Jerry Li: This is really great conversation. I learned a lot personally.

Li Fan: Thank you! Again, thank you for giving me the opportunity to share these all, and it's also a special moment for me to reflect all those things with you

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Pivotal Leadership Moments & Career Decision-Making
Mar 12th, 2024 Views 1K