Susan Seah is a founding partner of the boutique business law firm CounselGS, also known as Gardiner Seah LLP, where her practice focuses on general commercial and intellectual property transactions. She has extensive experience providing legal assistance to technology companies over the past two decades.
In addition to her legal practice, Seah has been dedicated to advancing the leadership skills of women as a board member and chair of the leadership team of the Seattle chapter of LWT (formerly Leading Women in Technology). This past September, she also started The Koa Club, a social club for women who are passionate about lifelong learning and improving their leadership and professional skills.
Seah earned a business degree from the Ohio University, an MBA from Chaminade University of Honolulu and a law degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated? The most important characteristics of a good leader are to be able to clearly define a vision, trust in your vision and be passionate about achieving it; communicate that vision with clarity; inspire and motivate others toward that vision; and also being able to trust others to help you achieve the vision.
Overrated leadership traits are having natural charisma (because you don’t have to be a “natural born leader” with charisma); believing you have to be in a leadership role in order to lead (because you don’t have to be a boss to lead and inspire others); and being an expert in the area you are leading (because you don’t have to be the all-knowing and all-seeing person to be a good leader). You can assemble a team of people where they can be the experts in their areas or everyone can share in the tasks of becoming experts in different areas, and you help them work toward successfully achieving a collective vision.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader? As a woman, I think the most significant barrier to becoming a leader is the invisible constraints we put on ourselves. We sometimes lack self-confidence and have trouble believing that others can look to us to lead them to achieve a vision or a goal, especially in areas where we are not an expert. It’s the inner critic within us that we need to overcome, and we have to work on trusting in our vision and our abilities to lead and not be afraid to fail.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? To achieve more prominent roles in their organization, women should consider undertaking these actions: a) be willing to leave our comfort zones and believe we are fully capable of tackling the tougher, harder and more challenging role or assignment (or, in short, be brave); b) not being afraid to self-promote our abilities to others who can help us get the more prominent roles; c) find mentors you respect and trust within your organization who can help guide you to your desired role and champion for you at the big table when you are not there; d) be willing to help build and grow a community of women within the organization that supports and advocates for other women to take on more prominent roles.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you? I would say my older sister, Julie, has inspired me in so many ways. She is amazingly resilient, incredibly savvy and never let any failures in her life stop her from achieving her goals. I have seen her get crushed in her entrepreneurial pursuits by circumstances outside her control, but instead of self-pity and throwing in the towel, she rose from these failures, stronger, wiser and even more passionate about accomplishing what she has set out to do.
She is not afraid of hard work, is willing to swallow her pride when necessary and always maintains a clear vision of her goals. She leads and others follow because they believe in her. I am very fortunate to be a part of her journey and she constantly inspires me, not just as my big sister but truly as a role model for other women.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders? You have the power, ability and fearlessness to do whatever you want and be whatever you want. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts? I believe that it is incredibly important to connect and build relationships with others. Networking (or more appropriately, “meaningful connecting”) allows us to meet new people who can show us differing points of view from our own, help us expand our knowledge, possibly opening doors and opportunities for us while, in turn, we help add value to their ecosystem.
Such mutually beneficial relationships are extremely useful for our careers, and I believe they enrich our lives in general. I expand my contacts through, of course, meeting amazing women through The Koa Club and LWT, collaborating with other organizations who are aligned with my interests and values, and being open to meeting people through recommendations and contacts provided by friends, colleagues and others.
What would you do differently in your career? As a woman and a minority, I have encountered some gender bias and discrimination in companies that I have worked for in the past. Since these biases and discrimination practices were never too overt ― and being naïve and young then ― I was not consciously aware of how my career and the careers of other women may have been affected by such biases and practices.
If I could do it all over again, I would be more proactive in helping drive changes in these companies to build an inclusive workplace and create communities that support and advocate for our rights in the workplace. Today, I am very active in advocating for the growth and empowerment of women by, among other things, the creation of The Koa Club, a social club for women achievers, and in undertaking a leadership role with LWT (formerly, Leading Women in Technology), a nonprofit organization focused on advancing women in their leadership skills.
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon? Hiking, camping, backpacking, getting ready to host a party or an event, catching up on work, writing my book, taking my dog to the dog park, hanging out with my spouse and friends, checking out a local festival, figuring how to conquer the world.
What would be the title of your autobiography? “Be Brave. Be Koa.” (The word “Koa” means fearless in the Hawaiian language.) I truly believe that we should never let fear be an obstacle to achieving our hopes, dreams and goals. People often think I am fearless because of the many different pursuits that I have tackled in life, but what they don’t realize is that I was terrified most of the time when tackling those pursuits, but I was not going to let fear stand in my way of achieving my goals.
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Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.