What we think | Sales & Business Leader Perspectives

Sales Leader Uma Thana Balasingam shares insights on storytelling, building self-worth, and creating a fulfilling life

Uma-thana-balasingam

Uma Thana Balasingam

Vice President - Ecosystem & Commercial Organization, Asia Pacific & Japan - VMware | Founder, Lean In Singapore | Founder Lean In Women in Tech

What motivated you to get started in contributing to others?

I believe it all began because early in my career, I never thought to ask for help. I had this belief that I had to figure things out on my own. Growing up, it often felt like I was an only child, despite having an adopted sister. My parents constantly emphasized the importance of doing well and figuring things out independently. This mindset persisted throughout my career, compounded by the lack of female role models in my male-dominated industry. I never even thought to seek them out. However, everything changed when I read the book “Lean In” in 2016. It was an eye-opening experience, realizing that I wasn’t alone in facing these challenges. The book articulated many of the experiences I had encountered. Moreover, it revealed that there were actionable steps I could take to address these issues. Personally, I was so inspired by the book that I couldn’t put it down, reading late into the night. I felt an urge to share this message with everyone and wondered how I could contribute to spreading it further. That’s when it all truly began.

How can take care of yourself while donning multiple hats?

I would say the two most significant lessons for me are, firstly, the importance of considering both time and energy management, particularly for women. Working with a life coach helped me realize the impact of our cycles on our productivity. While men have a constant level of energy throughout the day, women experience hormonal fluctuations that affect their energy levels. Understanding my own cycle has allowed me to optimize my rest, brainstorming, pitching ideas, and even building muscles at the gym. I’ve made changes to my calendar based on insights from the book “Do Less” by Kate Northrup, which I highly recommend for women in the workplace.

Secondly, I’ve learned to avoid using the word “busy” because time is a limited resource for all of us. Being mindful of how I spend my time and striking a balance between work and personal life has been crucial. For instance, I prioritize getting enough sleep, which is a non-negotiable condition for me. Even during special events like my wedding, I valued sleep over late-night festivities. Additionally, I prioritize activities that bring me joy and energy, such as mentoring others and helping them move forward. These activities are color-coded purple on my calendar because they truly energize me. It’s not about doing one big thing occasionally; rather, it’s about consistently investing time in what brings us energy and fulfilment.

What were some of the challenges, inner demons and biases you overcame while building this brand to reach where you are today?

Firstly, one of the major challenges for me was finding my voice. Despite adapting to be more extroverted in my professional and community roles, my natural inclination is towards introversion. Overcoming this required conscious effort. A common misconception is that confidence must precede action, but I have learned that the reverse is true. Confidence is gained by taking action. Initially, I lacked confidence to speak up in meetings due to self-doubt and internal voices undermining my worth. To counter this, I forced myself into uncomfortable situations, like speaking up with a simple “excuse me.” This helped me gradually find my voice.

Secondly, once you find your voice, the next challenge is how to effectively use it to share with others. Platforms like social media, such as LinkedIn, can be valuable tools. However, it’s important to filter out external opinions and focus on the voices that genuinely care about your well-being and success. Over time, I have learned to care less about the opinions of others and prioritize the input of those who have my best interests at heart. This shift in mindset allows me to express my true point of view with greater courage and authenticity, while still maintaining respect and kindness. It’s acceptable to create some discomfort when aiming to invoke constructive dialogue.

In addition to finding my voice and filtering external voices, I have discovered the significance of having a distinct point of view. To articulate it effectively, I believe that the ability to read and interpret data while weaving compelling stories is a powerful skill. The combination of data analysis and storytelling creates a unique superpower for career success. Therefore, I strive to leverage this skill set whenever possible, as stories have a lasting impact on people’s memories and understanding.

How did you discover the right combination, or the art of storytelling, in a context where you can use your voice effectively?

I think it comes down to what you’ve always talked about as well: communication skills. Telling a story, I’ve discovered, is not just about having the content, but also how you present that content when you verbalize it or write it out. Writing, in fact, is still one of the most underrated skills, and those who can write well tend to excel. The key is to say it in a concise manner while still capturing the essence and meaning of the story authentically. It takes practice, continually striving to improve rather than aiming for perfection before starting. I find that telling the same story repeatedly, both verbally and in writing, enhances its power. However, what you mentioned is true — storytelling is not a new concept. At the end of the day, we are all human beings attracted to vulnerability and open conversations about topics that are not often discussed. When you find personalities and stories that resonate with you, for various reasons, whether it’s shared ethnicity or background, there is a sense of connection and a desire to learn from those stories. It creates a pull factor in storytelling, bringing people on a journey, much like the childhood books that used to begin with “once upon a time.” What happened? What was the lesson? And how did it end? That’s the essence of storytelling.

Passion is evident when you can express yourself fully, authentically, and genuinely. It’s not about chasing a leadership position; it’s about discovering how you can be of value to others. This form of expression is what makes a leader, regardless of title or status.

How did you increase the deservability in your own eyes?

I think Brene Brown’s TED talk on worthiness is one that I always go back to watch every year. When she conducted her research on vulnerability and discovered that joy and happiness are experienced by those who feel worthy of them, it was a profound lightbulb moment for me. It applies to all of us. I deeply respect and acknowledge that we all come from different backgrounds and have unique struggles with worthiness, especially underrepresented minorities in terms of gender, age, cultural background, and more. I personally struggled with it as well. I lacked self-confidence, disliked my reflection in the mirror, and resisted wearing dresses until my thirties, believing my body wasn’t suited for them. Although some may find this amusing, we all face these internal battles. We constantly seek acceptance from others. However, my biggest lesson was learning to love and accept myself first. It required significant personal growth and introspection. When you achieve that, it creates a major shift. People who appear to have it all together have likely put in substantial effort on themselves. Unfortunately, many people avoid this necessary self-work. We invest in education for countless subjects, but often neglect to invest in understanding ourselves. For me, loving and respecting myself in the mirror was the pivotal moment that radiated a different aura and energy to others. It enabled me to embrace receiving, something many women struggle with. Referring to our cycles, my friend Jana and I often talk about the importance of being the egg, learning to receive instead of constantly chasing after things. But to truly receive, you must first believe that you are worthy of receiving.

What are your thoughts on women’s innate abilities in relationship building and empathy?

I think the first thing to know is that each one of us is unique. There is no other Priya with your brain and the specific qualities that make you who you are. For example, what captures your attention may differ from what others notice. What you observe and what brings you energy will be distinct as well. So, if you can identify your “red threads,” as Mark Buckingham wrote in the book Love Plus Work, you can understand your uniqueness and explore how to convert it into a passion that you can bring to your work.

In my own experience, during my first sales job at IBM, I discovered that I genuinely enjoyed working with people, despite considering myself more of an introvert. I found satisfaction in the process and felt a sense of fulfillment afterward. This realization was a significant clue for me. I believe it’s important to pay attention to the things you notice that others may not. What are the activities that absorb you so much that people have to interrupt or remind you of time passing? For instance, this morning I was engaged in a project related to women and bringing people together. As a connector, I was striving to connect a group of individuals with a specific purpose. I found great satisfaction in this process, which I can’t adequately describe in words.

These moments of deep engagement are indicators of whether you are in a role or delivering a scope of work that truly resonates with you. Passion is evident when you can express yourself fully, authentically, and genuinely. It’s not about chasing a leadership position; it’s about discovering how you can be of value to others. This form of expression is what makes a leader, regardless of title or status. While having a privileged platform and power can enhance your ability to create change, everyone possesses their unique platform and power, which may manifest differently for each individual, regardless of their circumstances.

How has the climate and culture around DEI changed?

I try to use diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging together. And I think it’s a great evolution from when we used to just say D and I. We are evolving in terms of how we think about inclusion, and there are so many different terms out there on what people believe is important. I will speak from my own point of view and give a few examples.

When people start their careers at VMware, some of them are placed in a Special Projects Office where they get to work with senior leaders. I’m curious to see if that accelerates their career in any way. They get to be the fly on the wall and interact directly with senior leadership. However, they are then expected to quickly adapt and demonstrate their skills. When they come to me, for example, they need to be prepared, concise, and follow up on actions. At my level, I don’t micromanage.

We also have individuals who join us from non-tech backgrounds or from different parts of our business ecosystem. We need to consider how we can help these individuals succeed. Firstly, we need to allocate more time for them. Secondly, we should inform everyone else to be more mindful. For instance, during Zoom calls, we often use acronyms that may not be familiar to someone new to tech or VMware’s partner ecosystem. It’s important for us to pause and explain the acronyms. In the past, I used to record meetings so that people in such situations could listen to the recordings and ask me any questions they had. Different considerations come into play for different individuals.

From my work at Lean In, I firmly believe in impacting change one person at a time, regardless of DEI. I appreciate the addition of belonging to the equation. While having great programs and feeling supported are essential, true belonging and inclusion come into question when a person feels like he or she belongs somewhere. As the only female engineer in a group, do I genuinely feel like I belong, and my voice matters? Belonging is another critical aspect. So, for me, one person at a time is how we can all make a difference.

How do you keep your inner child alive?

I believe it’s not just important for women, but for all of us to embrace the playful side within ourselves. How do we play? That’s a question worth asking. I love that. It’s a question I haven’t been asked before. Let me share something I haven’t publicly mentioned yet. Just two weeks ago, I started taking dance classes. I’ve always known that I love to dance, even during my university days when we would go out to clubs. I never pursued it further by taking lessons. But I finally asked myself, “What am I waiting for?” Dancing, for me, is a form of play. I get to learn something new, and there are numerous health benefits associated with it. In just an hour, I can burn around 300 calories, so that’s an added bonus. Dance also invokes creativity and helps me approach meetings with a different mindset. It allows me to be more playful and bring that playfulness into my work. In fact, tomorrow I have a session planned where I’ve gathered a random group of people to brainstorm ideas for a project we need to tackle in September. I strongly believe that solutions can be found through individuals who aren’t immersed in the problem on a daily basis. So we’re going to come together and throw some crazy ideas on the whiteboard. That’s how I introduce play. But for me to encourage play, I need to embrace it myself. It’s incredibly important.

What is one story that has stood with you and defined you?

Well, I’m grateful to have many stories like that. Let me share the first story of my career, which I’ve shared before. It was when I received my first job interview after graduating from university. At the time, I was living in a single bedroom with three other girls, and everyone was already finding jobs. One of my roommates had a sister who worked at IBM and knew of an IBM distributor looking to hire a fresh graduate systems engineer. That’s how I landed my first interview, and it taught me the power of networks.

Throughout my career, some of the most significant opportunities I’ve received came from unexpected sources. For example, someone in a backend role at a random company suggested to a headhunter company that they should talk to me. The power of networks has always been influential for me. In that particular interview, the general manager of the company immediately offered me the job and a salary of 1800 Ringgit, which was the going rate at the time. It was like he read my mind because I knew what my friends were earning, and I thought, “Wow, it would be nice to have my own room and bed for a change.” In a matter of seconds, I decided I wanted to live in that area and asked for a salary of 2200 Ringgit, as I needed an additional $400 for the room. He was so shocked that he agreed. That experience taught me the power of asking. When you ask, you are more likely to receive. From that point on, I made it a habit to ask throughout my career. I may not have had a negotiation strategy back then, except for wanting my own room and bed, but I learned that you can actually ask and often get what you want. Even if you receive a “no,” at least you put your request out there. It’s like putting your desires out into the universe, and the universe responds accordingly. So, to this day, I feel less shy about asking. Those two stories have stayed with me.

What are some mental tweaks that can help women really move forward in their life and leadership?

During the pandemic, I created boundaries, and I believe that is extremely important. For instance, I made a decision not to work after 5 pm, and I clearly communicated this to my team. I told them that if anything urgent came up, they could call me. Surprisingly, I rarely received any calls. It turned out that most things could wait until the next morning; they weren’t that critical.

I think sometimes we feel unworthy of the opportunities we have been given, and we find ourselves constantly striving to prove our worth. We keep paddling, trying to do more and show up more, as if we need to demonstrate that we deserve to be where we are. So, as you mentioned, setting boundaries is crucial. There is a great book on this topic called “Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free” by Nancy Levin.

Another point I want to emphasize is what I mentioned earlier: are you taking care of yourself and doing things that bring you joy? For me, it meant stopping work at five o’clock because I had set specific COVID goals for myself, such as working out every day, even if it was just for five minutes. I wanted to do something to take care of myself. To ensure I could consistently achieve this, I created a system of stopping work at five and communicated it to others. Of course, I had some off days, but overall, I stuck to my routine. So, what are you doing to fill up your cup? Some people call it self-care, but I see it as replenishing myself so that I can give to others. As women, we tend to give a lot, but we also need to learn how to receive from others, whether it’s compliments or support from our partners, friends, or the support system around us. We need to learn to accept compliments graciously instead of brushing them off as team efforts. It’s important to receive and then take the time to fill our cups with activities that bring us joy and energy. This should be done on a weekly basis rather than thinking that a two-hour trip to the spa every couple of months will suffice. In my experience, that approach didn’t work. I needed to incorporate small doses of self-care into my routine every week.

Uma-thana-balasingam
Practitioner:

Uma Thana Balasingam

Vice President - Ecosystem & Commercial Organization, Asia Pacific & Japan - VMware | Founder, Lean In Singapore | Founder Lean In Women in Tech
With over 20 years of experience, Uma is a passionate, dynamic, and versatile sales expert. She has a proven track record of driving innovative solutions and delivering exceptional value across the Asia Pacific & Japan region. As a lead partner for businesses and overall Channel Chief, she executes go-to-market plans within VMware’s ecosystem across 48 markets. Her strategic leadership drives revenue attainment, with the Commercial and Inside Sales Organization serving over 160,000 customers. As a multi-award-winning leader, she has enabled organic growth, expanded into new channels, revitalized lacklustre markets, and motivated existing teams. She is also the founder of Lean In Singapore, Lean In Women in Tech Asia, and Lean In Women in Tech Singapore. Her accomplishments have earned her recognition as one of CRN’s “Most Powerful Women of the Channel” on a global scale and Singapore’s “Top 100 Women in IT.”
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Curator:
Chandrani Datta works as a Manager-Content Research and Development with almost a decade’s experience in writing and editing of content. A former journalist turned content manager, Chandrani has written and edited for different brands cutting across industries. The hunger for learning, meaningful work and novel experiences keeps her on her toes. An avid traveller, Chandrani’s interests lie in photography, reading and watching movies.

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