I first met Linh Tran Hai seven years ago when I was still an antsy teenager. At that time, Linh was 23 and the CEO of Lenovo Vietnam. I met him once, added him on Facebook and we went our separate ways. What would the youngest CEO in the country want to do with me anyway?
A few days ago, Linh messaged me saying he’s in Bay Area and would love to catch up. I jumped at the invitation. We had dinner, and I got to learn about his incredible journey from an unemployed college undergrad to a country manager at 23.
After graduating from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, he couldn’t get a job for 6 months. A big tech company offered him a researcher position, but withdrew their offer because he was an immigrant and they didn’t want to sponsor him visa. Completely broke, he was considering working for McDonald’s when he got a call from IBM. The interview went well but the department they interviewed him for had recently been acquired by Lenovo. “Do you still want the job?” His interviewer asked. He had no idea what Lenovo was, but he was so desperate he said yes. When they asked him about his expectations, he took his friends’ average salary and divided it by two. In his head, he was thinking of SGD 2000, but when it came out of his mouth, he got so nervous it became 1900. His interviewer laughed. They offered him SGD 2100.
He was only one of two contractors in the Singaporean office at that time–the other was the janitor. He didn’t have a desk to work on–he just sort of had to find whatever table available until someone shooed him away. He soon realized that because he was a contractor, he had no official affiliation with the company and they could fire him anytime. So he stuck around. He was always the last one to leave the office and made sure the managers notice him. He introduced himself and kept asking everyone if there was anything he could do to help their work. Anything. He was helping them preparing presentations, following up emails, even making photocopies. He learned about their work. A place he liked to sit was the meeting room. If there was a meeting, they kicked him out. But when there was no meeting and the executives were still hanging around, he got to listen to them talk. After 3 months, he learned all about the company’s politics.
Soon after that, the CEO of the Vietnam office was fired. Linh was sent back to Vietnam to assist the search for a new CEO. Then the temporary CEO was also fired. Linh continued the search while gradually taking on more and more important tasks. After 6 months, the company still couldn’t find a CEO. Since Linh has been basically running the Vietnam office, the board decided to offer him the job. He was fresh out of college and got promoted from a contractor to a country manager within less than a year.
What impressed me the most wasn’t his young age, but his resilience and his willingness to work hard. When he was a contractor without a desk to work on, he didn’t just sit in a corner complaining about how unlucky he was. He put himself out there. He found ways to make himself indispensable. He showed people what he could do.
I came back from the dinner all inspired. Everything is possible. Now if only I could stop watching Games of Thrones to make that “everything” happen.