Upskilling, or focusing on personal development, can propel your career.  But what skills should you focus on and how should you develop them? Cherry Siu, chief of staff at Deloitte, shares personal development insights from her personal experience and observation of other global professionals.



Cherry Siu & Deloitte

Dr. Andrea Wojnicki & Talk About Talk




Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much, Cherry, for joining us here today to talk about the importance of consciously developing our communication skills at work.

Cherry Siu: I’m very excited to be here.

AW: Why don’t we start by having you share with us a little bit about what you do in your role as Chief of Staff?

CS: As chief of staff, I’m really a strategist and a connector, I drive in develop our global CNI financial advisory strategy for Deloitte. But I’m also connected in the sense that I connect different leaders from different countries together to align on the strategy, make sure we’re all leading global initiatives together, and I also lead complex projects for the firm.

AW: Okay, that helps me a lot, because you know, I know these big global organizations, they have silos. So your role is to bring them all together.

CS: This is very exciting, because you get to work across different cultures, different levels of executives, and try to align them into one strategy. We’re a strong believer that we stronger together as one. So I’m the person who pulls everyone together and make sure we’re all aligned and doing the same thing for bigger impact.

AW: So you’re really focusing on I guess, identifying best practices, and then making sure that those are permeated throughout the organization. And one of those things, may be training people on things like communication skills?

CS: Absolutely. As part of a global advisory firm, we are very strong in training our practitioners, because our people are our assets, and communications, that interpersonal skill, and how do you deal with both internally and externally with clients – is a skill set that’s fundamental to what we do.

AW: But I think that’s an interesting insight, right, your organization is not selling widgets, you are selling professional services, which means you’re selling the services of human beings. And therefore, instead of investing in capital improvements, instead of investing in product improvements, you’re investing in your people and their skill development.

CS: Yeah, that’s true. Especially for professional services, we’ve definitely got the technical skills. But beyond that, there’s a huge element of that interpersonal skills that people really need to develop. Because you’re not just buying a person helping you do a project, you’re really buying that relationship and someone you want to work with,

AW: Oh, I love that word relationship, because if you’re not communicating, your relationship is going to suffer, right? And in your case for Deloitte, that’s internally working with teams internally, and also your relationship with your client.

CS: Yes, they’re both equally important.

AW: So then my question is, what specific communication skills do you think are most important in terms of these relationships, relationship building within the firm and with clients? And specifically, what skills do you see elevating the people at Deloitte in terms of them getting promoted?

CS: I think one of the key things is the ability to listen and being able to synthesize information at the right level, day in and day out, I work with my clients at different level, I work all the way from C suite, the CEO, the CFO, to VP, to analysts, and you realize that they need different levels of information. I’m not going to go to the CEO, listen to him, and then give him a five-page detailed note summary of what we just discussed. Whereas, you know, if I’m working with an analyst who’s really needs the detail of everything that’s come through, that’s a different level of information. And, active listening is really important, too. It’s about being able to understand what your client is telling you, being able to read between the lines and simplifying it for them. So, a lot of times, we’re in brainstorming sessions, people throwing ideas out there, you really need to be able to understand a whole situation, being able to simplify into bullet points at the very end of it. One of my key mentors does a great thing. He can go into a three-hour conversation. And at the end of it, he’ll come back and summarize in three points. And people appreciate that, because there’s so much talking involved, it’s good for everyone to align on those key messages, and what’s the takeaway. Being able to listen is a huge thing for me. And the other thing I think is really important is being able to speak up and creating executive presence with the right people, I see people struggling to strike a balance between talking too much versus not enough. And some people force themselves – if you tried to speak up once or twice in every meeting. And I don’t think that’s the right approach to go about it because you want to add value. So I think you need to understand when you need to speak up to build trust and relationships with people. In the advisory business, my job is to solve problems for my clients. So, I need to pick the right situation and says what do I need to build relationship with my clients outside of an official meeting and speak up and have my point of view there? Or whether it is it being in the presence with every other client and being able to act as an advisor there, you got to strike the balance. And I think lastly is how you speak matters being professional in terms of how you can articulate, managing your pace, managing your tone, managing how many filter words you use – are all parts of how professional you’re gonna appear to your colleagues to your clients. That’s really important. And I try to take away filler words, trying to create pauses and not answer every single question. And it’s very difficult, I can still hear the UMMS and the AHs, but I actively count it because I know that creates a different perception to other people when they hear someone who speaks with 10 UMMS in the sentences – versus someone who’s very eloquent and can pause at the right time.

AW: Wow, Cherry, that’s you gave me so much to think about, and, frankly, so much to synthesize to your point. But I love this list you. So your last point there was really about executive presence and communicating really true to the personal brand that you’re working to establish whether it’s internally with your team or externally with clients, as you said, and whether it’s you or whether it’s somebody else. So that’s music to my ears, because I’m also very much focused on personal branding, as you know. And you talked a lot about synthesizing, which, to be honest, I don’t hear from a lot of other executives that I’m talking with about communication skills. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, the ability to take complex messy problems, you know, complex meetings, even a complex podcast episode, and synthesize it down to main points. That is a superpower. Kudos to you for identifying that. But you started off by saying listening. I mean, I 100% agree. Two years ago, or two and a half years ago, when I started talk about talk, I absolutely thought that listening was number one, unquestionably. And I and I still think it’s up there. But more recently, I’ve identified the three superpowers of communication skills. So, number one is listening. And number two is confidence, which you articulated in terms of having executive presence and knowing when to speak, and how to speak and how much to speak and not using UMMs and AHs and all that stuff. So that all fuels into confidence. I’m curious what you think about my third superpower, though. So I based on my experience, my observation and my research, I really believe that storytelling is also a communication superpower. What do you think about that?

CS: No, that’s actually really aligned. At Deloitte storytelling is everything. And it’s not just oral communication, it’s written, you know, every time we do a proposal, it’s about storytelling. How do we solve a problem for the client? And how do we take them through that journey, we actually have a course called the art of storytelling, because storytelling really helps people understand what you’re saying, and ease them into the journey. It’s easy to throw solutions at people, but you need to take them through the journey and make them understand and be part of that journey for them to build that trust and want to work with you.

AW: Very well said, and I love how you use the word journey. There’s so many times because really, that’s what storytelling does. Right? It ensures that your audience or your client, or whoever you’re communicating with, is along with you. And you can vividly illustrate what you’re talking about through storytelling. So on the other hand, oh, I’m wondering, what skills have you observed just looking around, you know, at various people’s career paths? What skills do you think seem to hold people back from ascending the corporate ladder at Deloitte?

CS: I think just to call the obvious, there’s definitely a technical component to it. So from a technical skills, the attention to detail, your ability to actually perform the work is one of the key things that will contribute to whether you get promoted or not. But I think that’s the fundamental beyond the technical skill set. There’s a couple of things that comes into mind, I think, one is your ability to build relationship. And it’s not just a client perspective, because we’re in professional service with also internally as well. You need to be someone who works well with other people and be part of a team player. You need to you need to be someone who people want to work with. That’s a huge component of it. I know when I first came into professional service, a colleague once told me there’s always a airport test when we hire and I asked him, what’s the airport test right? And my interviewers at the airport test is if I’m stuck with you at an airport lounge for eight hours, do I still feel like I want to talk with you on the rest of the project, or as I am, I try to avoid you for the entire duration. Because if I don’t want to be in the same space with you for a prolonged time, then you’re not someone who’s going to contribute to my happiness or someone I want to work with. So I think that’s one key component of being able to build relationships being re get along with people and be part of a team player. The other thing is flexibility. In professional service you in the guest room, a lot of different problems you can have for a lot of different projects and a lot At different industries, being able to be flexible to be a quick learner and picking up different skill sets that you need. Every project to me is is brand new. You know, one day I’ll be working on and consumer good client the next day I could be working on a technology client. While I’m still working on M&A projects for them, there’s a fundamental difference to how a technology versus a consumer goods company is operated. And I have to be very quick to learn those and be flexible to adapt to different business models. So being able to adapt is huge in our business.

AW: Wow, Cherry, I love your answer. So first of all your story about the airport, I think being stuck. I could, I was imagining myself actually stuck at the airport with you. And I was thinking, that’d be great. I mean, relatively speaking. So I love that I love how you illustrated that with a story. But I was thinking it reminds me also of you know, in elementary school, in our report card, they would say Plays Well With Others. And you know, some parents may dismiss that as whatever. But no, it’s really important. If you can’t play well with others, you probably can’t work well with others. Right? I love that. And then your second point about agility and pivoting. And I think that, you know, the whole COVID pandemic has really exaggerated the fact that the ability to be agile, to move quickly, to refocus is a huge skill. And if you don’t have it, you know, your careers dead. Let’s move on then to different ways that people are working on their interpersonal skills, their relationship skills and their communication skills. And I was thinking, as I was preparing for this interview, that earlier in my career, the idea of seeking help to work on a skill, like actually hiring a coach to come in and help me work on something would be seen as a weakness, only people that were deficient in something would be seeking the help of a coach. But nowadays, people all the way up to CEOs have coaches, and they’re taking workshops. And it seems it’s really the norm. Can you talk about how personal development is perceived within your organization?

CS: You know, personal development is very important, it is the new normal. And I think we all hear it all the time, you know, personal development, continuous growth, lifelong learning, it’s something that’s something that’s really positively thought of at the moment in professional service. Personal development is a never-ending cycle. Being able to identify what type of gaps you have and working to fix it is really a great sign of maturity. And a great side of confidence.

AW: You know, what you’re reminding me of Cherry is the term vulnerability, right? So, vulnerability used to be a thing to be avoided, being vulnerable meant being weak, and Brene Brown and all of her advocates have now taught us that being vulnerable, maybe identifying what’s making you feel uncomfortable, or a weakness that you want to work on is actually a strength because it’s demonstrating a growth mindset you want to improve? And I guess it makes sense that those are the people that we want around, right?

CS: From a personal development perspective, I think there’s multiple facets that we need to look at, there’s obviously a technical perspective, from a professional perspective towards a huge fan of getting you more accredited upskilled. So whether it’s a new certification, whether it’s learning a new skill set and new technology, that’s something the firm is very strongly supporting. But beyond that, there’s also the mental and physical aspect as well. So mental health and well-being and personal development, that aspect is also very important. So thinking about how do you work on your work life balance? How do you make yourself feel better from a physical perspective to give you that confidence, it gives you that boost of energy to do better, I think that’s also part of personal development that people need to consider. It’s not all just a technical aspect…

AW: so can you suggest or outline some ways that people in your organization have been working on their soft skills?

CS: You know, practice is a key thing. Being able to personally be able to feel yourself in uncomfortable situations, stepping outside of your comfort zone is a huge thing to expanding your skill set and accelerating your soft skill. Now, I’m not talking about throwing yourself in the fire and doing something completely brand new. But even if you’re a person who doesn’t like to speak up a meeting, even volunteering to lead a meeting once in a while, is something that will help you get that practice to enhance your soft skills. One other thing I do is record myself and play back to myself. And it’s horrifying thing to do. It’s a horrifying thing to do to watch yourself and listen to yourself speak and I cringe every time but then you can capture and being an observer, see what you’re doing wrong and what you want to improve on.

AW: So I just want to say kudos to you for doing that. Most people even podcasters cringe at you know, going back in the archives and playing something that they’ve already edited nevermind something you haven’t edited. So kudos, kudos to you, I’m sure Cherry that that’s really paid off in spades.

CS: Yes, it has. It’s been phenomenal. Seeing the type of improvements and seeing how, what the changes I’ve made in the process. That’s great. Another thing you can do is take out personal development courses. So there are communication courses, negotiation courses, leadership courses out there, both online, physical, even reading a book that will help you upskill yourself. One of the interesting things that you might want to try in terms of communication would be improv, you know, it’s like going to second city and taking that improv class, it really gets yourself out there in a safe environment. Once you get over the hurdle. And again, something that’s way outside of your comfort zone, you’ll see that talking and speaking up in that meeting is a lot easier. And it basically hones your reflexes and communication.

AW: Yeah, absolutely. So I actually interviewed two improv comedians, just over a year ago, and it’s one of my really popular episodes. And, and the thing that I think most directly translates to communication skills, is listening. Because if you’re on-stage doing improv, you have to be fully engaged in what the other person is saying. And then you respond with. Yes. And and if you can translate that over into a zoom meeting, right, where someone is saying something you’re actively listening, and you respond with Yes, and you’re off to the races. That’s a great point.

CS: And I also need to add that formal or informal mentorship is really important. Being able to ask someone that you trust to provide feedback for you is, it’s phenomenal. It’s difficult to ask for feedback sometimes, because we’re unsure how people will perceive us. So having that mentor as someone who you can bounce ideas off of. And someone who can give you transparent feedback and actually help you create a plan is super important. One of the things I think about feedback is, sometimes you have resistance to it. That’s why you need to find a mentor you can trust because being able to trust your advice, makes it easier for you to accept changes that you may need to make. I suggest everyone to go look for a mentor. It doesn’t have to be formal, but find that person that you trust that they have skills, and they have traits that you want to emulate, and work with them on how do you enhance your skills.

AW: Yeah, and I back to the vulnerability point, if you say to the person, I’m really focused on developing my leadership communication skills. And here’s what I’m thinking, can you provide me with some feedback? I mean, the person is going to be impressed, right?

CS: Absolutely. Yeah.

AW: Anything else in terms of how people in your organization or even how you have worked on developing your soft skills?

CS: I think one last thing is just being really reflective, being able to see the failures and the success that you’ve had along the way, and figuring out what can you do better, and what you continue to do the stop start and continue. framework really works, in terms of softening your own soft skills as well.

AW: absolutely brilliant. Cherry, I wasn’t expecting you to say that. But using the stop continue start framework for yourself, consciously evaluating your own performance, even just on soft skills. And then, you know, I guess leveraging your growth mindset to improve next time. So do you have any other general career advice for folks who hope to get noticed and get promoted in professional services or really, in any career?

CS: Don’t be everything to everyone. You got to pick what you want to be and how you want to proceed? Be flexible. I had mentioned that you know that being able to adapt and flexible to a situation is very important. Communication is key. It’s how you communicate, but also communicating and managing expectations.

AW: Brilliant. So you’ve got three things, right? You’ve got not being everything to everyone. So really, it’s your superpower. It’s being flexible. So the ability to pivot, which again, we were talking about, it’s really amplified. And then thirdly, working on your communication skills. And as you put it, your executive presence.

CS: Yep. I think those three things are key for any career and at any stage.

AW: Yeah, I would agree. It’s true. It’s for whether you’re just starting out your career or whether you’re commanding the whole organization. those are those are absolutely critical. All right. Are you ready to move on to the five rapid fire questions?

CS: Yes.

AW: Okay, question number one. What are your pet peeves?

CS: Running out of sweet things in my home and seeing a weed in my lawn.

AW:  What have you tried for weeding?

CS: I just pick them up one at a time. Or yell at my husband.

AW: haha. okay, question number two, what kind of learner are you?

CS: I’m a both a visual and a physical learner. So I learn through doing it and by seeing it at the same time,

AW: that’s that’s actually a superpower in itself is knowing how you best internalize information. That’s great. Okay, question number three, introvert or extrovert?

CS: I’m an introvert. But I’ve worked on my social skills. I’m very comfortable in high functioning social environments as well.

AW: Okay, question number four. What’s your communication preference or medium for personal conversations?

CS: for personal conversation, Whatsapp is how you get me. It’s a great tool in which I can see it the other person’s online, I can feel the conversation and know what we talked about. And if I really want to go on a video on call the same app,

AW: brilliant. Okay, last question. Is there a podcast, a blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending the most lately?

CS: There’s two. One is called a bullet. It’s a newspaper extract. On a daily basis, I get to get the basic news. As soon as I wake up. And the other one is called get abstract. It’s business books on steroids basically give you extracts of different business books. So if you don’t have time in your day to read full books, a 10 minute extract of the key important lessons is the way to go.

AW: Wow. So thank you, because you’re, you know, I devour news and I devour books. I’m going to check out both of those – The Bullet and Get Abstract. And I’m also going to share links to those in the show notes so that the listeners can also access them. Is there anything else you want to add about how people can really consciously and explicitly focus on improving their communication skills at work?

CS: I go back to practice, practice, practice. Put yourself in environments where you have an opportunity to get practice. And if you think that you’re not getting in those situations, then look – actively seek for it. The more you do, the better you’ll be at it.

AW: That’s great. Thank you so much, Cherry.

CS: Absolutely. It was my pleasure.


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