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Portrait of Sanyin Siang
Sanyin Siang is the executive director of Duke's Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at the Fuqua School of Business. Photo by Justin Cook

Sanyin Siang

The Blue Devil Questionnaire sits down with the CEO coach, thought leader and all-around inspiration

Sanyin Siang just might be the ultimate cheerleader for  discovering your special gifts and giving you ideas on how to use them. Sit down with this busy mom of three for coffee and you’ll see her quick mind in action as she focuses the conversation on dozens of useful suggestions for work – and life. Siang serves as the executive director of Duke’s Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at the Fuqua School of Business and is recognized as one of the world’s top CEO coaches. Her journey to the U.S. began when her family emigrated from Taiwan when she was just 7. She later landed at Duke as a student, earning both a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and an MBA. Since then, the bestselling author of “The Launch Book: Motivational Stories to Launch Your Idea, Business or Next Career” has spoken at the White House (on a panel) and at conferences around the world and acted as a thought leader to everyone from military personnel to corporate titans. But while her resume is long and glowing, it’s her genuine heart for elevating others that makes her a star in her own right. It seems impossible for those in her orbit – she’s also a mentor to students – to leave a conversation not only empowered but inspired by her grace.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? My children and that they are best friends with each other.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Happy moments – just being with people I Iove – friends and family. Or sitting in Duke Gardens. Or curled up with a book by a fire.

If you could be something other than an executive coach and leader of the Fuqua/Coach K leadership center, what would it be? I love what I do… but looking forward, I see myself as a kindergarten art teacher with a workshop in a tea café that’s lined with books, opening to a pick-your-own flowers and herbs garden. I also would write children’s books and design houses.

What is your favorite journey? A life-changing journey was when I was 7 and I immigrated to the U.S. with my Ahma to finally reunite with my parents. In hindsight I can’t imagine the courage my grandmother had to take her first plane ride, and travel halfway around the world. The most transformative journey? The one from college to here. It was filled with ups and downs. I love where I am now, and so I have to love everything that brought me here.

What is your most marked characteristic? I look for the awesomeness in people. I’m really an introvert who never thought I could be good with people. But once I looked at it as discovering the awesomeness in people, it opened up a whole new world of learning. Awesomeness – it exists in everyone.

When and where were you the happiest? Marrying the love of my life in Duke Gardens. The first time I saw my little children on ultrasound and meeting them in person. Every day should have a happy moment!

What is your greatest extravagance? I believe in giving memories to my children. We love traveling with our children to see the world … every year. It’s extravagant being that it is expensive. But the true value of the memories – it doesn’t feel extravagant.

What talent – outside of coaching and leadership training – would you most like to have? To have a good poker face.

What is the trait you like most about yourself? I like people. People inspire me. From ages 1 to 100+, there’s a bit of inspiration in everyone!

What is the trait you like most in others? Kindness. We’re all capable of it. And we can choose to be kind. When I see kindness in others, it’s about an innate aspect of them being human that is coming to the surface. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of being human.

What do you most value in your friends? That they are present. Being a good friend is being present for them in their most joyous and saddest moments, or being together in everyday ordinary moments.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction and why? It is The Bishop in “Les Misérables.” He wasn’t a main character, but his act of kindness and forgiveness was the main turn of the story. We are not the main characters in people’s story. But through our acts of kindness, we can aid others in their journey.

Who is your favorite hero of sports? Coach K. I believe his biggest legacy is in how the players and the people who he has mentored are people of character and leaders, and how loved he is.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Yay! or Wow! When I drop my kids off at school, I’ll shout out “Expect miracles!” They are embarrassed, but I know they secretly love it. (She has three – ages 14, 13 and 11.)

What makes you laugh the most? Myself. I can sometimes be melodramatic, and my wonderful husband reminds me to laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I wish I could learn to appreciate myself more and celebrate the wins instead of replaying the mistakes over and over in my head.

 What is your motto? See the good in others and celebrate it.

What is the possession that you most treasure and why? Blankets made by my late grandmother. They are comforting. And my memories with my loved ones.

What is your favorite music? Eighties and ’90s love songs.  Broadway tunes. You can’t beat those.

What is your favorite go-to snack (and when do you attack it)? Watermelon. Popcorn. Potato chips. I snack on them while watching TV. I love binging on Hallmark movies, period rom-coms, and fun TV shows.

What is your favorite spot on the Duke campus? Duke Gardens. There are so many memories there. Where my husband and I had our semi-first date at Shakespeare in the Gardens. I had birthday parties, walks with my family, picnics there. We got married there. It’s 55 acres of magic.

What is the best advice you ever received about life – and who gave it? My parents always tell me you have to be a good contributor to society. If you want to be in a good society, you have to be an active contributor to that. The other is from a dear mentor, Frances Hesselbein, who said, “Be an opener of doors for others.” Both of those are about looking outward – helping those around us.

What is one thing you’d like to tell Duke alums about your role at Duke and how you do your job as a leader on campus? It’s a role that has multiple facets – all connected to my mission in life, which is to enable greatness in others. Key aspects are being an educator, developing the next generation of leaders for our society and helping this current generation of leaders best prepare for what’s next. The way to do that is to really invest in getting to know them and also connecting people and highlighting how they can collaborate with each other.