Writing the future: The personal narrative and the path to success

How crafting their own stories helps women succeed in business

By Barbara Darrow | March 2021

Writing the future: The personal narrative and the path to success

Four Oracle executives believe that personal narratives can help women #ChooseToChallenge their roles in the workplace.

Most of us have acknowledged by now that female execs face tougher challenges than their male counterparts in starting and advancing their careers. They often deal with unconscious and explicit bias from managers, colleagues, even their own direct reports. It’s a tough gig. As a long-time reporter, I was struck by the lack of women at the highest levels of technology companies.

Given that, it was intriguing to listen to four female senior vice presidents from Oracle discuss “Choose to Challenge,” the mantra for this year’s International Women’s Day, and what it means in their everyday lives.

All four agreed on several fundamentals. To succeed as leaders, women must:

  • Be tough as well as empathetic
  • Adapt to changing circumstances, updating skills as needed
  • Seek and offer counsel when necessary
  • Welcome people with different capabilities and viewpoints

But perhaps most important: Women should write their own personal narrative that incorporates the aforementioned characteristics, as well as others they deem critical in building a successful work and home life. A positive personal narrative guides not only a person’s perception of herself but how others see her. It is prescriptive, as in: “This is the person I want to be and this is the story I tell myself to become that person.”

Emily He, senior vice president, global HCM marketing and a participant in the “Choose to Challenge” event, is a big fan of this technique, stressing that a positive narrative can expand your career potential, while a negative story can restrict it.

It’s also important to realize that the story you construct for yourself may not match what others project upon you. For one thing, their perception of you is based on their experiences, not yours. He noted, for example, that she is often confronted by people who find her too aggressive or opinionated—not “demure” enough. Many people do expect women of Asian descent to be quiet and retiring, she noted.

“I grew up in Asia and that’s sort of the expectation people have for me … and it’s really up to me to not live according to other people’s expectations and have the courage to challenge that narrative and define my own path,” He said.


“It’s really up to me to not live according to other people’s expectations and have the courage to challenge that narrative and define my own path.”

Emily He, Senior Vice President, Oracle Global HCM Marketing

Ashley Hart, senior vice president, Oracle Cloud, agreed that the way she saw herself growing up was often at odds with how others viewed her in particular, or girls or women generally. She has three older brothers who never thought of her as different or that she, as a girl, should not do certain things. When she got a car, they taught her how to fix a flat and change her own oil because “they thought everyone should know how to do that,” Hart said. That narrative has guided her personal development ever since. For Lisa Joy Rosner, senior vice president, Brand and Content Marketing, people have to get over the need to venerate traditional household roles and accept that some families have stay-at-home moms while others, such as hers, have stay-at-home dads. What’s normal for one family is turned on its head in the next. She recounted when her daughter was dumbstruck to learn that she could not visit her grandfather right then because he was at work. “Men work?” she exclaimed, genuinely surprised.

Ricarda Rodatus, senior vice president, Analyst Relations, was impressed by how all four panelists converged around the need for narrative and how their discussion echoed themes from appreciative inquiry methodology, a set of collaborative techniques businesses can use to foster better leadership and change. Appreciative inquiry, she said, is about being respectful and curious, asking good questions, and telling good stories. “The narrative that Emily brought up is kind of like the red thread that connects us all.”

Collegiality and collaboration are critical. Women in business need mentors and to advise others to help guide their careers. But, equally important, they need to know that at times, they need to take a chance when they are not certain of a course of action. Women, particularly when they start out, feel they should have all the answers in pursuing their career. But the truth is, no one does.

“Sometimes you have to wing it,” Hart said. “You fake it till you make it. I’m sorry we don’t talk about that enough, but it’s true.”

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Photography: Oracle

Barbara Darrow

Barbara Darrow

Barbara Darrow is senior director of communications for Oracle. She spent 30 years as a reporter writing about technology and the business of technology most recently at Fortune Magazine and Gigaom.