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Unlearning Communications with Le Tran

By Joanne Jacobs
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In this episode of the Disrupt Podcast, Gavin is joined by Le Tran, Dropbox, head of communications for Asia Pacific and Japan.

We follow through Le’s career, share her insights into culture, communications and the power of learning and unlearning in the face of disruptive innovation.

Le Tran

Le Tran

Dropbox, Head of Communications, Asia Pacific and Japan

Communications professional with extensive experience in managing the relationship between brands and their ecosystem of influencers: media, analysts, bloggers, industry bodies, policy makers.

Gavin Heaton

Gavin Heaton

Founder Disruptor's Handbook

Gavin is a marketing technologist, strategist and advisor. He is the founder of the Disruptor’s Handbook – a strategy and innovation firm that brings the best of startup approaches to the enterprise.


[00:00:01] Welcome to Disrupt, the podcast for social, tech and corporate innovators.[00:00:06] Hello and thanks for joining me on the disruptive podcast. I’m Gavin Heaton and the founder of Disruptor’s Handbook, a strategy and innovation services firm that helps organizations shift mindsets, innovate products and respond to disruptive and uncertain future. Today I’m joined by communications innovator, Le Tran, head of communications for Dropbox Asia-Pacific and Japan. Le began her career in agencies and found herself working with and for some of the world’s largest technology brands like IBM and Salesforce and more recently with the must-have business cloud platform, Dropbox. Along the way, the communications landscape and the career options that came with it, have changed substantially. Le and I touch on the difference between agency and in-house comms and look at strategic communications through a global lens. We talk about what it takes for communications to create a favorable selling environment and the mindset shift required to make that happen. We also talk about digital disruption, company culture and the expectations of change and innovation. I trust you’ll enjoy this conversation.

GAVIN: [00:01:06] Welcome to the Disrupt podcast. Can you please introduce yourself.

LE: [00:01:10] Hi everyone. My name is Le Tran I. In my current role I am heading up communications for Dropbox across Asia Pacific and Japan.

GAVIN: [00:01:19] So what does that mean for your role in terms of interrelations with the international … the parent company in the US.

LE: [00:01:26] So I act as a conduit between our business here in the region and our headquarters in San Francisco. My boss is in San Francisco so we have a really nice alignment between the communication program that we have here in region and how that light is up to our communications program in San Francisco.

GAVIN: [00:01:46] So your boss is thousands of kilometers away.

LE: [00:01:48] She is yes … there’s a lot of trust and there’s a lot of autonomy in this role which I absolutely love and I think it’s really important for someone like me, in this stage of my career to be able to make decisions and to make certain calls that are right for the business and to have the backing and the support of my boss who is as you say, miles and miles away. But there is really cool culture that we have here at Dropbox which is predicated on trust.

GAVIN: [00:02:21] So you brought up two really interesting topics right there. One which is culture and the other which is your career. And before we came on the podcast were talking about that career and how it’s changed or where you started and where you’ve arrived here at Dropbox. Can you give us a little bit of an overview of how that has happened.

LE: [00:02:42] Sure, I actually started my career in agency land so I spent many years working for a number of agencies, a number of PR agencies and it was an amazing time in terms of just being exposed to so many different parts of the industry. I’ve always worked in tech. I actually fell into tech accidentally but it’s been so amazing just to watch how the sector has developed and grown and changed over the years. So during the early part of my career a lot of that experience was in the agency world and that was where I really built a lot of these basic foundational experiences in terms of media relations, in terms of stakeholder management, in terms of campaign ideas and thinking big in terms of PR programs and white space opportunities for clients. So that was an awesome time. I then moved into in-house, and I made a really big shift from agency to very large organisations. I joined IBM as part of their external communications team and that was a really interesting experience. IBM is an amazing company.

LE: [00:03:55] It’s been around for so long it’s reinvented itself so many times over and I felt like I really my career really came of age at IBM because I was around so many smart people and I really was able to look at comms and PR from a very different lens. So when I was in agency we really celebrated coverage and selling stories into media and that was kind of like the be all and end all of our jobs.

LE: [00:04:28] But when you move into an in-house role and you’re working for a very large organisation with very varied priorities and go to market strategies and products and all that kind of stuff it gives you a very sophisticated view of how comms fits into that structure, and how comms can really add value. And you take a very long term view of comms. It’s not just about that story that you land, it’s about the impact of that story. It’s about creating a favorable selling environment for the business which was a very big mental shift for me.

GAVIN: [00:05:03] Favorable selling environment. That’s a great term.

LE: [00:05:06] That’s an IBM term actually. I learned that from IBM and so that I’ve taken that throughout my career and that’s the lens that I always put on my role and the value that I add to the business. How am I creating a favorable selling environment for X company.

GAVIN: [00:05:23] It’s interesting. When I was at IBM I found to my surprise I think that it felt like a marketing led organization and I didn’t realize that from the outside, until I was on the inside, and on but on the outside it does feel like an engineering and a technology company. But when I was in I started to find a great depth of expertise in market planning and strategy in execution and so on. And what your what you’re playing back to me here is more of that. That it continues to be a driving force within a very large organisation, that a lot of a lot of people wouldn’t know.

LE: [00:06:02] Correct yeah.

[00:06:03] I you know I think IBM has such a great reputation in terms of B2B marketing in particular. And I was actually while I was working at IBM I was at an event and we were talking to people there and kind of going around introducing introducing ourselves and talking about where we come from and what we do, and there was a person who was part of that group. And as soon as I said I was from IBM he said oh my gosh like when I think about B2B marketing I think about IBM. So we had a you know IBM has a great reputation in terms of being a very sophisticated marketing engine. And I think like I said I learnt so much during my time there and a lot of people from IBM within the marketing team have gone on to do some really amazing things and some have obviously gone on and worked at other large organisations but a lot of them have also gone into work at startups and lead startup organizations as well which I think is really cool. Just to see that that shift in terms of people moving from IBM to all these different and interesting parts of the business world.

GAVIN: [00:07:07] So that was an interesting shift for you to go from the agency to a really big company. So what happened after that?

LE: [00:07:15] After IBM I moved to Salesforce which was another really interesting company to work for and again very marketing led. Salesforce has done such an amazing job in terms of creating this market presence. And I think Marc Benioff as CEO of Salesforce is the ultimate salesman and he is a media wizz. He is an amazing spokesperson and I think he really uses that to really lift the company up and elevate the company beyond just a CRM company.

LE: [00:07:51] So I think that that is an amazing thing about Salesforce and I really learned a lot about that craft. When I was at Salesforce. And the interesting contrast between moving from IBM to Salesforce is sales was obviously a much smaller company and it’s been around for about 17, 18 years versus IBM which has been around for over 100 years. And the interesting thing that I found between the two companies is when I was at IBM because there was that contrast that push and the pull between the new and the old. This is the company that IBM was and this is the company IBM wants to be. There was this real kind of like impetus in terms of change and a real appetite for change and a real appetite for transformation and that was really fun to be a part of. And then you come to an organization like Salesforce that really started as a startup. It’s kind of just assumed behavior. You know and so … Have you ever listened to the speech. This is water. There’s an amazing speech called This is Water and it’s about these fish swimming in water but they don’t know that they swim in water because they’re surrounded by it all.

LE: [00:09:00] It is what it is what it is and so that was for me a really interesting contrast between going from an old and older company in a larger company to a much more smaller and nimble company that there are there are there is just assumed behavior that are that you’re disruptive and you’re innovative and that you’re always looking to do things differently so.

GAVIN: [00:09:20] So the water that you’re swimming in is culture, right.

LE: [00:09:24] I would say so yes I think culture is a really big part of an organization and how you experience your role and your job and your company but it’s very it’s it’s hard to actually put into words sometimes because you experience it, and it is very hard to label. And as we were having this conversation before you really have to have gone through many different types of culture to really appreciate the fact that culture is very distinct within different organizations. I always thought oh it’s just it’s just something that people you know kind of talk about or label but it’s such an important part of the DNA of the company and it’s an important part of the people that you work with. Because culture determines the attributes that you hire in people and those people then become your colleagues and those colleagues make up the company and therefore they reinforce the culture. So it’s it’s you know it’s super interesting to see how these different companies have different, very very different cultures and I have experience and very varied and different cultures in my career. And I think you know where I am at now is. It is so important to find a company whose culture really matches your values. As a person. And as you know, at Dropbox I feel like there is – and we talked about trust – that’s one of our main values at Dropbox. One of our other values is aim higher. And sweating the details. Like those things really resonate with me because I naturally just gravitate towards doing the best job possible. And sweating the details – really, really labouring over small things.

[00:11:09] It’s not just about the big grandiose stuff it’s also about the small things that make up the big things. So those those are those are some of our values and they really resonate with me and I feel like I’m at a stage in my career where I’m super lucky to be in a job where I feel very aligned with the culture, with the values but also I’m doing really interesting work.

GAVIN: [00:11:30] So question for you is around that culture concert and your own personal values I guess. How conscious was the decision when you started to look at Dropbox and when Dropbox were looking at you – how how did that dance take place?

LE: [00:11:49] That’s a really interesting question. I think it wasn’t super conscious on my part in terms of looking for particular values that I aligned with. Maybe it should have been. But it wasn’t super like you know I want these values in a company. I was talking to Dropbox I was talking to people at Dropbox and what I found was people were genuinely nice.

GAVIN: [00:12:19] That always helps!

LE: [00:12:20] Nice not really underplayed in the business world. I think people were just genuinely nice and humble. I mean I think that came through really strongly for me as I was going through the process and I really gravitated towards those qualities. And obviously as part of the process I was there they showed me the values and they talked me through that and I was kind of like yeah it’s kind of cool but I was a little bit skeptical as to how you know how ingrained are these values and how do people live out these values everyday. So I had to go with an assault right. So these values aren’t like they’re not bad. Yes you know don’t let they’re not offensive to me. But it wasn’t until I actually started working here and you really have to just.

[00:13:10] Experience the everyday and experience interactions with people. And I think in a work situation where there’s going to be conflict. It’s unavoidable. There’s going to be differences in opinion and so I think that’s when values become your guiding principle. Take it back to the values, you know, take it back to sweating the details, take it back to aiming higher, take it back to you know winning as a team. Those situations are when you really have to then – you have to have a point of reference and that’s when values become super important.

GAVIN: [00:13:44] It’s like that idea of understanding how someone actually is in the world only at the point of pressure.

LE: [00:13:53] Yes yeah because I think a lot of you know a lot of times it’s fair weather – when things are going well you don’t have any conflict, you don’t have any pressure, it’s all good. You know but it’s when you have you have to make hard decisions or there’s lots of different points of views and you have to come up with some kind of resolution. That’s when values become really practical because you have to go back to them and you apply them and you think about you know how could we resolve this. Based on what we value you as a company.

GAVIN: [00:14:25] So that’s also been a big shift between those different companies as well I’m sure that the culture of the agency was very different to IBM and IBM was very different to Salesforce and Salesforce was very different to Dropbox.

LE: [00:14:36] You have very distinct very different. You know I think I’ve. Learnt so much during all of those different experiences and I think you just have to kind of – you know – if you’re someone kind of going through your career you really just have to experience all those different things to land somewhere where you go “this feels really good”, you know I feel at home here you know and you don’t you won’t know that until you kind of experience all these different ways of operating.

GAVIN: [00:15:05] Brings up another interesting question for me that I often find when I’m dealing with. I guess less experienced people in the workforce and that is around. The ease of accomplishment. I sometimes find that you don’t know what you’re really good at until you’ve been tested. And if you are able to not engage with something that is really difficult. So for example you don’t want to take that on or you choose not to take something on. It often means that you don’t achieve a level of sophistication or maturity in your career development in the same way that someone who tackles something difficult that maybe they don’t even like, and eventually through the struggle, they come to like it. Does that resonate with you at all?

LE: [00:15:57] I think so I think you know early on in my career I had some really good advice which was.

[00:16:04] In your job. There’s going to be things you love. There’s going to be things that you can live with and there’s going to be things you absolutely hate. And I think that’s a really nice way to look at the highs and the lows within either your career or your current role. I think a lot of people. You know they’re looking for their dream job they’re looking for everything to be absolutely perfect all the time and I don’t think that’s possible – that’s just not life. And I think as long as there is … As long as the good outweighs all the things that you love outweigh the things you hate. I think that’s a nice medium.[00:16:43] And you just have to make peace with … There are things that you’re not going to love doing but it is such a small part of your role and you and you come to – you know – make peace with it and reconcile with it. I think that’s a healthy way to look at a job and to look at a career and I think to your point in terms of tackling things you know at IBM it was really hard to … process was such a big thing at IBM you know because of years and years and years of automating stuff and making things easier streamlined.[00:17:15] There’s so many processes that we had to deal with when we were at IBM and that was one of my big struggles there.[00:17:22] But I loved being part of this movement to change and to do things differently. So that became part of my job that I absolutely loved and it really outweighed the process side of things for me. So I think yeah you’ve got you’ve got to tackle those things that you don’t like but you’ve got to make peace with it as well.[00:17:45] And having that view of love, live with, hate that’s realistic. So you know my advice would be don’t expect or you know go chasing for something that’s absolutely perfect all the time because I don’t think that that’s actually possible or if it is I haven’t found it.

GAVIN: [00:18:06] So that’s really good advice. We were discussing a thing you did recently which was at NIDA which was around corporate performance. Can you tell me a little bit about … so you’ve had a good strong career, you’ve done some public speaking, you’re out in front of the media, you’re advising on media, you’re in front of people all the time. Did you learn anything from this.

LE: [00:18:31] You know what, the reason why did this course was I looked back on my career and I realized that I have always been in the background in many ways.

[00:18:44] I’ve always I’ve worked with some really senior people and because that’s just the nature of my role but it’s always about coaching them and getting them ready and making sure that they’re communicating in the right way.[00:18:55] And I felt like at this point in my career I need to start investing in myself as well and to maybe look at how I can improve my communication skills. I’m never out there you know on TV or you know doing the actual interview or podcasts or on a podcast. Right so I’m never really kind of out there doing that kind of stuff. I’m involved in it and I’m prepping my spokespeople to be ready. But I felt like you know at this point in time it was good to take a step back and just invest in myself and really assess my communication skills and where I could improve and so that was the impetus for doing the NIDA course and it was … Awesome.[00:19:39] It was … you know, if nothing else it was just being exposed to a different discipline which is acting. And just observing how actors communicate – it was just this revelation to me. You know I think we get so we get stuck in this corporate kind of wheel where we look at other corporate people speaking we look at you know the way that corporate PR people communicate and just becomes this bubble. And you just think oh that’s just a communicate and you go out of that bubble and you look at how other disciplines communicate and just opens up your world to so many different ways to you know use words, to use movement, to use your voice. So I learned a whole lot of stuff I particularly learned up breathing which for me is something that I thought was my key take out to breathe more and to incorporate pausing, eliminating filler words which I didn’t even know I did. But I became super aware and super conscious of it. So yeah it was it was really really good and just to take those two days out to really just focus on myself was really was really fruitful.

GAVIN: [00:20:48] We could talk about this forever but we’re kind of running out of time now. Normally at this time of the podcast I would ask you to describe for me or tell me a little bit about the moment in time or piece of advice that someone gave you that helped you change the course of your life, your career, the things you’re passionate about. Was there something like that for you.

LE: [00:21:13] The most recent example I can think of.

[00:21:16] And it was only a couple months ago actually when I first started at Dropbox – I think change – I love change. I think it’s such a great opportunity to really refocus and reinvent yourself and to really look at where you really want to take your your skills and you know your career to the next level. I think it’s a really great reset. So when I was starting this new job I really took some time out to really think about what is PR what is comms, just really taking it back to basics because years and years and years of just working in comms you kind of just develop this. This is just what it is.[00:21:57] And so I just wanted to take it back to basics and really kind of investigate what PR is and what is the value of PR and comms. I came across this blog post by Harold Berson. He is this iconic PR guru who is actually 95 or something ridiculous like that. He is still around and he’s still writing a blog post and he one of the things that he wrote in his blog post really resonated with me was PR as a discipline has really shifted towards this aspect of media relations and news generation which absolutely is part of the comms spectrum. But so much emphasis is put on coverage. And dealing with journalists and media and ana;ysts and that kind of thing and you know his challenge to us as comms and PR professionals is to really look at the word Public Relations. It’s really about the public and the relationship that organisations have with the public. And what he said was.[00:23:01] PR people are in a really special position to represent the public within organisations.

GAVIN: [00:23:09] The other way around?

[00:23:10] Correct and to really have a seat at the table and challenge business leaders to really think about the impact of their decisions on the public because we are closest to the public and so that really made me think about how do I bring that into my role now at Dropbox. And how do I find that voice of reason or you know social consciousness. To really represent that and make that something that is very prevalent within you know that the leadership team that I’m part of in the region.

GAVIN: [00:23:45] Well that’s great.

LE: [00:23:46] Yeah. So I think that you know … it was a revelation but it wasn’t like this huge kind of like oh my gosh like it has completely changed my view. It was really just going back to basics and sometimes you need to really do that and to reassess and to actually … you know what it is – it’s to unlearn.

LE: [00:24:05] Unlearn a lot of things that you’ve kind of accumulated and you’ve built this idea of what you know what your function is or what your discipline is and to really kind of take it back to basics and. Ask questions and disrupt it.

GAVIN: [00:24:20] That’s been fantastic insight thanks Le. I will speak with you again soon. I think we have some more topics to discuss.

LE: [00:24:29] I think we do. Thanks again.

GAVIN: [00:24:31] What is always interesting to me is that the title for this podcast often only appears at the end. In this case the title unlearning comes in the closing minute. I hope I can find some time in your coming week to unlearn something.

GAVIN: [00:24:42] For those of you who have an interest in corporate innovation and how the tools and techniques used in the world of startups can be applied. Be sure to head over to our Web site to view and download our library of handbooks for disruptors at disruptors dot com. I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

The Disrupt Podcast is for innovators who work in business, government, technology or social impact. We believe that with the right tools, approaches and inspiration you can get scale your impact and our guests have the experience and expertise to help you do just that. You can listen online or subscribe via iTunes.

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