ALL IT TAKES IS ONE
When Xia Liu 98MBA was 13 years old, long before she blazed a trail for women in leadership as the first to inhabit top finance leadership roles at Southern Company, she won a national competition for her essay about an unassuming stink bug that saved her father's beloved orchids from devastating disease.
The details of the story aren’t important, but the idea that one person (or bug) can make a powerful, rudder-shifting impact on others is an idea that continues to resonate in her professional and personal choices.
“Each of us may seem to be ordinary, but we can do extraordinary things,” said Liu. “We can make a difference. When I think about the choices that have brought me to where I am today, the theme of my life is not letting circumstances or my situation define me.”
Liu left her native China and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1995, to attend Emory and later Goizueta Business School in order to advance her career prospects.
“I wanted to work in finance, but I also wanted to work for a company that manufactured a product,” Liu said. “Goizueta’s program enabled me to develop a skill set to achieve both.”
Southern Company, one of the largest players in the energy space, was exactly what Liu was looking for. “This company not only had an excellent finance team and a great reputation, they also make one of the nation’s most important products — energy,” she said. “I joined the industry and 20 years later, I’m still having fun!”
Since 1998, Liu has steadily risen through the ranks on the strength of her commitment to going beyond.
“My goal is always to add value to the team and to make sure my actions are increasing that value above and beyond what is expected,” said Liu. “Before I take any new position, I ask myself if I can achieve those two ideals, if I can make a difference.
“I feel like that’s a calling in my life — to make a difference in some capacity. Over the last two decades, I’ve taken a dozen roles and worked in five different business units in three of the four states where we serve electric customers. In 2015, I became the first woman to be CFO for Gulf Power company in Pensacola, Florida, and in 2017, I became the first female CFO of Georgia Power Company.”
Professionally, Liu’s efforts and work ethic have earned her the respect of her colleagues and accolades in the form of multiple awards and honors, including selection as a finalist for the 2014 Great Atlanta Region Finance Leader of the Year, Most Powerful and Influential Women Award (2013), Women of Excellence honoree (2012), International Women’s Foundation Fellow (2010-11) and YWCA Greater Atlanta Women of Achievement (2011).
When she left Gulf Power, the resolution of tribute said this, “with her financial acumen, forward thinking and unwavering dedication to the success of the Company and its employees, Ms. Liu guided the Company through numerous complex issues, challenging herself and others to seek the best solution no matter how difficult.” They acknowledged her dedication to inclusion. “Ms. Liu possesses the rare combination of superior technical skills and outstanding interpersonal skills which many strive for but few attain. She cultivated engagement, trust and openness in her relationships and truly cared about her employees on both a personal and professional level, encouraging them to develop their talents and strengths. She appreciated the ideas, backgrounds and perspectives of others, recognizing the value that each one brings.”
But perhaps her greatest source of pride, however, lies outside of her work. “Xia is never about herself,” said her husband, Jun Zhang, an IT consultant, “She genuinely cares about people. She serves on nonprofit boards that provide services to underprivileged and marginalized communities. She’s passionate about developing young leaders — especially rising women.
“Xia is the glue of our family,” Zhang added. “Even though I’m very proud of her career achievements, I’m most proud of her as a great mother to our kids and as a great wife. From time to time you can tell that she feels guilty when work keeps her from spending more time with the family, but she truly gives us everything she has.”
The difference Liu has made on Southern Company is evident in the trust the company has placed in her as EVP, CFO and treasurer for Georgia Power, which has a balance sheet of $40 billion and annual revenues of over $8 billion. Sometimes, she said, like the bug rescuing dying plants from her childhood story, she gets a glimpse at just how extraordinary her life is.
“What are the chances that someone like me would become a top leader of a Fortune 500 company in a traditionally male-dominated industry?” Liu said. “But if I can do it, if more women believe that they can do it, we can really make a difference.”