Across America you will find Asian Americans underrepresented in leadership positions. While Asian Americans account for 5% of the US population, only 1/3rd of one percent are corporate officers today. Less than one percent of the corporate boards have Asian Americans as directors, and about 2% of all college presidents are Asian Americans.
The cultural lessons young Asian Americans learned growing up were piety, respect for authority, humility, hard work, harmony, and a willingness to delay gratification, that is, the habit of sacrificing for the future.
So why is it that these seemingly admirable traits don’t translate into newly minted successful leaders, especially in the larger companies in the United States? I submit that the typical American company did embrace such values in the past, but that things have changed. What has changed, unfortunately, has gone in the wrong direction. Chief Executive Officers today must meet current-quarter sales and earnings expectations or their days may be numbered. This focus oftentimes comes at the expense of smart, long-term investments that would in the short run create poor financial results.
In addition, the intense pressure to create instant success has led to the downfall of many CEO’s. Whether accused of insider trading, bribing foreign officials, cooking the books, or selling products known to be dangerously faulty as the recent news about General Motors indicates, character, ethics and honesty are being sacrificed at the altar of financial success.
In Silicon Valley, young, talented and bright engineers and financial analysts are leaving technology companies every two years on average. Their loyalties are no longer to the company but to themselves. Just as soon as they determine a better opportunity has presented itself elsewhere they submit their two-week notice and are gone.
A group called the “Leadership Education for Asian Pacific’s” teaches members how to retain their culture while learning to speak up at meetings, advertise their accomplishments and all of what is deemed today to be requirements for leadership positions. The neutral expression acceptable at home must be replaced with a continuous smile, however disingenuous.
Yet while Asian Americans try to understand and implement all of the strategies necessary to become leaders in large US companies, within Asian American companies we find highly successful business models built around Asian American culture. If the owners and more than half of the employees are of Asian American descent, the business is run consistent with the culture and is run successfully. Good examples include Kingston Technology, Newegg, Wintec, Vizio and more.
Is it possible that the large US companies could benefit by adopting some of the leadership traits of the Asian American companies? Can we ever return to good long-term business decisions, emphasis on character and ethics, organizational harmony and attracting and retaining talent for the long-term? For the Asian American seeking a leadership role that won’t require him or her to compromise their deeply held cultural beliefs, perhaps consider joining the firms where the culture is already in place.