Recently, Jim Park, CEO of AAAIM, caught up with Gordon Liao, Vice Chair and head of Emerging Leaders Initiative at AAAIM, about his views on leadership challenges for our community and preparing our next generation of AAPIs to fully breakdown the bamboo ceiling. The following is an excerpt from that discussion.
Jim: AAPI community has certainly gotten its foot in the door in various industries including financial services. However, we continue to face upward mobility challenges and have had limited success in breaking into the Boardrooms of Corporate America. Recently, NASDAQ has made a bold step and asked approval from the SEC to make it a requirement for listed companies to have at least one director who self-identifies as a woman, LGBTQ+ or an underrepresented minority. Also, firms like State Street Global Advisors have also outlined steps to hold portfolio companies accountable for board and workforce diversity through proxy voting in shareholder meetings. You wrote a paper about AAPIs in senior leadership while at Harvard Business School. What are some highlights from that paper?
Gordon: Yes, thank you Jim. While I was a second-year student getting my MBA at HBS, me and my friend Phil Tseng, with the sponsorship of Professor David Thomas (author of “Breaking Through”) embarked on a research paper in lieu of a class, that we called “Success-Fully Forgotten: The Asian American Executive – Dispelling the Model Minority Myth and Why Corporate America Should Care“. At the time (15 years ago), we believed it was one of the first of its kind. We interviewed 40 Asian American executives, some who were very successful, and some who were “glass ceiling stuck”. The key highlights are below. However, to really get a full take on our research, I’d be happy to send the paper to anyone who has an interest (or who might want some help in falling asleep).
There is absolutely, statistically backed by data, a vast under-representation of Asian Americans at the C-suite within Corporate America. While most people like to compare the percentage of CEOs that are of Asian American decent to the percentage of Asian Americans in the general U.S. population, this is really not the right metric to utilize. What we should really be comparing is the percentage of Asian Americans in the general workforce in certain industries, compared to the percentage of the C-suite. In certain industries such as technology, Asian Americans made up 50+% of the workforce as early as the early 90’s, and less than 1% of the C-suite in bit tech companies
Jim: That’s a very good point. In fact, ASCEND put out a report a few years back about that exact challenge in Silicon Valley for AAPIs and the lack of upward mobility. But that challenge is experienced in all industries. So, what’s getting in the way of our full participation at the upper tier of Corporate America.
Gordon: The main reasons behind this underrepresentation can be grouped into two general categories: (a) Legacy Asian Values of Success that Conflict with Corporate American Values of Success, and (b) Embedded Stereotypes of Asian Americans.
Legacy Asian values are difficult to over-generalize, given the wide diverse diaspora of Asian American, but for simplicity sake, we identified the following values as being completely opposite of what leads to success in Corporate America. These include a Lack of self-promotion, networking and seeking mentors, the widespread Belief in meritocracy, where if you work hard, people will notice and “things will take care of themselves”, Deference to elders/leaders and the team, which often leads to Asian Americans not being noticed, or where their contribution is disproportionate to the amount of credit given, and a Strong work ethic with little to no complaints, which often leads to the saying “The squeaky wheel always gets the grease”.
Embedded Stereotypes of Asian Americans that many senior leaders within Corporate America have include Quantitative & Tech Proficiency, whereby much of senior management believes that Asian Americans want to stay “pigeonholed” in quantitative (engineering) or IT focused functional areas, rather than become broader leaders in an organization, Poor Communication skills, which is often code for “not perfect English”, and Lacking in Leadership Charisma, which is usually centered around the fact that many Asian Americans are not the prototypical “High School Quarterback” stereotype of leadership that much of America has fallen in love with.
Jim: So, what’s our path to full inclusion look like for you? And what’s our collective responsibility in terms of making that happen?
Gordon: The key solutions lie within the Asian American community, and with Corporate America
Within Corporate America – As has been seen with the BLM racial injustice movement that was sparked by the George Floyd murder, we as a community need to push Corporate America to diversity the senior leadership teams within each and every company. As the USA diversifies and as the global economy continues to become even more diverse, it behooves any corporation to acknowledge that a diversity issue exists, get senior management buy-in, and then ultimately create programs and paths to recruit, retain, develop and promote more diversity from within each company
Within Asian America – There are four key ways individual Asian Americans can help solve this underrepresentation issue. These include Learning new skills including networking, and self-promotion without violating your Asian values, Finding mentors and mentees, Investing in yourself, take risks and learn new skills, Assembling and organizing with other like-minded Asian Americans and non-Asian American allies to make sure that companies are aware of the disparities and to make “respectful noise”.
Jim: You were recently selected by HBS to support a Board Diversity initiative. What’s the purpose of this program and what does success of the program look like for you?
Gordon: With all of the BLM and racial injustice movement in 2020, the HBS administration decided to take action and begin a new Executive Education Class focused on improving Diversity on Corporate Boards, especially within the Fortune 500. Because I founded the Asian American Business Association, while I was a student at HBS, and as a founding officer of the Asian American Alumni Group at HBS, and with my work at AAAIM, Leaders Forum and other Asian American organizations, I was asked to help represent the Asian American community in helping to curate this initial class of 60 students. The Class is slated to start virtually in June 2021, followed by in-person studies in October 2021. We want to make sure that our community is not forgotten and well represented in this class, and ultimately in corporate America.
The purpose of the class is to train and educate diverse candidates for boards on how to serve as a really strong board member, especially for publicly traded, Fortune 1000 companies. Because diverse board candidates are rarely “taught” these topics in the natural course, we believe this class was needed. It is patterned off of a similar course focused on women in corporate boards that HBS already teaches. The ultimate goal is of course, to create a pipeline of diverse candidates that Fortune 500 companies will look to, when they have board seats to fill. Given its brand, we are fortunate that Harvard Business School carries a lot of weight with the Fortune 500, and so we think this class will serve the dual purpose of both educating diverse board candidates and providing a pipeline of these candidates for the Fortune 500.
Jim: If someone wants to get more info on this effort or apply, what do they need to do?
AAAIM Founding Board Member and Vice Chair
Emerging Leaders Initiative Committee Chair