By James Pak
The author is head counselor of LA Career Coaching.
When I was young and starting my professional career, I believed, as many Asians are taught, that if I kept my head down, did good work, and did not complain, I would keep moving higher and higher in a company. Over the course of my career, I’ve come to understand that this approach doesn’t hold true. This incorrect belief is one reason Asian Americans are vastly underrepresented at the executive levels of U.S. companies. According to research led by MIT Professor Jackson Lu, 11% of associates in US law firms are Asian, but only 3% of partners are Asian. In the technology industry, Asians represent over 30% of the workforce, but less than 15% of executives. And these figures include South Asians (Indians), who are actually overrepresented in leadership positions in Silicon Valley.
Some people assume that this underrepresentation of Asians at the top levels is due to discrimination. Discrimination, consciously or unconsciously, might at times be a factor. However, the success of South Asians in top leadership positions indicates that minorities can attain these roles when they take the right steps. Here is some advice that I share with my college graduate clients to help them as they begin their journey to reach the executive levels at U.S. companies:
A good relationship with the boss is critical – In his book “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t,” Stanford Business School Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer states that the relationship with the boss is just as, if not more important than job performance, especially as one moves higher up the corporate ladder. Professor Pfeffer’s research shows that even good work performance is not enough to overcome a bad relationship with a boss. Bosses are in a greater position of organizational power to either help promote or prevent an individual’s rise in a company.
Build relationships both inside and outside the company – During my investment banking career, I learned that the top senior investment bankers were not necessarily the ones that were the best junior investment bankers. As a junior professional, execution is important. However, as a senior professional, relationships are critical. The top partners at investment banking, law, accounting, and consulting firms are usually the ones that have strong relationships. These relationships are what helps bring in business, and that is what companies value. It’s crucial for Asians, like all professionals, to focus on building relationships both inside and outside the company to reach the top.
Actively seek mentorship – Asians should be proactive about seeking mentors in the company. They should seek individuals who are in positions they aspire to be in or who have a reputation for grooming the next generation of leaders. Also, while it’s great to have mentors who share similar cultural backgrounds, young professionals should also seek out mentors from diverse backgrounds. They can offer different perspectives, insights, and opportunities.
Promote oneself, both inside and outside the company – A mistake that many Asian professionals make is that once they start working at a company, they do not promote themselves. Professor Pfeffer mentions in his book how people in power are too busy with their own careers to pay attention to what others are doing, unless the others let them know. At one of my former workplaces, one of my bosses was constantly promoting his successes around the workplace. While I thought it could be annoying, the fact is that he obtained more organizational power because his bosses were constantly aware of him and his accomplishments.
Be more assertive – The main conclusion in Professor Lu’s research was that Asians are underrepresented in leadership because they are not assertive, and in America, assertiveness is considered an important leadership quality. Professor Lu mentions that “American leaders are expected to be assertive because actively asserting one’s opinions signals confidence, motivation, and conviction.” This is something that Asians must improve if they want to have more success in reaching the top positions in corporate America.