bamboo ceiling

Cultural barriers for Asians trying to reach executive posts in American firms

I attended a fascinating presentation the other day at the Silicon Valley chapter of TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs, a networking group that has a large number of South Asian members).  Under the title “Becoming and Succeeding as an Asian/South Asian CXO in America” it examined the cultural barriers faced by Asians trying to reach executive posts in large American firms.

The event started with an introduction from Buck Gee, Project Director of the Corporate Executive Initiative.  He presented the results of a study he conducted looking at the largest companies in Silicon Valley, which demonstrated that despite those firms employing a significant number of Asian professionals (more than a third of their total area workforce), a disproportionately small number of those Asians are making it to the upper echelons of their firms.  Seems to be a “bamboo ceiling.”

With the stage thus set, a group of panelists – a venture capitalist and three Asians who have succeeded in climbing the ladder to top spots in major companies – weighed in with their experiences and observations, all fascinating.

Although the comments made were about Asians generally and in many cases specifically about South Asians, I felt that they also applied very well to Japanese – both those trying to make it in the U.S., or within American firms in Japan.

Chris Min, Vice President, Finance and Enterprise Services Group Controller, Sales and Marketing Group, Intel, kicked it off by saying “You have to change your style and adopt new skills.  You have to be open to criticism, development.”  

S.K. Gupta, Vice President of Operations at Lockheed Martin, related how he was told early in his career that he was only a “very competent beta male.”  Unfazed, he promptly bought a book about alpha males (perhaps one of these? Yikes!) and made changes to his approach accordingly.  (Attempting to adopt alpha male stratagems seems to have worked better for him than it did for Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign!) 

Mr. Gupta shared three key mindsets that he feels are necessary to get ahead in the corporate world, and contrasted them with the values that many Asians grow up with.  First of all, he feels one should remember that “the only person in charge of my career is me” – as compared to the belief many Asians have that “one should work hard, and if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be, like kismet.”  Second, “the best way of making sure I don’t get something is to not ask for it.”  He contrasted that with how “in Asia we are told to say no three times when someone offers you something.”  And lastly, “pull is stronger than push, but nobody pulls someone who is not pulling themselves.”  This he feels is the opposite of what is best summed up by the Japanese phrase “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” 

One topic discussed at length was small talk, an apparent challenge for many in the group due to cultural differences and unfamiliarity with many of the topics American colleagues like to chat about.  As one attendee observed “I can talk at length about anything technical.  Can I talk about golf? Can I talk about tennis?” Another panelist, Prem Jain, Senior Vice President of Cisco Systems, related how he felt awkward the first time he attended the firm’s annual executive fishing retreat, as he is a vegetarian and had never fished.  One attendee even suggested that Asians in Silicon Valley are less likely to get involved with and assimilate into American culture, because they can easily spend their time with others of the same background due to the large Asian population here.  Another attendee said that he had recently read a book called Small Talk and found it to be extremely helpful in overcoming his challenges in the area.  (I also recommend Working With Americans: A Practical Guide for Asians on How to Succeed With U.S. Managers.)

Mr. Gupta’s final observation that “we were all taught things in Asia which do not work here (in the U.S.)”  is indeed accurate.  But at the same time, I believe that American firms need to develop a greater appreciation for the different styles of their workforces, both Asian and otherwise, rather than expecting everyone to mold themselves into the same shape.  If everyone has to act like an American alpha male to succeed, firms are missing out on the creative benefits of diversity.