Linda Akutagawa, immersed in a training session for IBM's Asian American Network, laughs when asked her opinion about the small number of Asian Americans in high-level jobs. For Akutagawa, director of external relations for Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, such seminars are all in a day's work, but she says they're hardly typical at other companies.
She points out that IBM is one of the few US companies with enough Asian American executives to form this type of support network. The population is overrepresented in certain industries, particularly technology. According to Goldsea.com, an Asian American Web site, Asian Americans make up 60 percent of Silicon Valley's professional and technical workforce and 28 percent of enrollment at the top 20 business schools. Yet eagerness and education do not necessarily pave the way to the top in any industry. Asian Americans account for only 1.5 percent of top executives at Fortune 1000 firms, according to the site.
So how can ambitious Asian Americans overcome obstacles to the executive suite? Insiders like Akutagawa say it's important to recognize the multifaceted nature of the problem and get both individuals and companies to change the way they operate without forsaking culture or the bottom line.
Reasons for the Executive Shortage
Akutagawa cites several reasons for the scant number of top Asian American executives, beginning with stereotypes and perceptions. "It goes back to the model-minority myth of the '60s, when we were seen as studying hard, working hard and never complaining," she says. "In fact, at the entry level, a lot of us do that. We were raised to not rock the boat or question authority. Part of leadership is standing up for what's right. When we sit quietly in meetings, others may see us as followers or think we lack knowledge or insight."
Socioeconomic conditions and family backgrounds also play a role. Akutagawa says that first or second-generation Asian Americans may have no role models of success in large corporations. Recent immigrants from affluent families may have those models and can hit the ground running, even if their English may not be as strong as those who were born here.
But blame does not rest solely on Asian Americans' shoulders. There is a pipeline of talent in large companies that is eager to advance, says Ivan Fong, general counsel of GE Commercial Finance - Vendor Financial Services, which, like IBM, has its own Asian American executive group. But, unfortunately, there are leaks along that pipeline.
What Companies Can Do
Companies must recognize what is happening, Akutagawa says. "They bear responsibility for building a pipeline of qualified and prepared employees who can compete for top positions. They have to ensure they have a diverse pool of candidates. That means encouraging people to get broad exposure through rotational jobs, recruiting them for the executive track and going back to find people they may have missed in their first search."
Some companies already do this. Akutagawa singled out "those who are global competitors or recognize changing demographics. They realize their customer base is evolving and that the next generation of executives won't look like the white men they're replacing."
Right now, anecdotal evidence shows Asian Americans rising fastest at technology companies. That may stem from the stereotypes that Asian Americans are good at science and math, and fluency in English is not as important in those areas.
What Would-Be Execs Should Do
Fong says there are things Asian Americans can do to help their chances of getting an office in the executive suite. Immigrants who are sensitive about their accents may seem even more reserved than they are. He encourages mid-level managers to speak up more in meetings, and learn about popular culture and sports. Casual conversation about those topics is important at senior levels, he notes. So is image and exposure to those in a position to promote.
Akutagawa advises Asian Americans in all fields that "to be successful in the executive suite, we shouldn't give up our culture and values. But we have to recognize the skills needed to be an effective leader. We have to learn to speak up and be noticed, even if it's just to point out that we work well collaboratively."