Tag Archives: leader

To everyone who ever thought Asians make terrible leaders…

Holy crap! Last week was crazy. And I’m not talking about the Seahawks whoopin’ on the Panthers type of crazy (which was awesome btw). I was offered the Executive Director position, which I accepted on the condition that they let me keep my standing desk. You can read the Board President’s announcement if you’re curious. And also, as an ED newly born into this world, you can read my  adorable first words.

Everything is still very new and happening fast. I’ve only been on the job three days and have had to make 128 decisions so far–from the mundane “What kind of socks does a new ED wear?” to the philosophical “How to honor the Vietnamese culture and heritage while being inclusive of other communities?”

I’m very excited for this new position and am honored to have the opportunity to serve the Vietnamese community at this level. I promise to use all of my skills and experiences to help advance the successes of the Vietnamese and broader Asian American community. I’m especially grateful to everyone who has supported me on this journey.

Anyways, I’ve been getting a ton of emails, Facebook messages and texts on my phone since the announcement went out, and have been doing my best to keep up and respond to each and every one of them. Many folks have been asking me questions about the new role, and I’ve summarized a snippet of them below.

How’s it feel?

It has been a roller coaster ride of emotions that range from “another plain ol’ day at the office” to “Holy crap, I’m on the edge of my seat freaking out because I might actually be slipping off but I need to take a selfie first, omg what do I do?” (aka, Disney’s Space Mountain).

The other night I literally had my first ED nightmare. I dreamed I was trying to lead a staff meeting but everyone was jumping up and down on the tables, drinking and partying. “No one respects me,” I thought. “I’m a terrible ED.” Times like these I just want to be swaddled.

Why did you choose now to become an Executive Director?

This was something I was on the fence about for a while; I was very hesitant and went back and forth. My rationale, at the time, was that I was already able to serve the community in meaningful ways. I was very happy and comfortable where I was at.

Ultimately, after the previous ED left, the space and separation gave me a chance to practice my leadership in new ways within the organization. It helped me visualize my potential role as a new Executive Director, and the skills and perspective that I could contribute to the position.

We had to navigate complex partnerships and I thought “I can do this.” We had to make difficult decisions of types of funding we wanted to pursue or not and I thought “I can do this.” We had to say goodbye to some really wonderful staff and I thought “I can do this.” I had to email the staff to let them know that we ran out of ice cream in the freezer and I thought “I can do this.” Then the staff mutinied, demanded more ice cream, wanted my head on a pike, and I thought “This sucks.”

What kind of leadership do you bring to the organization?

I previously wrote about task-oriented people and relationship-oriented people. If you ever came to me with a problem, my first instinct would be to break the problem down into small steps, and move through them one by one. I’m super task-oriented. This is a strength that I bring to the organization.

Overtime, I also learned that I needed to develop my “people skills” in order to strengthen my leadership. I practiced skills like “active listening” and “compassion” and “empathy.” For example, before when people wanted my time and attention, I would ignore them…like parents to me. Now, whenever someone talks to me, I reply with “Uh huh” and nod my head. Effective leadership rocks!

Are you vegan like your predecessor?

A lot of folks have wanted to take me out to lunch to celebrate and have been asking, “Your last ED was a vegan. Does that mean you’re one too? Are all EDs vegan? James, do you want carrots and hummus?”

My definitive answer is “Heck no.” I enjoy the taste, smell and look of meat. Honest to goodness, I can stare at a piece of meat for hours without blinking. I admit, however, that I have recently switched to a “no cooking meat at home” diet, which has been a great exercise in more sustainable cooking. At the same time, it’s increased my meat cravings tenfold as well as my obsession with zombie flicks.

Wow, your parents must be proud of you!

They are! I think…

Their initial reply was “Executive Director!!! Why not Mayor? Or City Council? Or Amazon, like your sister.” Ugh, that brought me back to my school days when even an A- would disappoint Asian parents.

What vision do I see for the organization and for the community?

Ok, this is a big question. In this blog, I’ve written about challenges that impact that Vietnamese and broader Asian American community. For example, the need for more inclusive early learning programs, promoting civic engagement in the Vietnamese community, transforming how we approach youth development, and broader social justice issues.

I also want to focus internally on the organization. It’s critical we have an organizational culture and structure that will support and nurture our staff and volunteers, and provide a safe environment where everyone can work with dignity and be compensated for their skills, passion and service. For starters, disconnecting people from their work email when they’re not at work!

What are you going to do in your first month?

Huh? Is this a test? Quit asking me so many hard questions. Realistically, I’ll be spending the first month checking in with all of our staff and board to listen to their vision and dreams for VFA and the community, where they see themselves growing, and any anxieties or concerns they may have about me as ED…because I probably have them too!

Then I’ll meet with all of our board members to thank them profusely for hiring me, and to beg them even more profusely not to fire me within the first month.

Finally, I’ll reach out to our community members, supporters, funders and donors to discuss the vision and direction that VFA is headed.

Oh yeah, buy some more ice cream for the freezer too—lest I want another revolt.

***

Anyways, thanks again everyone. If you have any advice for me on how to be a good leader, how to honor our communities, and what kind of ice cream I should buy, I’d love to hear it! Leave your comments below or on the Asian Slant facebook page.

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Can Asian leaders think and feel?

I am a problem solver by nature. It’s how my brain is wired. This trait was exemplified today when a colleague shared with me some of the challenges and frustrations she was having with work. Being the type of person that I am, my first inclination was to dissect the problem into small pieces, analyze it, and think of specific solutions. I’ll even draw illustrations with flow charts and graphs if it helps—the Ikea approach. If one solution doesn’t work, I’ll think of another, and then another, and so on and so forth, until we figured it out.

As we got further into the conversation, it became apparent that my colleague wasn’t looking for action steps or solutions; she needed time to process how she was feeling. The type of support she needed most, at that moment, was someone to listen to and acknowledge her frustrations. Basically, she needed empathy. It was a big moment for us and a reminder to me that “problem-solving” isn’t always the best solution.

Being a good leader is tricky business. You have to quickly and accurately respond to changing environments, situations, and people. The challenge can also be compounded by the stereotypes other’s place on you. For example, many people view Asians as too passive to be effective leaders. Sometimes, even Asians internalize these perceptions too. But ask any Asian child and we’ll tell you the same thing: “Don’t mess with a tiger mom.” Are Asians passive? Far from it. Do our cultural values shape the type of leaders we are? Absolutely.

Each style has their pros and cons; there’s no “one size fits” all approach. The hallmark of an effective leader is to be able to identify these various styles and adapt your behavior appropriately. Although there are many ways to define and characterize leadership, the two most common styles that I have come across are task-oriented and people-oriented.

Task-Oriented Leaders

If my example above wasn’t obvious enough, I fall in the “task-oriented” camp. If you ever came to me with a problem, my first reaction would be to help you solve your problem. It’s what I do and I’m good at it. I’m an analyzer. My world consists of order and logic.

Let’s say your parents didn’t know how to use the dishwasher (for Asians, that’s nearly all of us), I would feel compelled, even obligated, to tell your parents how magical dishwashers are and explain in detail how to properly use one. “Start by placing the dirty dishes on the rack. Add some slime in this cup here, close the door and say ‘abracadabra.’ Wait patiently for 30 minutes. Open the door and presto! Clean dishes.” Then I’d fist bump your mom. Mind blown.

Pros: Task-oriented people tend to rate high on technical skills. We take great pride in getting things done proficiently and efficiently. We spend many hours improving our skills and processes. Got a deadline? Piece of cake. A task-oriented person will have it done on time. We try to do more, and do it better and faster. Need help with data? We got you. Want relationship advice? You’re screwed.

Cons: Task-oriented leaders are so focused on getting the job done that they may forget how people feel, which is important because everyone has feelings (even Asian parents). They sometimes miss out on the big picture, which threatens creativity and team dynamics. It can result in poor interpersonal relationships or motivation problems. Many of the traditional career choices for Asian Americans tend to fall on this side of the spectrum: doctors, lawyers, engineers.

People-Oriented People

On the other hand, people-oriented leaders excel with interpersonal relationships. My co-worker is a good example this. She prioritizes relationships and is focused on making sure everyone on the team feels supported and heard.

If you ever approach a people-oriented person with a problem, they will likely ask you how you feel and then swaddle you until you fell asleep. They view the world as if it were a gigantic human chain, where everyone is connected and you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Pros: People-oriented leaders have the natural gift of empathy. This leadership style focuses on developing trust and rapport among coworkers, and encourages teamwork and collaboration. Their strong affinity for people makes them great office energizers. They naturally motivate others with their positive energy, effective use of trust falls, and occasional group pillow fights. People-oriented leaders believe that a positive, healthy work environment brings out the best in people, which ultimately leads to better results.

Cons: But people-oriented leaders may feel overwhelmed by the amount of work and responsibilities on their plate. They have trouble navigating chaos and may need more direction. As a result, sometimes important details are overlooked or forgotten, which may put a project in jeopardy or lead to ineffective decisions. Social workers, counselors and artists—basically, every profession Asian parents tell their children to avoid—generally fall on this side of the spectrum.

Achieving Harmony

In general, there’s a tendency to focus more on completing tasks and getting stuff done. You see this a lot in our American culture; everyone regularly works 50-60 hours a week without taking a vacation (not healthy at all). This trend also extends to Asian-Americans, which is somewhat ironic considering how everyone pencils us as a “collectivist” culture.

Being task-oriented could lead to short-term success, but in the long-time you’ll likely fail. People will burn out, lose motivation, and eventually move on.

It’s important to understand that leadership and behavioral styles vary from person to person and situation to situation. One style isn’t inherently better than the other. Nor does it mean that you need to spend 50% of your time on each.

Task and People-Oriented Yin Yang

The key to effective leadership is finding a healthy balance between the technical skills needed to get the job done, and the people skills required to make relationships last. When we achieve balance, people will put in more time and energy into completing tasks. And we’ll all have a little fun in the process.

Next week, I’ll discuss how Asians can identify if they are task- or people-oriented, and how you can effectively work with these styles.