Tag Archives: leadership

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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Why do people think Asians are arrogant and White men make great leaders?

Hi everyone. Happy Wednesday!!! And Happy Thanksgiving.

I wanted to explore the topic of arrogance today–or confidence depending on who you ask. I’ve thought about this issue for quite a while, but never really knew how to best articulate it. A recent experience finally compelled me to write about this.

I was having lunch with a friend this week, who happens to be White. At one point in our conversation, my friend provided me feedback about my leadership and communication style. “You can be overly confident sometimes, which can come off as patronizing. You should tone it down a bit.” My initial reaction was “Awww, you notice me,” followed by “NUH-UH, YOU TONE IT DOWN!”

Let’s take a step back, because the purpose of this post isn’t to analyze whether I am confident, arrogant or a combination of both. I admit that I have been all of those things at various points in my life. Instead, I’m curious about the racial dynamics involved in these perceptions.

Here’s a football example: Seahawks vs 49ths in the 2014 Western conference playoff. It was the final play of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. The winner would go on to play the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. In the final play of the game, Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback, threw a last ditch pass to Michael Crabtree in the end zone. If he caught it, the 49ers would have scored a touchdown and likely won. However, the pass was tipped by Richard Sherman and intercepted by the Seahawks. Many of you may remember Richard Sherman’s postgame interview with Erin Andrews. “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.”

Reactions were divided. Some people, most notably Seahawks fans, loved Sherman’s interview. Others derided him for being unprofessional and voiced their opinion in extremely racist ways. The criticisms of Sherman were way over the top. Here’s a snippet of some of the comments I found online.

I’ve noticed a terrible pattern of Black and other minorities being portrayed negatively when they are overly confident, while White players get much more favorable treatment.

Let’s look at Tom Brady. Not many people thought Tom Brady was going to be a great quarterback (we all know how that turned out). But Brady was once quoted saying “I’ve been playing this game my whole life…I’ve started a couple games now, and it’s the same game, man. It’s no different. I kid you not, it’s not that hard. I’m going to be a great one. I’m going to be one of the best at this game.”

Is that any different than what Richard Sherman said? I personally don’t think so; yet the reaction is so different. Sure, Tom Brady has also been called arrogant by some, but rarely have people brought up his race, or ethnicity, or gender, or sexuality.

This double standard exists for many people of color, including Asians. If you seem too confident, too assertive, or too passionate, you get called arrogant, or something worse. Similar to how athletes are single-mindedly focused on perfection, minorities also share the same drive to be the best we can be. Yet we’re told to tone it down; that we should be more humble.

This is incredibly frustrating for me as an Asian American. It feels like I have to celebrate my personal success quietly, and not be too vocal or expressive for fear of being called arrogant. This continuous self-monitoring is very exhausting. Sometimes, when I do something awesome (far and few, to be sure) I just want to “Richard Sherman” it and let the world know without being put down because of my race. It feels like Asians have to moderate our feelings and excitement, whereas most White men can boast about their successes freely and frequently. In fact, arrogance has been viewed as a positive, even advantageous trait, for some White men.

I’ve heard of similar frustrations among women too. There are many intelligent, strong women leaders who are called arrogant or abrasive when they exhibit the same confidence and leadership qualities as men: confidence, assertiveness, directness, and competitiveness. Hilary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer all come to mind.

The duality between being a minority as opposed to a White man is palpable. How come when White men exhibit these same qualities, they are perceived to be trustworthy, reliable, and great leaders? Am I judged by these same standards? Are people turned off because I don’t fit the stereotype of being a quiet, passive Asian? Does it cause resentment when I am vocal and assertive? Or when I challenge authority? Is Whiteness more positively associated with good leadership and confidence? As an Asian-American, does my overt confidence negatively impact how other people perceive me?

The answers to all of these questions are complex and multifaceted, to say the least. I don’t raise these issues and questions as a way to absolve myself of actually being arrogant. Arrogance is still a real thing; and I am totally guilty of it at different points in my life. Nor is my intention to single out or assign blame to old White men. I’m not pointing the finger at each and every single White men and saying “This is your fault. Look what you did to me!” Rather, it is important to recognize and acknowledge these biases and stereotypes exist and that some people benefit from them and others don’t.

There are so many strong, confident and vocal leaders in the Asian American community. We’re tired of being boxed into other people’s stereotypes. We’re not satisfied with the perceptions that Asians are weak and passive, but excellent at math! We don’t to be crappy leaders, but really great doctors. Our goal should be creating a more diverse and inclusive environment where everyone can put their best foot forward, showcase their amazing talents, and highlight their unique skills–without fear of being put down because of their race.

Can you be confident without being arrogant? Absolutely! But is it fair for minorities to be held to a double standard? Heck no. We need to challenge these implicit biases when we see them.

So when it comes to my work, my passion, my leadership and my career, I’ll put it out there. Just like Tom Brady and Richard Sherman: I’m going to be one of the best at this game. And when appropriate, I’m going to celebrate it–loudly!

***

How about other folks out there? Ever feel like you can’t be overtly confidence? Ever been told to tone it down? Leave a comment below, I’d like to hear about other experiences. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. And go Seahawks!

Are you a thinker or feeler? Take this quiz to find your leadership style.

Hi friends. My post last week, “Can Asian leaders think and feel?” explored the pros and cons of task-oriented and people-oriented leaders—two common types of behavioral styles. While each style has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, a successful leader is one who knows how to recognize, and utilize, each style depending on the situation they’re in, or the people they’re working with.

Are you task- or people-oriented? Take this quiz to find out.

Curious about what your leadership style is? I can help! Below is a short quiz that I put together. Run through the various scenarios and add up your score (A or B) at the end to figure out if you’re more task-oriented or people-oriented.

1. You’re out with your friends and need to decide where to go for dinner. Do you…

  • A) Take charge and pick a place? Korean BBQ, your favorite!
  • B) Or check in with everyone to see what they’d like?

2. You just got a C+ on your pharmacy exam and wanted to get feedback from your professor. How do you prefer to receive feedback?

  • A) “Give it to me straight! Don’t hold the punches.”
  • B) Use the sandwich approach–wrap the negative feedback between two positives. “You’re super hard working, but have zero aptitude for pharmacy. And your hair smells delicious, like beef broth. Yum!”

3. You’re learning how to stir-fry and need to buy a new wok for your kitchen. Do you…

  • A) Research all of the specs and ratings online before making your decision?
  • B) Ask your friends how they feel about their woks?

4. Someone just said something racist: all Asians are terrible drivers. You respond by…

  • A) Reasoning with them. Share some statistics about Asians and driving, and how it compares to other groups.
  • B) Appealing to their emotions. Explain how these stereotypes negatively impact Asians and that it actually hurts your feelings too.

5. Its family day and you’ve got a tight schedule: dim sum in Chinatown, followed by a visit to the Asian Art Museum and ending with karaoke. How do you manage the schedule?

  • A) Can’t be late! Plan out every stop and how long it takes to get everywhere, factoring in seasonal traffic and weather patterns.
  • B) Time isn’t a big deal. Just gotta make sure everyone maintains their energy level and no one has a melt down before the day is done.

6. You and your colleagues just got assigned a new project for work and the team needs to designate a lead. Are you more comfortable…

  • A) Stepping up to make sure the project gets done efficiently and on time?
  • B) Playing a support role and using your skills behind the scenes to ensure team unity and success?

7. Just graduated and you’re looking for a new job. Would you prefer an environment where you get to…

  • A) Work alone and independently?
  • B) Work collaboratively in groups?

8. Your friends would describe you as…

  • A) “Hard to read.” They’re never quite sure what you’re thinking or how you’re feeling.
  • B) “Easy to read.” Oh yeah, you’re like a book. They know exactly what’s on your mind.

9. You’re in a relationship and your partner just asked to meet your parents. How do you respond?

  • A) “Hmm, let me think about it.”
  • B) “Of course!” There’s no reason your parents shouldn’t meet someone you care about.

Your results

If you answered mostly A, then you have task-oriented leanings. You’re methodical and organized, preferring to trust logic and reason. You’re probably the rare Asian that always shows up to meetings and parties on time. Congrats!!!

On the other hand, if most of your responses were B, then you tend to be more people-oriented, like a lucky rabbit. You’re in tune with the feelings and needs of those around you, and prefer to work through challenges collaboratively. You’re also probably comfortable telling your parents you love them.

You can read my post from last week for more details on these two styles.

Keys to success

I believe most Asian Americans gravitate toward a task-oriented style because of cultural, societal or family reasons. However, it is equally important that we have strong people skills needed to make relationships work. A successful leader is able to balance both types of styles; the yin and yang of leadership.

Now that you’ve identified your own leadership style, here are some keys to success.

For task-oriented leaders…

  • Listen, don’t talk: If someone ever comes to you with a problem or challenge, you must resist the urge to solve their problems immediately. Some people just want to vent their frustrations and be heard.
  • Use active listening: Task-oriented leaders tend to be good at multitasking. But don’t multitask people! You must give people your undivided attention. Eye contact goes a long way.
  • Prioritize relationship-building: I previously wrote about the importance of effective relationship-building, this is a good skill for task-oriented leaders to practice. Show people you care about them by valuing their presence, following up with them, and staying in touch.
  • Remember that you have feelings too! We’re not robots. It’s ok to show people how you really feel. Just because your parents never said “I love you” doesn’t mean you have to be the same way. Feelings are important.

For  people-oriented leaders…

  • Organize, organize, organize: Our fast-paced, workaholic culture can feel really overwhelming at times. Relax. Take a deep breath. Start by organizing your to-do list, schedules and most importantly, your goals.
  • Ask for help: If you’ve got too much on your plate, ask a task-oriented person to help you. They will be more than happy to help you problem solve!
  • Get rid of toxic relationships: Connecting with people is great, but some relationships are toxic and drain you of energy. It’s ok to let these go. Focus on your own mental and emotional well-being.
  • Find your voice! It’s good to be humble and supportive, but recognize that you also have skills, experience and talent too. If you have a great idea, speak up and share it! Take credit where credit is due.

What do you all think? Have more keys to success to share? What’s worked (or hasn’t worked) for you and your life? I’d also love to hear how these leadership styles have intersected with people’s Asian American identity. Leave a comment below, Facebook, or email me!

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.