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Are you treated like a child at work? 6 ways to respond.

Hi everyone! It’s my third week as a new Executive Director and I’m starting to feel settled into the role. All of the nightmares I had about team meetings have gone way. The staff are also starting to show me the respect I deserve. I’ve asked them to address me with the title bác, which is a Vietnamese word used when speaking to elders. “Hello Bác James. Let me help you up the stairs.” “Bác James, tell us what it was like to use a flip phone.”  “Bác James, my tummy is hurting again.” Go see a doctor then! You have health insurance benefits! “Bác, why didn’t you become a pharmacist?” Ugh, youth these days…so disrespectful.

I’ve previously written about how race and ethnicity can impact people’s perception of leadership. Similarly, age and the perceptions of experience can also be challenging–especially for Asian Americans where cultural norms around these issues are very powerful. Many of the challenges I have experienced in my career are because people viewed me as too young (other challenges include not knowing how to Tweet and Snapchat). It’s like I am a Vietnamese, non-profit, social justice version of Justin Beiber.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague about similar challenges she was having. We wondered how young leaders can make a meaningful impact in our careers when our age and perceived lack of experience become barriers to success. It becomes very tiring because it makes us second-guess everything we do. For example, it took me a very long time to see myself as an Executive Director. Fortunately, I had the support from mentors, friends and colleagues who pushed me in that direction. While I am grateful for this opportunity, I recognize there are so many other young professionals who are ready to step up too.

Here are some comments that I’ve received and how I have responded to each of them. For anyone looking for an extra bit of help, you can also read my article “7 Ways for young Asians professionals to get respect.”

“You look so young. Are you a volunteer?”

Just because some of the students we serve are taller than me, doesn’t make me a volunteer. What’s up with always associating youthfulness with volunteerism? They don’t necessarily go hand in hand. When I was in the Peace Corps, I had the honor of serving with volunteers who were already retired; one was a dean of a graduate school; and some volunteers were in their 40s and 50s. Assuming that just because all young people are volunteers is rude, and doesn’t acknowledge the skills and perspectives we bring into the work. It is also a disservice to actual volunteers–the ones who give up their time and energy to support their community.

How you can respond: “I’ll make you a deal. If you donate to my organization, I’ll tell you what type of moisturizer I use. Spoiler alert: It has coconut extract! But no, I’m not a volunteer, though I really appreciate all of the passion and support they bring to our work. My role as a staff member is to make sure that we’re enabling our volunteers, students and community members to succeed.”

“Is this your job? Do you get paid?”

What is this? Do people assume millennials just sit around drinking craft beer and organic coffee all day? We only do that after 5:30pm or when we’re singing karaoke. Of course I have a job! How else do you expect me to survive? It sure as hell ain’t from blogging. All of those stereotypes that millennials can’t find employment and have to live at home with their parents are crap. AHHHHHH!!!! BLARGHH!!!!!! UGH!!!!!!

How you can respond: Listen Mom, you’re crushing my individuality! Yes, this is my job. And I already told you, I’m never going to be the doctor you wanted me to be. I’m not like every other Asian kid. I want to help our community.

Side note: If you actually did become a doctor, then simply replace “doctor” with “lawyer” and “help our community” with “make money and live debt free.”

“I’m not sure if you have the experience quite yet.”

This comment annoys me the most. It’s condescending, like people think they’re doing young professionals a favor by “protecting” them from failure. We can only get the experience if we are given the opportunities to learn, grow, make mistakes, and succeed. Society said that everyone needs a higher education to be successful. Many of us did exactly that. How much more experience do you want?

How you can respond: Although your gut reaction might be to face palm whoever made the comment, it is critical that you resist this impulse. As Asians, there’s a cultural norm not to question authority or challenge the status quo. Humbleness and humility are important, but don’t be a push over. Advocate for yourself! Try this:

I realize there’s still a lot I can learn in this field/position/role/etc. I would really appreciate any feedback or suggestions you have. I want to respectfully push back though. I’m willing to work hard and give this role my all, but that will also require your support to enable that success. I’d love to work with you to figure out ways I can get the coaching and training you think I’ll need. Thanks a bunch, you’re totes awesome.

“Look kid, I love the enthusiasm, but you’re out of your league. I’m 62, which makes me twice as smart and good looking.”

So…no one has actually ever said this to me before. I don’t give them a chance to. I walk around with my head up; ready to stiff arm anyone as if I were Marshawn Lynch. We millennials are bad asses! Organic buying, gluten-free, ride-sharing, socially conscious, bad asses.

How you can respond: I’m sorry you feel that way but I beg to differ. I grew up in the generation that invented Facebook and transformed social media. Our vote helped put the first African-American President in the White House. We embrace marriage equality and women’s rights. And yes, despite what you might think, we do care very much about money and the economy. Even though we didn’t have anything to do with The Great Recession, you’re welcome for the bailout. So if you’re done with your anti-millennial tirade…do you have a usb charger I can borrow? My phone died and I super need to check my Farmville score.

Wow! You’re such an exception.

Though this may seem like flattery, don’t fall for the trap. Singling you out as an exception (even though we’re all exceptional individuals) is a disservice to all of the other smart and talented young professionals out there. It pits us against one another, but we must stay strong and united. That’s one of the main reasons I started Asian Happy Hour, to find and support other young leaders in our community…and because going to happy hour alone is really sad.

How you can respond: Thanks…I think. What exactly do you mean by that, if I may ask? From my experience, there are a lot of talented young professionals out there. I’m happy to introduce you to them if you’d like.

“Can I ask you how old you are? For anyone who works in a management or director level position–or position where you have power and authority over other employees–never ask an employee their age! The HR in me says it opens the door to age discrimination–real or perceived. You don’t want to go down that road. But on a peer-to-peer level, it’s just rude. It’s like asking someone their weight. The only difference is people can lose weight, but you can’t lose age. No sir…can’t lose it at all…your age just gets bigger and bigger every year…for the rest of your life…until you die… Then you’ll be reincarnated and the cycle begins anew. Why is life so hard!!!?

How you can respond: So are you asking me for my permission to ask me how old I am? Or are you directly asking me how old I am? If the former, then no, you may not. If the latter, why don’t you just say “How old are you?” to which I would respond “I’ll only tell you if you have sincere intentions to celebrate my birthday with ice cream and candles. Otherwise, none of your business!”

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7 Ways for young Asians professionals to get respect (hint: look older)

Last week I became the next Executive Director for the Vietnamese Friendship Association. One of the things I’ve had to wrestle with–especially as a young and new Executive Director–is the age difference between me and a lot of veteran leaders in this field and community. I’ve previously written about a generational gap and what we can do to support emerging leaders in our community.

While I believe I have the skills and experience to guide the organization and be a strong advocate in the community, I’ve also found that looking older affords me instant street cred.

In the Asian culture, there’s a strong association between age, experience and respect. In some ways, this is reflected in American culture as well–like when we hang on to every sweet word Morgan Freeman says. Naturally, we assume that those who are older have more experience (knowledge or wisdom…) and thus deserve more respect.

Don’t get me wrong, people with experience and knowledge and wisdom deserve our respect. In fact, we owe our unqualified respect to every human being we meet. However, for a young Asian American professional, the perceptions of age and youth are still very challenging to overcome precisely because of cultural expectations. I can’t tell you the number of times people have mistaken me for a high school student. Do you know how hard it is to run an organization when everyone thinks you’re a volunteer? It’s defeating–like being down 16-0 at half time.

At times, I have found myself changing the way I look, the way I talk, even the way I walk, in order to project the appearance that I’m older. It is exhausting! To my fellow Asian Americans, if you’re finding it hard to get the respect and opportunities you need to succeed, try one of these tricks below to “enhance” your age and get you on the fast track for success.

Rule #1: Become a doctor. Just kidding. That’s a terrible idea.

***

Start smoking! There was a study that compared identical twins, “one of which had been smoking for at least five years longer than the other.” They found that “smokers’ upper eyelids drooped while the lower lids sagged, and they had more wrinkles around the mouth.” Basically, all I took out of this study was that smokers looked older and therefore got more respect!

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One twin smoked, the other didn’t. They looks years apart!

 

 

Visit a tanning booth: Can’t afford a lifetime of smoking? Tanning beds are your next best option. They instantly add years to your age. You can take a quick nap inside one of these and wake up ten years older! Btw, for those who care about “science,” tanning beds emit an unsafe concentration of UVA rays which is damaging to your skin and can lead to skin cancer. Worth it?

asian tan
You’ll never believe how old these girls really are!

 

Wear hipster glasses: Whenever I walk into a meeting where I want to look older and wiser, I put on my favorite pair of thick rimmed hipster glasses. These glasses add between 2-4 years to my appearance. In Asian years, I’ll look equivalent to the age of an undergrad. Ok fine! Middle schooler…

The boy above is actually 9 years old. But thanks to hipster glasses, he looks 14!
The boy above is actually 9 years old, but thanks to hipster glasses, he looks 14!

 

Dress Professionally: A friend and mentor once told me that I need to come into meetings well-dressed. Not suit and tie per say, but respectable, which meant no jeans or t-shirts. “You never know who you’re going to run into at these meetings,” he said. “So you don’t want them to think you’re a student.” He had a good point.

This is a high school graduation photo. Dressing professional works!
This is a high school graduation photo, but look how old we all look! Dressing professional works.

 

Eat lots of junk food: Researchers have found that high levels of phosphates accelerate signs of aging. Where does one get phosphates? Sodas and processed foods! So this is an easy win. If you want to look older, simply park it on the couch, turn on the tv and grab a Coke and a smile.

The boy on the left is ahead of all his classmates!
The boy on the left is growing faster than all his classmates! Eat up!

 

Practice effective sleep deprivation: WebMC writes that “chronic sleep loss can lead to lackluster skin, fine lines, and dark circles under the eyes.” It’s true. Ask any stressed out millennial; they look like they’re already nearing retirement age. Toss in some hipster glasses, and you’re basically telling the world you’re ready for an early grave.

stock-footage-young-asian-woman-feeling-tired-and-bored-anxious
Lose sleep to gain years. It’s an easy formula.

 

Become an Executive Director: This is my first ED role and already the number of grey hairs on my head have increased by 30%; I’m waking up with back pain; and I’m pretty sure the hearing in my right ear is starting to go out. Bottom line: If you really want to fast track looking older, then become an Executive Director.

james-hong
Director Hong–VFA’s second youngest ever Executive Director.

 

Wear a turtleneck: Turtlenecks are so effective at making you look older, even Justin Beiber does it. Check out the before and after photo below. He instantly goes from a baby to a solid 8 years old.

beiber baby
These photos were taken just minutes apart. See how a turtleneck can add years to your age?

***

Just to be clear, most of these are pretty terrible ideas if you want to look older–except maybe dressing professional and wearing hipster glasses. They are actually safe and effective.

The truth is, we shouldn’t need to change who we are in order to confirm to other people’s expectations. Young professionals have all the skills and talents needed to make meaningful contributions to their work and community. We just need opportunities! Next week I’ll share how I have personally navigated these complex social and professional situations.

In the mean time, I’d love to hear everyone’s experience with age and youthfulness. Has it impacted your work? Do other people perceive you differently? Are you getting the right opportunities? What’s your relationship been like with bosses or managers? Leave your comments below or on the Asian Slant facebook page.

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.

Disconnect from your phone! A New Year’s Resolution Every Asian Should Take to Heart

Happy New Year everyone!I hope you all had a restful holiday.

I for one am ready to get going in 2015 and have my resolution picked out. I know some people–especially at my age–think resolutions are lame and antiquated, but I beg to differ. Resolutions are a great way to get energized and motivate oneself for healthy life changes.

My resolution this year, as it has been every single year since college, is to be more awesome. And so far, I have never failed—except in 2005, the year of eternal darkness. 2005 was the year of the monkey, who is a great enemy to pigs, my animal spirit (I was born in 1984). Anyways, I don’t talk about 2005 anymore; I turned 21 that year…

In order to achieve greater awesomeness, I have specifically resolved to disconnect my work email from my smartphone. I know what you’re thinking, “OMG. O.M.F.G. How can a man who works at a non-profit afford a smartphone?” Relax y’alls. It’s a Windows Phone.

Now-a-days, everyone talks about how kids are always on their phones. What adults don’t realize is that we’re exactly the same way! But instead of using our phones to Snapchat, Tweet or play Candy Crush, we use them to work. As if I don’t get enough of work at work.

There’s been a lot of talk in America about a dangerous trend toward overworking, especially in regards to white-collar workers and exempt staff who don’t punch cards to track their hours. Many conversations I’ve had with my Asian peers anecdotally confirm this trend. “I just got scheduled to another meeting this evening.” “My boss keeps emailing me at 2 am.” “My inbox has over a thousand emails!”

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I too have felt the constant need to work from my phone. Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why, I believe it is a product of cultural norms and external expectations. Things like having to be the highest achieving student later translated into being the highest achieving worker. Others might say that Asians have a culture of obedience, which frankly, I don’t really buy. We Asians can be very vocal and opinionated when we want to be. Besides, everyone is working more! Not just Asians.

Motherjones.com provided an excellent summary on this topic. Here’s some pretty alarming data.

  • 60% of smartphone-using professionals kept in touch with work for a full 13.5 hours per day, and then spent another 5 hours juggling work email each weekend. That’s 72 hours a week of job-related contact.
  • 68% checked work email before 8 a.m., 50% checked it while in bed, and 38% “routinely” did so at the dinner table.
  • People who make more than $75,000 per year are more likely to fret that their phone makes it impossible for them to stop thinking about work.

Unfortunately, the result isn’t increased productivity—just the illusion of it. The reality is we’re inundated with more distractions and stress than ever. In my own work, I’m finding it harder to focus on tasks and projects when a new email is interrupting my workflow every minute. Most of them aren’t even important. Most of them are useless bulk cc’s from other people and annoying mailing lists.

I’m learning that a smartphone, while amazing, is also draining my energy. A smartphone has increased my volume of work, but not necessarily the quality. It has allowed me to extend my work day up to 24 hours, and even send  emoticons too, like 🙂 and :p. So not only did others see me working more, but they also thought I was happier doing it. That’s a recipe for burnout. Technology has made our work increasingly flexible and mobile; yet this same technology has also increased our overall workload. Because we’re now able to literally carry work in our pockets 24/7, we have also felt compelled to work 24/7.

I admit, I didn’t mind the constant connection at first. I love what I do and am grateful to have the opportunity. In fact, a good day work actually gives me energy. But overtime, I have come to realize that it’s not the only thing I love doing. Spending time with my friends and family, playing sports, camping…all of these activities give me energy too, as well as wonderful memories.

I fully admit that work, for some people, has evolved beyond the traditional 9-5. Some people are most productive at night, others in the mornings. And that’s great. I personally prefer the 10-6 schedule. But again, this doesn’t mean we have to work every single waking hour or minute just because the phone is in our pockets. There are more important things we can put in our pockets…like quarters, chewing gums, hands and puppies.

While I may have made a conscious decision to disconnect in my own life, all around me I have colleagues, peers and partners who haven’t. So there’s still that external expectation and pressure to immediately reply emails. This needs to move beyond an individual decision. As employers, we also need to recalibrate our standards and expectations in order to create a new norm for all of our staff.

The bottom line is: you should disconnect anytime you’re not at work.

***

It’s been two weeks since I have disconnected my work email from the phone and it’s felt like walking on sunshine. I’ve danced with bartenders in pubs, enjoyed fireside chats by the ocean, and received a $50 Olive Garden gift card from my mom. Who knew disconnecting from work could bring so much happiness? To be fair, it was the just holidays and many folks were out, so only time will tell. But I’m feeling pretty confident that my work and personal life won’t fall into ruins because of being disconnected.

OR…

Maybe I’m wrong and shit will hit the fan tomorrow. If this happens, then I will quickly reconnect my work email to my phone, sincerely apologize to all I have hurt by my actions, and promise to make better life decisions moving forward.

How about everyone else out there? How do you achieve separation from work?

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.

Relationship advice for Asians (everyone else benefits too)

This past weekend I was invited to give a workshop at the Northwest Vietnamese Student Association Summit. The Summit is a regional gathering of young, emerging leaders from the Vietnamese community. They come from all over the northwest, from California and Portland up to Canada. My talk was called “Relationship Building for Dummies: Why you’re wasting your time networking.” It focused on the differences between relationship building and networking, and how to strengthen authentic, positive professional relationships in your own life. Here’s a summary of my talk.

Why Networking is stupid

Have you ever heard of an elevator pitch? The idea is that you need to quickly and clearly introduce yourself in the time it takes to ride an elevator from one floor to another: “You need me; let me tell you why.” Elevator pitches embody just about everything I dislike about networking.

The problem is that networking is “me” based. “There are five reasons why I’m awesome. One, decisive. Two, intelligent. Three, I’m good communicator. Four…” *ding ding ding* The elevator doors slowly open. “Ah dang it, wait. Don’t leave. I haven’t told you about reasons four and five! Can I get your number?”

Networking focuses on short-sighted, immediate goals and very often results in superficial, fleeting relationships. Think about all of those speed-dating events or job fairs you went to—how often did you actually follow up with the people you connect with? People who rely on networking focus too much time and energy getting their names out there, rather than genuine relationships with the people around them.

Focus on building, deep, authentic relationships

Relationship building, as opposed to networking, focuses on two-way, reciprocal connections. It carefully builds a partnership based on give and take…kind of like marriage. In fact, you should just pretend like you are married to the other person–cook them dinner, clean their floors, watch their children, etc…

Developing authentic relationships between people is critical to success. The word authentic is extremely important because people rarely communicate authentically. Relationship building isn’t about being fake, dishonest, or self-serving. Instead, it focuses on how you could support others, not what they can do for you. In order to have a friend, you need to be a friend.

How to connect with new people

Get an introduction: It’s really awkward to go up to someone you don’t know—so avoid it if you can. “Hello. You don’t know me, but my name is James. Sorry, my hand is kind of wet. I was just in the bathroom but don’t worry, I washed them.” Be honest, you’ve all probably been in either side of that scenario—it’s about as comfortable as an Asian parent saying “I love you.”

Use introductions instead. Introductions are a powerful way to connect to new people since it stems from a foundation of trust. If you ever find yourself where you don’t know many people, ask a friend or co-worker introduce you to people they know and go from there.

What happens if I don’t know anyone? Very rarely will you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know anyone (maybe if you were in North Korea). In general, chances are good that you know at least one person—whether it’s a school event, a job, or a community gathering. Use that!

Find common ground: Have you ever met someone new and you simply didn’t know what to talk about? Think about how awkward and uncomfortable that was. “Hi, I’m James. Do you like the Seahawks? You don’t like the Seahawks!? WTF is wrong with you? Well what do you like? Baseball? I hate baseball.” This is a common networking trap. Genuine dialogue occurs when you both discuss shared interests. Otherwise, one of you will be bored out of your mind.

Communicate in a way that is culturally appropriate: Be mindful of your audience. Know that people come from diverse backgrounds; you need to communicate in a way that is respectful of that. “But where are you really from?” is what you should not say to an Asian person. Trying to piecemeal together a sentence from using someone’s native language is also rude (unless you actually know their language). Making comments about a woman’s intelligence or appearance is also an invitation for trouble. “I was just joking! Don’t take it so seriously.” Relationship building is about mutual respect, so spend less time trying to be funny and more time being real (unless your real self is a jerk, then just stop and walk away).

How to gracefully end a conversation

Ending a conversation, especially with someone you don’t know that well, can be extremely difficult. It’s kind of like saying goodbye to someone, and you both start walking off in the same direction. Awkward! The best way that I have found to gracefully end a conversation is to “pass it on.”

  • Step 1: Introduce your new friend to someone else you know. ““Rachel, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Michael?”
  • Step 2: Establish common ground for the new couple; something simple goes a long way. “You two actually both studied psychology in undergraduate. What are the odds? Two Asians and neither was pre-med.”
  • Step 3: Carefully remove yourself from the conversation. “Why don’t you two talk more about the brain and I’m going to grab us another drink” or “Would you two excuse me? I need to use the restroom. Keep talking though!”

In this example, notice we use the power of introductions to our advantage; in this case, to gracefully and politely end a conversation. Secondly, by pre-establishing common ground for your two friends, you’re giving them something to talk about. This makes it easier for you to step back.

What happens if they hate each other? Use your best judgment. Connect people based on their common ground. If you have reason to believe two people are going to hate each other, don’t introduce them. Pretend like you’re setting up a friend on a blind date—the same rules apply.

Why you must always follow up with people

The biggest mistake most people make is trading long-term success for convenience and immediacy. “This person isn’t worth my time anymore” or “He’s not interesting enough to stay in touch with” or “She’s weird, I don’t want to follow up with her.”

Following up with people is extremely important! It’s how you keep relationships alive and healthy. The truth is we don’t know where people will end up in one year, five or ten, so we shouldn’t get in the habit of trying to pick winners and losers in our relationships. Everyone should be worthy of our time, attention and support. This is why follow up is critical to strong relationships.

What do to with business cards: In the age of smartphones, business cards still rule the professional world—kind of like how email is still top dog despite Facebook and Snapchat. Most organizations and businesses give their employees thousands of business cards, which most of us don’t know what to do with. So we shower people with cards wherever we go. “You get a business card. You get one too!” Give ‘em to your friends. Trade ‘em with your parents.

My general rule of thumb whenever you get a business card (or any type of contact information) is to follow up within 24 hours. Why 24 hours? Because it’s timely and better than 3 days or 1 week. And for goodness sake, just keep it simple. There’s no need to follow up with a lengthy essay–keep it Twitter length. “Hi Michelle. It was nice meeting you yesterday. I really enjoyed our conversation together. I hope we can stay in touch.” Short and simple.

One last note about business cards: It helps to make notes on the back of cards to help you remember who you talked to. That way, when you follow up with them it doesn’t sound lame and generic.

The big take away

I think we often get networking and relationship building mixed up because they both inherently deal with our connections to other people. But networking has become a game where we calculate the most gain with the least amount of effort. Don’t fall into that trap. Focus on building authentic relationships with the people around you.

Now, I’ve said all I have to say about this. So who wants one of my business cards? Seriously, I need to get rid of them. I have over 600 left! So…the first 600 people to like this post or comment will get a business card, autographed by me!