Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Who's That Little Asian Girl Bossing Everyone Around?

Act #351:  Imagine me as a white male.  Would my leadership style take on a different meaning?

Oh, actually, that's me.  And yes, I'm just a tad over 5 feet.  And yes, I do carry that "director" title.  I've been a boss for the last 10 years, since my early 30's.  In my first leadership role, I was hired to lead the alumni operations of a small college - to "foster relationships between former students and their alma mater" to be exact.  In my current job, I lead a small non-profit organization and was hired more specifically, to raise funds as well as the profile of my organization. 

You know, when you are an Asian female growing up in the U.S. you kind of get used to the more common stereotypes, so let's just get a few things out of the way, shall we?  No, I'm not really good at math.  I don't only date white guys. I'm "from" Chicago.  I'm not particularly kinky in bed.  And "subservient" would not be a word that my husband would ever use to describe me.   There. Done.  But that's not what I want to talk about today.  While I've learned to navigate the expectations of being an Asian female in my personal life, the truth of the matter is, it's not so easy to do so in my professional life.  And to be honest, I didn't realize that constant, nagging, struggle until some creative Pantene marketing executive in the Philippines laid it all out for me in this commercial:

While being a female at the top in general, can be quite tricky.  Being a female at the top, who is Asian - and who supervises and is surrounded by colleagues who look nothing like you - is a totally different ball game. While I'd like to think that with each leadership role, I was hired for my strategic thinking, my vision, and my organizational management skills, looking back, I wonder if I was hired more so because I was simply.....nice.  You know: pleasant, engaging, collaborative, someone who builds relationships and brings people together.  And thus lies the problem.  You see, one can't run a 1.1 million dollar organization solely on their charm and dynamic personality.  While having a synergetic and cooperative approach can certainly be beneficial in engaging others around a common mission, the truth of the matter is that management can also be messy.  Very, very messy.  And all the "collaboration" in the world is not going to balance budgets during an economic downturn, confront staff underperformance, keep an organization focused on prioritized goals,  or challenge operational effectiveness.  In fact, "being nice" just doesn't cut it when someone (aka "the boss") has to make those hard decisions that so rarely appease 100% of the staff.  While I try to operate with authenticity and kindness even under the most difficult circumstances, I think that perhaps the expectation for me to always play the nice, collaborative, Asian girl makes it that much more challenging. 

This little 5 foot 1 Asian girl has had to fire people.  She has had to get up in front of a board and explain a $50,000 deficit.  She has had to hold her staff accountable for their work and has challenged them to think critically about their effectiveness.  She has insisted on increased productivity, fiscal responsibility, and community impact.  She has had to withstand harsh criticism when she makes mistakes (did I mention that Asians aren't really the model minority?)  She has had to disagree with vice presidents, presidents, and board members.  And during those times it was probably a bit jarring to those who were expecting the nice, engaging, collaborative Asian girl.  So yes, I'm an Asian female.  And yes, I'm generally a pretty nice person.  But I'm also someone capable of leading a challenging and complex organization.....and every once in a while, I'm probably going to blow up that soft-spoken, subservient stereotype that you may not even know you were holding on to.

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