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Key Success Factors of Asian Americans

James Y. Lee, FACHE





Key Success Factors of Asian Americans

I recently reviewed excerpts from “Developing minority leaders: Key success factors of Asian Americans,” by Sy, T., Tram-Quon, S., & Leung, A. (2017). Asian American Journal of Psychology, 8, 142-155 and would like to share my thoughts on the research. My heritage is both Chinese and Korean. I immigrated to the US as a two-year-old in 1957.

Asian Americans are least represented in U.S. management ranks, despite having the most education, training, and work experience…and healthcare is no exception. The research tries to answer, “What are the key success factors of Asian American leaders?”

Through the work of the ACHE, IFD, and the Asian Healthcare Leaders Forum; we have been working hard to address Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and increasing the presence of Asian Americans in healthcare management ranks. Admittedly, the needle moves very slowly.

The authors identify 8 key success factors (i.e., qualities that promote upward mobility in the management hierarchy). Many of these factors sound all too familiar and challenge our ability to succeed.


Social Determinants of Success: Cultural Acumen, Communication, Social Decorum, and Cultural Inclusion

Cultural acumen reflects knowledge and awareness of the similarities and differences between Ethnic and Western mainstream cultures that influence leadership behaviors. Asian Americans must understand the Western mainstream culture and the behaviors that are culturally endorsed and expected as well as their own Asian cultural heritage and how it shapes their thoughts and behaviors. Examples include direct vs. indirect communications, deferential vs. proactive followers, and to speak or not to speak up at meetings. Have you ever caught yourself thinking that you should have chimed in or mentioned your idea before the meeting ended?

Communication reflects the effective expression of oneself and comprehension of others’ communication. Three challenges were identified. Asian Americans must:

  1. Have a good command of language (e.g., vocabulary and grammar);
  2. Recognize that people have negative perceptions of Asian accents (e.g., unsophisticated and poor communicators);
  3. Understand differences in cultural communication norms (e.g., different experiences, backgrounds, values, and assumptions affect how we interpret information)

Some things to consider here are the communications needs of first vs. second generation, time spent living in the US, education, training, and coaching. I’m first generation but have been lining in NYC for all but 7 years. I hear I must deal with my New Yawk accent.


Technical Determinants of Success: Rules of Success, Leadership Branding, Leadership Aspiration, and Career Determinism

Rules of success reflect knowledge of unwritten norms and rules for advancement in the workplace. The authors identified: (a) awareness of the existence of unwritten rules of success and (b) access to unwritten rules of success. This sounds like a double whammy. First, we need to be aware of unwritten rules, and then we need to find out what they are. At a recent workplace, my boss told me that nothing gets done unless the guy down the hall approves. I thought my boss was in charge.

Leadership branding reflects the cultivation and projection of a positive leadership image. Asian Americans must: (a) brand oneself as a leader (vs. technical expert), (b) promote oneself, and (c) assert oneself. The authors state that the Asian Americans may not actively cultivate their leadership brand is due to reluctance to engage in self-promotion. Many Asian Americans have a pervasive belief in the inherent rewards of hard work, which contribute to the belief that self-promotion is unnecessary. Blowing my own horn was something that I had to learn starting day one. My first job was at a consulting firm/partnership. One of the partners took me aside and told me to get to know the other partners better. To this day, I have trouble with self-promotion. We need to let people know what a great job we are doing.



Leadership development requires the involvement of key stakeholders, including individual employees and the organization. The authors’ recommendations target employee responsibility for owning their leadership development, and organizational responsibility for establishing policies and providing opportunities that maximize minority leadership development.


Focus on Attitude

The authors find that to effect change, executives emphasize the importance of developing the right attitude. Knowledge and skills are relatively concrete concepts that can be taught. Attitude is hard to teach. Mentoring is one way we can teach attitude. We can coach our mentees on what, when, and where they need to exhibit the right attitude. We have all heard the mantra “Hire for attitude, train for skill.” We need to commit to mentoring and developing young leaders with the right attitude.


Integrate Cultural Identity

This research suggests that the development of effective minority leaders may require the cultivation of cultural flexibility and adaptation, with the goal of developing Asian American leaders who integrate their ethnic and Western cultural heritage. This is something the authors call cultural frame switching, defined as the “shifting between two culturally based interpretative lenses in response to cultural cues”. This is way above my head. However, the tools I reach for are sports and food. The ability to engage leadership on subjects of interest is important. What water cooler conversation doesn’t include the latest game or place you ate at? Are first generation Asian Americans comfortable with the basics of football or baseball? As mentors, we need to take somebody out to the ball game!


Provide Culture-Specific Leadership Development

The researchers feel that one problem with this approach is the lack of insights for developing leadership in Asian Americans, given that much of the diversity literature have focused on other minorities. They go on and point out that the core of leadership training is predicated on the developmental needs of Western mainstream employees. Asian Americans have unique career experiences and developmental needs. Another weakness of culture-specific leadership development programs is that organizations tend to treat them as extraneous and unconnected to their core leadership programs. For me these issues are analogous to having someone who is not diverse leading an organizations diversity and inclusion initiative. I think this is an area where you need to have walked in someone else’s shoes.


Legitimizing Asian American Leadership Development

The authors suggest that the greatest challenge in developing Asian American leaders rest upon building a compelling case for a model minority group that seemingly is already doing well. The model minority stereotype has resulted in the perception that Asian Americans have “made it” and therefore do not require attention or resources to improve their representation in management. Unfortunately, a quick look around the C-Suite and management ranks tells us that that Asian Americans are underrepresented. Studies have quantified the disparity in a variety of industries. Healthcare is no exception. The authors end on a positive note, noting that multiple organizations (e.g., Asian American Professional Association, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, and Ascend) are increasingly engaging in collaborations, given their shared mission of developing Asian American leaders.


Final Thoughts

The authors do a great job identifying the 8 determinants of success for Asian American leaders (I only touched on 4, read the entire piece for more details and to learn about the other determinants). They also should be commended for their effective development of and thought-provoking recommendations. As Asian American healthcare leaders, we need to advocate for our organizations to recognize the need to bootstrap, mentor, and guide future leaders into successful careers.