Culturally, Asians are brought up to feel they shouldn’t broadcast their capabilities, however strong, and that can often prevent them from finding the support they need to advance in the financial world.
That was one of the many themes explored this week at a diversity and leadership conference in Manhattan hosted by the Asia Society. But the advice offered here can be used by anyone who has a tendency to be shy.
There is a dilemma among Asian-Pacific Americans between feeling “I’m really, really good at what I do” with a hard-wired tendency to behave with “humility,” Sharda Cherwoo, a partner in the private equity practice at Ernst & Young, told the forum. “In this culture, self-promotion is acceptable, so we have to practice and get good at that part,” she added.
Financial services is hardly the worst place to be if you’re an Asian-Pacific American, given that some 2,000 employees responding to an Asia Society survey gave that sector a "best in class" score for six diversity categories, and scoring 78 percent in the “Satisfaction Commitment and Belonging” category exceeding the best in class range.
On the other hand, in the category of professional growth and development, financial services received only a 50 percent score versus a 44 percent norm and a 54 percent best-in-class ranking. This category asked respondents to agree or disagree with statements like, “I feel good about my opportunities for career growth and development with this company,” and “I am supported in participating in activities that help develop my professional leadership skills.”
“I think this is due to the fact that [financial services] is largely meritocratic,” Jonathan Saw, senior advisor for Asian-Pacific research at the Asia Society, tells eFinancialCareers. But in a downturn, diversity training programs are often “the first to go,” he observes.
Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands
What to do? Participants at the conference drilled home the message that whatever the cultural barriers, Asian-Pacific Americans must finally “have the courage to reach up and out,” of their own accord, Merrill Lynch veteran and diversity expert Subha Barry said. It also helps to have mentors and sponsors who can help us get ahead.
When looking for a mentor/sponsor, seek out someone who believes in you and will go out on a limb on your behalf; who will advocate for your next promotion; and who will provide “air cover” in politically charged situations.
Cherwoo realized early on in her own career—in which she made partner at E&Y in just three years—that she didn’t spend enough time with her “antennae up.”
Here are some more tips on navigating the mine fields on the corporate battlefield:
- Informal “water cooler chats” are vital, says Cherwoo. Establishing common ground with co-workers and superiors over family matters and shared hobbies will generally have more value than discussing your latest work project.
- Complacency has no place in a sponsor/protégé relationship, so make sure you have something valuable to offer and you want something more than what you have right now, says P. Anthony Sammi, partner with the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
- “Telegraph” what you’re after. Take a chance and contact a higher up outside your immediate circle with whom you can discuss your goals.
- Realize that having gender or something else physically in common with your work partners can have a lot of influence. “If you have a sponsor in a would-be sponsor role, it's far more likely that the partner will want to associate with someone who looks like him or her,” says Sammi. Nevertheless, If you get a mediocre report from someone, whoever they are, “You’ve got to go back and see what you can do differently," he says.
- Maximize the number of sponsors you have. Research suggests you secure three at minimum, says Ripa Rashid, vice president for global workforce diversity and inclusion with Time Warner.