Learnings from a High Potential Asian Leader

As we honor Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, it is important that we acknowledge the people that have played a key role in our American history. This year’s theme is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration” which encourages us to prioritize collaboration, diversity, transparency, and inclusion.

While much attention in DEI initiatives has been rightfully devoted to other minorities, I was disappointed to learn how little effort is given to Asians.  This could be a forgotten diverse workforce in the United States given that only 13% of the US professional workforce is of Asian descent with only 6% of them in executive positions. (Ascend, 2021).  In addition, Asian women drop off in higher numbers at the executive level that any other group of women. (WSJ, 2021)

For more than half of my adult career, I traveled and worked regularly in China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia and have found their leaders and employees to be talented, committed, intelligent, ambitious, and incredible team players. At one point, I was responsible for Human Resources & Talent across all of Asia for a F100 company.  There are some amazing people in which I call colleagues and friends.

The little progress in advancing Asians in our country’s society and employment matrix is a great concern to me.  We have a lot to learn about the challenges and opportunities Asians have working and living in America.  Unfortunately, COVID has only made it more difficult for many Asians to be understood, accepted and appreciated.  In 2021, 8 in 10 Asian American professionals say they’ve personally experienced discrimination based on their ethnicity or race; 50% of that in the workplace (IBM, 2021)

Rather than complain about past statistics and anecdotes, I thought it would be insightful as a lifelong student of leadership to learn from a high potential individual who has great aspirations of becoming a leader in our country.  This person is Chinese and came to the United States when she was only one year old. She is one of the most inspiring people I know…she is my daughter Maggie Anjie Hawkins.

We adopted Maggie over 15 years ago and she is now a thriving 10th grader who has experienced the challenges of being ‘different’ but has taught me more about being an authentic leader than anyone I know.  Despite being somewhat introverted and abhorring attention, she reluctantly agreed to interview with me about her experience growing up as a Chinese female in the United States and discussing topics such as leadership, goals, adversity and how to persevere.

Q&A:

Tell me a little about yourself.  I am a 10th-grade student.  I have a loving family and enjoy playing sports.  I particularly like snowboarding, soccer, golf and anything outside of sports.  Other than sports, I like hanging out with my friends.

How do you identify yourself? I consider myself Chinese. I consider myself much more Chinese than American.  Why is that?  Because that is where I am from. That is how I look. That is my life story.  It is the most solid thing I have in this world.  I am very proud of this. 

What is it like growing up Chinese in a predominately white country, town, and school? While at school in elementary and middle school, people made fun of me.  I heard a bunch of racist comments and kids made slanted eye faces, called me unflattering things and tried to make fun of me or put me on the spot and was embarrassing.

Has this changed since you are in high school?  It has been a while.  At my high school, there are only 3 Asians.  Kids in high school are a little more aware but it’s really because they will get in trouble.

How about lately when COVID came out?  I saw a lot more on social media.  I kept reading about Asians getting harassed and abused on the news.  It made me cry and I felt bad for them. I could not understand why they were being blamed for something they had nothing to do with.

What challenges have you faced?  I sometimes get weird looks.  I am friends with non-Asians and it sticks out.  People will joke that I will be able to get into colleges only because I am a minority.  Makes me wonder if that is true.  I really hope that I get into college and achieve things because of my talent and hard work, not because of how I look.

How has this made you who you are today?  This has made me more independent, self-sufficient, and resilient. I work and do things not wanting or looking for others affirmation. Many people say that I am too tough sometimes. 

Congratulations on being named the captain of your varsity soccer team as a sophomore!  How/why did they pick you to be captain?  I was told it was because I can lead and take charge through my actions and voice.  I enjoy helping the team perform better and have no problems giving instructions.  I also work hard at practice – not just during games.

What does being a leader mean to you? I understand people look up to me and I have to be a role model. I have to listen, be vocal, patient, and ensure people buy into what I am saying.

What’s hard about being a leader? I always have to be engaged and be present.  I have to show up and look for ways to help others always.  It is hard to be tough on my friends.  Sometimes it is hard to teach or correct my teammates who are also great friends.

What do you want to do when you are an adult?  I have always wanted to be an FBI or CIA agent.  Why?  I enjoy combining the motivation of people and understanding why or how they do things.  I like to read people and see what’s really going on.  I want to be in the field with a certain level of risk and impact on others.  I am a problem solver. 

What Asian women inspire you/who do you look up to and why?  I have an upperclassman friend at my school who is Cambodian.  Why her?  She listens well.  We talk a lot about racism together.  She and I can relate and have a connection.  She has such a positive attitude about all of the crap Asian people face.

What advice would you give to people that are considering hiring or working with Asians? Don’t generalize about our race. Even little jokes hurt a lot and make us feel stupid.  Don’t assume that all Asians are the same. People from China, Japan, Korea, etc. are all very different and have different experiences and styles. Get to know us as individuals.

What does being an inclusive leader mean to you? Someone who has a very diverse team and doesn’t hire people like himself.  The leader takes all views into account when making a decision.  It is someone who is careful about what they say.  It is someone who is open-minded and accepting of all differences.

What advice would you give other young Asian women who want to be successful professionals or leaders someday?  Don’t let peers dictate what you do.  Don’t let side comments affect you and get under your skin.  Your actions matter most.  Be a leader, not a follower.

 

Wow!  I have lived with this amazing person for over 15 years and I still learn something new every time we talk.  One takeaway for me as a (white) father and a leader, is to keep talking about race and always seek to understand.  Ask questions, learn and appreciate what others experience.  As I watch Maggie grow, I see the many obstacles before her but am inspired by her determination and persistence to be the best version of herself.  I have learned so much from her, both professionally and personally, and she has taught me to be a more open, inclusive, and resilient leader.  It will take generations to truly improve diversity at the top of the corporate work and Asians possibly even longer.  We must remember that it is never too late to engage with our children to understand and teach the value that diversity, inclusion, and belonging have a role in our country and in the business world.  We can shape our future leaders if we slow to down to listen, support, and give them every opportunity to use their voice.