Philip Lee, an Asian-American President and CEO of a leading Boston technology corporation, says, “Asian-Americans have to be substantially better than the ‘safe’ stereotypical senior executive profile to get the job.” He defines 6 strategies to break through based on his own experience earning the President/CEO title 3 times.
According to a 2011 Center for Work-Life Policy study, a “Bamboo Ceiling” keeps Asian Americans from the corner office more than any other group. The term refers to cultural attitudes that keep people of Asian descent from top positions because of a perceived lack of communication skills or leadership potential.
The U.S. Census reports that Asian-Americans have the highest education levels of any racial group in the US: 52.4% graduated college, while the national average is 29.9%.Asian-Americans make up about 4.8% of the U.S. population, but only 0.3% of corporate office populations, including less than 2% of top jobs at Fortune 500 companies.
Following a career in management consulting where cultural bias was a constant undercurrent, Mr. Lee went into sales because he knew achieving sales quotas was objective and not subject to bias. “You can’t argue with sales results,” he said. In a 14 year sales career in software and services, Mr. Lee not only made his quotas consistently, he often blew them away — in one year booking more than 2 times his annual quota.
Even then, Mr. Lee encountered the Bamboo Ceiling, when he got a 1% raise while a much less successful colleague got 15%. The reason became clear: he didn’t fit the manager’s image of the typical salesperson of that time. The manager openly declared to Mr. Lee that 1% was all he was worth. Mr. Lee left and joined Oracle, where he achieved remarkable success in sales and sales management before becoming a Director.
Mr. Lee first became a CEO when his employer’s CEO left the company. Fellow Vice Presidents recommended Mr. Lee to replace him, but the Board agreed only to interim CEO status. “I didn’t look like the typical CEO — an Asian CEO was just too risky,” Mr. Lee explained. Nine months later he had turned the company around, and the Board stopped looking. “It was luck. I was in the right place at the right time, but I also performed at a level the Board didn’t expect and could not ignore,” he said.
For the past 10 years Mr. Lee has been President and CEO of PHT Corporation, which has a 45% share of the global market that provides handheld, Smartphone and Web-based eDiaries for biopharmaceutical research that requires outcome data. (Mr. Lee unveils 3 key trends in eClinical research this year.
Phil Lee’s 6 strategies Asian Americans need to adopt to achieve top jobs:
— Commit — Always give 100% to your job. Work hard and overachieve whenever possible. Also demonstrate and communicate your value and accomplishments to the organization and ensure that your contributions are recognized.
— Prepare — Be prepared to take advantage of opportunities that invariably arise in any company or organization. Be the “go to” person to solve challenging problems for the company. This will amplify your ability to get things done and achieve results.
— Network — Build in-person and online relationships and networks with managers and peers. Make connections on LinkedIn and Facebook. Join and attend professional association meetings. Start professional groups in your company to demonstrate leadership and your desire to contribute to the company’s continued success.
— Learn — Get an education that reflects your career ambitions, and take advantage of every educational opportunity offered by your employer.
— Strive — Set bi-annual and annual career goals that reflect where you want to go in your company or industry.
— Mentor — Find a mentor and be a mentor. The more Asian-Americans help each other reach the corner office, the easier it will be to break through the Bamboo Ceiling.
Mr. Lee points to “Linsanity” and Knicks player Jeremy Lin: “He was undrafted, then cut, then told he was too short, and now he’s an NBA star. He had to be better than the next guy to start in the NBA as an Asian-American.”
Mr. Lee’s high school friends would be the first to vote him least likely to go into sales or to become a CEO. He says, “I got here through sheer determination and will power.”