Forum Highlights the Importance of Fostering Diverse Corporate Talent

Key takeaways from Asia Society's 7th Annual Diversity Leadership Forum

When entrepreneur James Sun was one of the 50 final candidates for a spot on Donald Trump’s hit TV show The Apprentice, he asked the judges why there had never been an Asian American male on the show before. They hesitantly replied that Asian men don’t make for good prime time television. “This was 2007, not 1977,” an exasperated Sun said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but to hear that answer…that’s when I became a diversity advocate.”

At Asia Society’s 7th annual Diversity Leadership Forum on Tuesday, corporate leaders gathered to discuss the importance of getting Asian Pacific Americans (APAs) into leadership positions. “Diversity is no longer an option,” Sun said in his speech at the forum. “Use diversity as an offensive weapon, not just something you have to do.”

In a theme that would be hit throughout the day, Sun described the practical benefits of going beyond just placing token APAs in leadership roles in order to tick a box. He explained that return on investment actually drops when a small amount of ethnic diversity is introduced into company leadership, but then it surpasses the average once that representation makes up a substantive proportion of upper management.

IBM Vice President of Leadership and Diversity Belinda C. Tang explained that fostering these leaders isn’t easy. It takes long-term development, energy, and meticulous scouting of potential strengths. “Don’t just run diversity programs,” she said. “Make it a mission to get it into the pipeline to develop diverse talent.”

Several speakers touched on reasons that it may be hard for APAs to get noticed and cross the threshold into executive positions. In a session on advancing to leadership roles, Marriott Chief Accounting Officer Val Bauduin noted that getting promoted to high positions doesn’t happen with an IQ test. “Getting to the next level of leadership is about empowering others around you,” he said, adding that this can be difficult for APAs when those around them have very different cultural backgrounds.

While greater assertiveness on the part of APAs is part of what’s needed, a session titled “Leveraging Asian Talent by Engaging White Men” acknowledged that making gains on the corporate ladder requires the cooperation of white males – who still hold the most power in American businesses. However, there remains a large gap in how effective these leaders think they are at supporting diverse co-workers versus how other ethnicities feel.

A 2012 survey by Greatheart Consulting found that 90 percent of white men felt white male leaders are effective at showing respect for diverse co-workers, and 59 percent felt they were effective at including diverse voices in decision making. However, these numbers dropped to 64 percent and 20 percent respectively in the combined answers of all other demographics when asked the same questions about white male leaders. “Don’t assume that what you see is what’s really going on with Asian talent,” said Bo Young Lee, senior vice-president of Diversity & Inclusion at Marsh McLennan. “We’re taught, ‘Don’t let them see you sweat.’ [APAs] might not tell you honestly if they feel disengaged. You have to ask them anonymously.”

In a keynote speech, Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd stressed how crucial it is for companies to do the hard work of developing diverse workers. “The most successful countries are the ones that are the most globalized,” he said. “I encourage you as corporate leaders [to achieve a diverse workforce]. This is one of the most vital changes needed in the 21st century.”

Recap: Goldman Sachs Takes Prize for Top Employer of Asian Pacific Americans