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Multicultural Executives in the C-Suite

An executive coach and cultural-leadership strategist offers strategies for creating a culturally inclusive talent-development initiative.

Monday, June 16, 2008
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The war for the talent is raging. As the need for qualified employees increases, engaging and developing a diverse workforce who understand the needs of a multicultural customer base has become a critical imperative for large multinational organizations. Managers who are adept at tapping the full potential of multicultural team members will thrive in today's rapidly changing work environment.

In a corporate setting, the dominant culture is not always aware of the cultural differences that might impact those from a different cultural context. And since "you don't know what you don't know," the informal business culture often continues to reinforce the measures of success determined by the dominant culture.

Organizations need to find ways to infuse cultural awareness into the entire organization at all levels so that teams of people -- not just a few -- understand how to lead and motivate professionals from a variety of cultures. 

Based on some of our experience at Hyun & Associates, I have incorporated examples of Asian professionals to illustrate the profound impact of culture on leadership development, but there are obvious implications here for a diverse, multicultural talent pool.

* Provide strategic direction on the development of competency models and participate actively in succession-planning discussions to incorporate cultural sensitivity.

Recognize that confidence may not look and sound the same in every culture. In the United States, we tend to place an emphasis on aggressiveness, brash, overt displays of personal charisma, and the ability to promote one's agenda.

Individuals from Asia, or Asian-Americans who were raised in traditionally Asian homes, may hold different cultural values, and those who feel uncomfortable demonstrating "conviction" or "passion" may be overlooked during promotion discussions.

Before dismissing a candidate as an ineffective leader, the HR executive should help management examine the process by which that disposition may have been made.

Additionally, it is important for both the high-potential managers as well as the executives making "promotional" recommendations to have more clarity around why someone should be promoted and not rely on vague descriptions of leadership potential.

* Re-think the structuring and rollout of diversity-related mentoring programs.

Multicultural professionals report a lack of key mentoring relationships is a major barrier to career advancement. Allow opportunities for a diverse array of managers to meet current executives.

One cannot "sponsor" a middle manager for a new position or a promotion during a succession-planning discussion if that manager is an unknown entity to the senior executives.

Foster mentoring programs that allow current executives to meet potential multicultural proteges. Consider setting up small, intimate gatherings where potential mentors and proteges can meet in natural settings, such as lunches, after-work cocktails or breakfast meetings.

Organize events where mentoring pairs can meet and naturally form relationships and have opportunities to follow up with each other. 

Engaging mentors in this way may be more difficult for potential proteges who have been raised in a more hierarchical family/community, where there is a strong emphasis placed on the hierarchical structure (as defined by title/status/role).

Consider ways to decrease the power distance between mentors and proteges by providing more opportunities for mentors to reach out to proteges.

It is important that you select from a variety of social venues, which are equally comfortable for both parties involved. Instead of choosing a sporting event, consider alternating a variety of venues and give opportunities for proteges to offer some alternatives as well.

* Highlight cultural fluency as a key leadership skill and reinforce it by sustaining the dialogue with the middle-management population.

Don't stop at C-suite awareness. As with any important diversity/inclusion initiative, the most senior executives need to have bought into the need to develop diverse talent. However, managers on the front lines (to whom day-to-day management responsibilities have been granted) may have yet to feel such urgency.

In other words, begin with and engage CEO/C-suite commitment, but seek to engage the middle-management population and those on the ground about the importance of investing in a diverse pipeline.

Professionals from other cultures or ethnicities may find that their core-cultural values are at odds with dominant corporate culture. Many of the Asian participants in our programs, for example, have shared with us that self-promotion of their accomplishments -- so necessary to navigate a career trajectory -- is difficult for them because of early family messages that emphasized humility.

Highlighting their strengths and accomplishments is an uncomfortable task for many of them. As one Chinese-American manager put it, "It feels downright dirty when I have to resort to that level of talking about myself."

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* Provide leadership coaching for emerging talent at lower levels in the organization.

Don't reserve executive coaching for the most senior levels inside the company. Invite high-potential professionals one or two levels below middle management into coaching/leadership-development programs, and monitor their careers as they progress through these developmental hurdles.

If potential leaders are not identified early enough, they might not have the opportunity and the requisite experiences to acquire the management and personal leadership skills required to advance. Offer opportunities to take on high-profile, career-enhancing assignments that may give them a chance to test out their new skills.

As a partner to your business teams, HR executives play a critical role in facilitating the building of the pipeline of diverse talent leading to the C-suite. They can serve as strategic talent advisors to their management teams by:

* Playing a critical adviser/gentle enforcer role in the HR management process by asking the right questions when new candidates are proposed for the management slate;

* Initiating the cultural dialogue by creating a heightened awareness of the role of culture on leadership development;

* Linking talent management with diversity and inclusion initiatives that target mentoring and leadership development; and

* Providing a disciplined approach to succession-planning discussions.

Don't underestimate the impact of culture and cultural values on developing a ready pipeline. And as we learn to flex our approach to developing emerging talent, we may find the critical talent we seek for our open positions, sitting right under our noses, waiting to be tapped.

Seek to engage diverse talent as soon as they walk in the door. The bottom line and overall health of your organization depends on it!

Jane Hyun, executive coach and cultural leadership strategist, is the principal and founder of Hyun & Associates, a leadership-coaching organization based in New York, and the Author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Getting In, Moving Up, and Reaching the Top (HarperCollins 2005). Formerly, she was a vice president of HR at JPMorgan and director of recruiting at Deloitte & Touche and Resources Connection.

Sources: Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, HarperCollins 2005, On the Job Mobility Strategies, Jane Hyun.

Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America, HBS Press, David A. Thomas and John Gabarro.

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