Asian American Success in the C-Suite

The 3 Words that Will Get Us There

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Photo by Jude Beck

Like most Asian Americans, I was taught not to speak up or question authority. As the saying goes, “the loudest duck gets shot”… and so, I learned to stay silent. For the longest time, I didn’t know how to speak up, even if I had wanted to.

That was, until I started to see that there was another way of living – one that involved less suppression of my own voice and desires.

When I think to the incidents that began to open my world up, I remember a brisk afternoon in spring, several years ago. I was working as a business development manager. My boss called me into a private conference room and promptly scolded me for sharing company leads with our newest intern. I was caught off guard and left deflated. Without hesitation, I immediately got on board with her point-of-view and sheepishly accepted all of the blame.

After my boss had finished with me, she called in her next victim, a spunky Latina admired for her self assurance. When my colleague emerged, she smiled and floated back to her desk. Had we even spoken to the same person?

After an hour of anxious waiting, I finally learned how she’d escaped the meeting with good mood intact.  The answer was simple. She’d informed our boss that the oversight hadn’t been our fault.

If my self worth mine was a bedraggled, sodden hen, hers was was a healthy peacock strutting around with full, glossy plumage.

In that moment, my eyes opened and I saw how I had automatically bowed my head to my boss. It had never occurred to me to speak up for myself or repel the criticism and blame thrown at me. I did what was familiar – keep quiet and always accept authority.

Storyteller researcher Brené Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly:  

“Those with low self-worth will develop habits that are self-fulfilling.”

How do we manage to lose our self-worth?

I wasn’t born lacking self-worth, and neither were you. Introvert or not, all Asian babies will themselves to crawl. And then to walk. And then to explore the world freely with very few internal “No’s.” We failed every day, got bruised, looked really silly at times, but while finding our way, none of us ever said, “I tripped and fell today while trying to walk…I think I’ll just be a crawler.” And when something displeased us, we made sure everyone knew.

We believed we could do anything…until we were told we couldn’t.

Asian Americans got their confidence stripped away as we grew up and began to value others’ opinions of us, more than what we believe about ourselves. It got rubbed away when our Asian looks and weird lunches were mocked at school. It got deflated when we weren’t allowed to choose our activities or our careers. It took a beating when we expressed our discontent but were admonished to keep the family honor and reputation.

The culmination of these experiences has all but crushed our self-worth, and then many of us take the final step that assures it won’t be revived. Long after the external voices told us that we couldn’t, we’ve continued to tell ourselves that we can’t. We’ve continued to diminish our own self-worth.

My struggle to speak up for myself that day in the office was the outcome of years of low self-worth and long-standing limiting beliefs (conscious or not). Long after the external critics in my life were gone, I continued the fanfare within myself.

How do we regain our self-worth?

The first step in becoming confident leaders is to identify and reject messages from our internal critic, or what Arianna Huffington refers to as the “obnoxious roommate in our head:”

I didn’t reach my potential.

My peers are way ahead of me.

I wasted my college training.

I’m not a good enough [fill in the blank].

Nobody acknowledges me.

I’m not respected at work.

I’m mommy-tracked.

I’m a disappointment.

I didn’t get promoted because I’m not good enough.

I should be further along.

There’s a “bamboo ceiling.”

Do these messages echo your thoughts?  Pay attention to this internal critic.

The first step in becoming confident leaders is
clearing out the can’ts and couldn’ts.

When you discard these negative messages, you make room for leadership knowledge and technical training to take root within a confident foundation. Until we learn to find our worth and our voice (our ability to speak up for what we believe and feel is right), we limit our full leadership capacity.

The C-Suite requires that we be open to understanding perspectives and distinguishing what is real and what is not. When we can master this distinction with the words of our internal critic, we have taken the first step in becoming better leaders.

I challenge you to take this first step and allow what is innate – the capacity to be a confident leader – to emerge from within you.

To increase your leadership capacity and protect your self-worth, I leave you with the three words that will forever change the way you see yourself and how you interact with colleagues:


#innercritic, #obnoxiousroommate, #ariannahuffington

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