Lonely at the Top: Investing in Generational Change for AAPI Leaders

3 ways companies can make systemic improvements for rising stars at every level

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While the saying “it’s lonely at the top” is cliche, it is also an acute reality for the less than 2% of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women in C-suite roles. Without a large enough pool of candidates for consideration, and a trending decrease in diversity investment, how do we affect any kind of change?

There is an opportunity to drive long-term, generational change. But we don’t start at the top.

Most companies focus on hiring entry-level AAPI talent with a genuine intention to invest in career development, and we should continue to do so. However, the steady decline of promotions shows that the investment, or lack thereof, isn’t living up to the intent.

Let’s take a close look at the data in McKinsey and Company’s study, 2022 Asian American Workers: Diverse Outcomes and Hidden Challenges. The average number of promotions is highest among AAPI men and women at the manager level, but promotions from manager to senior managers declined by 10% from 2021. Assuming managers are excelling in their role to earn a promotion, what is causing the decline in promotions at the next level?

Consider a working hypothesis.

The shift from manager to senior manager requires deeper craft skills, more emotional intelligence, an understanding of workplace culture and context, and people management experience. These skills and expectations brush up against AAPI cultural values, particularly with the need to speak up, advocate for opinions and lead with authority. With nearly 50% of AAPI respondents saying they do not receive managerial training, it is a perfect storm of expectations without the support needed to develop at the individual level.

Compounded with workplace bias, cultural misunderstandings and lack of sponsorship, the systemic challenges at the senior manager level are nearly impossible to overcome. It is no surprise that less than 2% of AAPI women are in C-suite roles.

Investing in up-and-coming AAPI leaders could improve promotions at every level, with corporate America tailoring its approach by focusing on both individual and systemic improvements.

Culturally relevant career coaching

Structural support with mentorship, coaching or sponsorship can pay off tenfold when cultural matching is considered. I’ve had a coach for several years and it’s a fruitful relationship that’s only possible with a deep understanding of the cultural nuances we share.

She understands filial piety (a primary duty of respect, obedience and care for one’s parents and elderly family members) and how it can be the root of why it’s difficult for Asian Americans to speak up, especially when it comes to talking about themselves. Her rooted understanding of my culture has unlocked a meaningful connection between us; it’s an instrumental element that helps me retain my cultural values while applying them to workplace decision-making.

Managers and allies can support this by understanding the role that cultural values play in AAPI upbringing and finding opportunities to engage by inviting AAPI workers into conversations, advocating for their accomplishments and encouraging independent opinions in group work.

Level-appropriate managerial training

Invest in regular, level-appropriate managerial training to advance emotional intelligence capabilities and improve team management skills. According to research conducted by TalentSmart EQ, “Emotional intelligence [is] the strongest predictor of performance, accounting for 58% of success across all job types.” Additionally, the study found that 90% of top performers scored high for emotional intelligence (also referred to as emotional quotient/EQ).

For up-and-coming AAPI leaders, developing EQ unlocks a successful path not just at their current level but can break the perception that they are hardworking but not team leaders. Agencies can support this development with culturally conscious career coaching or small group/online managerial development programs.

We have found the most success when segmenting managerial training into two groups: those with managerial experience and those without. The content can be tailored more effectively, with a stronger emphasis on EQ development, for the group without managerial experience.

Upskilling and cross-skilling

Investing in skill development is necessary for all employees, but to improve consideration for AAPI leaders we must support well-rounded skills development. That is, we must look beyond developing expertise only in their field and include cross-skills training that ladders up to their long-term ambition.

For example, I had an incredibly supportive sponsor who offered me opportunities across our company to learn competencies like P&L management, operations, client management and production. These skills helped me become more well-rounded when it came time to be considered for leadership positions, and eventually for my first CEO role.

If we only focus on improving diversity at the top, we are not solving the problem—we are filling a need. To solve the generational gap for AAPI talent, we need to invest in up-and-coming leaders and increase the share of promotions at each level.

It is entirely possible to create generational change.