Today's lesson is about power.
Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer stands before a group of smart, young, promising -- but in some cases frustrated -- Asian executives at the Graduate School of Business, and talks about ways to project influence through physical presence, gestures and words, something Asians tend not to do.
"Bill, you're not taking up space! Take up space!" Pfeffer barks at one executive slouching in his chair. "We are taught not to be angry," Pfeffer tells the group later. "Get over this! Bad!"
A collection of vice presidents, managing directors and partners in their 30s or 40s, the executives ranged from native-born Americans and lifelong residents who spoke with a Southern drawl, to foreigners from various Asian nations. But all were ethnically Asian, attending a unique leadership program where many said they learned how a combination of their cultural upbringing and organizational bias could hamper their careers.
Representing a range of Silicon Valley companies, including Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), Cisco Systems (CSCO), Juniper Networks, Chevron and PG&E, as well as farther afield companies such as PepsiCo and KPMG, the 21 men and 17 women were selected for last week's six-day Stanford program because they were judged to be potential candidates for top corporate jobs, including the CEO suite.
Being held back
Studies show that a "bamboo ceiling" can hold back qualified Asians from landing top management jobs. A new report from the Center for Work-Life Policy found that while Asians are more likely than whites to aspire to a top job, Asian men are more likely to feel stalled in their careers than any other group, while Asian women are hurt by career "tripwires" like failing to stand out by offering new ideas.
A corporate "census" done in 2009 by Buck Gee and Wes Hom, retired executives from Cisco and IBM, respectively, found that Asians are underrepresented in top management compared with their share of the overall workforce.
Armed with their findings, Gee and Hom persuaded Stanford's graduate business school last year to launch a first-of-its-kind leadership development course for promising mid-career Asian managers at Western companies. The first course attracted 26 executives from 17 companies. This year's program grew to 38 participants from 25 companies, and ended Friday as executives departed for offices as close as Mountain View and as distant as Bangalore.
"This has really grown through word-of-mouth," said Gee, who attended the sessions with Hom. "I'm really pleased with the reaction of the students here. They are learning aspects of business and leadership that they hadn't thought of before. I see a lot of 'aha' moments in classes."
The Advanced Leadership Program for Asian-American Executives is a combination of classroom instruction and unstructured, informal bonding over lunch or evening drinks. The informal sessions include frank conversations about career problems -- such as an internal reluctance, given the cultural upbringing of many Asians, to be seen as too aggressive.
"You may not realize it now, but when you go back and look at your life, you'll see this was a big change in how you see your life and your career," Dennis Wong, an alumnus of the first class and Symantec's senior director, strategy, told the 2011 group on Thursday.
In some cases, the program reveals strong feelings, as participants talked about their families and cultures and how those played out in a U.S. company. Some spoke about how they had focused on becoming technically excellent, but failed to build clout in their company.
"What I've seen is if you work hard, you're the technical expert, and you're so busy focusing on your accomplishment, and you don't look up and see what's happening to your peers," said one female executive. "You've been working hard, but they got promoted." Many Asian-American executives lack a network of mentors or peers, research shows, something Google commerce executive Julian Chu said he hoped to gain through the Stanford program. Values of parents
Stu Ogawa, vice president of business intelligence at Yahoo (YHOO), is a third-generation Japanese-American born in San Jose. But he still feels shaped by the values of his parents and grandparents, which stem from Japanese culture and the painful experience of World War II U.S. internment camps where Japanese had to assimilate.
"So many of my peers, Japanese-Americans that have been born here and been here for several generations, they are still very conservative. I've heard from some people: 'I'm more of a supporter; I'm not a leader,' " Ogawa said, sharing his feelings to about 20 other participants over lunch on Tuesday.
Back in Pfeffer's class on power, the professor showed a video of an embattled CEO testifying before Congress last year -- BP's Tony Hayward -- who appeared so mournful about the Gulf oil spill that he seemed ready to burst into tears.
The weak-looking Hayward lost his job, Pfeffer noted, and then asked for volunteers to see who could come up with a more forceful presentation than Hayward's. Nivruti Rai, director of a chip development group for Intel, stood up to speak.
"If anybody can fix this problem," she said, gesturing confidently and commanding physical space, "it is us."