Finding my voice as an Asian American leader meant reconciling two different models of leadership

My Chinese immigrant parents raised me to not stand out too much. But American culture rewards those who stand out, speak up, and make their voices heard.
My Chinese immigrant parents raised me to not stand out too much. But American culture rewards those who stand out, speak up, and make their voices heard.
Image: REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
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I was one of only a few Americans of Asian descent in the small South Carolina town where I grew up. Throughout my childhood, I lived with a sense of not belonging. There were crank calls at all hours from people with fake Chinese accents, eggings, broken windows, and even occasional shouts of “go back to where you came from.” My hair, eyes, and skin broadcasted that I was different, so I learned to stay quiet and blend in.

My Chinese immigrant parents raised me to not stand out too much. They encouraged me to study hard, work diligently, and not draw too much attention to myself. Asian culture is collective in nature, which suited my personality and temperament, but not American culture.

American culture rewards those who stand out, speak up, and make their voices heard. When I ask you to picture a leader, what qualities do you think of? Strong, decisive and assertive? Bold, inspirational and successful?

There is a steep cost to not exemplifying leadership in the way that is expected. Studies show that Asian Americans, particularly women, are significantly underrepresented in top leadership roles within U.S. companies.

Asians are the least likely racial group to become managers. The racial gap is bigger than the gender gap for Asian women. Being Asian is 2.91 times the disadvantage of being a woman, according to a study published by the Ascend Foundation. Additionally, the study found that out of all gender and racial groups Asian women are the least likely to become executives.

I see this gap as a reality stemming partly from this cultural divide between the collective societies of our ancestry and the individualistic country that is our home.

Reconciling the distinct cultures within myself and finding my authentic voice was a journey.

How I found my voice

I learned early on to speak less and do more. And it worked for a long time, until it didn’t. I studied hard, got a scholarship to Duke, and landed a job at Boston Consulting Group. That is when I realized the limits of what I could achieve. I was given feedback repeatedly that my analysis skills were good, but I didn’t have presence with the clients. I had a hard time understanding what that meant. My work was solid, so why did it feel like I was failing?

I went on to business school, where I took an organizational behavior class that focused on how companies and relationships within organizations work. It covered the important factors of leadership and expectations within traditional workplaces. On the final exam there was an essay question asking: “What will you change as a result of being in this class?” I hesitated for a moment and then wrote, “I will be an extrovert at work.” That is when I started to convey my authentic voice in the workplace.

I realized that by hiding, I was failing. I held myself apart from others in order to protect myself, and in the end, the failure to speak up was costing more than the safety of being silent.

Over the years, as I worked at various technology companies, I gradually opened up. For me, the hardest part of finding my voice was worrying that I had nothing to say that was worth listening to. Having a voice meant being vulnerable—something I was reluctant to do.

Over time I found that sharing more of myself was not a weakness but an opportunity to connect. I started posting more about my three children and tagged each of the posts #mommyschool, a term that my then two-year-old son coined. At first I felt self-conscious, until people started talking about how the posts touched them or made them laugh. It broke the ice and opened the door for more connection.

The complicated task of finding your voice

Someone asked me if I felt like I was assimilating or if these actions felt fake to me somehow. The answer is a complex one.

On one hand, putting yourself out there fosters connection and can lead to positive relationships. On the other, a lot of leadership expectations in America are so foreign to how I was raised. One thing I know is that even though my journey has often been difficult, it has never been inauthentic. I do wish that our industry recognized and accepted a broader set of diverse styles of leadership, but I’ve never regretted choosing the path I took.

The hard part about putting yourself out there is that sometimes it won’t work. People will call you out or say that you are too vocal or abrasive, that you are being too forward or saying too much. There is a price to pay for every expectation you break and for not staying within the stereotypes that bind you.

But there is a greater price for not ignoring the rules and breaking out of the stereotypes. Conforming can be easier and safer, but it also makes it harder to be perceived as a leader.

If you have not found your voice yet, start with the one thing you wish others knew about you without having to tell them—your passion, your truth, or your turning point. Start there and write it down. Then ask yourself if anyone around you knows it. If not, consider opening up and sharing more of yourself.

As you grow into your own voice, know that the sentiment you leave is more important than the mere words you say. If you are open and vulnerable, others will be the same way with you. Your voice is a way to create a connection that didn’t exist before.

Just like a fingerprint, your voice is unique to you. It is your story, perspective, and passion. Sharing opens the door to connections, vulnerability, and ultimately trust. Silence is the enemy of authentic leadership, and your voice is the key.

Deb Liu is the vice president of Marketplace at Facebook.