Leaning in differently in Asia

Published: 3:58 AM, April 3, 2013
Updated: 9:00 PM, April 3, 2013
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When Ms Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In hit bookstores mid-March, it quickly headed to the bestseller list internationally. The message of her book, a feminist manifesto for the 21st century, rightly reverberates in America — but it may not resonate quite the same way in Asia.

As multinationals continue to pivot towards the Asia-Pacific, with its growing middle class and hence growing number of highly educated women, Ms Sandberg’s manifesto needs a cultural makeover. Better to embrace her aspirational pitch, add some Chinese wisdom, a pinch of humility with a broader perspective, before spreading the gospel. If her goal is to impact half the world, she cannot talk the same as she does from her perch in Silicon Valley.

Like most Americans, Ms Sandberg revels in rugged individualism, standing up for your rights, telling it like it is. But that is less likely to work in Asia, which is not individually driven but more relational in scope. She encourages women to stand up and shout their ambitions, stating “until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men …”

To posit “Are you ambitious?” in Vietnam, or Korea, or Bangladesh, usually results in an awkward shrug and negative shake of the head. The word “ambition” is a troublesome one in Asia, often equated with evil and greed.

For many Asian women, stating openly and loudly that they are ambitious is problematic and often comes with a pejorative labelling. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say, “She’s too ambitious”, adding in the next breath: “And she needs leadership development.”

I am often asked to teach “presence”, which frequently turns into a discussion of “I can’t say what it is, I just know when presence walks in the door.” Presence — or leadership — appears differently in Japan, China, India and the United States. It is subjective, culturally specific and shaped through words. Using tentative or hedging language such as “I think” or “I’m not certain but …” does not instil confidence with American managers — but indirectness is often the lingua franca of business in Asia.

To merely tell women to be more ambitious ignores the central problem: Outside the US, most corporations still do not have a clue how to deal with an ambitious woman.

Last year, I was asked to coach an accomplished attorney being considered for partnership with a prestigious US law firm. Ms Lee, a Hong Kong Chinese, multilingual Harvard-educated lawyer with a sterling track record in Mergers and Acquisitions, was small in stature, a direct communicator, quick witted and a solid performer.

Her problem — according to the (all male, all white) partners — was that she was too ambitious, aggressive and had a “take no prisoner” negotiating style.

Yet, those labels were the reason the firm had originally recruited Ms Lee. After coaching her, none of the “aggressive” behaviours became apparent; she did not ridicule or bruise others, and behaved in the same manner as her (male) colleagues. Yet, perceptions became reality for the partners, eventually impacting her promotion.

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