Course Penetrates the Bamboo Ceiling

Highly skilled mid-level managers with Asian backgrounds are playing increasingly vital roles at many U.S. corporations, particularly in the Silicon Valley. Yet according to a recent study by the New York–based Center for Work-Life Policy, Asian Americans hold less than 2% of executive roles at Fortune 500 companies. Nearly half of Asian American women surveyed, and 63% of Asian American men, report feeling stalled in their careers.

Retired executives Buck Gee and Wes Hom saw similar trends at their own companies, Cisco and IBM. The so-called "bamboo ceiling" concerned them so much, in fact, that they approached the Center for Leadership Development and Research (CLDR) at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The result was a unique new course, aimed at promising mid-career managers at U.S. companies, called the Advanced Leadership Program for Asian American Executives.

When first offered in summer of 2010, the weeklong program attracted 26 participants from 19 companies. This past year, 38 came from 26 companies, including Google, Cisco, JP Morgan, and HSBC. "I wasn't convinced initially this was a widespread need," says Mike Hochleutner, MBA '01, executive director of the CLDR, "but when we started talking to senior people and HR leaders, we found it was perceived as a challenge across many industries. If you look at the demographics of the workforce, the area that's highly skilled and growing tends to be Asian American. The fact that companies were having trouble promoting executives from this talent pool showed an intriguing leadership development challenge and a hidden opportunity."

Hayagreeva Rao is the faculty director of the program, along with Seungjin Whang, who kicked off the week this summer with some executive team-building simulations that highlighted the role cultural factors can play in team performance. In another session, organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer offered tips on projecting authority, something managers from some cultures can find uncomfortable. Evening get-togethers gave participants a chance to network among themselves and develop action plans for their own advancement.