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Bringing Corporate, Asian Cultures Together

Training: Nonprofit group encourages workshop participants to be more assertive in using diligence, skills to get ahead in workplace.

July 27, 2002|ERIN CHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was just a hypothetical situation, but it showed dead-on what a nonprofit organization called Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics Inc., or LEAP, wants to accomplish.

Wearing a buttoned-up business suit that made her look like the well-groomed executive she wanted to imitate, workshop facilitator Audrey Yamagata-Noji whipped back her black hair and strolled up to a conference table of six Asian Americans.

The six were playing the roles of business executives, and Yamagata-Noji, with a wry smile, floated a proposal for a new diversity initiative and waited for suggestions.

Silence.

"Well?" she asked, raising her eyebrows. There were a few grins and a mumbled "great." But mostly the six executives remained politely quiet.

Yamagata-Noji was not happy.

"What if you were the only person of color in the room when I asked that question, and you didn't respond?" Yamagata-Noji asked. "How often does that happen--when you are in a setting where you are looking for more opportunities, but you aren't able to get at them because you're frozen with indecision?"

There were some sheepish shrugs and a lot of nods.

And a lot of time spent thinking by the participants--which is exactly what LEAP wanted.

Through the mock situation, Yamagata-Noji highlighted rifts between some Asian American tendencies and American management styles. Though a non-Asian executive might perceive the six quiet participants as unwilling or uninterested, many simply didn't want to appear too forward and desired a one-on-one chat instead.

And while LEAP works with non-Asians to change their perceptions of Asian Americans, it concentrates mostly on encouraging Asian Americans to assume more responsibility by not hesitating to act with assertiveness, especially when opportunities present themselves at the conference table.

The winding hallways and gray doors of LEAP's Little Tokyo headquarters resemble a drab hospital ward. But the lackluster decor belies a more dynamic mission "to achieve full participation and equality for Asian Pacifics" through leadership training and public policy research.

"We want Asian Americans to lead in all sectors, from CEO to White House government to head of nonprofit corporations," Yamagata-Noji said. "We stereotypically are seen as hard workers ... and sometimes that doesn't work in our favor for getting promoted and getting ahead. The reward is more work--not a promotion, not opportunity."

LEAP, which celebrated its 20th anniversary July 18 with a gathering of about 600 supporters in Universal City, charges companies $3,500 per person for its workshops and uses the money to fund low-cost or free community and student workshops and public policy research.

Through its workshops and mentoring efforts, LEAP aims to "smash the glass ceiling from above and below, simultaneously," said J.D. Hokoyama, the group's founder and president.

Hye Ok Park of Fresno, a participant in a leadership development workshop for those in higher education, called LEAP "an American-type of leadership training with an understanding of an Asian cultural background."

A LEAP workshop eight years ago helped Debbie Barba lead without compromising her Japanese American cultural values. The Anaheim Hills resident found a way to promote herself that meshed with the way her parents raised her--to never brag in order to elevate her position.

"Instead of saying, 'Look at me, I'm great,' I talked about how great the people were who worked for me," Barba said. "It's saying the same thing but in a fashion that fits me."

Barba, who once aspired to just go from answering the "411" calls to the "0" requests as a telephone operator at SBC Pacific Bell, is now a vice president at the company.

But by using words from American corporate culture such as "synergy" and "proactive," LEAP has drawn criticism from some who say it caters to certain businesses and to American-born Asians.

LEAP tends to place an emphasis on getting "Asians to adapt to corporate culture, rather than getting corporate culture to change its management style to adjust to the diversity of their workforce," said L. Ling-chi Wang, a UC Berkeley Asian American studies professor and guest lecturer for LEAP.

He suggested that LEAP spend more time encouraging CEOs to embrace unfamiliar styles of leadership from Asia, such as those centered on consensus building.

Another problem, Wang said, is that some non-Asian chief executives who take classes and finance LEAP workshops are "just going through the motions to show that they are committed to diversity."

IBM spokesman Jim Sinocchi countered that IBM, a LEAP sponsor, changes its management "in order to stay competitive."

Just 2% of IBM executives in the United States were Asian in 1996, company officials said. As of last month, Asians made up 5.4% of the company's executives.

"We want to make sure that our company on the inside reflects the market on the outside," Sinocchi said. "To ignore that is just suicide."

Belinda Butler Vea, one of the six quiet "executives" at the table Yamagata-Noji had approached, had traveled from Phoenix to the recent workshop at Cal Poly Pomona.

After the questioning by Yamagata-Noji, she spent the next four days at the workshop trying to clarify a lifetime of muddled goals.

A daughter of migrant farm workers, Vea, 45, returned to work as program coordinator of Arizona State University's humanities program invigorated by her LEAP experience.

She immediately told her boss her ambition--to become a dean of student affairs--with a frankness and sense of purpose that Vea said she could not have mustered before the workshop.

"You can't come away from LEAP without a different perception of yourself," Vea said. "You're among a group of people that affirm what you want to do in your life. It makes you feel stronger."

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