Archive for February, 2012

Is Our Soul for Sale?

February 27th, 2012


In a cheesy little movie, a young woman activist just found out that the bill she was lobbying for up on Capitol Hill was defeated because an older woman senator, who was supposed to help her champion the bill, has traded it for a bill that the senator’s corporate backers had wanted to pass.  Confronted for this perceived betrayal, the senator said; “I cannot do any good if I am not here on the Hill anymore.”  The young woman activist said, “But you are not doing any good here.”

This seems to be a common argument that many politicians carry with them as if getting re-elected is their primary purpose.  They have neglected to ask if they sell themselves to the highest bidder in order to stay in the office of power, what good they would do.  And who would they become?

For over 25 years, I have been working as a change consultant for major corporations.  I have witnessed many initiatives that started with great purpose but failed to produce the intended results at the end because too many people looked the other way when the need for real reform ran against the need for individual career survival.

For example, the work of “Diversity” has become an industry in the last few years.  Now there is even a position called the Chief Diversity Officer.   The Office of Diversity has a budget and a few staff.  But what is its purpose?  Has it found its voice?  Or has this work become a million dollar “box to check”?  A true diversity initiative is meant for an organization to fully utilize its diverse talents to support innovation in turn, to increase its competitive advantage in the marketplace.  In order to do this, we first have to have the diverse workforce from which to draw diverse talents.  In order to have a diverse workforce, we have to do more than just recruit different people.  We cannot capitalize on our people’s diverse talents if we don’t appreciate their differences.  In order to appreciate our people’s differences, we must have an organization culture that is open and receptive to their diverse ideas, styles and values.

But after years of doing the “diversity” work, many companies still have not seen enough diverse people in every level of their organizations. And most of the work was done to help women, minority and other underrepresented groups to succeed in the organization by teaching them to master the existing “success formula”.  In another word, this is the work of “assimilation”, not “diversity”.  We have not designed or implemented a process or a path to capture their differences.  If the organization culture stays the same while trying to recruit diverse talents, there is no capacity to absorb the differences.  It is like the body continues to reject the transplant.  At some point we ought to stop blaming the transplant for not fitting in but the body that is not ready to fit the transplant.  This is when we need a cadre of true change leaders internally, that has enough courage to tell the truth and challenge the status quo.  However, too often I’ve noticed that the people who were put into the position to lead the “change”, ended up towing the company line instead of standing up and speaking out for “change”.  They helped the organization stay the same while climbing their own personal career ladder.  Often they did not know that they were put there to window dress for an organization that really was not ready or interested to change.  So all they do is move the food around on the same plate while the diner starves to death.

The same can be said about training.  Many organizations spend millions of dollars sending their managers to training but never had a clear expectation or attach specific accountability to their deliverables.  While a percentage of the individuals indeed were impacted and changed because they were already open to change, the majority of them went back to their desk and did their job as usual when the glow from their faces faded after a week.  Did the organization have an intention to change by having these managers lead the change?

Talking to a potential client on the phone the other day, I told her I was interested in doing the “real” work of helping her people and organization change.  I knew I ran a risk of not getting any assignment from her but I also knew that after 26 years working in the business, I am tired of supporting clients to push the same food around the plate again.  And I also know that as an external consultant, I cannot do any work without the help from the internal change agent who is willing to champion the change.  It is often easier for me to stay true to myself as an external.  But as an internal staff, people often think they need to bend and camouflage themselves in order to get along.  I believe when a person assimilates too much, they will become irrelevant to the organization they just assimilated to because at that moment, they are no different than the person sitting in the next cubicle and now replaceable.  Even if we think we need the job, to add value to our job, we need to maintain our differences and marginality, which means we need to stay true to who we are.  Otherwise, we are not doing any good here just like that woman senator on the Hill

To become a true champion for “change” is hard work.  We have to be willing to pay a price to stand up for what is right and beneficial for the whole.  Every single day, we go to work and have to make a decision whether to go along with the status quo just so that we can have a job.  When we overdo this, we have become so assimilated that we are no good to ourselves and to the cause we say we believe in.

Many years ago, I interviewed for a potential executive coaching assignment with a woman in a major national agency in Washington DC.  Not too long after we were into our conversation, she said she worried that her people didn’t come to her for advice or mentoring.  And she was under the impression that they did not think she cared or was capable of nurturing them.  As she talked, she started to cry.  While we had not yet agreed on the coaching assignment, I thought I would use my coaching skills to help her put herself back together before she would face the world for the rest of the day.

A few weeks later, I found out I was not chosen to be her coach.  I am sure many factors played into her decision.  But one of them stood out loud enough for me.   For a moment, she let her guard down, became vulnerable and showed her intimate self to me.  Somehow this frightened her as if she could not afford to let anyone see that side of her.

I wonder how high a price she has paid to get to the second-in-command position of the agency.  The price probably included her ability to nurture, or her femininity that her employees were missing.  This might have caused them to lose their trust for her.

Is it her fault to become so camouflaged?  Not entirely.  If the organization did not demand that she fit into a “hard hitting”, “sharp focused” and “charging up the hill” type of leader, in other words to become more like a man, would she have been more of who she really was?

Many of us changed and adapted ourselves so much in order to come to work, after a while, do we still know who we are?

Many men I worked with have also suffered long with this dilemma.  They don’t usually discover this loss of self until they hit 50 years old and realize that they are not going to be the president of the company.  Their health turned bad.  Their marriage fell apart.  And they did not know how their children grew up.  Many white men especially can feel the sharp pain since they were the first to get on the career ladder in most of the business organizations.  White men, as a group, like to think of themselves as only individuals. And they believe that they got to where they are in their career totally because of their individual hard work.  So when their world falls apart, they have no one to turn to.  They have woken up to see that the years they put in to be good soldiers and good company men had not gotten them the true happiness they longed for.  By that time, they became so lost.

Change is hard work and it takes time.  It often requires a significant portion of the organization to take on the role of internal change agents with a lot of courage to sometime go against the existing trend in order to champion for change.   Yet too many organizations still think that change will happen in a 2-hour training class.  However when no one is willing to stop the train, challenge the path we are on and advocate for alternatives, we all have just become sheep following each other over a cliff.

Steve Job at his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech said “…Find what you love to do.  Don’t stop until you are truly satisfied in doing what you believe as great work….Live as if there is no tomorrow.  Avoid the trap of believing you have something to lose…Don’t waste time living others’ lives…  Stay hungry.  Stay foolish.”  This is not just a job.  If we cannot be ourselves and are not doing what we love to do, why are we wasting time doing it?

Finding our passion and staying true to ourselves are two sides of the same coin.  Even if we need a job just to pay the bills, we can still find pleasure and passion in it so we will feel better about ourselves and our performance will be better.  Why should anyone sell themselves short?

In order to find pleasure and passion in the work we do, we better align our core values to it.  Every time we chip away a little bit of our true self on the job, we moved a little farther from our passion and our core.  We have basically created a deficit in our soul’s bank account.  I don’t want to live this way.  I don’t want to conclude at the end of my life that I have sold out before I close the book on myself.

Hiro and his wife Miho own and operate a running shoe store called “Run More” in my little town.  The other day, I went in their store for the first time, Miho bowed to me several times and smiled broadly.  When Hiro finished with his last customer, he came over and shook my hand warmly and proceeded to get an imprint of my feet.  Next thing he did was to get down on his knees and observe the way I walked back and forth.  Afterwards, he pointed to a section of the product display called the “structured cushion” and recommend that I choose a pair of sneakers from this section.  He then took out two pairs of insoles and had me try on to decide which fit me better in order to help correct the way my right foot is overcompensating for my left foot due to knee injuries.

I was so struck not only by his knowledge but also his intensity.  In those 20 minutes, I was totally convinced that Hiro believed in the shoes that he was selling and in his work of helping amateur athlete like me to keep doing what I love to do without causing more damage to myself.  Hiro and Miho are just ordinary people.  They came from Japan not more than a year ago.  Their English was far from perfect but their enthusiasm has trumped all the obstacles they might have encountered in this new land.

Yesterday, my girlfriend and I were in the local Starbucks to get coffees.  Somehow when she opened the lid to add cream, the hot coffee spilled onto her hand.  We asked the young woman behind the counter if they had an icepack to stop the burn.  She answered no but offered no help to us.  I had to keep asking what else she could do.   She said she could give us some ice but she had no plastic bag to put the ice in.  Instead of standing there, I had my girlfriend run to the bathroom and quickly rinse her hand under the cold water.  We finally got some ice in a plastic cup from the young woman as we walked away.

What do you think Hiro and Miho would have done differently if they worked behind the Starbucks counter yesterday?  They probably still might not have an icepack.  But I am sure they would run a bit faster and try a bit harder to find the next best solution for my girlfriend’s burnt hand.  What is missing in the young lady at the Starbucks?  Is it lack of training from the company?  Or is it lack of passion for her job?

What does it take for people to care, knowing it is not just a job that they spend their most precious lives on?

What does it take for that woman executive to reclaim her whole self?

What does it take for us to renegotiate our worth based on our core compass, not some big paycheck and big title alone?

How ready is your organization to accept your employees as who they really are, in order to encourage innovation?


Celia Young helps her clients to be true to themselves as individuals and as organizations in order to achieve their highest purpose in life and in business.


Where is the Humor?

February 21st, 2012


Just when the sports world and the fans got swept up in the Lin-sanity where Jeremy Lin, the first Asian American player in the NBA generated so much excitement for the basketball game and became the “overnight sensation”, the excitement also stirred up the shadow side of our society.

Right after Jeremy Lin’s team New York Knicks lost to the New Orleans Hornets and interrupted its seven game winning streaks; ESPN headline included a racial slur, “chink in the armor”.  Earlier, MSG Network had the cartoon of Lin jumping out of a fortune cookie.  Boxer Floyd Mayweather said Lin is receiving attention on the scale that he has because he is Asian. Mayweather, a black man, ought to remember when Chuck Cooper, the first African American player who got into the NBA in 1950.  Did he think Cooper’s achievement was all about his race?  And then, Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock posted a Tweet that perpetuated a stereotype about Asian men full of sexual overtone.  Although ESPN quickly erased the language, fired the employee who created the headline and suspended the news commentator for using and repeating the offensive language, this is not the first time the Network or other major media committed such racial offenses.  And the deeper problem remains unresolved.

Often when an offensive remark is made either about gender or about race, people around the offender or the offender himself/herself would say that it was just a joke and there was no ill intent behind the remark.  Some might even say, “Lighten up.  Don’t be so sensitive.”  The question remains, “Why is it ok to continue to make jokes at the expense of others?”  Who gave these people the license to freely express themselves without any regard for others?

If we look back at the days when they lynched black men on a regular basis, we can say that the U.S. has certainly come a long way.  But you would have thought that blacks like Whitlock would have more sensitivity not to commit the same offense against another group of racial minority.   But we still have so far to go to arrive at a truly diverse and civilized society where using “Chinks” or “Gooks” is as equally offensive as using the “N” word.

The real issue lies beyond policing our language or manner in this society.  The real work is to eliminate the deep rooted racial bigotry that still exists in this country and this world.

In 1992, when Christie Yamaguchi, representing the U.S. won the Olympic gold medal for figure skating, a talk show host in Los Angeles openly questioned, “When are we going to have a real American skater in the game?” Yamaguchi, a U.S. born and raised Japanese American who brought home the glory for our country, not only had to endure many similar remarks but never gained as many commercial endorsements like some of the white women figure skaters.

As a group, we Asian Americans continue to suffer from invisibility.  But when we are visible, we often are confronted by the old but persistent indignation of our society.

They say that if we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.  During World War II, one of the fiercest fighting groups of American soldiers was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team with the 100th Infantry.  They were awarded seven Presidential Unit Citations.  This is the highest award that a unit can earn.   The “442nd” was a group of Japanese Americans, born and raised in the U.S.  While they were fighting for this country on the front line, many of their families were rounded up back in the States and sent to the internment camp.   By the time the war was over, most of them had lost their properties and their community.  Most of these men and their families carried their suffering in silence.  It was not their culture to complain.

The term “Chink”‘ started to appear when the first wave of Chinese immigrants came over to the States in the1800’s to work in the gold mines and on the railroad.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Chinese immigration was perceived as a threat to the living standards of whites in North America and other similar nations. The Chinese were seen as invasive, and this mounting xenophobia culminated in Yellow Peril hysteria. In the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning Chinese immigration, within a few years after the first recorded use of chink. The dehumanizing use of the word is argued by one author to be a racist justifier for the passage of the Exclusion Act. (Wikipedia)

These are parts of our country’s ugly history.  If we don’t remember them, then we will not understand why a little racial slur can hurt so much.

We Asian Americans have another layer of suffering where our culture encourages us to endure and adapt to our environment so we don’t make waves or lodge loud protests like the African American community when racial slurs or racial profiling are used on them.  Sometimes, when blacks protest too loudly, they get blamed for using the “race” card.  This is one more reason that we Asian Americans have learned to look the other way when something offensive happens to us.  We often swallow the injustice or throw our hands up and said, “That is just the way it is.”  Our silence shared by many non-Asians often helped keep the same racial oppression alive, generations after generations.

Some of us Asians avoid and run away from ourselves.  Our reasons could be as wide and as deep as the sky.  If we have been treated unfairly many times, it might be easier just to pretend it does not bother us, or pretend that we are not Asians. Many Asian Americans who grew up in this country like to tell you that they think of themselves as Americans, not Asians.  My Hispanic and African American friends often cannot understand this sentiment. In a diversity workshop I facilitated, a white man said to a black man, “Why can’t we get beyond the race talk?  I just want to get to know you.”  The black man said, “Being black is part of me.  What is it about my being black you don’t want to know?”  What is the benefit of denying our Asian identity?  So perhaps we can hide or blend into the background and not get into the spotlight.  However, we can try all we want; we will not turn into whites.  And people do not see us as just individuals, as long as we have an Asian face.  So why not own “ourselves” completely?

UC Berkeley professor Ron Takaki, in his book “Strangers from a Different Shore” told a story.   A man walked up to him in a store and asked him “Where are you from?”  Takaki said he was from Sacramento.  The man said, “No no, where are you really from?”  Takaki then spent the next few minutes recounting how his grandfather built an orchard in Oregon and how his parents were born there and he in Sacramento.  Before leaving Takaki, the man said, “Boy, you speak very good English.”

How many generations do we have to have been here in order to be seen as real Americans?

When a person of color fails, he or she often carries the burden of the whole group.  I have never heard any racial remarks about a white player or celebrity when they failed.  When the Knicks lost to the Hornets, I would not have minded if people had criticized Jeremy Lin’s turnovers and the mistakes of the team.  But this is beyond the passion for the game.  This is like putting a person of color in his place and reminding him of who is still in charge.  Evidently, Jeremy Lin has suffered as a result of racial insults ever since he decided to play basketball.

The first Chinese American governor, Gary Locke, for the State of Washington, (1997-2005), had a promising political future and was viewed as a vice president candidate for the Democratic Party.  Right after his rebuttal to President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, he announced that he would not seek re-election.  Many people speculated that his decision was mainly due to the threats he received.  These racial slurs, insults and death threats were aimed at not only him but his family.

In this society, if we don’t agree with what someone said or did, we are free to register our objections.  But if the target of our objections happens to be a person of color, a woman, a gay/lesbian, or a Muslim, all of a sudden, there seems to be an arsenal of bigotry that is easily unleashed against not only the individuals but also their groups.

At one of my workshops, “Doing business with Asians” for a local realtor association in the 1980’s, I actually had realtors picketing outside.  Although I was invited to help them learn to enter the Asian market and develop more business, their signs were full of racial slurs.

Someday, no wonder some of us just want to pull the cover over our heads.

Jeremy Lin said ESPN has apologized so he has moved on.  Perhaps he has more important things to focus on, such as winning the next game or he has trained himself not to let this experience bother him.  Or he truly has forgiven the offender as he claimed.  Whatever the reason is, as an individual he is entitled to make his personal decision to cope with the bad experience.  However, as a group, shall we Asian Americans just keep quiet? And as a society, shall we continue to let things slide?  If we think because we did not experience or did not see the racial oppression and we do not need to get involved, we just helped keep the ugliness in place.

The more powerful way to help this society to open its arms so that all citizens can claim their rightful place is for men to get really upset when a sexual remark is made about a woman and for whites to get offended when a racial remark is used on any group of racial minorities.  Otherwise, the power inequality will continue.  Women and people of color will continue to be forced to swallow or left to fight the injustice on their own.

Many of us believe in the Golden rule of “Do onto others like we want done onto us.”  This might be quite a good rule to follow but it is not enough.  If we only apply the Golden rule, it means that what works for us must work for others.  So if the jokes don’t bother us, then they should not bother others either.  What we need is the Platinum rule that says, “Do onto others like they want done onto themselves.”  It means, in order to treat people right, we first have to find out how they want to be treated.

The only way to change our society is to take a stand and do something to stop the insensitivity and the injustice.

What is it that you can do within your personal range of influence?  How much courage do you have to be that change agent?  What are you willing to do to stand up for justice?


Celia Young champions for social justice in every part of the work she does as a diversity consultant.



Can You See Me? – An Asian American Experience

February 13th, 2012


Last Friday night, New York Knicks beat LA Lakers 92-85. I am not much of a basketball fan but I got swept up in the game because of Jeremy Lin, the Knicks’ point guard. Lin alone scored 38 points. To his fans, he represented a true “Cinderella” and an “Underdog” following a long road to the NBA. In New York, they call him “Lin-Sanity”. To me and all my friends at the dinner table, he represented the first Chinese American who made it to the NBA. When I saw his number 17 jersey, I cried.

During last Friday night, hundreds and thousands of iPhone, text and e-mail messages overloaded the network from both sides of the Pacific Rim. Our excitement for Lin was different than that for Yao Ming who was a Chinese player, sought after and drafted by the Houston Rockets. As a Chinese American, Lin was never drafted. Universities that are well known for their basketball programs did not want him. Finally Harvard took him in. From playing in the summer league, to the Golden State Warriors, getting cut and finally getting into the Knick’s development league and back up team, it was a long road that almost ended because his contract was to expire in 10 days.

The real story is not just about basketball. It is about how invisible Asian Americans are in the U.S. landscape. When I watched the Beijing Summer Olympic on TV in 2008, I danced up and down and cried at the same time with pride. Although I was not born there, I felt the cellular connection to the mother land. But China is far away and its glory might not have helped us Chinese Americans very much when it comes to making it in our careers in the U.S. When the movie “Joy Luck Club” came out in 1993, it stirred up so much emotion among many Asian Americans. Although not all their ancestors were Chinese, they celebrated this Chinese story because it was the first time that a movie was written, produced and acted in by an all Asian American cast. Since 1993, it has been a long time we Asian Americans saw the image of ourselves on the main stage of our society.

In the national dialogue on race, we Asian Americans are often not included. When it comes to minorities, people would think of Blacks and Hispanics first. Perhaps they do not think we need representation. But what happens to a kid who wants to be in theater or sports, or just wants to be a leader when there are not too many role models that look like him or her.

Just like when Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton and Earl Lloyd broke the color line as the first African Americans that got into the NBA in 1950, this time the excitement belongs to the Asian Americans. Until the day when it is not unusual to see Asians or any other racial minorities in any line of work, people like me will continue to get choked up about the news.

Here is a deeper issue: There is a difference between being Asian nationals and being Asian Americans. Average folks in the U.S. just cannot see it. Working with so many major U.S. corporations in the last 26 years of my life, I have not seen too many Asian Americans in the senior ranks. As long as we still measure a person’s career success by how high they climb on their career ladder, to be missing from the senior ranks is not a good success indicator. Very often, when we do see Asians in the senior ranks, they tend to be the Asian nationals who had succeeded in Asia working for either Asian companies or multinational companies with operations in Asia. They then got helicopter-ed back into the U.S. headquarters and landed in executive positions. In many cases, white management would pat themselves on the back to think that they did very well promoting Asians. But these Asian nationals did not grow up in the U.S. or climb the typical American corporate ladder. They did not experience the organization cultural bias and the glass ceiling. Often it is not easy for them to be the role models for their fellow Asian Americans.

While we cheered for Yao Ming’s success for getting into the NBA, how he got there did not necessarily help build the ladder for Asian Americans who were born or raised in the U.S. and aspire to be professional basketball players until Jeremy Lin.

We Asian Americans often live a double-edged dilemma. On the one edge, we have been raised and influenced deeply by our cultural upbringing that encouraged us to get into a “professional” career. Playing sports and getting into the theater certainly are not seen as real professional career choices by many of our parents. On the other edge, when we do try to break out, we are seen through a stereotypical lens by the society. If we show up as anything beyond our stereotypical profile, such as being good at math and science, we are seldom taken seriously. Perhaps those other universities did not see Jeremy Lin as a good enough athlete either.

It is wonderful to see an underdog on his way to becoming a superstar. Americans love an underdog because most of them see a bit of themselves that way. Cheering for the underdog gives them hope that someday they can make it too. This is how this country has been founded. However, Jeremy Lin is not just an individual. He represents a group called Asian Americans who most of time are not seen as minorities but are not whites either. So, where are they in this society? Maybe one day, race won’t matter. But at this moment, it does. For a white player to be a superstar or get promoted in a corporation, he or she just has to be better than everyone else. And he or she would only be seen as an individual. Whites are already in. This is why their whiteness never needs to come up.

Asians in corporate America have an inherent disadvantage because of the cultural gaps. Whether we are immigrants or born and raised here after so many generations, we still have our cultural traditions in our genes. We were raised not to stand out and not to self promote. Our communication style tends to be more indirect. With this indirect communication style, our strength is in our ability to listen and observe in order to capture other’s messages. Except in Corporate America, we are expected to speak up more often, speak well and come to the point more directly. Otherwise, we are not seen as leadership material. Asian Americans who do not fit this profile would tend not to be noticed. And we often do not get the promotion we deserve. Statistics show that we Asian Americans certainly do not have difficulties getting hired. But where did we go after we get hired? In any major U.S. corporation, potential leaders are encouraged to constantly build their network, market themselves and work on perfecting their personal “brand”. This is so opposite to the values that we Asians hold dear to ourselves.

But can you say that Asian Americans are not good leadership material? Just come to Silicon Valley, California. There are so many entrepreneur companies that were founded and led by Asian Americans. We just lead differently. The question is: why can’t the large companies see that and value us more as who we truly are?

At the Friday night’s dinner, my friends wondered out loud if Jeremy Lin’s life would have been different if he actually got admitted to one of those major basketball schools. If he did not get dropped by the Golden State Warriors, would he have become a superstar much sooner? Perhaps he had to take such a long and lonely journey, risking losing his contract in 10 days to get to his “superstar” performance on Friday night. Good for him.

What lessons did we learn from this? We learned that individual perseverance against all odds can work. We also learned that the environment needs to open its eyes and create opportunities for people who normally might not have been the obvious choice for the next job or the next promotion.

In his book “Outlier” Malcolm Gladwell wrote: “…The University of Michigan law school, like many elite US educational institutions, uses a policy of affirmative action when it comes to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Around 10 percent of the students Michigan enrolls each fall are members of racial minorities and if the law school did not significantly relax its entry requirement for those students – admitting them with lower undergraduate grades and lower standardized-test scores than everyone else- it estimates that percentage would be less than 3 percent.” In fact, Gladwell went on to write that the University’s affirmative action program became a case disputed in front of the US Supreme Court. But a few years ago, when the school decided to track their students after graduation, they found that there was no difference in the rate of career success among the white graduates and the minority graduates. Perhaps it is not as important as to how the minority students got in the school. It is more important to provide opportunities to a group of people who otherwise might not have a chance to succeed in life. Jeremy Lin might not be from a disadvantaged background, but he was perhaps disadvantaged because no one recognized his true potential.

“Players don’t usually come out of nowhere,” Kobe Bryant said after Lin helped New York snap a nine-game losing streak that dated back to February 2007. “If you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning. But no one ever noticed.” (USA Today) Jeremy Lin did not get that chance until Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Soudemire and Baron Davis were out injured. It is like all of a sudden the understudy got a chance to step into a Broadway play. Sometimes you might have worked very hard and all it takes is a bit of luck and to be given a chance.

Asian Americans often don’t stand out as obvious choices for leadership. Because of their lack of visibility, they don’t often get the kind of assignments that present career enhancing opportunities. When they don’t brag about their own achievement, senior management doesn’t usually have them on the radar screen when it comes to career advancement. Should the corporation ask its Asian employees to do all the changes in order to assimilate? If yes, we will not only force them to become who they are not but also lose all their unique and different talents.

In order to capture all the diverse talents, organizations need to be open and welcoming to these talents instead of changing them. Remember, sometime all it takes is giving people a chance.

People said that ever since they got into the NBA, black players have changed how the game is played. I hope that Jeremy Lin and the other Asian American players that come after him will change the game with their unique talents too.


Celia Young consults to major corporations in maximizing the values of their diverse workforce. She also specializes in Asian American Leadership Development.


Why Do We Call Them “Soft Skills”?

February 7th, 2012

Sitting next to a young man on a flight from LAX to New York one day, we automatically opened our greetings with “what do you do for a living?”  He said he worked for one of those big management consulting firms.  When I told him I am an Organization Development Consultant, he twitched his nose a bit and said they did not focus on the “soft side” of their clients business.  Having heard the terms, “soft side” and “soft skills” so many times in the last 26 years, I decided to examine what they really mean.

There seems to be a perception out there that the real business is run on its functionality in Finance, Manufacturing, Engineering, IT, R&D, Sales, etc. These are the hardware of the business like a machine.  It is easier to measure output of a machine but what keeps the machine running is the energy, which is harder to measure. Energy comes from the people. Most business people would agree that the people side of the enterprise is very important to the success of the business. However, they don’t often think of the business as a human system, built with such “software” as organization culture, workplace relations and leadership.  And many of the same business people tend to view the skills that deal with these “software” as “soft skills” and believe these “touchy feely” issues should belong to HR.  “Soft” is certainly not seen as powerful as “hard”.  And we tend not to assign equal value to anything soft.   Many of us privately think that no serious business career ought to focus on the “soft” side of the enterprise.  Yet, historically, these “software” have proven to have the power to either make or break a business.

On one of the many trips I took to Washington DC on client assignments, I found something was not quite right after checking in at my usual hotel and called the front desk for assistance.  The housekeeping staff freshening up the rooms on my floor saw the problem and called the front desk again to suggest that they move me to a different room.  She then followed up with a bottle of wine and a plate of fruits.  I was quite impressed with the actions she took.   I did not think this was part of her job beyond cleaning the room.  When I asked her, she pointed to the big bright orange button on her lapel that said “Customer First”.  She had pride in her smile.  On that same trip, we had a sudden ice storm.  I found out I had locked my keys in the rental car.  By the time the rental car company’s representative came to open the car door for me, there were several inches of the ice and snow already accumulated on top of and all around the car.  The hotel doorman and the valet went out there and help me scrape and shuffle the snow so that I could get in the car.  And they all had the same big buttons on their lapels.

I did not believe this hotel paid their staff more money than other hotels.  And this was not even the most expensive hotel around the area.  So what made the staff so energized to stand behind their slogan?  I believe this had something to do with their organization culture.  Housekeeping staff, the doorman or the valet, just like the company receptionists are the front line or the face of our business.  They can expand or destroy the brand image of our business that took millions of dollars to build.  So the question is:  How does a company make sure its mission and vision are shared all the way to the bottom level of the organization?  And can we ignore this “soft side” of the business?

Another time, my colleagues and I were in a different town to do some executive training for an auto company.  First thing we found out when we got into the training room was that many of the training supplies that they agreed to provide, were not there.  When we inquired, the support staff said they did not have the supplies and we would need to go to the company store and buy them.  When it was time for lunch, we discovered a shortage and asked the kitchen to bring in more food.   The kitchen staff said they were not told that more people had attended the training than planned and did not have enough food to cover the extra attendees. It did not matter that this training class was for members of the top 100 senior management staff, and the kitchen staffs work for their executive dining room.  At three O’clock, the company announced the largest mini-van recall for its history.  Most of the participants had to leave the training to attend to the urgent matter at hand.

So the question is: Was there a direct correlation between how the support and kitchen staff behaved and the product recall on that day?  What made them behave so negatively even in front of the senior staff?  They could not have had this attitude from the first day on the job.  Otherwise the issue has to do with this company’s bad hiring practice.    But not all bad employees are bad “hire”.  Once again it is fair to say that this incident had a lot to do with the organization culture of the client company.  To find out about an organization’s culture, all you need to do is to discover what behaviors are rewarded and what are punished.  A new employee will often find out very quickly after they are on board.

So, what is in the work environment that causes employees to become “apathetic” and “uncommitted”?

Many companies assume people are just soldiers who are supposed to follow orders and do their job.  Many company cultures believe “work” is supposed to be “hard” and the employees are supposed to be self-motivated.  In this kind of culture, when people find out their “hard work” did not get rewarded, they will begin to lose their enthusiasm.

Many managers believe the employees should learn to adapt to the system.  They would even mentor and teach the selected few how the “game” is played.  It is not likely that these types of companies will adjust themselves to the employees.  If a young recruit asks too many questions, and is told to shut up and learn the company way first, he would quickly learn to keep his fresh ideas to himself.  When employees feel their opinions are not valued and their voices are not heard, they would stop caring.  And the company will lose the innovative value of the employees that they spent so much of their resources to hire in the first place.

When employees notice that there are double standards being practiced in the company and leaders are not “walking” their “talk”, they will think the mission and values on the wall are not worth the paper and ink they are printed on.  At that moment, people will begin to sound very cynical.  Cynicism is a very serious contagion that generally kills the spirit of the company.

“Apathy” is not the only hindrance to our business success.  Let us examine the “lack of courage.” Since employees act like good soldiers, they have learned to follow but not challenge the rules.  They learned not to speak up even when they know it is the right thing to do for the company.  Often, they choose to keep their job instead of doing their job.  In addition, managers are reluctant to give real feedback to the employees because they were afraid of dealing with difficult issues or they lack the “soft” skills.  Eventually they end up with mediocre staffs that create mediocre business results.  Finally, senior leaders are not willing to accept feedback, so no one around them will give them any.  Many big decisions at the senior level are made without up-to-date and honest data.  This can have a huge business consequence.  Many companies made merger and acquisition deals that failed and cost thousands of jobs.  These jobs were lost among the employees who were not in the position to impact the fatal decisions.

Since there is no room for truth-telling up and down the chain of command, can you see how the mini-van recall happened?

And, can we afford not to pay any attention to the soft side of the business?

Tom Peters, a popular author and management expert once said, “You cannot treat your customers better than your employees and succeed in business for very long.” Whether you are a superstar because you made a lot of money for your company or you brought in a lot of fame as a brilliant doctor, you cannot succeed without the help of others.  Currently many business schools do not offer more than one or two courses to teach the future managers to be “human”.   These human skills are the so-called “soft skills” required to create a workplace where people are willing to come to work every day and give you 120% of their energy.   This is not rocket science, but it requires all managers to commit to practicing the skills, not just leave it to HR.

On last Thursday night’s panel hosted by Executive Next Practices (ENP), every speaker said the best way to “brand” our business is to express clearly why we are in business and what our passion is.  For Disney, it is about creating the “happiest” place on earth.  While conducting employee focus groups, I often ask the group what keeps them on the job with their current employer. If they could honestly say it was about the company value, not just for a paycheck, I would quietly make three cheers for the client company for getting on the right track to build a positive work culture.

To create an effective human system for business, we must have:

  • - Top level leaders who not only have the vision but who can also turn the rest of the company on with this vision.
  • - Top level leaders who are willing to be the role model for change.
  • - All leaders who are willing to take in feedback and spend more time developing their employees so that they can be freed to think strategically and build the future.
  • - Increased level of trust among teams as well as along the chain of command.
  • - Clear and collective passion as the foundation for business success.

To accomplish all the above, we need soft skills.  To discover if your business culture needs improving, a suggested organization health check list can be found here.

Good luck to all of us, 21th Century business leaders.



Celia Young & Associates, Inc. provides tools and skill sets to transform businesses as human systems.