Can Asian Americans Be Alpha Males?

(Courtesy of S.K. Gupta)
S. K. Gupta is a former senior executive of a Fortune 50 corporation. He enjoys researching and writing about not-so-obvious things in life.

    “You will never be a vice president in this corporation,” asserted “Jack,” my boss. One of the few corporate officers in our company, he had stature in our large corporation of 140,000 employees. When Jack spoke, everyone listened. The year was 1999, and we were having one of those “what do you want to be when you grow up” conversations. I had worked with him for over a year. After I got over the shock of his assertion, I gathered my courage and asked him, “Why not?” and he bluntly told me: “You are not an Alpha male.”
   I was a Senior Director at corporate headquarters. I was visible, effective and a recognized successful change agent. So, I was taken aback by his message. After a few days, I asked him, “If I am not an Alpha Male, what am I?” He thought about it and said, “You are a highly competent Beta Male.”
   The terms Alpha and Beta Male were not in my lexicon. So, I went looking. My search yielded no results. The books on Alpha Male were still to be written. At that time, our company leadership was dominated by white males.
   So, by assessing those men, I guess I did know what an Alpha Male was. A macho guy. Take no prisoners. In-your-face. Loud. Gung-ho. Pushy. I saw examples of this at a training session from two peers who were in each other’s faces all day long and yet drinking buddies in the evening. When I asked them about it, they laughed and responded, “We are from New Jersey!”
   Jack told me that he had never seen me pick a fight in public with anyone. Why would I do a rude thing like that? Doing so could make someone “lose face.” It finally dawned on me that my good manners and behavior were now being perceived as weaknesses and not as strengths.
   Growing up in India, we were taught to be deferential and respectful. Very similar to values in Japan and other Asian countries, reverence to age as well as organizational hierarchy was considered good manners.
   I approached a friend of mine in Human Resources and shared my conversation with Jack. A seasoned coach, Cynthia challenged me to verbalize my discomfort. After some healthy discussions, I was convinced that I wanted to be an Alpha male, or at least be seen as one. So, she said, “Let’s go work on it.” Her plan was to identify the gaps between an Alpha Male and a highly competent Beta Male and then work on closing them.
   With the help of an external psychologist’s assessments and Cynthia’s tough love coaching, I learned a few new skills and identified the three cultural behaviors I had to change.

Rule #1: The only person in-charge of my career is me: Speak up.
   We were taught in our native countries in Asia to work hard, work smart, and if it is meant to be, it will be. It is kismet, karma, fate. But not in the U.S.A. Here, we need to learn that you have to drive your own career. You need to find your next assignment/promotion or training. I learned to speak up.
Rule #2: The best way to make sure that you don’t get something is by not asking for it: So, Ask.
   Asians, however, don’t typically like to ask – we prefer to be asked. Even if we were starving, we’d have to decline any offer of food at least twice before we could – hesitatingly – say yes, the third time. In Asian countries, the person making an offer knowing you are going to decline it twice asks you the third time. What happens in the U.S.? How many times have we even been asked twice?

Rule #3: Pull is stronger than push, but no one pulls people not pushing themselves: Raise Your Hand.
   We were taught in Asia that being pushy is rude. In contrast, in this country, we recognize and reward the Alpha Male.
   An HR leader told me that Asian Americans don’t want to be leaders since they were not knocking down his door to get promoted. We can’t wait to be pulled up – we need to push ourselves to get there.
   Many Asian Americans can be categorized as highly competent Beta Males/Females. We just need to identify the cultural gaps that may be holding us back from achieving our full potential in the U.S.
   Asian Americans have often told me, “I want to be true to myself and not become someone I am not.”
   There are, however, skills that one can learn without giving up one’s values. Just like corporations have development programs for leadership skills, there are skills for personal and cultural development, soft skills that can help us close the gaps. Speak, Ask and Raise Your Hand.
   Jack’s blunt and honest feedback changed my career’s trajectory, and I will forever be grateful to him. Less than two years after his feedback, I became a vice president. In another couple of years, I was running an 1,800-employee organization across seven states, with an annual budget of over $700 million.
   My journey to becoming a successful senior executive required me to understand the difference in the cultural norms between my native country and my new home. I didn’t become a macho, gung-ho, in-your-face guy, but I delivered results and exceeded expectations. Most importantly, I learned to identify and close the perception gaps.
   Can Asian Americans be Alpha Males? Resoundingly yes. The definition of Alpha Males has evolved over the past two decades, and a Harvard Business Review article defines them as “highly intelligent, confident and successful.”
   So, what are your gaps and what are the three rules that will close them for you?

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