Alice Kwan: Living the 'American dream' her way
Deloitte Consulting LLP Talent Integrated Market Offering (IMO) Leader Alice Kwan doesn’t claim to have taken the most direct steps in her path to leadership, but she doesn’t regret a thing. Each new direction has led her towards her passion and she is following her dreams – which are constantly evolving as she seeks out new ways to make a difference in the lives of others.
In celebration of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, we sat down with Alice, who is first generation Chinese-American, to learn more about how she sustains a rewarding, successful career at Deloitte as well as what the organization is doing to help our Asian talent develop rewarding and thriving careers.
Tell us a little bit about your career path.
I have had a very non-linear career. I joined Deloitte Services LP in 1998 as a director in Campus Recruiting, which was a big change for me because I had not worked in HR before. Prior to Deloitte, I was a consultant focusing mostly on process improvement and systems integration. I was looking to make a career change when a former colleague took a chance by bringing me in to run recruiting in one of the regions.
During that time, I worked on a joint project with Human Capital professionals who were helping to redesign Deloitte’s HR function. It was then I realized I missed client service so I made the move into Human Capital as a manager, working on talent management and organizational change projects, mostly within the pharmaceutical industry. I was quickly promoted to senior manager and then became a principal three years after that.
Today I lead the Talent IMO and the Talent Market Offering for the consulting practice. I get to exercise a completely different set of skills by bringing together the full capabilities of the organization to work across a variety of talent issues for our clients. As a ‘night’ job, I co-lead Diversity and our Women’s Initiative for Human Capital.
How has your leadership style developed over the years?
My leadership style is constantly evolving. Growing up in an immigrant family, there was a big focus on achievement: My parents emigrated from Hong Kong and always wanted me to achieve more than they did. So I am very results oriented.
I know it sounds weird to say, but being very achievement oriented is actually an Achilles heel of mine because, in the past, sometimes I would lose sight of what really makes me happy or what my strengths are, and instead, focus too much on what is going to get me ahead. In fact, there were times in my career where I took on roles that, in hindsight, just didn’t play to my strengths nor were they what I was passionate about. It took a lot of coaching and coaxing from my mentors to get me to a point where I realized that.
But given that I am very results oriented, one of the things I try to be mindful of with my staff is to not be too much of a ‘task master’. I am also mindful of saying ‘thank you’ more often and recognizing each individual for a job well done.
Developing talent is very important to me and I’m a big believer in ‘paying it forward.’ So I spend a lot of time sponsoring, nurturing, and teaching others. The only way that I have been able to be successful is to leverage the skills and abilities of the talented people around me. When I bring teams together, I focus on being fair, collaborative, and not level conscious. I believe everyone has something to contribute and it’s when we collaborate as a team that we come up with the most effective possible approaches to our client's most pressing issues.
How have mentors helped in your professional development?
Early in my career I would look for one person who I wanted to be like – and I didn’t find that person. I realized it’s impossible to find one person who is going to meet all of your needs. Now I have a board of advisors – a group of trusted colleagues who are my mentors and sponsors that I readily go to in the organization as well as a group of amazing women that I met through the International Women’s Forum Fellowship. It has been important to me to have both because they each give me different perspectives.
My mentors help me refine my thinking and push me to think about things I never would have. But having sponsors is what has made the difference in terms of my ability to ascend in my career. I have had a couple of amazing sponsors who were willing to take risks on me and create opportunities that I would not have had without them. These relationships have taken years to cultivate and I absolutely treasure them.
What are the Deloitte U.S. firms doing to help retain and advance our Asian talent?
There are several efforts underway to address this – and a lot is being done through Deloitte LLP’s Asian-American Alliance Business Resource Group (ABRG). ABRG members across the functions have been working with partners, principals, and directors (P/P/D) at the local level to organize panels and community-building events focused on the development needs of our Asian talent.
Within Human Capital, we’re organizing straight talk panels on Asian talent development and engaging more Asian P/P/Ds to get involved, lead the charge, and sponsor talent. We are also authoring a whitepaper on Asian talent development issues and the approaches that companies can put into action. Most of the media on ‘the model minority’ focuses on the issues but doesn’t offer a lot of recommendations. We know other companies are facing these challenges so we hope to bring this to market as a service provider.
Also, in the area of research, Deloitte sponsored Asians in America, a study developed by The Center for Talent Innovation, which has gotten a tremendous amount of traction within the marketplace and internally.
Asians are a fast growing percentage among the most educated workforce – both within Deloitte and it’s reflected in our clients’ demographics. This is an area where Deloitte can lead from the front, and if we don’t stay focused on this, we could lose out on a critical part of the talent pool.
As an Asian American woman, have you faced challenges?
Absolutely, but it has taken me a long time to pinpoint it. Corporate America tends to value a model of effectiveness that contains elements that are the antithesis of what is valued in Asian culture. For example, in order to be effective, you have to network, sell, be assertive, and speak up. In Chinese culture, what is valued—especially as a woman—is being submissive and respectful, keeping your head down, and just doing your work. It took me many years to articulate this and it took me even longer to have the nerve to say it to leaders.
There were times in my career where my actions were misinterpreted. For example, in meetings with leaders who were very senior, I had a difficult time being vocal and pushing back on ideas I may not have completely agreed with. It was sometimes interpreted as not being engaged when clearly that was not the case. I just couldn’t find my voice. I still work on this every day, but it gets easier with continued practice. I am also now at a place in my career where I feel like I can educate other leaders on the issues and work with them jointly to find ways to address them.
What advice do you have for Asian/Pacific Americans—or anyone—for being effective in their careers
Understand yourself and what makes you happy. Then put more of your energy towards that. Don’t follow along; be respectful of your own passions. Some of our younger professionals might still be following the path their parents laid out for them. Break out of that and pursue your dreams. Be bold and take risks. And if you fail, that’s okay, because that’s where you learn the most.
Also, doing good work is important, but not enough. In order to be effective, it requires a variety of things: the relevant network, sponsors, and mentors so that you really understand the things that you need to improve on. Get a board of advisors – people you can learn from, and who don’t necessarily look like you. Don’t wait for someone who is the exact image of who you want them to be.
I also believe that Asian leaders need to pay it forward. We have a responsibility to help the next generation of Asian professionals develop their leadership potential, and I would love to see leaders being more active in this space and taking ownership.
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