May 23, 2011

How to Have a Career with Staying Power

Linda Tsao Yang, former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, offers frank talk about why she succeeded — and where she stumbled — over an illustrious 60-year career.


Careers wax and wane, but Linda Tsao Yang’s has staying power. A 1948 graduate of Columbia University, where she was the only female and minority in a class comprised largely of World War II veterans, Yang has progressed through a series of increasingly prestigious positions. Her resume includes stints as US Ambassador for the Asian Development Bank; savings and loan commissioner for the state of California, and vice president of California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the largest public pension fund in the United States. In May, Yang dispensed career advice at the Sir Gordon Wu Distinguished Speaker Forum, her first return to Columbia in more than half a century.

Key #1: Consider Culture

[Before serving at the Asian Development Bank] I had to wait six months for [US] Senate confirmation, so I spent a lot of time understanding the mission and culture of that institution. I’d never worked in a bank with 58 member countries.

I thought it was only common sense that the mission of a development institution is to work itself out of business. That means your clientele has developed to such a level that they don’t need external assistance. They can regenerate and build on their own momentum, expertise, and infrastructure.

I was surprised to find that the board did not have a policy of private sector development in designing its assistance programs for member countries. I tabled this within the first two months when I got on the job in late 1993. As a director you do not control the board agenda, so it didn’t emerge for board discussion until October 1999. The joke was, ‘we’d better table this or Ambassador Yang will never retire.’

I did not understand the culture of the bank: it’s a development institution. The private sector, on the other hand, is about maximizing profit. Most of my colleagues on the board came from ministries of finance or ministries of economic development. They came here for two or three years, and their brownie points were [earned by] how much in lending they brought back from the bank. Having the private sector involved is extremely messy — a lot of conditions and contradictions.

It took me a long time to understand why what I considered to be such a commonsense proposal met with such resistance. But I didn’t think from the perspective of the other people. Finally, the measure was approved by the board. Had I understood where each of the directors stood, I probably wouldn’t have had to wait for six years.

Key #2: Welcome Criticism

My mentor [at CalPERS] was the president of the board and a very experienced lawyer. After the first board meeting he set me straight. He said, ‘Now Mrs. Yang, on this board we have representatives of very powerful unions. We have the director of finance for the state of California, the state treasurer, and representatives from the banks and insurance companies. I think you have a lot to learn.’

I said, ‘Yes, I’m here to learn. I’ll be grateful if, where you see I can improve, [you would] be very open and honest with me. I will not feel any hubris.’

Sometimes when some very difficult investment decisions were coming, [my mentor] would pull me aside and explain who is coming from what perspective and why that person took a position. I learned that you have to understand how that person, from his cultural background and his position as a union representative or from the state personnel board, thinks the way he does. If you want to persuade him to your point of view, you have to understand him first.

Key #3: Be Noncentrist

When I observe people who are effective, what are the common characteristics? They tend to be noncentric. They are very aware of their own biases and norms.

It’s hard to be noncentric. When I was here in this country a few years, I invited a few people over to share New Year’s Eve dinner in my little place. It’s been my family tradition to bid your ancestors goodbye and remember what they did. [In front of pictures of my ancestors] we would bow deeply and ask for blessings for the coming year. While I was doing this — it came very naturally to me — my friend said, ‘Oh, you worship your ancestors don’t you?’

I really took offense. I thought, ‘you are making light of what we are doing. It’s our custom. It’s not idol worship.’ Then I said to myself, ‘look, obviously, he would do this only when he was in church. He equates that with worship.’ After I thought about that, my anger dissipated.

You have to be introspective to analyze yourself where you’re biased. Try to be noncentric.

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