Asian-Americans Can Overcome Personal Branding Challenges: An Interview with Doreen Woo Ho

Doreen Woo Ho is a successful executive with a fascinating career. She is a former Time Magazine foreign correspondent and longtime banking executive with Citicorp, Wells Fargo and United Commercial Bank, where she served as President and CEO.  While retired from any operating roles in banking, she is currently an independent director on the Board of Directors of US Bancorp. She is also the president of the San Francisco Port Commission that oversees the 7.5 miles of San Francisco waterfront, including many real estate development projects.  Doreen is a graduate of Smith College and Columbia University.

In a recent interview, I asked Doreen how Asians can overcome personal branding challenges.  This article, excerpted from my book on personal branding due in January 2013, is the result.

Overcoming Personal Branding Challenges

Personal branding can be a challenge for anyone. But it can be especially hard for Asians.  Changing the racial stereotype of Asians as meek geeks requires that Asians be more visible, stronger leaders and better at self-marketing.  The latter is hard for many Asians who have been taught that humility, quiet deference and respect for authority are key values.

American business icons often have big personalities, big egos and aren’t afraid of confrontation or risk.  Think of Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and on a gentler vector, Oprah Winfrey.  But, when I think about iconic Asian business leaders, my mind draws a blank.  Why aren’t Asian business leaders household names?  In a nutshell, they lack powerful personal brands.

Doreen advises Asians to get outside the stereotype of the passive worker who is good at numbers but not so good with people or management skills.  One should be proud of one’s culture and heritage, she says, but not make being Asian the prime identifier of your brand.












Her personal branding advice is important for anyone, regardless of race, gender or cultural heritage:

  • You are a professional, who just happens to be Asian or a woman or…
  • Welcome change and new challenges.
  • Hone your written and verbal skills.  You’ve got to be able to sell your ideas.
  • Learn to transition from being an excellent doer to an excellent leader who achieves through inspiring and motivating others.  It takes more than IQ and EQ to be a strong leader – add the third ingredient: MQ (meaningful quotient).  Help people understand how they fit into the vision and the value they bring as an individual.
  • Don’t just focus on getting your job done, spend time on relating to people and cultivating relationships—especially with career influencers.
  • When you climb the executive ladder, understand that the intangible attributes become more important (how strategically you think, how you solve problems, how you lead).
  • Develop an ease of socializing inside and outside the office.  Breaking into the inner circle of executives is more about personal chemistry and homogenous backgrounds. Executives feel more comfortable around people who share common experiences.

Finally, don’t let racial or other stereotypes get you down.  Doreen was almost kept from traveling to South America to handle some client problems because she was literally thought of as the “China doll” by her customer, a VP of Finance at a sizable private company.  He believed that she couldn’t hold her own in the macho environment of Brazil and Venezuela.  She took the trip with another male executive and fixed the problem.  Ironically, the local bank officers at the Citibank branches that she dealt with in South America were all women!  So much for stereotypes.

Doreen hopes that others characterize her leadership brand as:

  • An inspiring and visionary leader who sets stretch goals
  • A tough manager who takes on challenges and delivers results
  • A caring leader who mentors others

She derives great satisfaction from having mentored a number of professionals, including those reaching the C-suite in large companies.  She advises young professionals that mentors choose their mentees based on a personal or professional connection.  Mentees don’t get to choose their mentors unless there is a mutual benefit, she says.

Final Words of Advice

“You have to develop a brand because everyone needs to develop a brand to be successful,” Doreen advises. “You have to have all the qualities.  You have to look the part, look professional and be pleasant.  You have to have the communication skills.”  She says that Asian parents stress math skills with their children and spend less time on encouraging good written and verbal skills.

“You may have the best content in the world…but you have to figure out how to sell and communicate it in a way that people will buy and appreciate it.”  The same can be said of personal brands.





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