Maria Racho — A New Way of Looking at Asian American Leadership

Can one be passionate about passion? Maria Odiamar Racho is, and it’s at the core of all she does, from researching Asian American Leadership, to experimenting with intra- and entrepreneurship, to running the organizational development practice at Allstate Insurance. She serves as a bridge between research and application, and uses her own experiences to help driven people connect to their purpose and unleash their potential. In addition to reading and researching, Maria loves enjoying simple moments with her family and friends.

What made you become so passionate about being actively involved in the leadership of Asian community?

How it started: It began early in my career as a manager in a corporation. I learned how to lead from reading books and observing others, such as how my parents led in the community or in their business, and how my managers inspired (or didn’t inspire) me. There were still many unknowns and a part of me just never felt like I fully fit in. I became obsessed with researching leadership styles, approaches and how to develop it.

The breakthrough manager: At one point, I had a manager that gave me direct feedback and coaching like I had never received. All managers up until this point usually gave just positive or general feedback that was only somewhat helpful. Her coaching pushed me to be more assertive, to take control, to command presence. The more I raised my voice, pounded my hand on the table, “put people in their place”, the more I was rewarded and praised for my performance.

The power of feedback: A year into this “new me” as a leader, one of my employees told me, “It’s as if we don’t even know you anymore.” That hurt. I took great pride in my relationship with my team, and what I found out from my family is that I took that home and they felt similar. After some self-reflection, I spoke with my manager and shared my learning and while I was grateful to her to have learned so much, that leadership wasn’t fully me. There were values and beliefs I had grown up with that were almost contrasting to this style, but this style was valued and seen as strong leadership in an American corporate setting. I needed to figure that out. She understood and supported me, and what I learned was she was just trying to teach me what helped make her successful. With her encouragement, this began my Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) leadership journey.

Everything happens for a reason: While taking my MSOD (organizational development) at Pepperdine, I wrote my thesis on characteristics of AAPI leadership. I found that there is amazing, empirical research out there that no one is talking about, so I set out to be a bridge between these academic findings and leaders in our community who are just trying to figure their way out. The western leadership books in the mainstream are only half the story. We have a gift of (at least) two very different and often contrasting cultural identities that can bring a great deal of value to an organization and differentiate us as leaders.

“I found that there is amazing, empirical research out there that no one is talking about, so I set out to be a bridge between these academic findings and leaders in our community who are just trying to figure their way out.”

What initiatives are you focusing on right now?

I’m in the process of refreshing my AAPI research, especially since there’s a constant and growing flow of academic studies getting published. While I continue to be passionate about developing AAPI leaders, I have also always had a passion about entrepreneurship. My dad inspires this in me.

An initiative I began at Allstate is focused on empowering and developing people with entrepreneurial spirits in corporate settings. I took learning I had from co-founding 3AN, the Allstate Asian American Network, 11 years ago, to co-found a new employee resource group called Intrapreneurs@Allstate. We were formalized in Fall 2015 and have grown to a community of 325+ with various programs and events (i.e. internal startup challenge, shark tank, accelerator, etc.).

How are they able to make a difference in the Asian community? What are some of its notable accomplishments?

Having continued dialogue on AAPI leadership is critical. The perspective I often hear is that our Asian values are a detriment to succeeding in corporate America. Actually, what my research shows is that trying to suppress or not embrace both our Asian and American identities is what is detrimental, for the individual as well as the corporation. It prevents a person from being or bringing their whole selves to work, and if a corporation does not create an inclusive environment, they lose out on the authenticity, passion and diverse perspective AAPI leaders can bring.

There are a number of ways intrapreneurship can benefit the AAPI community. Studies have shown AAPI leaders to be more task focused than relationship focused compared to Caucasian leaders. Intrapreneurship is a way to leverage that strength of task focus, while developing the capability to build relationships in service of that task. If someone has an idea in a large corporation, it’s very rare you can just implement it on your own or in a vacuum. There is a point in time you will hit a wall. That’s why relationship building and sponsorship is critical as an intrapreneur.

“The perspective I often hear is that our Asian values are a detriment to succeeding in corporate America. Actually, what my research shows is that trying to suppress or not embrace both our Asian and American identities is what is detrimental, for the individual as well as the corporation.”

You wrote many articles on the success and challenges facing Asian Americans in the corporate world. What are some of your interesting findings?

One of the most interesting learnings I had is how placing judgement on ourselves or others is so limiting. It puts up walls versus encouraging growth. Having an “either/or” mentality with our identities means putting up a wall to our heritage, our parents, our ancestors, our history, or putting up a wall to our future, our possibilities, what we’ve chosen as home and a major part of our children’s’ identities.

When we are able to accept that there is no right or wrong about our identities, it just is, and go from there, we can let go of the baggage we carry around and be free to be our full selves authentically and purposefully. That is what shows up differently in a corporate environment and inspires others, no matter what race, ethnicity, and gender we are.

“Having an “either/or” mentality with our identities means putting up a wall to our heritage, our parents, our ancestors, our history, or putting up a wall to our future, our possibilities, what we’ve chosen as home and a major part of our children’s’ identities.”

Any future initiatives or projects on the horizon?

I have a few projects on the horizon. I’ve been asked to condense and refresh my research into an article, so I’m going to do that in a series of blog posts that I will share here on ANet Chicago.
I’ll be speaking at a couple conferences on innovation and intrapreneurship in the North Americas. Also, a future project on the horizon is focused on entrepreneur/intrapreneur leadership. I’m really excited about it!