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Asian American Government Executives Network

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Asian American Government Executives Network
Washington, DC
Thursday, June 6, 2019

Thank you, Mr. Tzeng.

Before I begin let me remember Bing Bradshaw, one of the Founders of AAGEN, and her four plus decades of public service.  She helped start this organization as a vehicle to teach young APAs and her leadership will be missed.

Congratulations to AAGEN on its 15th year of training for senior professionals in the federal service!  The last time I spoke to this organization was July 12, 2007, as U.S. Secretary of Labor.  I remember it well because the Department had just concluded its sixth annual Asian Pacific American Federal Career Summit. This tradition continues at the U.S. Department of Transportation, where—for the past two and a half years-- we have sponsored programs during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to help Asian Pacific Americans advance within the federal system and increase workforce diversity.  These training opportunities benefit both the Asian Pacific American community and the federal government.  You have so much talent to give in service to your country! 

When talking about opportunities for career advancement, it is important to recognize that while there are still challenges, progress has been made.  As our country grows more diverse, managers are recognizing the need for diverse leadership in the workplace.  So the opportunities are there.  And we are seeing results.

First, there are more Asian Pacific Americans in government today.  The percentage of Asian Pacific Americans working in the Executive Branch of the Federal government has increased from about 5.4 percent in 2007 to more than 6.5 percent today.  At the SES level the number of Asian Pacific Americans has increased from about 2.5 percent in 2007, to about 4.8 percent today. And let me give a special shout out to the Asian Pacific Americans serving in our country’s armed forces. APA’s have been defending our country’s freedom since the War of 1812, and today many are advancing to the highest leadership ranks in the armed services.

Second, it’s gratifying to see that so many of you here today are interested in advancing to leadership positions within the federal government, including the Senior Executive Service. So let me commend AAGEN for inaugurating its SES Development Program, which is a collaborative effort with government agencies to promote workforce diversity.  And permit me to share some observations on leadership from my own experience.   

Obviously superlative performance is a must.  After that, it is important to focus on which positions are most appropriate for your skill sets.  The competition is stiff for top slots.  So a candidate may need to apply for many different positions and should be constantly checking for these opportunities.  A strong, clear, well-written resume is also a must.  It is helpful to list training courses, including this one and other department and agency specialized training programs.  And it is also key to carefully read the announcement of any position vacancy.  The application essay should be responsive to every point and nuance in that position announcement.  It is often said that searching for a job is a full-time job. And it is true that looking for a job requires a lot of hard work.  In fact, it is a standard maxim that the higher the salary and the more prestigious the job, the more work will be required to secure it.

Technical proficiency is, of course, the foundation for advancement.  But that is only the beginning.  Learning how to be a good leader is critical to career advancement in large, complex organizations like the Federal government.  Leadership requires a quantum leap in the ability to communicate effectively and persuade others. So excellent oral and written communications skills are an absolute must.

Let me note that leadership is not collecting credentials. While a certain amount of higher education or training certainly helps, this alone does not qualify a person for a leadership position.  Often, it is more important for a candidate to demonstrate that he or she can achieve real, measurable results.   This means the ability to formulate a vision or plan of action, and convince others to follow it.  Fortunately, like any other skill, leadership can be learned and practiced.    But there are cultural differences in leadership styles. Asian Pacific Americans need to be aware of the cultural differences that may impact the way in which they practice leadership in the mainstream American workplace.

For example, in this society, executive roles require leaders to be major discussion participants and discussion leaders.  Leaders advance and defend the interests of their organization and their colleagues.  So executives need to be articulate, both in written and in oral presentations.  And they cannot be afraid of opposing viewpoints.  The most effective leaders learn how to disagree with others and get their point across in a non-threatening way.  

Many Asians are taught that it is proper to defer to others, especially elders.  In a  democracy, however, ideas are meant to be debated.  So if you do not speak up, you can be ignored or worse. This is especially important in government, which has so many different stakeholders.  Often, senior government managers are called upon to go up to Capitol Hill to explain a program or testify.  So again, the ability to communicate effectively orally and in writing is critical.

It helps to practice speaking up, but in an appropriate and non-threatening way.  And permit me to offer some other ways to practice that skill and develop your leadership ability:

First, network.  Meet new people and learn new things. Second, volunteer.  Devote time to your church or to a community organization.  It may offer opportunities to practice leadership. Third, keep learning, whether through formal course work or through other more informal channels.  And fourth, be flexible and ready to adapt to new circumstances.

Let me conclude by mentioning that the historic contributions of our community to this country are beginning to be more fully recognized and celebrated.  Several weeks ago, I participated in the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony, which marked the completion of one of the greatest infrastructure projects in American history: the transcontinental railroad.  I had the opportunity to fully recognize the sacrifice of the more than 12,000 Chinese railroad workers who were a key factor in making this possible.  Despite harsh, dangerous conditions they blasted and tunneled their way through the treacherous Sierra Nevada mountains primarily using hand tools.  Many died.  Yet they persevered and were a key factor in completing the transcontinental railroad on time.  For years, the Chinese workers were a footnote in history. But no longer. Their astonishing achievement was a central focus of the 150th anniversary celebration.  As Co-Chair of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, I had the opportunity to recognize their contribution once again at the White House.  The purpose of this presidential initiative is to knock down the remaining obstacles to the economic and educational empowerment of our community.  So we can be proud of our contributions throughout American history, and of those who serve our country today in both civilian and military federal service. 

So once again, thank you for inviting me!  I hope you’ve had a great conference!

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Updated: Friday, June 7, 2019
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