Merck & Co., Alliance Bernstein ERGs Aid in Asian Leader Development

Four years ago, global health care company Merck & Co. identified employees from various Asian countries who expressed a desire for development. They wanted to be viewed as strong candidates for management and leadership roles. “They also noted that there were some communication misunderstandings occurring,” said Deborah Dagit, vice president and chief diversity officer. “As a result, we set up focus groups and interviews.”

Around that time, the company’s Asian ERG invited Jane Hyun, author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians and founder and president of executive coaching and leadership strategy company Hyun & Associates, to one of its ERG events.

Later the company introduced a new program, The Art of Cultural Fluency. As part of the program, Asian employees participated in learning sessions to help build their leadership skills, including how to build executive presence, communicating effectively, and building networks, mentoring relationships and sales skills.

Managers were also involved. “Managers are trained to treat everyone equally. Because of the cultural differences, though, we felt it was important to help them see the need to do some things differently,” Hyun said. For managers, the focus was to understand and develop an awareness of blind spots as well as the implications of certain behaviors. For example, managers learned that Asians might remain quiet in meetings out of respect for authority and hierarchy, not due to a lack of ideas.

As a result of the program, managers began to engage in more dialogues with Asian employees about these issues, and Hyun said Asians began to feel more comfortable speaking up. “We have done the program four times over the years,” Hyun said. “Almost 100 percent of participants said they would recommend the program to others.”

Dagit agrees. “We have received very positive results in terms of employee response to the program,” she said. “They said it was extremely helpful in fostering better communication and the ability to work together with other employees more effectively.”

A Toast to AllianceBernstein
In 2010, several Asian employees of investment firm AllianceBernstein L.P. launched the AB Asian ERG to support the personal and professional development of its constituents. “The members themselves identified the things they wanted to work on,” said Vicki Walia, director of talent management and diversity. The group identified communication skills and having a platform presence as areas of concern.

As Walia discussed opportunities with the group, they concluded that a training program wouldn’t suffice. “Training is a ‘one and done’ type of thing,” she said. “Second, communication is a skill that needs practice, and you need to get feedback on a regular basis.”

The ERG collectively decided to join Toastmasters after a few members began attending meetings and found them beneficial. The group later decided to create an on-site Toastmasters chapter to make it easier for more people to attend. “From there, demand continued to increase, to the point that we created multiple chapters in the firm,” Walia said.

“My role is one of an oversight capacity,” she said. “I try not to meddle too much in the day-to-day running of the ERGs.” Once the ERG selected Toastmasters, however, Walia became an advocate to make sure the group had the budget to continue to run the meetings.

Walia said the people who have actively participated say their communication skills have improved. “In addition, when we look at the year-end evaluations and the 360 feedback, we are seeing upward momentum in terms of this competency,” she said. Further, some of the Toastmasters members have gone on to give important presentations and done well. “It is nice to see that people who struggled with something like this before have really been making progress,” she said.

William Atkinson is a freelance writer and author of several books, including Eliminate Stress From Your Life Forever. He can be reached at