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3 Tips for Immigrant Kids Who Want to Be Great Leaders 

Silhouettes of a diverse group of people, each facing a different direction and varying in opacity

As a leadership coach, I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of leaders who grew up as the child of immigrant parents. This upbringing has given them a unique set of strengths and challenges, especially in leadership roles. Here are some common themes and patterns I see across “immigrant kid leaders,” as I affectionately call us (oh yeah, I’m the child of immigrants, too!).

First off, we tend to set sky-high standards for ourselves and everyone around us. Without parents who knew how to intuitively navigate a new culture, we’ve been doing everything on our own since forever, always pushing past 100%. We work tirelessly, are always available, and put the mission above all else. But here’s the catch: this can make it tough to trust our teams. They might not hit the bar we set, or we just can’t fathom why they find certain tasks challenging. And delegation? That’s a foreign concept because we never really had anyone to pass the baton to before.

Another thing we struggle with is our relationship with failure—it’s not even in our vocabulary. This drive to avoid mistakes at all costs can turn us into perfectionists. Most notably, we treat self-care like another task to optimize, always trying to stay two steps ahead so we’re never caught off guard. At work, this means we’re not great at taking breaks. Resting feels like time wasted, which can lead us straight to burnout.

And while many of us have close relationships with our parents and elders, their encouragement and praise doesn’t always translate into practical career advice. So we crave validation from someone we respect—a boss, a mentor, someone who can give us that nod of approval. Thus, we often wait for a sponsor to tell us we’re ready for the promotion or next step in our career, which can hold us back from seizing opportunities that we’re more than qualified for.

So, what do we do about all this? 

First, we need to develop awareness –  of the problem, its roots, and our conditioned reactions. When my clients ask “How can I be more effective?”, I tell them to start by getting really clear on what effectiveness actually looks like for them in their leadership context. For example, are there habits you’ve picked up that are getting in your way, like not delegating or shying away from new opportunities? Are you letting perfection keep you stuck when “good enough” is all that’s needed to move forward? Recognize these patterns—your immigrant kid superpowers—and see how they might also be your kryptonite.

Next, ask for what you need. This can go against everything you know and been taught, especially if you hail from a more collectivistic or indirect culture, where blatantly asking for what you want or need is considered borderline rude. For many of the leaders I work with, they’ve spent so much time focusing on what others need that the voice inside them telling them what they need is barely a whisper. But in a country as diverse as ours, we have lots of subcultures and no one can read your mind. It’s important to be clear and direct when bridging cultural differences. And in the United States, you are likely to gain more power and control over your career by being forthright.

Perhaps you need specific feedback from your team or boss about what indicators of  “effectiveness” look like for your role. (Hint: It’s probably not having a zero-inbox or the number of fires you put out that day.) Or perhaps you need coaching support to actually tap into what your needs are and develop healthier behavior patterns. Asking for these resources will allow you to live up to the promise made to immigrants – that the pursuit of happiness is possible here.

Third, grow your team. You may be used to going it alone or always leading from the front, and honestly that’s probably served you well. It got you this far, didn’t it? But now you’re feeling burnt out and need new strategies. The key is to build a team where people trust each other AND know how to communicate even across distance. Also, by doing everything, you are cheating your team members of the ability to grow their own skills. Trust that by delegating and building capacity on your team you’re not working yourself out a job, you’re showing you’re a great leader.

Another superpower immigrant kid leaders may have is knowing how to “read” people or the room. It’s a social survival skill when you’re attempting to establish connections in a totally foreign culture with unknown practices, language barriers, etc. AND it’s also a skill that can be really useful in understanding team dynamics and seeing others’ strengths and weaknesses. Draw on that superpower to build a healthy, remote team that feels connected and cared for. This will allow your team to collaborate and innovate more effectively, freeing up more of your time and making you a great leader!

Remember, you’re not alone in this journey. Your background has equipped you with incredible resilience and a strong work ethic. Now it’s about fine-tuning those skills to become the leader you’re meant to be—one who can harness their superpowers for the benefit of yourself and others!