Crossing Cultures: The Journey Towards Best Self

By Evan J. Cutts

Judy Shen-Filerman, CEO and Leadership Sherpa at the cross-cultural leadership consulting firm Dreambridge Partners, which she founded in 2007, is an accomplished leader of innovative businesses such as Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup Asia, and Polaroid. As the youngest executive at Polaroid, leading a half-billion dollar product portfolio, Judy catapulted Polaroid into their first-ever e-commerce business. Her impactful leadership methods have catalyzed growth and success with clients McKinsey, Biogen, Fidelity Investments, and City Year.

Shen-Filerman works to build connections strengthened by empathy and propelled by respecting the value any individual can offer by being their Best Self. She is a champion of authenticity, inclusion, and cultivating excellence. As she recounts her story and beliefs, may her perspective inform and broaden your own. Then, join her at the table and celebrate the distance crossed to allow that union.

EJC: Can you tell me more about your role as CEO and Leadership Sherpa of DreamBridge Partners?

JSF: My role, on the one hand, is visionary, and on the other, is more practical. I founded the firm because of my own story as a woman of Color who has succeeded on the corporate leadership side and because my story resonated with so many others that it serves as an opportunity to help others who are crossing cultures become successful.

EJC: Can you tell me more about the Leadership Sherpa Title?

JSF: Traditionally, a Sherpa serves as a guide through the Himalayas. The reason I chose the title of ‘sherpa,’ instead of a more traditional title like “expert,” is because I’ve learned that leadership is a journey—and a very internal and individual journey, at that.

Part of my work as a consultant is not showing clients the way, but showing clients a series of paths that they must walk themselves.

EJC: Excellent. And along these paths is where your clients find their way toward Best Self, Belonging, and Collaboration, correct?

JSF: Exactly. You got it.

EJC: Why are Best Self, Belonging, and Collaboration the core of your Cross-Cultural Leadership Practice?

JSF: I have recognized in the most successful businesses that I’ve been able to be a part of, collaboration, belonging, and Best Self all existed at the same time. As I’m doing the focus work of creating spaces around these values in universities and workplaces, I’m understanding that each space relies on a system of interdependence. Every single person, at any time, is an individual and a collective part of a team or network; there is a constant yin-yang between the alone and the together.

Belonging is the next major factor. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Belonging is the second highest need after physiological safety. Speaking from experience as someone who immigrated to the United States at six from Taiwan, it was very hard to find a sense of belonging when you don’t speak the native language of a country or know its customs. So I became a student and observer of human dynamics over the course of my life in order to find my own sense of cultural understanding and belonging.

When belonging and collaboration synchronize in a workplace, a foundation from which employees can achieve their Best Self is established. You can’t get more productivity than that.

EJC: I love the term ‘culture-crossers.’ What’s the story behind that?

JSF: The term arose as I began noticing the ways in which colleagues and clients, predominantly women and minorities in the workplace, crossed over aspects of their identity and selfhood toward the norms of Another (Caucasian, male, upper middle class), in order to fit into certain professional and academic spaces so they would become visible to those in power.

But, I should give some context for what the term means, right? That begins with defining “culture.” Culture is a set of beliefs and values that stem from a history and geography of a people. These beliefs impact our behavior and influence what we think as appropriate or acceptable. In other words, culture shapes identity. It’s so important to define ‘Power Culture’ –  which is, the norms, behaviors, and expectations of the population who controls the majority of resources in a given context, which in the US, is dominated by white, heterosexual men.

A culture-crosser is someone who has historically existed outside of Power Culture (people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQIA people, the working class, etc.) and must consciously “be” a non-original version of themselves in order to succeed, gain access to, or operate within Power Culture. A culture crosser expends significant energy to simply be seen by Power Culture, yet may not feel they belong within Power Culture.

EJC: Thank you for explaining that. With culture-crossing in mind, how does it relate to the “Third-Culture Leader™” framework you created?

JSF: The Third-Culture Leader™ concept is a challenge to the US-centric idea of authenticity, which suggests that in order to be authentic I must be one person, one identity. A Third-Culture Leader’s authenticity, and therefore Best Self, stems from the “multiple identities” that they own at once. What’s so important for Third-Culture Leaders™ is to own their expanded identities, all of which are steeped in a core set of values, so they are simply shifting behaviors and not betraying who they are. When crossing cultures, a Third-Culture leader is not compromising their core identity to find belonging, rather they are owning the expanse of their authenticity and leading with it.

EJC: In your opinion, what skills are necessary to be an effective leader?

JSF: In my home culture, which is Chinese, there is the concept of the ‘yin-yang’ which is the idea that opposite forces are not opposed but complementary pieces that create a balanced whole. I believe a leader needs to be in yin-yang – which is ultimately about flexibility. Having the ability to balance and utilize opposing thoughts, perspectives, and skills is a powerful tool. If you think of “opposites”- the mind and the heart, motivation, and passion stem from the heart while logic and analytics come from the mind. To succeed, the mind and heart must work together. It’s like that in all aspects of leadership.

EJC: What guidance can you offer tomorrow’s ‘culture-crossers’ (millennials) as we enter into and further our careers and aspirations?

JSF: Don’t pay attention to what people tell you about what you cannot do or become. Believe in your passion, no matter what anyone else tells you. Be humble enough to observe and learn. And be impatient to create the impossible.

EJC: In your opinion, what does it mean to be a woman of Color in 2018?

JSF: I look at my grandmother, whose husband was chosen for her, who as a woman of a wealthy family had to have 12 children, and never had the opportunity to make life decisions for herself. Then I look at myself. I am the first woman of my lineage to choose her husband, to choose my career, education, and my path through life. I find this to be incredibly powerful.

I think for many women in the United States, we have more opportunities than any previous generation to live and express our Best Self. I have to acknowledge that while this is true, women and women of color especially, have historically served Power Culture. Patriarchy is still very real and relevant today. At this time, we have more access than we’ve ever had before. With that access, it’s imperative, as women of color, to own our power, expect to lead, and require other people to respect our personhood, sovereignty and Best Self. And nothing less.


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