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Hertelier Feature: Navigating Differences: The Journey & Wisdom of Laura Lee Blake, President & CEO

In a landscape where diversity is often celebrated but sometimes misunderstood, Laura Lee Blake, the President & CEO of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), stands as a role model of diplomacy, emotional intelligence, and finely tuned communication skills, leading the largest hotel ownership association in the world. Blake's journey is a testament to the power of due diligence, curiosity, empathy, and the art of navigating differences.

Her Journey

Growing up in a small, predominantly Dutch community of 5,000 people in rural Iowa, Laura Lee Blake's early life was embedded in unity and shared family values. Her father's car dealership business exposed her to various parts of the country from a young age, kindling her aspirations to explore beyond her hometown. Initially aiming for a career in television, an internship in Chicago at the ABC news station brought her close to the early career of Oprah Winfrey. In an attempt to position herself as a legal news correspondent, she decided to further her academic studies in the field of law. Although her passion for journalism ran deep, the legal field's allure led her to pivot her career.

After attending law school, she joined Morrison Foerster, a large international litigation firm, and almost immediately began working on significant class action lawsuits representing State Farm surrounding gender discrimination and gaining substantial experience in the process. She started a small litigation firm with a number of colleagues in Southern California and enjoyed the thrill of the courtroom.

In the midst of this success, a family crisis prompted a move to Atlanta, and with two babies in tow, Blake again considered a career pivot, bringing her in touch with AAHOA. Despite initial reservations about the cultural differences, her decade-long tenure at AAHOA began, forming a bond that would call her back years later to her current role as President & CEO.

Navigating Differences

Laura Lee Blake’s story stands out, not just for her career trajectory, but for her profound understanding and navigation of cultural differences. In her time at AAHOA, she noticed parallels between her community upbringing and the closely-knit, family-oriented culture of the AAHOA members, most of whom had immigrated from India. Her experience growing up in a tight-knit Dutch community allowed her to connect on a fundamental level with the members of AAHOA, recognizing the shared values of community, family, and hard work.

Yet, her journey was not without challenges. Blake often found herself navigating the delicate balance between embracing emotional connections and maintaining professional boundaries. She speaks about the need to be authentic yet steady and professional, maintaining a calm, focused demeanor while dealing with diverse perspectives and strong opinions. Her legal background played a crucial role, equipping her with the skills to mediate, find common ground, and ensure the best outcomes for AAHOA members.

“What was so remarkable about AAHOA, and this continues today, is that you join AAHOA and you truly become a part of the family. And anytime there’s a family, there’s good, there’s bad, and sometimes, the ugly. You’ve got the crazy uncles, the beautiful aunties who want to feed you,” laughed Blake. “I have been invited to family cookouts, engagement parties, and weddings. There’s all that beautiful community.”

Blake’s commitment to understanding and respecting cultural nuances has allowed her to create a space for dialogue and collaboration. Her ability to relate her experiences to those of the AAHOA community, acknowledging the shared struggles of small business owners and the desire to pass on cultural values to the next generation, has been a cornerstone in building bridges and fostering understanding.

Laura Lee’s Insights and Tips for Navigating Cultural Differences

1. Ask Questions: “Coming into AAHOA as a woman, knowing the membership consisted of a community that came from a very male-dominated culture, I had some concerns. I wondered, ‘Will they even listen to me?’ In the interview, I asked these questions, and I saw very quickly that it wasn’t going to be an issue. Those questions made me feel more comfortable about moving forward.”

2. Understand that mistakes will be made: We’re all constantly learning, and according to Blake, the most important thing we can do is “Just show up. Just keep showing up.” Being willing to participate in difficult or uncomfortable conversations with the understanding that you may fumble at times or that you may say the wrong thing is necessary for growth and deeper understanding. “If you make a mistake, own it, do what you can to fix it, move on, and learn for next time.”

3. Create the Space to Embrace and Understand Different Perspectives: As Blake says, "Sometimes things come up. Political issues come up for a variety of reasons. Somebody has one agenda, another group has a different agenda. One thing AAHOA members don’t lack is voicing their opinions, so we hear very strong opinions on both sides. Some of my role is to step back and try to remind everyone what is best for the members and that we always need to be fiscally responsible.”

“I love to embrace different opinions, and find out ‘Why do they think that way?’" Leaning on her legal background, Blake creates space for those different perspectives to be voiced and “get everyone at least talking.” Blake reflects that “Sometimes the most effective negotiation tactic is to get everyone in the room, and give everybody a chance to just vent and air their differences so that they can find their common ground. But in the end, if things are not resolved, as a leader it is critical to stand strong in the face of these ongoing conflicts to honor and protect the interests of our members”

4. Balance Emotion and Professionalism: Blake notes, "It's always that balance" between expressing opinions and emotions authentically while maintaining steady leadership. “As a leader, I try to keep emotion out of the conversation, but at the same time, emotion can be very powerful in creating connection. Sometimes you have to ask, ‘Why is this important?’ Sometimes you have to show that it’s coming from your heart.” Indeed, emotions are a connecting force between all humans, and Blake demonstrates the art of dancing between authenticity and professionalism on a daily basis.

5. Connect on Shared Values: Blake makes the connection between the Dutch community in which she was raised and the values of the AAHOA community, recognizing the strength of collectivism, family, and hard work. Finding common ground among people of many different backgrounds has been instrumental in her success as a leader of such an impactful organization. “I felt such a connection to some of these smaller hotel owners. Here they are, trying to raise their families in a hotel. Trying to keep the doors open. Facing issues with employees and labor and everything else. It reminded me so much of my father. As a small business owner, he faced so many of the same issues.”

6. Lead with Passion and Empathy: Blake is passionate about what she does, as is apparent by the dedication and years she has spent working with this community. She reflects, "I think they can see my heart. I truly love their culture, and I love the memories we’ve created.” Her obvious care for the community and their businesses enables her to lead across differences effectively.

7. Adaptability & Learning Mindset: Blake is a lifelong learner, constantly reading and listening to podcasts. She has reinvented her career multiple times and uses skillsets from every part of her life to be the best leader she can be. She demonstrates openness to recalibrating approaches and learning from others to be the best version of herself that she can be.

8. Step Back to Look at the Bigger Picture: “We’ve made some decisions in the first year, and there have been some consequences from those decisions. As leaders, we have to step back and ask ourselves, ‘Is this the best path forward?’ Any time there is change, there’s also going to be this period where it’s painful. And there’s going to be a lot of questions and a lot of criticism, and you’ve got to try to keep your eye on what the larger focus is and your ultimate goal.”

Laura Lee Blake’s story and insights offer valuable lessons on navigating cultural differences with grace, respect, and understanding. Her journey from a small town in Iowa to the helm of AAHOA highlights the importance of cultural competence, empathy, and the continuous endeavor to learn, adapt, and grow in our diverse world.

Original Hertelier article featured here:

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