Leadership Series: Just do it!

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At lunch in the U.S. Capitol cafeteria with Congressman Mike Honda and fellow executive Johnnie Giles (2008)

I’ve made the case for why Latino leadership is important to California’s economy. Over the next 20 years, one in two working-age Californians will be Latino, so a prosperous Latino community means economic stability for all. It’s a pretty simple formula.

A quick glance at the CEO’s of the Fortune 500 shows that over 90% of top executives in the country are white men. Demographics of school superintendents across the nation are the same. Women and people of color have made great strides in getting elected to Congress in the last 25 years, but white men still rule the roost.

Everyone has an inclination to judge people based on race and other factors. Leaders aren’t immune to this, so it’s easy to see how stereotypes could limit opportunities for Latinas and Latinos. Bias, however, isn’t limited to white male executives. Latinos also develop impressions about a person’s skill, talent, ability, and place in the food chain based on race and gender.

Latinos are conditioned to accept that leadership positions aren’t attainable. We create barriers to our own success. This starts at a young age. My biggest challenge working with Latino high school kids to develop their leadership skills is getting them to believe that they can be successful.

We can’t change the fact that all human beings have biases, nor will the leadership demographics change dramatically anytime soon. This doesn’t mean that Latinas and Latinos can’t find their way to that dream job or leadership role. It takes a lot of work and strategic planning. Getting there is a challenging and time-consuming process.

Over the past three decades, I’ve learned many valuable lessons. Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

  1. Believe in Yourself

This sounds easy enough, but self-doubt is one of the most common hurdles Latinos must overcome to attain professional success. There are lots of people in our lives who help create that phenomenon. Someone is always available – a parent, friend, tío, older sibling, teacher – to caution us against taking risks. Their advice is meant to keep us grounded when our dreams get too big. But it really serves to keep us from achieving our potential.

For me, that person was my high school counselor. With piercing blue-green eyes and a booming voice, Mr. Bailey advised that my poor study skills left me with few options other than trade school, work, or maybe, community college. His advice ignored the fact that I completed a college track curriculum. I applied to San Jose State University anyway.

When I arrived on the SJSU campus for the first time, self-doubt almost crippled me. Few other students came from neighborhoods like mine or looked like me. I could hear Mr. Bailey’s voice and the voices of other well-meaning doubters reminding me that I didn’t belong there. After a rocky start, I realized I could do the work. I went on to do well in college.

If you’re in college now, remember that you’re there because you earned it. If you’re moving your way up in the office – supervisor, manager, or high level executive – don’t forget that you’ve worked for it. Don’t let the doubters that surround you, or your own doubts, keep you from taking risks and getting ahead.

At every step in my career – legislative aide to chief of staff, corporate manger to vice president, education activist to school board president – my own doubts about being able to succeed would creep into my consciousness. With each success, it became easier to manage doubt. No matter where you are in your leadership journey, believe in yourself.

  1. Work Harder and Smarter Than Everyone Else

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “Latinos and other people of color have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” My experience has taught me that this statement is absolutely true. I’m not complaining, nor do I intend to discourage talented Latinos from seeking that dream job. That’s just the way it is. Knowing this will give you an advantage.

Let’s start with working harder. Do your job with passion and precision. Stay late to finish a project. Come in early to prepare for a presentation. I believe in the “Five Ps”: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Of course, do all this in the context of having a work/home balance. It’s hard to do, but not impossible.

You need to work smarter too. Make sure that the bosses know your work. This is challenging as Latinos are taught to be humble. You can do this without looking like your bragging. Check in with your supervisors to share what you’re working on. There’s no need for a detailed e-mail or a scheduled meeting. I used to catch the boss in the hallway for a quick chat. Soon, higher-ups  were popping their heads into my office.

Working my way through the corporate environment, I made sure to produce a great work product. I also dedicated time to build relationships with people who made decisions. In this process, they got to know me and my work. When the time for advancement opportunities came, I wasn’t unknown to the company leaders.

  1. Just Do It

I have large black and white portrait of Cesar Chavez hanging in my office. To me, Cesar is an American civil rights hero who inspires people with his rallying cry, Sí se puede. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, that’s not enough. It inspires people to take on a challenge, but it doesn’t finish the job. For that, I turn to Nike’s famous 1988 ad campaign, “Just Do It.”

When the opportunity to advance up the org chart finally came, I was ready. I did my job well, volunteered for special projects, and built relationships with company executives. One of them nominated me to participate in an exclusive executive leadership training program. It would be a year-long adventure that required many trips to the east coast to the company headquarters.

The first session of the program was scheduled for January. The east coast was blanketed with snow, so I bought a scarf, topcoat, and hat to prepare for the cold. There would be an introductory dinner when I arrived, so I dressed for the occasion wearing my best dark suit, white shirt, power tie, and polished shoes. I looked the part. I was ready.

When I arrived on the east coast, I hurried through the airport to catch a taxi to go to the dinner. Excited and nervous, I passed a ceiling to floor mirror and stopped in my tracks. Seeing myself dressed like an executive with top coat, scarf, and hat stunned me. As I looked in the mirror, voices of the doubters filled my head. “Who do you think you are?” “You can’t be an executive.”

After a few moments, I considered walking straight to the ticket counter to get the next flight home. That wasn’t me in the mirror. I was just a Latino kid from the east side. I would make a fool of myself surrounded by talented people. Then I heard Cesar say “Sí se puede” and decided to just do it. One year later I completed the leadership program. Ten months after that, I became a company vice president.

The path to leadership is a complex exercise in producing good work and developing meaningful relationships. It’s a long and tough journey that is made up of many factors. The first step is for you to have a true belief in yourself. Working harder than everyone else isn’t enough. You must work smarter too.

When it’s time to make your move, just do it.

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6 thoughts on “Leadership Series: Just do it!

  1. Rosie Pena

    Eddie, a truly how to succeed point by point message to our young Latinos. You should really publish this! Get the younger generation to read it and say ‘I want to do this or I want to be just like him ‘. You have inspired so many of us . This book would also help our children or grandchildren who are so afraid of stepping out of there element when they go to college and don’t feel they fit the mold.

    I had the President of the Municipal of Rosarito and a congresswoman speak at one of my Cruz Rioja General Meetings and they shared with us that a law had just been passed about 4 years ago that 50 % of the city council or government council have to be woman! Incredible that a law has to be passed to be represented but we will take it.

    Continue to inspire us. !

  2. Dulce Alcantara

    Hi Eddie, as a Latino woman, and a manager in a prestigious acedemic medical center, I often find myself in a similar situation; full of self doubt and fears of failure. Thank you for reminding me that I am in my job because I worked hard to be here and to continue to work hard. Please continue to provide us with your insight and inspiration!

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