Be a Trailblazer

Inside IT: Blazing Trails of Innovation
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A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to work with two Latino high school students from Los Banos, California. They sought advice and coaching on their oral presentation for a national science competition. The boys were freshmen who had defeated older and more experienced students at the local, regional, and state contests. They wanted to sharpen the presentation that led to the national finals in Philadelphia.

The duo had collaborated on creating a prosthetic arm. The device was an impressive contraption. Their presentation was excellent and needed just a few adjustments on style and substance. It was clear to me from the outset that these young men were engineers in the making who have the talent and potential to be executives someday.

I was giddy about their unlimited futures until reality set in. The Washington Post printed an article in February that confirms what Latinos in Silicon Valley already know to be true – Latinas and Latinos are grossly underrepresented in the valley’s workforce, especially in management.

Apple, Inc. was highlighted in the Post article. The piece indicated that “only 7 percent of the (company’s) leadership is Latino and 3 percent is black, according to Apple’s website. Blacks and Hispanics each make up 8 percent of the company’s tech workers.” That’s double the percentage of other major high-tech firms. Twitter is in the basement with only 2% of its workforce identifying as Latino.

Unfortunately at Apple, the lack of diversity isn’t changing anytime soon. The Post article cited an Apple spokesman speaking off the record “that the company prefers to promote within its ranks, so change at the senior level will take time.” Without a doubt, the rest of Silicon Valley maintains the same hiring and promotion practices.

Silicon Valley managers have long pointed out that there’s a lack of qualified Latino candidates and the education system isn’t providing a pipeline of talented people of color. This is a common response for organizations and institutions that claim that the problem exists with the talent pool, not hiring practices. It’s noteworthy that the National Society of Hispanic MBAs alone has over 30,000 members in 40 chapters across the country, including Silicon Valley. Somehow that fact has evaded Valley decision-makers.

It’s clear that Silicon Valley has some work to do in recruiting Latino talent. According to a 2015 Washington Post article, Valley executives were beginning to understand that there are “unconscious biases that have given preference to white men.” Two years have passed without any progress and it could be decades before the bias demons are exorcised.

Latino professionals can’t afford to wait for society to catch up with the reality that there is a large pool of candidates already in the pipeline. In the meantime, what are smart, talented, and ambitious Latina and Latino professionals to do?

Be a trailblazer. Take matters into your owns hands.  Here are few tips to get you started:

  1. Work Hard

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Getting ahead takes an enormous amount of effort, commitment, and perseverance. There’s no other way around it. All of the successful people I’ve ever encountered were passionate and dedicated to their craft. This can take a million hours a week or far less, it just depends how you manage your time. Just make sure to give it your all. A college education gets you to the front door. Hard work gets you to the corner office.

As I made my way up the corporate org chart from manager to director to vice president, I was the first to raise my hand when upper management was looking for someone to take on an extra project. When the corporate office executives needed support for an initiative, I packed my bags and traveled throughout the country to lend a helping hand. It’s not just about working hard, it’s about working smart too. The hardest and smartest working employees get first crack at a promotion.

  1. Find a Mentor

Learning to master a craft from a successful person is the best education you’ll ever get. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice once said that aspiring leaders should, “search for role models you can look up to and people who take an interest in your career.” In my career, the best mentors have been people who truly cared about my future. I’ve been blessed to have five men in my professional life that fulfilled that role.

The most valuable asset each of these men brought to me was a sincere interest in my growth and development as a leader. There are people like this in everyone’s life. You need to identify them and seek their guidance. One more piece of advice from Secretary Rice, “you don’t have to have mentors who look like you.” Just make sure that they genuinely care about your potential as a leader.

  1. Keep Learning

According to Pulitzer Prize historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, this concept is one of the ten qualities that made President Abraham Lincoln a great leader. Lincoln spent countless hours with generals in the White House and on the front lines of battle to better understand the science of warfare and the causes and effects of his decisions. He’s perhaps our nation’s greatest wartime president.

Make your personal development a priority. As a student of Goodwin’s theory, I’ve never hesitated at an opportunity to take advantage of leadership development. I studied community leadership as a fellow with the American Leadership Forum of Silicon Valley and corporate leadership with the Comcast Executive Leadership Forum. Today, I continue to learn from the talented people I encounter in my role as an executive coach.

The most exciting thing about the Latino future is that it’s happening right now. As a Latino professional, you have a chance to chart your own leadership path until the rest of society recognizes that you have what it takes to move into the corner office. There are countless Latinas and Latinos in the pipeline. Those two young men from Los Banos and others like them are counting on you to lead the way.

P.S. The boys earned second place in the national competition!!

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Be a Risk-Taker

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In my last post, I wrote about how the ability to take a risk is a key factor in growing personally and professionally. Not possessing the inborn inclination to step out of comfort zones could be a major barrier to that growth. Can people who aren’t natural gamblers learn how to undertake calculated chances? The short answer is, “yes.” I believe that anyone can learn how to take on new opportunities that are uncomfortable.

In my work coaching emerging Latina and Latino leaders, I’ve learned that the fear of losing a well-paid and comfortable position keeps many talented people from seeking leadership and executive roles. From my own experience and through many years of thinking about this issue, I believe that the way society views Latinos and our acceptance of that perspective are the leading causes of the reluctance to push the career advancement envelope.

I can’t say for sure what comes to mind when non-Latinos think about the Latino community. Given a lifetime of interactions with people from all walks of life, I can say that the perception isn’t very good, not to mention grossly inaccurate. Images of Latino drug dealers, gangsters, “illegal” immigrants, and welfare moochers flood the media.

The good news is that in recent years we’ve reversed the “lazy” myth as most Americans now believe that Latinos have a strong work ethic. The bad news is that belief applies only to those who toil in menial and back-breaking physical work. The white-collar Latino hasn’t even reached the American consciousness yet.

Despite a growing population and modest inroads in economic and political influence, generalized (and negative) Latino impressions still result in unjust misunderstandings. How do I know this? In more than two decades working at the highest levels of the corporate, local government, and education worlds, I’ve heard non-Latinos say the darnedest things about us. I don’t believe these off-the-cuff comments are made in malice or with racist intent. The comments are just plain ignorant.

Latino professionals subconsciously participate in the perpetuation of these images. We tend to play it safe once we’ve “made it.” When the discussion in the conference room gets heated, we shy away from engaging in the ruckus. Our working-class upbringing teaches us to work hard, and keep our heads down and mouths shut. Let’s be honest, white folks in power positions can be intimidating. We’re worried that we might say something wrong, or worse, something stupid. We’ve all been there.

There’s some justification for that reluctance to speak out. This reality was played out last week on the national stage when Senator Kamala Harris (a black woman who served as a prosecutor and California’s attorney general before election to the senate) was rudely reprimanded by Senators John McCain and Richard Burr for “harassing” Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a senate hearing. No other senator on that panel was subjected to that kind of intrusion. Senator Harris, a seasoned interrogator, continued her questioning without missing a beat.

Society has a way of making people of color, even those in leadership positions, appear a cut below their colleagues. That could lead to self-doubt. How can we respond like Senator Harris? The solution is for you to just believe in yourself. Sounds easy, huh? Confronting the fear of taking risks and fighting negative stereotypes can be discouraging and tiring. But you have to step out of your comfort zone to advance.

I don’t mean the “fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy that seems to be all the rage today. That doesn’t work. You should never fake it! By definition, that means that you’re not qualified. I’m talking about taking stock of your successes and confirming that you’re the real deal.

I’m currently working with a Latina executive who’s contemplating a career change. She has extensive experience in her field and has progressively advanced to higher leadership roles in the organization. Her teams have earned several industry awards in addition to the individual recognition mementos that gather on her desk.

She has three options in front of her: (1) make a lateral move into management at her organization’s headquarters, (2) seek advancement opportunities within the industry, or (3) stay in her current role. I’ve advised her to take a serious look at options #2 and #1, in that order. Both are risky. Her initial response was to question her own qualifications and preparedness.

We did a simple exercise to get that absurd notion out of her mind. She dusted off her resume and started listing her professional accomplishments and accolades. When the dust settled, she had an amazing resume that impressed even herself! She had been so busy being successful that she didn’t realize the extent of her experience and preparation.

Once it was on paper, I could see in her eyes that she truly believed in herself. She’s still nervous about the possibility of taking a leap. The natural sense of anxiety that comes with stretching one’s boundaries will still linger as she thinks about her next move. At least she now believes that she has what it takes to achieve her goals.

The moral of this story is to block out influences that are barriers to your success, obstacles like fear of taking professional risks and the negative effect society has on our tendency toward self-doubt. These are powerful forces in keeping talented Latinas and Latinos from striving to occupy the corner office.

As a Latino professional, you’ve educated yourself and work hard. Learn how to take regular stock of your accomplishments to remind yourself that you have professional value and worth. This will give you the confidence needed to take that risk that will lead to the next level in your personal and professional life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take a Leap Into Leadership

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Freezing rain couldn’t dampen my excitement the first time I went to Washington, D.C. Looking out of the window into the night sky during the unsteady landing at Ronald Reagan National Airport, the sight of the glowing Capitol Dome, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial was mesmerizing. This was also my first trip to the east coast. I was in my mid-30s and a manager at a large telecommunications company.

The regional VP of the department had asked if I was interested in participating in scheduled meetings on Capitol Hill in place of her boss who was unable to go. I saw this as an incredible opportunity given that I had been with the company for just 6 months and no one else at my pay grade would attend. I had never left Sandra and the girls for an extended period of time – Marisa was 4 years old and Erica 8 months. This was uncharted territory for me.

When I told Sandra, she asked if I had to go. I hadn’t thought of that question and didn’t know how to answer. We both grew up in working-class neighborhoods where it was common knowledge that extra work meant overtime pay. I learned in my first job out of college that that wasn’t the case in the professional world. Added to the fact that there was no financial benefit to going, I had a young family at home to think about. Did I have to go or did I want to go?

Making the trip would be a calculated risk. If I made a fool of myself, a career with that company probably would have ended sooner than later. If I stayed home, I probably could have had a comfortable career as a manager. If I performed well during the trip, my opportunities with the company could grow. I came to realize that the question was a false dilemma. The answer to both questions was “yes.”

Twenty years later, the thought of deliberating about such a simple opportunity seems quaint. But at the time, it was a big deal. When I decided to make the trip, the conversation with Sandra was somewhat tense. Sandra and I lived in our childhood homes until we were married, our fathers worked at the same jobs for decades, we rarely ventured out of the neighborhood. Family first and being home for dinner were considerations when making social or career decisions.

I remember being a boy listening to my dad’s friends talking about work. Hourly wages, fringe benefits, and keeping a good job forever topped the conversations. The men I looked up to would list the many reasons not to seek advancement: too much pressure and responsibility, salaried employees didn’t get overtime pay for extra work, too risky.

Sound familiar? For many working-class families, taking chances could lead to disaster. Giving up a good job for something that might not work out could put paying the bills in jeopardy. Once you have a good job, the older men would say, playing it safe and not rocking the boat is the smart thing to do. However, I was now in a different world with different rules.

I encourage those who were raised in a similar environment to be confident in your education and experience. Take a leap into the world of leadership and opportunity.

The ability to venture out of comfort zones is a rare quality. Those who are born with this trait are innovators and game changers. They’re not afraid of failure and rejection. They keep taking chances with the sincere belief that the next attempt at success will be triumphant. Thomas Edison personifies this type of person with his oft-quoted observation, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

In my work developing, supporting, and advising Latino leaders, I’ve seen how reluctance to take risks can be a barrier to personal and professional growth. I understand the hesitation. I’ve been there. This is a common thread with both mid-career professionals and high school students. The pros get anxious about losing a job or a title on a business card. Kids fear putting themselves out there to be ridiculed by their classmates.

We all know that getting ahead requires hard work and dedication. But that’s just part of the equation. Stretching oneself intellectually and professionally is needed as well. Those who don’t have the natural tendency to embrace uncomfortable situations must overcome their concerns about the prospect of failure. The best way to do that is by taking on uneasy and unfamiliar roles.

That’s what I did during my first trip to Washington, D.C. two decades ago. Although I had a minor function during the meetings, I held my own. When the VP noticed me chatting with my congressional representative and local elected officials in the hotel lobby after-hours, she recognized me as someone who could provide value to the company. That week turned out to be the first step in a climb up the corporate ladder.

I learned an important lesson on my first journey back east. Taking risks, although riddled with unknowns, results in personal and professional growth. Can taking risks be learned? I think so. I’ll share my thoughts on that topic next time.