Filling the Hispanic Leadership Gap

A recent analysis by HR consulting firm PDI suggests that although Hispanic managers reach mid-level management positions faster than their non-Hispanic peers, they are slower to climb to higher levels.

By Frank Lloyd, Associate Dean, Executive Education, Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business

Although the U.S. Hispanic market—47 million strong—represents the nation’s largest ethnic minority, gaps in representation continue to exist within U.S. companies. Hispanic managers are significantly underrepresented in executive and senior executive positions.

The HACR Corporate Inclusion Index (CII) found that of 1,284 executive and director positions available, Hispanics held only 61 positions. Additionally, of those surveyed, only 6 percent out of 384 open board positions were held by Hispanics. In addition, according to the National Institute for Latino Policy, there has been little to no growth in Hispanic representation at the CEO or director level in the last several years.

A recent analysis by HR consulting firmPDI suggests that although Hispanic managers reach mid-level management positions faster than their non-Hispanic peers, they are slower to climb to higher levels. The skill sets that help Hispanic employees move into mid-management positions are not the same skills needed to move into executive ranks, and aspects of their culture, particularly as they appear to corporate decision-makers, frequently inhibit Hispanics from developing the requisite senior executive skills.

For example, individual contributors and lower-level managers get ahead by aligning themselves with the mission and vision of their leaders and delivering results. From a cultural perspective, Hispanics are taught to respect authority and their elders and to deliver without tooting their own horn. They also tend to behave deferentially in meetings and put their nose to the grindstone. Their cultural background allows them to excel in their move up to middle management. The problem is that these traits then become a liability as the organization starts to look for senior-level leaders. Here they look for independence of thought, vision, free expression, and assertiveness. And many Hispanic employees have a limited understanding of the role culture plays in their development, and how and when to align personal cultural traits with corporate culture. The use of culture should not be intuitive, but intentional.

NHCC Corporate Executive Development Program

The National Hispanic Corporate Council (NHCC), a nonprofit organization that for 25 years has worked in partnership with its Fortune 1000 member firms to develop the Hispanic marketplace and supplier base, recognized this leadership challenge. In response, the NHCC implemented an annual corporate executive development program in partnership with SMU’s Cox School of Business in 2010. The program’s mission is to help emerging Hispanic corporate leaders understand the power of cultural differences in developing themselves, leading others, and driving their organizations’ effectiveness. The program provides an integrated learning experience focused on culture that uses learning resources in the workplace, classroom, campus, and community.

The NHCC Corporate Executive Development Program (CEDP) is delivered in three three-day modules spaced over nine months at the SMU Cox School of Business campus. Participants practice applying program tools and concepts and work on projects in between learning modules. This allows ample time for participants to try new tools and behaviors on the job, and reflect on and learn from their experiences. During the times back at work, they also continue to connect and obtain advice by phone and e-mail from their personal advisors.

The program’s academic director, Professor Miguel Quiñones, worked closely with the NHCC to develop an application-oriented curriculum and to assemble a team of instructors who are proven experts in working with high-potential corporate executives. The first session of the program is devoted to developing self and understanding the power that individual and corporate culture has on executive development. In the second session, participants gain insights for maximizing diversity of work units and teams. They learn through lecture, interaction, and role-playing to leverage cultural differences in the workplace to improve performance. In the third session, participants learn to apply their cultural insights to improve their understanding of business strategies.

The power of the instruction and its immediate applicability was illustrated when Alejandro Gomez from Coca-Cola, excited by a new communication technique he had just learned in class, called back to his office at the next coffee break with a suggestion that resolved a difficult employee situation.

Another participant, Oliver Delgado of ARAMARK, began the program as a district manager in the company’s Education business division (K-12), with responsibility for custodial services. Between the first and second modules, he was promoted to vice president, Operations, Education, with responsibility for both food and facilities services and with several district managers reporting to him. “The program exceeded my expectations in every way,” Delgado says.

Participant Safety Net

To support such immediate application of learning, the program built a safety net for participants consisting of peer participants, supervisors, top management sponsors, and experienced Hispanic executive mentors. Individual development plans were driven by feedback results obtained through a 360-degree assessment instrument tailored to a set of competencies the NHCC specified as particularly relevant for Hispanic leaders. SMU instructors and high-level Hispanic guest speakers led the classroom instruction. It also was supported by a unique feature of the program: in-class Hispanic executive advisors who supported the instructors and helped participants connect the tools they obtained in the classroom with their organizations’ business imperatives and the cultural realities that confront Hispanics in the workplace.

Finally, participants were grouped into small teams that worked together during and between modules throughout the program’s nine months on projects designed to help thembetter understand teamwork and enterprise-level thinking. Since the participants came from different companies, functions, and industries, the projects established common ground by focusing on social entrepreneurship opportunities. To develop executive presence needed to convincingly argue a business case, the teams presented their projects first to a group of social venture capitalists and then to their own company sponsors.

The CEDP has reached the goal of accelerating the careers of these emerging leaders. Most class participants have had the opportunity to be considered and selected for positions of higher responsibility. Corporate sponsors and participants alike attributed consideration and placement to participation in the program.

The diversity and talent executive who served as Shell Oil’s corporate sponsor of the program recognized the experience’s dramatic effect on its participant, Luis Pinto, when assigning him to a high-profile European project. Through the program, Pinto realized a senior leader’s responsibility to listen, involve, and mentor others, and he began to apply these previously neglected skills. Pinto since has proven his leadership capability in his assignment at corporate headquarters in the Netherlands coordinating some of Shell’s global advocacy efforts.Following a successful temporary assignment, Pintowas offered the position of Global Advocacy manager, Royal Dutch Shell,on a permanent basis with a significant promotion. According to Pinto, “It is a big step up for me,and I can’t wait to put the things we learned into practice.”

Another participant attained his goal to become a chief diversity officer in a Fortune 500 firm by the end of the first program. After serving in his new capacity for six months, this individual was named one of the 100 Top Hispanic Influentials in the U.S. for 2011 by Hispanic Business magazine. This participant’s executive advisor remarked on the increase in this man’s confidence throughout the program. He accessed the program’s support network to improve his resume and interviewing skills, and so was ready when an opportunity arose.

Accomplishments such as this testify to the program’s role in recalibrating participants’ self images as leaders and redirecting their ambitions, even though the participants already were recognized for their high quality and potential.

Proven Model of Leadership Development

The NHCC Corporate Executive Development Program shows that high-quality leadership development experiences can accelerate high-potential Hispanics progress through the ranks of corporate America. It focuses on cultural elements that may hold them back, and provides tools to address this without sacrificing their cultural authenticity. It utilizes a proven model of leadership development that begins with self-awareness, continues to interpersonal sensitivity and influence, and proceeds to developing perspective and presence at the enterprise level. Academics and accomplished Hispanic practitioners introduce cutting-edge management tools, and best practices are used to support their application. It encourages participants to develop networks and build social capital to pursue newly elevated ambitions.

The common thread among all these elements is their Hispanic emphasis. However, these same elements can be adapted to other demographic groups, even globally, where cultural factors slow the upward mobility of potential leaders. One thing is certain. Organizations that persist in providing homogenized leadership development experiences for high potentials of diverse backgrounds will more slowly realize the full potential of their multicultural workforce.

Frank Lloyd is the associate dean of Executive Education at Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business.

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