Filling the Hispanic Leadership Gap

Although the U.S. Hispanic market — 47 million — represents the nation’s largest ethnic minority and the fastest-growing demographic group, gaps in representation continue within U.S. companies. According to the 2010 survey by the Hispanic Association for Corporate Responsibility (HACR), Hispanic managers are significantly underrepresented in executive and senior executive positions.

The HACR Corporate Inclusion Index found of 1,284 executive and director positions in existence, Hispanics held only 61 positions. Additionally, of those surveyed, only 6 percent of 384 board positions were held by Hispanics. According to the National Institute for Latino Policy, despite being 15 percent of the population, there has been little to no growth in Hispanic representation at the CEO or director level in the last several years.

A 2010 analysis by the HR consulting firm PDI suggests the reason is that although Hispanic managers reach mid-level management positions faster than their non-Hispanic peers, they are slower to climb to higher levels within their companies. Hispanics frequently get stuck at mid-levels.

The skill sets that help Hispanic employees move into middle-management positions are not the same skills needed to move into executive ranks, and aspects of Latino 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 their leaders’ mission and vision and delivering results. From a cultural perspective, Hispanics are taught to respect authority, 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 these traits become a liability as the organization starts to look for senior-level leaders. At higher levels, independence of thought and vision, free expression and assertiveness are more valuable. Further, 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 be intentional, not intuitive.

The Hispanic leadership gap has been recognized by the National Hispanic Corporate Council (NHCC), a nonprofit organization that has worked in partnership with its Fortune 1000 member firms for 25 years to develop the Hispanic marketplace and supplier base. NHCC has designated closing the leadership gap as its top challenge for the next quarter century.

NHCC’s solution was to implement an annual corporate executive development program in partnership with Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in 2010. The first program was completed in May 2011, and the second program began in September. 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 inaugural program was intentionally limited to 15 participants selected by their sponsors, NHCC member companies. The program provides an integrated learning experience focused on culture that uses learning resources in the workplace, classroom, campus and community.

The program is delivered in three, three-day modules spaced over nine months at the Cox campus in Dallas. Participants practice applying program tools and concepts and work on projects for their corporations 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 these times back at work they continue to connect and gain advice by phone and email with their personal program advisers.

The program’s academic director, SMU professor Miguel Quinones, worked closely with NHCC to develop application-oriented curriculum and to assemble a team of instructors who have experience working with high-potential corporate executives. The first program session is devoted to developing self and understanding the power individual and corporate culture have on executive development. In the second session, participants gain insight on how to maximize diversity in 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 — Hispanic and corporate — to improve their understanding of business strategies.

The impact of the instruction and its immediate applicability was illustrated when Alejandro Gomez, an operations manager from Coca-Cola, excited by a new communication technique he learned, called back to his office during a coffee break with a suggestion that resolved a difficult employee situation.

Another participant, Oliver Delgado of food services company Aramark, began the program as a district manager in his company’s education business division with responsibility for custodial services. Between the first and second modules he was promoted to vice president of operations and education with responsibility for food and facilities services and a number of district managers reporting to him.

On the job he applied class teachings to focus on the bigger picture, balance his skills with those of other leaders in his organization to play from his strengths and improve his listening skills. He said he learned how to guide and influence rather than to simply take control, and to build consensus, motivate and inspire as a leader. “The program has exceeded my expectations in every way,” he said.

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

Finally, participants are grouped in small project teams of five people who work together during and between modules throughout the program’s nine months on projects designed to help them better understand teamwork and enterprise-level thinking. Since the participants come from different companies, functions and industries, the projects establish common ground by focusing on social entrepreneurship opportunities. To develop the executive presence needed to convincingly argue a business case, the teams present their projects first to a group of social venture capitalists and then to their own company sponsors.

Before the inaugural program concluded, its goal to accelerate careers was well under way. More than half of the class had been considered and selected for positions of higher responsibility. Corporate sponsors and participants alike attributed consideration and placement to program participation.

The diversity and talent executive who served as Shell Oil’s corporate sponsor of the program recognized the experience’s effect on its participant, Luis Pinto, when assigning him to a high-profile European project. Through the program, Pinto exercised a senior leader’s responsibility to listen, involve and mentor others, and he began to apply these previously neglected skills. Pinto has since 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, Pinto was offered the position of global advocacy manager of Royal Dutch Shell on a permanent basis with a significant promotion. “It is a big step up for me and I can’t wait to put the things we learned into practice,” he said.

The NHCC Corporate Executive Development Program shows 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 uses a leadership development model that begins with self-awareness, continues to interpersonal sensitivity and influence, and proceeds to develop perspective and presence at the enterprise level. Academics and accomplished Hispanic practitioners introduce the newest management tools, and best practices are used to support their application. This encourages participants to develop networks and build social capital to pursue newly-elevated ambitions.

The common thread among all these elements is the Hispanic emphasis. However, these same elements can be adapted to other demographic groups globally, anywhere cultural factors retard the upward mobility of potential leaders — African-Americans in the U.S. or South Asians outside India, for example.

One thing is certain: Organizations that persist in providing homogenized leadership development experiences for high potentials of diverse backgrounds will realize the full potential of their multicultural workforce more slowly.

Frank Lloyd is the associate dean of executive education for Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business. He can be reached at