The Paradox of Latino Leaders


July 15, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

My friend, Bernardo Ferdman, a professor at Alliant International University, writes about Latino identity, works to develop Latino leaders, and helps organizations hire more Latinos. With Plácida Gallegos, he wrote Identity Orientations of Latinos in the United States: Implications for Leaders and Organizations for The Business Journal of Hispanic Research. We recently talked about issues facing Latino leaders and managers. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:

You spend a lot of time working with Latino managers to help them develop as leaders. How do they experience the work environment in U.S. organizations? Is their experience different from that of leaders from other backgrounds?

In many ways, Latino leaders appear to be quite similar to non-Latino leaders – they are competent, effective, and focused on producing results. Like competent leaders everywhere, they want to get the job done and to succeed.

Yet that can be deceiving to their non-Latino colleagues, because Latinos often have backgrounds and values that diverge from those of other leaders. For example, many Latinos’ values emphasize the importance of smooth and respectful interactions with other people. Ensuring the dignity of all individuals, staying connected with family – including extended family – and engaging with others in ways that avoid negative situations and enhance harmony are all important in Latino cultures.

This can be a great source of strength, but it can also put Latinos at odds with what corporate leaders are sometimes asked to do or how they are asked to be. This means that for many Latinos, the corporate environment can feel cold and unfriendly. Many have to invest a lot of emotional energy, sometimes unwittingly, to succeed. As a result, they can feel isolated both from peers at work and from their families and their roots.

What would you say is the key issue facing Latino managers and executives today?

All Latino and Latina leaders have to deal with figuring out what being Latino means to them and making a connection between that and how they come across at work. In some ways, each of us, no matter our ethnic background, has to find a way to fit who we are and where we come from into our work. For Latinos, this gets complicated by stereotypes and overgeneralizations, which affect how other people see Latinos in general and therefore how they see us as individuals.

Many Latinos in Corporate America have been quite effective at fitting in and submerging their differences. But this means they haven’t always been able to deliver their full potential to their organizations. So they need to understand their culture and identity – and be comfortable in their own skin, as it were – and find authentic ways to bring that to work.

Simply assimilating by trying to be the same as everyone else will not add much value. Those who have become clear about where and how they fit in, both as leaders and as Latinos, in ways that capitalize on their individual and cultural strengths have been particularly successful in their careers. Of course, this is much more feasible in those organizations that make special efforts to recognize, support, and include Latinos.

Isn’t this different for different individuals?

Sure. The reality is that the term Latino encompasses an extremely diverse group of people. More than 45 million of us are in the U.S. – more than 15% of the population – and no one description fits all of us. Plácida Gallegos and I, in our work on Latino identity orientations, describe at least six different patterns that we’ve observed. A key for Latinos, and for anyone wanting to benefit fully from Latino talent, is to understand and appreciate the diversity of Latino identity and experience.

In many ways, in spite of the various things that connect us, Latinos are at least as heterogeneous as any American group, and maybe more so. Making assumptions about any individual based on the group is not necessarily helpful. At the same time, it’s even worse to assume that Latinos are just like Anglos.

Are there any other career challenges for high-potential Latino leaders?

Many Latinos report that, growing up, they learned to be humble and not to tout their strengths and accomplishments in overt ways. Their families and friends told them that if they simply worked hard, others would recognize and reward their achievements. Yet this advice has not always served them well in Corporate America. Many Latinos need to learn how to network, how to mentor and be mentored, how to engage in conflict effectively, and how to speak up in an authentic way, in addition to finding effective ways to “toot their own horn.”

So the challenge for many is to be true to their values and still have others appreciate their contributions. This is where networks, allies, and champions can be effective. If others speak up about my achievements, I can be recognized and compete without becoming cutthroat.

A related issue for many Latinos as they move up the corporate ladder is the challenge of keeping their links to the larger community and supporting those coming up behind them. This is not something that is encouraged or rewarded in many companies. Yet those visionary companies that are supporting this kind of networking and mentoring – for example, through Latino affinity groups – are reaping huge rewards.

If I am a manager, and I’m not Latino, what should I focus on to bring out the best in my Latino colleagues?

I would say not to assume either similarity or difference. Be genuinely curious about their particular experiences and allow for specifics to emerge in dialogue, as you also share aspects of yourself. Take the time to get to know each other and what makes the person tick. When you ask questions, do it in ways that invite them to share their experiences and perspectives from their own point of view, rather than forcing them into your own frameworks or expectations. Also, be responsible for your own learning. And be ready to have your assumptions challenged. Finally, make sure to recognize both blatant and subtle exclusion, and partner with your colleagues to address it.

How do you support Latino leaders’ growth in your work?

I would say that the core is giving them permission to know and be themselves, while encouraging them to be as savvy as possible about the people around them and the demands of their environment. To maximize my contribution, I have to be able to know what that unique piece is that I can add to the puzzle that I am building with others in my organization, without confusing my individual piece with the whole puzzle.

Thank you. How can our readers reach you?

My e-mail address is, and my Web site is