• Sep 20 2022

Latino Leadership at Work: Embracing Cultural Heritage to Accelerate Professional Growth

For National Hispanic Heritage Month, members of ExecOnline’s LatinEXO Employee Resource Group, Cristina Padilla and John Salcedo, share personal stories that have shaped their professional identities, and discuss the unique strengths that Latino leaders bring to the workplace.

Encouraging Latino Leaders to Express Their Authentic Personas

By Cristina Padilla, PhD 

A 2016 Coqual study revealed that 76% of Latinos repress aspects of their authentic selves in the workplace, altering their communication style, leadership presence and body language in an effort to fit in and advance professionally. 

For myself, that began my first day of Kindergarten, when I experienced culture dissonance for the first time. I was certain my five-year-old colleagues would reject me if they knew that in my house only staccato Spanish was spoken, that as a family we gathered around the television nightly to watch imported Mexican telenovelas, and that my father was always tired from working two daily grueling shifts at a dairy farm. 

Today, as a leadership scholar, I understand that my most distinguishing leadership qualities are inherited and informed by my Latino culture — my humildad (humility), hard work ethic, and sense of humor.

So began my elementary school career of dissembling my Latinidad in order to blend in. By adolescence, shame gave way to immense pride and a concrete sense of identity. Today, as a leadership scholar, I understand that my most distinguishing leadership qualities are inherited and informed by my Latino culture – my humildad (humility), hard work ethic, and sense of humor. Even so, to this day I receive feedback that I am reserved and guarded.

How can organizations and managers support and encourage Latino leaders to bring their authentic professional persona to the workplace? 

First, give them space. My research suggests Latinos engage in sense-making in new professional settings. Before acculturating to a new organizational context, they observe, learn as much as they can about the culture and the people they work with, and then they engage. Refrain from labeling or judging the behavior as withdrawn, shy, or unmotivated. 

Second, take a genuine interest in their leadership development. Without representation in higher leadership roles, Latinos often lack the role models, mentors, and sponsors needed to advance their careers. Provide them with opportunities for coaching, training, and challenging stretch assignments while providing the necessary support in their daily role and responsibilities. 

Lastly, advocate on their behalf and promote their individual accomplishments. Generally speaking, Latinos are socialized to be humble, deferential and collectivist. Championing their achievements will provide them with much-needed visibility at the organizational level and comfortability with receiving recognition for their accomplishments.

The Receta for Success: Leveraging Hard Work and Support Networks to Elevate Your Career

John “Salsa” Salcedo

My mother traveled alone from Ecuador to the United States, like many immigrants, to create a better life and live the American dream she heard so much about. Her first job was as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family who initially treated her well. When she told them that she needed a few days off for her upcoming wedding, they placed her and her things on the street. 

Undeterred, she and her new husband, who was from the Dominican Republic, moved to New York City to be closer to his family. They moved into the Washington Heights area which was known for being a Little Dominican Republic. A kind American White woman she befriended invited her to apply for a job at Wang Laboratories, a successful technology company of the 1980’s. 

Despite not being fluent in English and not having a formal education, she flourished in the roles she was given. She was offered managerial positions but shied away from them. Her reluctance was due to her concern over her thick accent and her lack of education. However, her managers encouraged her to take leadership roles on their teams. She did and she continued to succeed. 

[My mother] expressed that her success was made possible by the people who cared about, mentored and guided her.

Because of her excellent work, An Wang, the company’s founder, recognized her several times with Employee of the Year awards that he extended to a group of high performers. Management’s trust in her opened opportunities to collaborate with others in the organization. For example, the company’s Vice President of Operations, sought feedback on how to tackle important issues from a small group that she was part of. When An Wang partnered with IBM, he and her managers had her briefly work with a young Bill Gates.

My mother told me repeatedly that this country makes it possible for anyone to do anything they want to do with their lives. She also expressed that her success was made possible by the people who cared about, mentored and guided her. Because she was not only hard working, but also easy to work with, she was trusted by her managers, given chances to grow her career, and invited to work with senior management and key personnel. 

Latinos are known for being affable, warm, and hard-working. By leveraging the tried and true recipe or, in Spanish, receta, of mentors, managers, and colleagues who shepherd, support, and rejoice in the successes that my mother experienced, more Latino professionals can level up their careers into impactful formal and informal leadership roles within their organizations.

About the Authors

Cristina Padilla is Director of Coaching and Engagement at ExecOnline and co-lead of the LatinEXO Employee Resource Group. She holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego and has over ten years of experience in the field of leadership development. Her scholarly research and volunteerism is centered around culturally relevant leadership development for Latinas.

John Salcedo is a Software Engineer at ExecOnline and co-lead of the LatinEXO Employee Resource Group. He has a Bachelor of Science in Economics from Brigham Young University. He has held various positions in healthcare, finance, and restaurant sectors.

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