2010 Archives

Getting more Hispanics to the top


The following is from the August 23, 2010, edition of Forbes online. Professor Miguel A. Quiñones is the O. Paul Corley Distinguished Chair in Organizational Behavior at SMU's Cox School of Business.

August 25, 2010

By Miguel Quiñones
SMU Cox School of Business

With the economic future more uncertain than ever, it is critical that our pool of potential leaders be as large and varied as possible. But it isn't at the moment. Hispanics are greatly underrepresented. They compose nearly 16% of the total U.S. population and will account for more 60% of population growth over the next 40 years. They are younger than the general population, with an average age of 27.4 compared with 36.8 for the population as a whole. Thus the future of our country's prosperity is tied to the success of this very important demographic group. But if you look at the number of top corporate executive positions in the nation's largest corporations, Hispanics represent only 1% of them. This leadership gap suggests that we are not using our human capital in the most efficient and effective way. This is an unsustainable situation that jeopardizes the country's future growth and success.

The National Hispanic Corporate Council, whose members include some of the biggest American corporations, recently approached the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University to help solve this problem. Armed with observations such as the fact that Hispanic managers tend to reach middle management jobs faster than others but remain there longer, the NHCC developed a blueprint outlining skills and competencies to help explain and begin to bridge the leadership gap.

Why does this gap even exist? Answers to that question are as varied as Hispanics themselves. One must keep in mind that the category "Hispanic" can encompass anyone from a recent immigrant with little education to a highly educated, well-to-do person whose wealthy ancestors came this country generations ago. In addition, Hispanics hail from a widely varied collection of nations. A person from Argentina is likely to be very different from someone from Cuba or El Salvador. Throw in Puerto Ricans, like myself, who are born citizens of the U.S., and it becomes very difficult to draw many generalizations.

However, there are cultural qualities that appear to be common among Hispanics and to affect their rise up corporate career ladders. For instance there's the cultural dimension of power distance. Identified by Geert Hofstede in a now famous study of IBM ( IBM - news - people ) executives throughout the world, this means the tendency to accept and respect distances between hierarchical levels. Most Hispanic countries score high on this attribute. That is, individuals raised in those countries may be reluctant to disagree with their supervisors or to speak up in meetings full of higher-status individuals. That might be perfectly fine for an employee progressing toward mid-level management, for whom agreement or silence can mean being a good soldier, a team player. But most organizations looking for executive talent want people who stand out, go out on a limb and express a well-defined point of view. In other words, a leader. Thus, the very person who rose quickly to the ranks of middle management because of an ability to follow orders diligently is now seen as too passive for an executive position.

Other traditionally Hispanic cultural tendencies can have similar effects. For example, Hispanics tend to be very agreeable and warm--and reluctant to say no to requests. So the hardworking person who takes on more projects than he can handle or stays late more often than he should can be set up to fail or burn out. That is not a recipe for a successful corporate career, and it's toxic when coupled with the cultural tendency to want to avoid conflict.

To address these cultural issues, the year-long National Hispanic Corporate Council program at SMU's Cox School of Business starts off with a heavy dose of self-awareness exercises, case studies and discussions. Participants learn to recognize their tendency to follow the cultural script, and how their behaviors can be interpreted by others, and then they begin to develop a capacity to adapt their behavior to make the most of their unique skills and capabilities and to be seen as strong leaders. So the program adds to the old adage "know thyself" the imperative "know how others see you."

Another likely cause of the Hispanic leadership gap in corporate America is the gap itself. It is self-reinforcing. Research confirms that not only education and experience but also personal connections are a part of what gets people ahead. The highly trained and highly experienced but less widely connected Hispanic middle manager is less likely to be picked for an executive position than is someone with far more social capital. Given the small number of Hispanics in top executive positions, social capital among aspiring Hispanic managers is rare indeed.

The NHCC program seeks to address that problem in two ways. First, the participants themselves are beginning to form a strong social network that they'll be able to draw on for support, information and opportunities. Second, they are surrounded by a cadre of highly successful Hispanic executives who are ready serve as advisers, mentors and coaches, throughout the program and beyond. These are people who have cracked the code of corporate culture and have reached the highest levels of executive success, and they are committed to seeing this problem addressed in a systematic and effective way.

The program also builds leadership capabilities by addressing traditional shortcomings among high-potential middle managers. That means training them to build a culture of accountability, to develop and mentor others to build organizational capability and to lead change. They're also advised on honing their leadership "brand" and developing executive presence, two critical ingredients for being seen as executive material.

Our country has thrived on the efforts of immigrants throughout its history. As Hispanics become more demographically prominent it is crucial that they rise to the leadership challenges confronting us all.Efforts like the NHCC program at SMU ultimately strive to keep America's corporations the dominant economic force in business throughout the world.

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