International Chameleons

In our increasingly interdependent world, Latino executives’ natural ability to adapt to changing cultural milieus and finesse a flexible mindset translates into greater opportunities in the global business arena. Business leaders are leveraging their bicultural backgrounds to forge relationships across borders—and oceans. Hispanic Executive recently sat down with four such international conquerors, from the US Department of State, IBM, Accenture, and Molex, to discuss how their unique backgrounds give them a competitive edge.

“Being successful ultimately means setting an example of competence, being respectful, and treating people well,” says Fernandez, who oversees the US Department of State’s international trade work. “It goes beyond celebrating your cultural identity.” PHOTO: Christopher Maharry - Kerry Humphrey

Though many would think you’d have to travel the world to earn a crash course in different cultures, it was in West New York, New Jersey, a small town right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where Jose W. Fernandez, assistant secretary of state for economic, energy, and business affairs, received a crash course in cultural sensitivity. “Having lived in New York City, I was involved in giving scholarships to high-school students in Queens and the students were Jewish Orthodox,” says Fernandez, who’s of Cuban decent. “The first day my secretary went to shake their hands and they said, ‘No, I can’t shake your hand.’ It’s part of their religious tradition. You learn as you go and as long as you’re respectful, you’re not offending anyone.”

His lessons in West New York still serve him well today as Fernandez leads the US Department of State bureau responsible for overseeing work on international trade and investment policy; international finance, development, and debt policy; economic sanctions and combating terrorist financing; international energy security policy; international telecommunications and transportation policies; and support for US businesses and the private sector overseas. “We work hard to sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world,” says Fernandez, whose bureau comprises 200-plus officers serving in the United States and more than 1,000 overseas.

Ruderman, vice president of corporate financial risk assessment at IBM, says the ability to be patient, to listen, and to adapt to different leadership styles is second nature to Latinos.

The ability to effectively work with a culturally diverse team is critical when working internationally, says Natalia Maria Ruderman, vice president of corporate financial risk assessment at IBM, an information-technology company with more than 400,000 employees operating in more than 170 countries and reported revenues just shy of $100 billion for 2010. “The ability to be patient, to listen and adapt to different leadership styles, is critical in any global role,” she says. “Many of the Latinos I’ve met and worked with in the US and many other countries do this very well because adaptation and flexibility has been key to their survival and success in the business world.”
Jorge Benitez, chief executive, United States and managing director, North America at Accenture says the family dynamics inherent in the Hispanic culture often result in highly sociable people who are good at building and sustaining relationships. “All careers have a personal aspect and Hispanics excel in this area,” Benitez says.

With clients in more than 120 countries, Accenture’s clientele spans a full range of industries and include 94 of the Fortune Global 100 and more than three-quarters of the Fortune Global 500. Benitez says, overall, the leadership of successful companies is already international and there is increasingly a place for multiple cultures and nationalities to be around the leadership table and gain perspective and knowledge from one another’s insights. “Many of our clients have diverse executive teams, certainly more than there were 10-15 years ago,” Benitez says. “A day sitting in our offices in Miami, London, or Singapore can expose you to insights from all over the world, not just your part of it. Being truly global is one way we serve our clients. It’s also one way we help our people grow their careers.”

Jorge Benitez, chief executive for Accenture’s US operations, says the inherent family dynamics within Latino culture often creates “highly sociable people good at building and sustaining relationships.”

Chicago-native Ana Rodriguez, senior vice president of global human resources at Molex, is currently living in Shanghai, China, for a year to gain perspective of the employment environment in Asia. Her company, Molex Incorporated, employs 70 percent of its workforce in Asia, manufacturing electronic, electrical, and fiber-optic interconnection systems for several markets including data-com, automotive, consumer electronics, telecommunications, medical, and military/aerospace.

From Rodriguez’s perspective, China’s young workforce doesn’t want to stay in a company for more than three years, because they feel they’re not moving up. It’s up to Rodriguez and her team to create initiatives that will get this workforce to stay on with Molex past those three years. “Molex is global but we have a US-based history, values, and culture,” says Rodriguez, of the 72-year-old company that has 39 manufacturing locations in 16 countries. “How do you translate that to employees with very different values? It’s a challenge.”Rodriguez says the best advice she can give is to be very good at what you do and make sure to develop those skills and competencies that are highly valued today by employers: a global perspective (willingness to travel and interact with other cultures), critical thinking and problem solving, strong communication and networking skills, and the ability to get things done with a sense of urgency.

Currently living in Shanghai, China, Rodriguez, senior VP of global human resources at Molex, urges others to broaden their horizons. “Take the plunge—don’t wait because the train has left the station on globalization,” she says.

“Take the plunge—don’t wait because the train has left the station on globalization,” Rodriguez says. “ … Meet with as many people from that country or culture—immerse yourself in that culture. Remember that Latinos by nature tend to be warm, expressive and emotional, but in other cultures—e.g. the US and UK—people, especially in the business world, tend to be more even-tempered and unemotional. Knowing this, temper yourself, because you want to bring attention to your insights and expertise versus external factors that may interfere with business discussions.”

Ultimately, in business as in life, being successful means setting an example of competence, being respectful, and treating people well, Fernandez says. “It goes beyond celebrating your cultural identity,” he says. “Professionally, at the end of the day you’re judged by your competence.”

More than any other time in our world history, we live in a global economy and it only takes a glance at the daily headlines to see that what happens in China, Europe and all over the world affects us all, Benitez says. And for businesspeople in particular, embracing this new global mentality is a must. After all, “International business is the new normal,” he says.