“It makes me happy if I can help Latinos be more comfortable in their own skin.”

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS “At a recent program, a Hispanic employee with blond hair and blue eyes came up to me and said ... he didn’t want to be seen as ‘the Latino marketing exec,’” Robert Rodriguez recalls. “But after the program, he concluded that he’d like to be seen as the marketing exec who knows all about the Latino marketplace. He realized his ethnicity is relevant, that it’s a competitive advantage. Stories like this are why I am so passionate about what I do.” | Photo: Sheila Barabad

Don’t do the Latino thing—that’s how Robert Rodriguez was raised in the Midwest by his parents, both migrant workers from Mexico and Texas. Throughout school and college, even as he entered the workforce, Rodriguez was repeatedly told by his mentors to assimilate. The founder of DRR Advisors knew he wasn’t bringing his full self to the workplace, but he realized that if he was struggling with his identity, surely there were thousands or even millions of other Latinos feeling the same way. Since the publication of his book Latino Talent in 2007, Rodriguez has worked on creating diversity solutions for more than 100 corporations across the country, spreading the word that doing “the Latino thing” is not only personally rewarding—it’s a competitive advantage in the professional world.

Voces open quoteI finally ran into other professional Hispanics after seven years of working in HR. It happened when I was sent on a project to Chicago—I fell in love with the city and attended many Latino events. I joined Amoco, a company that actually had Latino executives and a Latino employee resource group, and they asked me, “Can you help us recruit more Latinos? Can you help us better connect with Latino consumers?” For the first time in my career, I saw that I could leverage my ethnicity as an asset, instead of downplaying it, and this was rejuvenating.

Studying for my PhD in organizational development allowed me to deeply research the Latino experience in corporate America—about sense of identity, tokenism, isolation. I know that when you’re the only Latino in the group, it can be very lonely. This all led to my first book, published in 2007. Since [Latino Talent’s] publication, everything changed. I resigned from Amoco and began teaching at DePaul University’s MBA program in Chicago. I started getting calls from companies all over the country saying: “We want to hire more Hispanics. We want to help them move up the ladder. Can you help us?”

The same level of rigor put into marketing research needs to be put into recruiting and retaining Hispanics. Companies have become very sophisticated in researching the various segments of Hispanic consumers, but to recruit and retain Hispanics, they need to realize that not all Hispanics are the same: the Cuban-American in Miami is different from the Mexican in East LA. Having this much more textured understanding and appreciation for Latino diversity is what I help companies attain.

Latinos may interview differently, and I have to help companies be more culturally competent to understand this. A common issue with recruiting is when a company has recruited top Latino candidates, turned them over to the hiring manager who then doesn’t hire the candidate because they didn’t interview well, [citing that], “He didn’t make eye contact with the recruiter, he kept talking about his family and group accomplishments, he doesn’t have a five-year plan.” But these responses are all culturally based and employers need to look at the substance of the candidate, not just their interview style.

Hispanics are raised to put their nose to the grindstone. In corporate America, that doesn’t work out so well, and a lot of companies find their Latino professionals get to a certain level and then stop advancing. This is just because they’re not as strong at branding themselves and often struggle to stand out from other smart, hardworking professionals. I help them leverage their networks more effectively, to be more concrete and distinctive about their skills, and not to see branding as bragging.

I help design and cofacilitate many Hispanic leadership development programs at companies like McDonald’s, Pfizer, and Shell. At a recent program for Verizon, a Hispanic employee with blond hair and blue eyes came up to me and said he didn’t know why he was there—he just wanted to do the “regular” leadership development program. But after the program, although he still didn’t want to be seen as “the Latino marketing exec,” he concluded that he’d like to be seen as the marketing exec who knows all about the Latino marketplace. He realized his ethnicity is relevant, that it’s a competitive advantage. Stories like this are why I am so passionate about what I do. It makes me happy if I can help Latinos be more comfortable in their own skin.

My second book is about the Latino leadership pipeline and targets current Latino executives. I want to connect more with this somewhat elusive group. They are already at the top, and some never did the “Latino thing,” so why start now? I met with a top Hispanic executive at a railroad company, asking him what he is doing to help promote the next generation of Latino leaders. He told me that he has to promote everyone, not just Latinos. “I’m an executive, so I can’t be seen as pushing the Latino agenda,” he said. When I met with the top African-American executive at the same firm, he told me he didn’t care about being seen as having an agenda—he had earned this power and influence as a top executive. Hispanic executives have that same power, but they don’t always know how to use it, or are afraid to wield the power they have earned. This is my message to Latino executives: with your influence, visibility, and power, you can help pull up the next generation of young Latino leaders. If you don’t help them, who will?Voces close quote