As a boy, watching the Los Angeles Lakers winning successive NBA championships in the ’80s, George A. Rodriguez Jr. was impressed with not only their teamwork but also the exuberance and selflessness of their leader and star player Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Decades later, demonstrations of solid teamwork still excite Rodriguez, who is the vice president of apparel sourcing, production, and quality at Ariat International. In the past ten years, coaching and mentoring have become his top areas of focus. This has enabled Rodriguez to contribute to his team members’ high-level performance and to support them living up to their potential.
Learning through reading has always been his first approach, Rodriguez says, and he leverages that knowledge with the work experience he has gained over the years. Inspired by Lakers coach Pat Riley’s leadership, he read The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players and learned that team dynamics exist anywhere a group of individuals are asked to work together.
He also learned that a successful team starts at the top with an informed, emotionally intelligent leader through Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
The books are “not about running a business; they speak to being an effective leader and creating an environment where individuals can live up to their potential,” Rodriguez shares. “Being present supports mindfulness, which enables you to completely focus on the task and the team and then work together towards the optimal outcome.”
The California native is the second oldest of four children born to George and Amparo Rodriguez. Raised southwest of Los Angeles in Orange, he learned that his maternal grandfather, Filiberto Becerra, rode a train in 1918 from Mexico to the United States, where he worked for several years before he saved enough money to bring his wife and children. The close-knit family remained within walking distance of each other, living in the same neighborhood. Warm memories include early lessons from his parents, who Rodriguez says gave him the building blocks for his success, namely confidence in his abilities, compassion for others, and a desire to succeed.
He earned a business degree from Cal State Fullerton and an MBA from Chapman University, where his parents attended when the campus served as the local school in the late forties. At Cal State, he found part-time work at the May Co., exposing him to the retail business. After college, he went to work at Miller’s Outpost where he met Director of Sourcing James Wat, who introduced him to the world of product development and sourcing and became his mentor.
“He taught me a tremendous amount about sourcing and production. He gave me an opportunity that has been pivotal to my career and he also contributed significantly to the professional I am today,” Rodriguez asserts.
Eventually, that path led to Mervyn’s department store, where he had to manage a team of forty to forty-five employees, prompting him to emulate his role models as well as the philosophies he discovered in their books. “As I took on roles with increasing responsibilities of managing large groups of people, it was no longer about me and more about how I was creating an environment to improve the team and help everyone live up to their potential,” he explains.
His own coaching skills continued to develop with each new job, finding new focus when he joined Levi’s as senior director of sourcing and production. There he found a corporate environment that was less autocratic and more influenced by emotional intelligence that advises managers to be aware of not just what they say to others but also how what they do and say affects others.
“I developed a deeper understanding of leadership at Levi’s,” he asserts. “They had institutional monthly coaching meetings, and that was new to me. My boss and I would get together once a month to sit and talk, not just about performance and goals but about personal development.”
An avid reader, he continued to self-educate about coaching and leadership. When Jim Collins, author of Great By Choice, was invited to speak to Levi’s senior managers exclusively, he was disappointed about not being able to attend, and he wasn’t alone. He and fellow workers formed the Denim Divas book club in response. They began with a group of ten that grew to twenty-five, and they still continue to meet even though Rodriguez is at Ariat. After joining Ariat, Rodriguez shared the idea and built a small book club with his new team.
While his team at Ariat is smaller, it presents a new set of teaching moments. Situated in a unique niche, the company develops high-quality apparel and footwear for the English and Western equestrian markets. He has helped stabilize the source base, refine the process, build cross-functional relationships, and provide leadership to support the company’s rapid growth.
Working for Ariat has also exposed him to a new learning experience and sensibility: horses.
Rodriguez and his wife Alicia, who is an experienced equestrian, were enjoying a weekend getaway at the Carmel Valley Ranch. There they met Director of Activities Jill Rivoli, a member of the Equine Experiential Education Association (E3A). Rodriguez learned about the use of horses in experiential learning for both personal and professional development. Rivoli has since become his mentor and Rodriguez, now a Steph Curry and Golden State Warriors fan, joined E3A and is planning to become a certified trainer focusing on personal development and well-being.
“Horses are always present and nonjudgmental; they sense both our mental and emotional state and reflect it back,” he says. “Equine experiential learning is a great opportunity for personal growth and a perfect match to my philosophy on leading; be present, experience, learn, adapt, evolve.”