The common wisdom about career progression is that you move steadily up from positions of lesser to greater responsibility, each advancement bringing a hike in salary. How could you possibly get to the top other than climbing up one rung at a time? Looking at the career of Michael Alicea, executive vice president of global human resources at storied consumer-research firm Nielsen, it becomes clear that there is not only one path to the pinnacle.
“I realized that, for me, the path was less about taking on bigger and bigger roles,” he says. “Whenever I took a job for money, I always regretted it. I made decisions based on the things that were attractive to me and engaged me. That’s why I always tell young people, ‘Do things that will give you the biggest return on investment in your life. When you do that, the money will eventually come.’”
By not looking at his career as a simple vertical trajectory, Alicea was able to focus on broadening the scope of his expertise. With very new business, he would quickly study the industry, find out the businesses’ competitors and key drivers, and learn what was happening in the overall market. Bringing competitors to a playing field in which they can’t compete drove his thinking. “The ability to not only look at what is in your own company for a solution to a problem but to also partner with companies like TCS and RiseSmart that can help extend your capabilities is part of the answer,” he says.
He didn’t see it at the time, but every new job he took—even if they were horizontal moves—built up his credibility in the eyes of employers to come. The ultimate proof of that is that he now oversees thirty thousand employees at Nielsen, and he recently joined the board of Emerald Expositions, the largest trade-show organization in the United States.
“Looking back, most of it was planned,” he says. “It really was just about trying to take my innate abilities and talents and hone them and develop them. As I did that, I became a better and better manager, leader, and business partner. Through my broad experiences I was able to add value quickly to the organizations that I joined beyond the role.”
Emerald, a $1.6 billion New York Stock Exchange-traded company, is the leader in the trade-show business, holding shows across myriad industries, in spaces that can exceed 600,000 square feet. For a Hispanic who built his career without much external help, sitting on the board of such a major player is a kind of crowning achievement. It is also Alicea’s latest choice to do something that gives him yet more value as a leader.
“It’s been very significant to me because it’s been another way for me to stretch my abilities,” Alicea says. “It takes me out of my comfort zone and creates another opportunity to take what I’ve learned and apply it in a different way. Shareholder value gets created when you have a set of different perspectives and approaches in the boardroom.”
On the board of Emerald, Alicea’s vast experience is indispensable. The company values the key insights on matters the general manager may have no familiarity with. These are big decisions—ones that shareholders will benefit from.
“With everything I’ve seen, I can say, ‘I saw this before, and this is how it played out,’” Alicea says. “One of the most important things I learned in my career came from situations in which there was no money to throw at a problem. That meant you needed to be creative. I’ve never lost that scarcity perspective.”
Growing up in the Bronx as a child of Puerto Rican parents (a Nuyorican in the city’s parlance), Alicea got a close look at scarcity from the get-go. His father worked as an elevator operator. When he clocked out there, he headed immediately to another job. By the time the young Alicea became a page at the New York Public Library, he was acutely conscious of the divide between the financial condition of the people in his neighborhood and the people he saw in glittering Manhattan.
“I remember being a dead broke college student and walking down Park Avenue and seeing a guy pull up in a limo,” he says. “It was so different from where I came from. I’d think, ‘What does this guy do?’”
The first in his family to go to college and someone who was building a career at a time when Hispanic mentors in the business world were pretty much nonexistent, Alicea didn’t have the support network that many Anglos had to help guide him through his career. But when he thinks back on that, he feels no resentment—quite the opposite. Alicea recognizes the advantage it gave him.
“It really enforced what my father had instilled in me, which was a strong work ethic,” he says. “I worked full-time to pay for school. It all gave me a very clear understanding that whatever I had to do, I had to do it on my own.”
That fortitude, combined with an ability to look at a horizontal career progression, has brought Alicea to a place in his career where he can serve as a mentor to young Hispanics and provide them with the benefits of networking he didn’t have when he was coming up. He started a Hispanic employee resource group and got on the board of a nonprofit that helped minority students. Now he does whatever he can to let the next generation know things have changed: there are other Hispanics in leading roles now, and they are available to help.
“I can advise them about the challenges they’ll face,” Alicea says. “I tell them that the roadblocks in front of them are only temporary, that they can overcome them. I want to pass that on because I believe strongly in the idea that if you know you can make something better, you have to do that, otherwise you are part of the problem.”
Thoughts from Guest Editor Victor Arias
“Michael is a great testament to the American dream. He has shown that managing the people part of the equation is critical for corporations to understand, and he adds that value to the boardroom. Adelante Michael!”
“Michael, congratulations on being featured in Hispanic Executive! Well deserved! We are proud of our decade-long partnership; by leveraging our deep contextual knowledge and digital expertise, we enable Nielsen to deliver a superior customer experience.” —Anupam Singhal, Senior Vice President, Tata Consultancy Services. Visit us at http://www.tcs.com/