One Step Forward…Two Steps Back by Cultura Ambassador Maria Hernandez, PhD


The events of this past week weigh heavily on many of us—particularly the Latin@ professionals who dedicate their lives to advancing diverse and inclusive workplace environments. As if the national headlines are not enough, this month’s Harvard Business Review has published a series of articles with titles that suggest diversity training has not worked during the past 30 years—not quite a true depiction of the article’s content but sensational titles do help sell even in academia!   There is no question that the nation has made much progress in the past 40 years.  But clearly we just experienced the proverbial one step forward, two steps back.

For the better part of the past 25 years, I have had the opportunity to be invited into organizations that want to recruit, engage and advance diverse employees or to develop strategies to better compete for diverse consumer markets or serve diverse constituents. There are successes but no quick fixes.   Based on my experience, there are two key factors that I look for as a sign of potential success.   Executives who demonstrate a strong level of self awareness is key.  Since the majority of senior executives are white males, I look for that leader’s ability to be aware of their personal impact on others.  Do they understand that being a white male has an impact on their views, their leadership, and their own cultural reference point as they navigate their work life?  At some point the conversation of unconscious bias and its corollary of privilege lets me know if there is capacity for psychological insight necessary for authentic conversations.  This personal awareness coupled with clear data that points to how the organization is missing opportunities is the first step in moving forward.

One of the tools that many D/I professionals have pointed to is Implicit Association Test, which is useful to outline unconscious bias.   The harder construct to appreciate is privilege.  The Whiteness Project recently emerged as a resource for this discussion.  Take a moment to watch a few of these short statements. I’m sure you will find these remarkable young people describe how they have privilege with painful clarity.  They are not all men and not all white.  Privilege comes in different forms in our society despite our strong belief that we live in a meritocracy.  There is no more cherished value than a belief that each of us gets where we are by our own effort.  The possibility that gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or skin color serves to either help or hinder our advancement in the nation is the hardest conversation.  It’s soothing to see the next generation may be ready to see this in clearer focus.

The next step is to introduce the idea that cultural humility requires that we look for ways to understand and see situations as others see them.  Empathy is the new gold standard for leaders.  The national conversations surrounding affirmative action, equality and equity are much easier to have when leaders can see the situations through diverse perspectives.  And as the global economy continues to dominate the financial success of multinational companies, the ability to be effective in other countries cannot happen if we think of American culture as synonymous with human nature.  There are many ways in which people across the globe see the world and we all need to appreciate those truths determine the context in which companies engage in a region’s market.

Once these conversations about self-awareness and cultural humility take place, the best news I can share with an executive is that the behaviors most associated with inclusive leaders across the globe can be learned.  The ability to navigate multiple cultures is a skill.  The ability to engage in authentic dialogue with a person different from yourself is a skill.   This week’s events call upon all of us to harness these skills and take two steps forward.


Three Questions to Ask Your Mentor

One of the best career moves to make is to seek and find a mentor. One of the biggest career mistakes is not to ask him or her tough questions. Whether you have known your mentor for many years or just a few months, the relationship needs to support your career building, as you transition from one role to another, or in your search to increase visibility in your current organization.

A truly effective mentor has the capacity to be loyal to your goals, is available, and honest, too. Their level of candor is the key to your success. Simply praising your work, being encouraging, and sharing examples of their experiences can be a wonderful way to feel supported and valued, but that’s only half of what a mentor can offer. In order to make the most of your relationship with a mentor, three tough questions need to emerge as part of your ongoing conversations.

  1. What kind of impression do I make on others and how does that show up in my professional style?
  2. What strengths do I have that I need to leverage better and to what end?
  3. What do I need to focus on in order to make the most of my potential on a short term and long term basis?

Each of these questions can inspire “game changing” conversations that can help with your personal brand, focus on your strengths, and on the long term outcome of career development. All of this is at the core of an effective mentor/mentee relationship.

As Latinas, however, this can be particularly tough, because we often feel discomfort in focusing a conversation on ourselves. In the presence of our mentor—someone we admire and possibly someone who is our senior—we may especially prefer to listen more than we speak. Since our culture places a high value on personalismo or a personal regard for others, we often work hard at making others comfortable with us. While that makes us highly effective collaborators and team players, it can be a great way to talk about anything but ourselves. A good mentor however, will keep the spot light on us, relate their stories and experiences to our specific career challenges, and have the courage to answer those tough questions.

If all this feels like a fairly high set of expectations for you and your mentor, you’re right. It can be very difficult to get clear feedback about what might need to be done differently in order to build a successful career. Most of us want to avoid awkward situations and negative conversations about ourselves. Yet avoiding those conversations in today’s competitive labor market can make our job or role on a team less secure and less promising.

In my coaching experiences, there have been many times when a client exhibits some habit or style that undermines their leadership and their entire team sees it but no one wants to bring it up—not even that person’s boss. This can go on for years and truly limit their career. With the right kind of feedback and learning new behaviors, it can be remarkable how much the person will grow. A strong mentor can provide you that kind of feedback and support your growth—if you dare to ask the tough questions.

Written by Dr. Maria Hernandez | Contributing Writer on Business

This appeared in on May 3, 2012
Latina Cubicle Confidential™–Three Questions to Ask Your Mentor

To share your experiences contact Dr. Maria G. Hernandez at Latina Cubicle Confidential or join her live at the next LatinaVIDA™-Visibility, Identity, Direction, Action. Dr. Hernandez has 20 years experience consulting in both the United States and Mexico to senior executives in Fortune 50 companies and facilitated change initiatives for elected officials and their staff. She has worked in academia, business, nonprofits, technology startups, and public agencies.