Recent Read: Auténtico: The Definitive Guide to Latino Career Success

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As has often been remarked, the United States is undergoing a demographic transformation, and a large dimension of that evolution is the significant increase in the number of people who identify with Hispanic heritage and/or ethnicity.  A new book by Robert Rodriguez and Andrés Tomás Tapia, Auténtico: The Definitive Guide to Latino Career Success, provides a sound analysis of how Latino executives see themselves in the workplace and how their cultural context impacts their professional lives. Though not without flaws, the book is a very good introduction to the professional Latino mindset and experience.

Auténtico is divided into two parts: the first focuses on the experience of being a Latino executive and the second on “successful strategies of Latino executives.” The first section is by far the strongest and most interesting. Across four chapters, the authors provide a solid analysis illustrated through a series of personal vignettes that compellingly describe the many varied experiences of being a Latino in the corporate world. Rightly, the authors make clear distinctions between the experiences of U.S.-born Latinos and those who come from Latin America and end up working in the U.S. There are great differences in these two broad classes of Latino managers, and the book examines both currents with insight and sympathy.

Within this first part, several themes emerge that are worth noting. The first of these is the struggle to define and embrace the right level of “Latino-ness” which results in what the authors see as four broad categories of Latino professional:

Unapologetic Latinos
Have fully embraced their Latino identity and chosen not to hide it, even in the most non-Latino of environments.

Equivocal Latinos
Have some boundaries about their Latino identity because of European-American values they were heavily exposed to in their formative years and during their educational and career pursuits.

Retro Latinos
May have grown up as an equivocal Latino but, who, for a variety of reasons in adulthood, have gone back to their Latino roots to discover or rediscover those elements of a distant or submerged heritage and culture.

Invisible Latinos
Have fully denied and disowned any connection to Latino culture deliberately, whether they grew up in a Latino environment or not.

From personal experience, I think these categories are spot on (though not necessarily exclusive to Latinos), and it’s important to know that many Latinos move through them in stages as they evolve their own understanding of family history and identity. To their credit, the authors explore these categories through the words and lives of prominent Latino executives whose stories are quoted at length and who provide the book with a sense of intimacy and humanity.

In addition to the solid categorical analysis, the first half of Auténtico does a good job of describing the small and large ways in which Latinos have struggled to adjust their own cultural traditions to the norms of U.S. corporate life. Relocation, for example, is a common aspect of life as an American executive, but moving away from family is genuine hardship for many Latino managers, who define their life around proximity to extended family structures. The book carefully analyses the impact that an unwillingness to move can have on a Latino executive and the compromises that have to be made to fit into the standard American career model.

After a strong start, the book weakens in part two; however, the flaw of this section is not one unique to this effort. In Chapters 5-7, the authors fall into a trap all too common to books of this type, wherein it mistakenly attempts to make the work experiences and advice of minorities executives unique to their category. For example, the authors provide an extended quote from IHOP’s president, Darren Rebelez:

Even today, in my job as president of IHOP, I get out and visit restaurants and visit our franchisees. It never ceases to amaze me that people are so impressed that I, as president of the company, actually show up and sit down to have conversations with the people who work there. It’s such a simple thing, but it means so much to people and builds confidence in them and trust between them and their leaders. They should expect more out of a leader than just showing up, but that’s the way it is.

As someone who listens to executives for a living, I can assure the authors that there is nothing particularly Latino about Mr. Rebelez’s experience or advice. Or take this quote from Univision’s Monica Lozano, in which she discusses her approach to being an inclusive manager:

You can only win if you can create a culture that empowers a company and all of the people who work there to want to win with you. I’m very hands on, very much about managing by walking around and getting to know the people on the team. I would try to meet every new employee, “Come in and let me tell you why we want you here, what I’m expecting of you. If you ever need me, I’m here.” I don’t know if that’s a Latino style or just my style. I learned it from my dad. He was very accessible. You don’t want to lose the essence of the spirit of the business.

She may not know if this is “Latino style,” but I do: it’s not. “Managing by Walking Around” was supposedly invented at HP back in the 80’s. It was a good idea then for that particular “Anglo” management team, and it’s a good idea anywhere. There is nothing Latino about the idea at all, yet the second half of Autentico is filled, ironically, with too many unauthentic examples of Latino management wisdom.

As weak as this section is, it is  greatly redeemed by what I think is the most interesting chapter in the book: the one focused on Latinos’ “deep-seated ambivalence toward the concept, practice, and pursuit of power.” As the authors describe it:

Our Latino executives’ relationship with power seemed to be ancillary. For example, several commented that power resulted only after the pursuit of something more positive. For Jorge Figueredo, the executive vice president for HR at McKesson, gaining power takes an indirect route. He describes it this way, “I don’t make having more power the goal. I focus on other issues and power will come.” Similarly, when asked about power, Korn Ferry’s Victor Arias shared, “I have a negative connotation of power only because power suggests that rather than trying to influence others to do the right thing, you are trying to force them to do the right thing.”

The authors note that this phenomenon was a challenge to explore fully:

This sub-optimization of power also plays out among Latinos in their careers. Though we interviewed twenty of perhaps the most powerful Latinos in corporate America, we had difficulty finding a compelling or well-defined approach on how Latinos can individually and collectively increase their power in their work environments. We detected a consistent desire to pivot to another subject when the topic was broached, and an ambivalence in their remarks when it came to the topic of power.

The authors contrast what they see as an ambivalence to power with the attitudes of Black executives, who acknowledge and seek power both for its own sake and to right social wrongs. The authors speculate that the socio-religious experiences of Blacks in the U.S. and Latinos in Latin America led the latter group to be much less driven to seek power to gain a social voice and to tackle social ills:

Latinos often enter corporate America with conflicting thoughts and feelings about obtaining, maintaining, or using power. Non-Latinos often observe that Hispanics are not as successful chasing power because deep down they think power is objectionable, or even illicit. Thus, they develop a proclivity to stand back and respond passively. This lack of aggressiveness in the pursuit of power may partly explain the dearth of Latino executives in the C-suites. 

I agree with their analysis and reading it made me wonder about the root causes of their observations. A complex explanation might be the often negative connotation that power has in Latin America, where it is frequently associated with corruption and the abuse of privilege. Perhaps Latinos in the U.S. are reticent to take on a level of influence that, in their ancestral lands, is more often than not a feature of dictatorships and oligarchies. On the other hand, perhaps the reticence is explained by a point the authors address in part one of their book, namely, the fact that many Latinos in the U.S. are fair skinned and often focus more on integrating into existing power structures than changing them. Not all Latinos stand out at first glance, and a great many of them can easily blend into the traditional “White” executive community without causing much concern. Perhaps this strategy, quiet assimilation, which was never an option for African-Americans, is more tempting and easier to many Latinos. This is a critical and not-often discussed issue in the general business (and Diversity & Inclusion) literature, and I hope it will be a subject of further study and analysis for the authors.

The book closes with a chapter covering selected Millennial “Latinx” perspectives, as well as one with a set of recommendations for social, academic and corporate leaders. The chapter on Latino Millennials is a solid, though cursory, review of this emerging demographic, and is well worth republication on its own. The book’s closing recommendations are also well thought out and worthy of debate, especially those related to Hispanic Serving Institutions (“HSIs,” which are the Latino equivalent, more or less, or HBCUs).

Overall, Auténtico is a fine addition to the literature about the Latino executive experience. There are topics left uncovered by the authors, e.g., the role that the Spanish language plays in this phenomenon or the influence of Latin American politics on U.S. Latino executives, but Auténtico educated and illuminated me in many ways, despite its shortcomings. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to understand what it’s like to be a Latino in corporate America, and its authors deserve praise for taking an often mis-appropriated and poorly-managed discourse and elevating it to a high level of thoughtful research, careful empathy and genuine insight.

 

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