The journey to the C-suite can be a daunting and long road. Few are able to complete it and join the highest level of leadership within America’s top businesses and organizations.
This can be especially true for women and minorities. A recent study shows that women account for 15 percent of C-suite executives and 5 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Minorities are even more underrepresented in the Fortune 500, with African-American, Asian, and Latino CEOs each in the range of 1 percent to 2 percent.
Claudia San Pedro, executive vice president, chief financial officer, and treasurer for Sonic Drive-In, is one of the few Hispanic women to have successfully joined this exclusive club of C-suite executives. And she understands how to navigate the road to success.
San Pedro’s cultural background provided her with valuable tools and lessons that served her well over the course of her career.
Asked to share some advice on the best strategies for young Hispanic women to navigate the corporate world, San Pedro recommends three ways to set yourself up for success and rapid career growth.
1. First and foremost, focus on doing your job well.
Whether you are a man, woman, Anglo, African-American, or Hispanic, the most important way you can distinguish yourself is by doing your job well. Learn the most important technical and emotional intelligence skills you need to succeed, be open to constructive feedback, and constantly say “yes” to new opportunities and projects.
Establishing good relationships with well-respected people in the organization across different functions and levels will help you learn how to effectively collaborate and succeed within the organization. This should include support staff, administrative assistants, peers, or superiors.
There are times when being a Hispanic woman may feel like a disadvantage to your career growth. Close friends, family, and faith can provide a tremendous source of support for you when you need to vent or seek counsel. The key is having the resilience and energy to get up and keep going.
“Your colleagues are one of the best resources your organization has to offer you as you grow in your career,” says San Pedro. “You should constantly seek out knowledge and constructive feedback. Identify someone in the company with experience and a track record of success, learn from their example, and focus on impressing people with your work product.”
2. Strategically navigate your career.
When you start your career, don’t get discouraged if you don’t land your dream job right off the bat. You have to pay the bills, right?
The first part of your career is about demonstrating your competency, work ethic, and ability to effectively work with others. As you build your credibility and experience, more career opportunities become available, allowing you to choose your own path. Be intentional about the organizations you want to work for to ensure they align with your work values and ambition.
Every person has a different set of values and needs they seek to meet in their professional career. For some it is working in a fast-paced, individually competitive environment. For others it is working in environments that place a high value on collaboration, teamwork, and the success of the organization. You may love to work and need to like the people you work with. It helps to be confident that your competition is another company or organization, not the person sitting in the cube next to you. Understand what is important to you and be true to that.
“As I began my career the workforce was more balanced between men and women, but as I advanced in my career, there were fewer and fewer women in top leadership positions,” says San Pedro. “This is true in many career fields. Fortunately, I have sought out and had the opportunity to work for organizations that focused on building highly effective teams comprised of diverse individuals.”
3. Your culture and unique perspective are invaluable.
Growing up as a person of color or as a new immigrant can be difficult and lonely at times but it is really a gift. It also instills resiliency, empathy, and perspective. Your ability to succeed and function effectively in your chosen career is dependent upon your ability to understand and respect different perspectives.
“My parents constantly reinforced balancing the duality of both Mexican and American cultures in education and at work,” San Pedro says. “We learned English but spoke Spanish in our home and were constantly reminded of the importance of maintaining our heritage and taking pride in it.
“At the same time, my parents always reinforced the fact that no other country provides opportunities like the United States and it is the best country in the world. Celebrating your heritage and roots while honoring our country’s ideals and values are not contradictory but very complementary. Understanding this teaches you early on to have more empathy, look for agreement on fundamental principles, and consider alternative solutions.”
Technical proficiency is important in your career, of course, and emotional intelligence is equally important. Leveraging your multicultural background and experiences to achieve high emotional intelligence helps develop leadership capabilities and can allow increased openness to feedback on how you can improve.