Esther Cepeda: Find mentors who honestly mentor

CHICAGO — "Aim higher."

This was the message from a wise elder to a diverse roomful of whiz kids who recently gathered in downtown Chicago to network with already successful professionals in their chosen fields.

After several VIPs gave presentations concerning minority participation and leadership in majority-white boardrooms and executive suites, about the nature of realizing our parents' American Dream and about how this country's demographic changes over the next few decades will largely be patterned upon the quality of leadership of today's underrepresented leaders, one speaker stopped each of the high achievers in the room with advice they weren't expecting to hear.

"About a year ago, I met with a young woman for coffee who had asked for career advice," said Lou Nieto, a former president of the consumer foods division of ConAgra and nationally sought-out Hispanic mentor for career climbers looking to crack the executive ranks in global corporations. "She was in a management role and trying to determine her future career options.

"Her background was very impressive, especially given her modest family origins. She had a Stanford undergraduate degree, a Harvard MBA and had worked for three years in consulting before her MBA. Now in her new role, she was struggling with career-path options. Our conversation led me to a surprising observation: This young woman had received plenty of advice from many well-intentioned people, but, to me, it appeared to be bad counsel. Why? Because everyone told her how impressed they were with her accomplishments and success.

"Everyone was telling her that she had made it!

"My advice was very different. I said: 'You have not even reached a fraction of your potential. You can achieve great things. Don't be satisfied with your current status. Ensure that you understand what you want in your most ambitious dreams and then strive for that goal.'"

I was flabbergasted. Usually such functions involve a lot of rah-rahing about how we're America's future, how this country needs diverse leadership and we're the next generation of awesome.

It's all good stuff, but the reality check about how much more we could be doing was even better.

"It sounds corny, but I see too many diverse leaders who accept their current level of success," Nieto said. "They are told that they have made it.

"Don't accept that advice. You need to stretch. You need to decide what dream you want to strive for, then embrace your dream and work for it."

This, coming from someone who could have been written off as just another poor Hispanic and yet rose to be a corporate titan, is the golden ticket to creating success in the face of both discouragement and support.

One could write a book about Nieto's incredible life, but I'll stick to the basics.

He was born in Crystal City, Texas, a small community chock-full of anti-Latino racial animosity and low expectations. His mother fought with elementary school authorities until Nieto was pulled out of his segregated classroom and into a classroom with the white children, who were learning at a more advanced pace.

He got into both an elite high school and college, all the while working hard to prove to himself, his teachers and his classmates that he was worthy of the opportunity because of his smarts and not because of some affirmative action initiative.

Nieto eventually earned an MBA from Harvard and went into a corporate world where the people who made promotion decisions were constantly steering him toward back-room supervisory roles instead of client-facing leadership positions.

Years later, after fighting to get himself into high-profile roles, he was running multibillion-dollar turnaround operations for some of the biggest brands in corporate America.

"I did it by ignoring the compliments and flattery that I'd been hearing since I was a student in a small rural community in Texas," Nieto told me in an interview after his speech. "All along the way, people will tell you, 'You've made it already, why are you working so hard?'

"That you've accomplished more than anybody ever expected of you? That is terrible knowledge."

Ignore the blandishments, current and future leaders of America. 2014 is the year to start thinking bigger than you ever imagined for yourself. Find yourselves mentors who will honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses and go out and make your triumphs a reality.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her at http://www.twitter.com/estherjcepeda.

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