Being myself with authenticity

Cecilia Rodriguez specializes in regional Change Management, Cultural Transformation, Organizational Development, Leadership Coaching and HR Strategy.

She developed her professional expertise in human resources management for financial organizations: Bank of Quilmes and Société Générale (1986 – 1997). She later shifted to the Agro business, where she worked as Regional Manager for Novartis Crop Protection (at present Syngenta) -South Latin America (1997-2000).
Within the pharmaceutical industry (2000-2003) Cecilia worked as Novartis Human Resources Director for Latin America.

In 2004, Cecilia founded her own company, Sollertia. During last decade she has participated in development programs in Europe and Latin America, more specifically in HR management for financial organizations.

Thank you, Cecilia, for giving your valuable time to this interview. We look forward to your candid responses.

Let’s start!!!

We would be pleased to learn about your professional journey from the beginning. So, please share with us about your first job interview. 

Well, it was when I was 17-year old. I needed a job to support my family, and thanks to my mother’s best friend's recommendation, I got the interview at a Public College with its Principal. I remember that I did not prepare myself in a particular way, I went to the school feeling confident, with enthusiasm and plenty of curiosity. I had no work experience at that moment, but I remember that nothing stopped me to achieve what I wanted. The principal was an old man, very serious…and he went straight to the point: “how old are you? “When I answered 17, he asked me about my birth date… “in May”, I responded, “so this is in 2 months”… and tell me, he asked, “why do you want to work in this College?” “I need the work, I like to learn, and I think that this is a good starting while I’m studying at the university”. I remember he understood me immediately and he changed the interview to another angle… “what’s your nickname?” I said that at home, my parents called me Ceci or Chicha (as to my grandma), and he replied, “ok so I’ll call you Chiche” and he added, “come again in 2 months, and you will start working with the Secretary”. The experience was very positive: I was in front of an old man with a bad temper, who was very tender and warmth to me; and I was completely myself, authentic and fresh. It was my first interview and I’d say that all the interviews that I had in my professional life were very similar: always went with confidence, curiosity, being myself with authenticity.

As the first job holds a special memory, let’s discuss your first year at your first job. How was your experience? What were your expectations of your employer and your role? Were they all fulfilled? What didn’t coincide with your expectations? 

I had great memories of this first job. I learned to organize my time, to set priorities, to ask every time I did not know the answer, to not hide my mistakes, to anticipate issues and bad news, to listen to the experienced people, to keep the confidentiality, to be a good team player. Everyone around me was very kind. I was respected by my colleagues even though I was the youngest.

My role and my employer fulfilled for 2 years, and then I started to search another job opportunity related to my studies at the Public University of Buenos Aires in Law and Social Sciences (my degree is in Labour Relations).

What attracted you towards HR Profession? What was the motive and what was the motivation?

I didn’t know too much about HR. I’ve started my studies at the University in 1983 and for that time, was a completely new field. But my motivation was around people, to learn from them, to understand their motivations, to listen to their needs and questions and try to find practical solutions to improve their lives at work. I remember that I said to myself: I want to become organizational social assistance! I was 18 years old when I realized that working with people and for people was, and it still is, my call, my purpose in life.

Do you think workplace mentors and coaches play an important role in settling fresh graduates in their first job? How was your experience? Please share your thoughts about structured Employee Mentoring Programs. What best practices can make such programs impactful and successful? 

Yes, mentors have been a key factor in my development. I did not have a formal mentor, but I did have bosses who trusted in my potential, who were very open to my initiatives, they listened to me and gave me feedback and advice with generosity. And, what I remember from those years of my corporate life, I wanted to learn and to prove to myself that I was capable to go beyond any other woman at a leadership position went. I didn’t have a female role model, so I wanted to create a very authentic one for other women, based on my values.

COVID-19 has changed workplace dynamics in many ways. What has been your learnings during this phase? What permanent changes do you foresee at the workplace post-COVID-19?

What I’m learning from this challenging time is the importance of stay close, listen to what is emerging from dialogues and activities with my clients, and redesigning what I’m offering to them. There are no recipes, no standard answers, nor traditional programs or solutions. As permanent changes, I can foresee a big impact on the organizational cultures; more open spaces as communities of sharing knowledge, doubts, concerns, issues, and finding together with the best solution, experiencing it, implementing and reflecting about the outcomes. And what I feel is that there is compelling need to create a new working dynamic, a new organizational model without an HR area, but with a Learning role across the functions.

I also foresee a more human society, with values like empathy, compassion and humility at the top. A new concept of competition: more coo-petition and abundance; no frontiers or barriers, more unity and alliances.

Organizational Culture is a key differentiator between successful and not so successful organizations? What determines the organizational culture? What is the role of HR in creating organizational culture?

Yes, I consider that organizational culture is the key differentiator between successful and not so successful organizations. Leadership, messages, processes, and systems define organizational culture. But the most important dimension is the role of the leaders in shaping the culture, enabling the change.  

I see HR as a facilitator and catalyst of the conversations between leaders, partnering, and coaching them, co-creating together with the processes, systems, and tools which are consistent with the required culture.

What are your thoughts about layoffs? What is the role of HR in layoffs? According to you, what is the appropriate way of managing layoffs?

Based on my experience, layoffs are a consequence of a business urgent need to find the rightsizing. So, it’s a strategic issue which requires analysis and conversations with the leaders. Working as HR in a layoff after a merger, what I can reinforce is the importance of having a clear picture of the new organizational design according to the business strategy, involve the leaders, implement an immediate communication plan, and move forward. Key dimensions: engagement from leaders, the short term communication plan and clear execution; learning from leaders about the process, and definition of the north for the new organization, after a layoff. In 2 words: leadership and communication.

Please share your experience when you consulted and facilitated your client in successfully managing change at the workplace

The assignment: a multinational pharmaceutical company, Medical and Marketing areas working together implementing a new business plan: doing a co-leadership of the products, that means to integrate science into the marketing strategy, and vice versa.

Key dimensions of the successes: self-awareness and discovery process of everyone (assessment and feedback – one on one conversations), their strengths as leaders and complementary skills as a diverse team; definition of one common purpose which was more powerful than the one defined by the Executive Team. The main goal was to accelerate the launching of new products through the co-leadership strategy. And they did it. Argentina was the 1st Country which implemented the new co-leadership model with successes.

Share your experience of working with the most challenging client. What was the most difficult thing about that relationship from your perspective, and how did you manage it?

Well, one of the most challenging client was a financial company (mid-size) that asked the external support to work with his direct reports in a Team Effectiveness process. We initiated the process in a deep interview with him, as the CEO of the company, trying to connect his desires to the business compelling needs. It was not very easy, nor clear about how much external support he wanted to have. I challenged him raising some questions and suggesting another approach (start with a coaching process with him).

For some reason, I perceived that it was about his passive-aggressive leadership style, how much the pressure he had for getting the results and his top-down approach to the team,

I underestimated my intuition, and we continue with the process defined at the beginning. After delivering the 1st workshop (current culture of the team, the desired culture, and main gaps and potential actions to be addressed), I had a meeting with the CEO to share with him what emerged from the workshop and to receive his feedback. He opened the conversation saying that he wanted to stop the process.

As a consulting team, we learned a lot: not every client is for us/we are not the best solution for every client. When we have some contradictory signals from the client, let’s open a conversation as a consulting team.

What kinds of experiences have you had in relating to people whose backgrounds are different than your own?

The first challenge I had was when I joined a multinational agricultural company as HR Head for Latin America South. The position was completely new, the beautiful challenge was to create everything from scratch. 90% of the people were agricultural engineers; 4 months after my starting, during the Annual Sales Convention, I made a presentation about the diagnostic done with every leader, and the key learning and development goals for the year;  before closing, I invited everyone to raise their questions… silence… no questions at all. As was my first time with the extended group, I was very intrigued, so during the dinner, I asked one of my peers, the Marketing Head.  He gave me his very candid and simple feedback, he said to me: “we cannot follow you, some words are not familiar for us, we are very down to earth and concrete”, and his advice was, “try to use metaphors connected with our field” (crops, seeds, the weather factor, etc). So, thanks to his constructive feedback, I decided to go to the field, and visit the farmers with the Sales Reps, listen to them, their stories, their needs, and issues (both: clients-farmers and Sales Reps-our people). Thanks to this experience, I was able to deeply understand the business, and I worked very hard with the Sales Head in the design and implementation of one Annual Training Program for Farmers and Producers.

I feel proud of this. HR was part of the core business. It was a deep transformation of myself as a professional.

How do you prepare for a presentation to important clients or the executive board the day before it is due?

I used to prepare the presentation after having a diagnostic of what they need, I draw an agenda using the keywords empathizing with them; usually 30% of the content and 70% of dialogue, questions, interactions, and definitions of the next steps, together. I used to prepare it with 1 or 2 consultants of my team, and I ask for their feedback.

Please share about the time you have been (emotionally) hurt the most in your life. What you did to overcome the situation?

It was when I received the annual performance feedback from a new boss (also new for the Company), who did not have the facts and evidence of my work. His rating was average in most of the objectives, and when I asked why, he said that he needed a strong HR leader who can help him in making the cultural change in Latin America and that I was “too nice”. Well, I didn’t expect this feedback, either these words… I couldn’t avoid my emotional reaction… of anger, disappointment, and injustice. And I remember so vividly that I replied asking him why he didn’t ask the General Managers of the Countries to get facts about my performance, and one affirmation: “there is one clear thing that is not possible to change, which is the tone of my voice, I have a small size, and the fact that I’m a woman…”. After many years of that episode, I realized that what he did was to open a door, and I was able to discover my strengths, to affirm myself, to expand my leadership style, and mainly, the decision to be authentic. And today, I personally think that this is one of my values leading a business and a company of 10 professionals.

What would your co-workers say is the most rewarding thing about working with you? What about the most challenging thing?

The most rewarding things: that I am a generous, empathetic person, bringing development assignments, always looking for the positives and opportunities. Never give up.

The most challenging: I am intense, too much focus on work and not caring for myself,

avoider of difficult conversations, and it’s difficult for me to say no, which means that sometimes the team is overloaded!

If you need to draw a landscape of the future workplace, how will it look like? What workplace disruptions do you foresee over the next FIVE years?

It’s difficult to foresee over the next 5 years… however, what I can see is a more humanistic workplace. This pandemic is teaching us what are the most important things. So, there is a challenge for us to be creative and to work with people from different disciplines to co-create this future.

Lastly, what is your message to young Graduates? How should they prepare themselves for a successful career in the profession of their choice?

There is a need for more human society, so you will face a lot of challenges and opportunities to put in practice your knowledge, work with others, and learn from others. This is the profession of the future!

So, stay curious, stay creative, stay open.

This is not a science, it’s an art. The measure of your professional success is how much ups and downs you had in your career because this profession is about love and passion for people. And this is not a perfect line.

Your heart and love for people will make the difference always, no matter if you are a beginner or a seasoned leader!

Thank you, Cecilia, for sharing your journey and insights. 

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