Top female business leader Gabriela Hernández Cardoso talks to David Woods about her role as general counsel for GE Latin America, the importance of career-long learning and the need to be creative and collaborative in a volatile marketplace.
Gabriela Hernández Cardoso was ranked the fourth most powerful woman in Mexico in 2013 by Expansion magazine. She was also placed number four in 2012, up from five in 2011.
At that time, she was president and CEO of GE (General Electric) in the country, an employer rated 46th most powerful company in Mexico by the same publication – but she’s modest. “The rankings are peculiar,” she laughs. “I’m sure there are women in the country much more powerful than me.”
Her Forbes rankings for “most powerful woman in Mexico” (at number eight in 2013 and number seven this year) would seem to refute this.
And the facts speak for themselves. During Hernández’s tenure as CEO, the company’s business grew by 25% in Mexico. And since becoming general counsel of GE across the entire region of Latin America in July 2013, she has continued to reinforce the compliance and legal culture of the company, creating a strong team and driving simplification in this area, supporting the development of the region to achieve record revenues of $10 billion by the end of this year.
But Dialogue was keen to find out more about the woman behind the rankings and the leader behind the brand.
How have you progressed to where you are today?
There is no magic wand. You have to be able to say to yourself: “I want to do this.” It’s about working hard; it’s about working long hours. But, most importantly, it’s about being passionate about what you do – because that makes it easy, it gives a purpose, a sense to what you do. Success is a formula of hard work and loving what you do.
You have to think about what you’re doing it for. Not everyone has had the opportunities and education I have had. Working hard and contributing is giving something back. There are great projects and disastrous projects; great meetings and lousy meetings. But it is what it is – there is no such thing as a free lunch, so work has to be a compromise.
What challenges have you faced in your career and how, as a leader, have you overcome them?
There are many challenges in business and we get through them. But I think you have failed a challenge if you don’t learn anything from it. Reflection is the hardest challenge. You need to think about what you did right, what you did wrong and how you can move forward, how to improve. There are many things we, as individuals, can’t do or can’t change and the world is a volatile place. But after every hurdle, you need to think “what does that mean?” or “what could I change next time?”
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Nothing stays still, so we need to know how to switch our strategies as change and challenges arise.
The same is completely true in government leadership or in society. There is a constantly-moving external agenda around us and we can’t change this. A lot of the success of leaders is about resilience; you need to remember what you want and what you’re fighting for and keep focused on the priorities.
So do you think resilience is the key to executing strategies?
Resilience is about being able to push through boundaries, but also being able to change a plan to achieve something. But this is just one part of good leadership.
Leaders also need to be able to listen – not just hear, but listen to their staff, colleagues and peers. They need to be able to read between the lines and while being resilient, remember not to be stubborn – be humble.
So what do you believe is the secret of great leadership?
Leadership is something very personal and individual. The most important aspect is to be authentic, be true to your values and your strengths, identify your areas of opportunity and tackle them. Let me give you an example: I love watching my children (aged nine and seven) taking part in soccer matches. But while I watch, I can identify the children who are the leaders in the team and in the group; people follow them for different reasons.
So what is leadership? Why are there even leaders? I think there are common traits, but also very individual traits. Each leader brings his or her own ingredients. They learn how to be different and they apply their individual seals. Leaders grow and change – I do things completely differently to how I used to when I worked in government. I was a different leader then. I have changed – I value learning more, for example.
It would be a better world if everyone listened – but they don’t. Some leaders think they are in that position because they “can do things better” and that leads to over-confidence. Leaders have to be able to maintain balance and be humble. This is the real dilemma of a leader – it’s easy to have the title and that makes you believe you know it all. I speak at women’s groups and I tell them: “I’m the same as you. If I can do it, you can.”
As humans, we need leaders because this is a part of our survival. But that doesn’t make them super- human. We need leaders – not gods. I know I can lead, but that, by itself, doesn’t make me a better person. I know I have to keep learning and must not lose perspective.
Tell me about the economic situation in Mexico?
Since the signing of the North America Free trade Agreement (NAFTA) [between the US, Canada and Mexico in 1994, eliminating quantitative restrictions and duties in the region to create the world’s largest free trade area, linking 450 million people producing $17 trillion worth of goods and services], we have been brought together and made stronger. This agreement, of course, created rules and institutions such as The Bank of Mexico.
Since then, Mexico has developed well. Our society is working towards maturity and we’re on the right path. We have a strong industry and energy reform looks set to enhance our oil and gas sector in 2015.
We started our growth journey earlier than many markets and we paid the price then – even a strong
economy can go through turbulence and that takes resilience, but we have developed that. This helped us get through the economic crash of 2008 when more mature markets suffered – we’ve been through it all.
I know it’s virtually impossible to predict the future, but experts have suggested the “boom and bust” cycle has ended, the global economy is entering a period of continued volatility and this uncertainty will become the “new normal” for business. Do you feel optimistic given this prediction?
I feel optimistic – but there will always be cycles of boom and bust. I think we, as leaders, need to think about the wider picture. The economy can’t be strong all the time, but leaders have to be able to minimize the impact the lows have on us.
Experts ask why we didn’t see the last recession coming. We didn’t see it, because we didn’t want to: we were having too much of a good time! But the recession brought a wonderful sense of perspective because we are now able to see the gap between wealthy and developing countries, and the concentration of wealth in societies and can start to bridge it. We are reinventing our focus and moving in the right direction and we will get there.
But what do you think are the major risks that threaten global leaders? Leaders need to understand the societies they are operating in; they need to follow social media; and they need to use this information to understand risk. Natural disasters present serious risks for businesses – volcanoes, global warming, and water scarcity will all have massive implications. Social media is a game changer, because it is communication without borders. We don’t know where people are tweeting from and the change is happening all around us.
Innovation is happening in real time everywhere and not only in labs or formal office places. Business needs to embrace technology, communication and innovation in order to stay competitive. The challenges will not always be clearly identified; in a virtual world that moves faster than the speed-of-light, you need to be resilient and flexible at the same time.
GE sponsors a global study called Innovation Barometer and some of its conclusions this year are enlightening:
- Collaboration is now mainstream. The risk associated with the lack of intellectual property (IP) protection was a prime concern of executives last year, leaving just 38% wanting to increase collaborative efforts; this year 77% believe that risk is worth taking and, at the same time, two-thirds of those who collaborate have seen associated revenue grow as a result.
- On the other hand, executives believe that efficient and successful innovation hinges on three factors; one of them is “quickly adopting emerging technologies” (with 67% of mentions).
So, what lessons do you think growth markets can teach more developed economies?
The traditional engines of growth such as the US and EU are not the only ones any more. Growth is coming in emerging economies. This is going to continue and the role of developed and mature economies will be to help these markets grow.
We are all learning how to do business in emerging countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and we’re learning about new ways of running our organizations. These markets may leap-frog the rest of us and this, for me, is exciting. Having said that, the world has never looked as volatile as it does today. It’s completely different to how it was 100, 50 or even 20 years ago and this massive change is shocking.
That brings me to my next point – how does “Generation Z” fit into this brave new global economy? With the scale of change taking place – I don’t know how a child can relate to a grandparent anymore, because their generations have seen completely different worlds. My grandparents were concerned about getting on a plane and my children are talking to me, excitedly, about space travel.
It’s a very interesting time. But this goes back to my point that we have to keep on learning: we need to learn from Generation Z what it is they want. When I was 20, I would never have asked an employer about the option of having yoga classes at work – but a member of Generation Z might do. They will always be asking “what’s in it for me?” What can older generations learn from that? Well, life’s hard and yoga’s wonderful! These are creative, entrepreneurial individuals, familiar with the idea of businesses that are innovative, that have crowdfunded or devised original social media solutions. is it possible for a global super-corporate like Ge to be “entrepreneurial” or is it too easy for such organizations to become bogged-down by bureaucracy?
It is possible to be creative in a big company. At GE, we cut out bureaucracy. This is a massive transformation and it takes a great leader like Jeff [Immelt, CEO of GE since Jack Welch retired in 2011] to get us there. Jeff is working a lot on the culture of simplification and we’re moving in the right direction. The company was born out of the invention of the light bulb after all. We are working to be lean, simple and creative.
You’ve talked about the need for leaders to keep learning, but do you think it’s equally important to develop this zest for learning in your teams? How do you ensure staff are always learning and developing?
In my experience, it’s about being a role model, listening to staff, learning from them and being an inspiration to them. It is critical to establish the strategy and goals with the team’s input, to steer direction and set clear expectations. My best bosses have been inspirational to me. I hate being micro-managed, but I work best when I feel inspired. I’ve been lucky to have some marvellous bosses, who have been inspirational and they have set the standard for me.
It’s important for leaders to work out the needs of staff. You need to know your team and how they want to work. You need to give your team space to do what they want because it’s wonderful when they’re excited about what they’re working on. It is time-consuming for leaders to observe their staff and receive feedback – but it is a worthwhile and interesting exercise. During appraisals with my team, I asked them what they thought about me and my leadership style; it was a challenge and, broadly speaking, it was a really thoughtful exercise for me, because I really wanted to know how to improve.
As a final point, what would your advice be to yourself 20 years ago? I would tell myself to be mindful that I am a role model to others. I would tell myself to be an inspiration to others and fight for what I really want.
Today, I want to be an inspirational leader, and I want to care and connect, to make the journey exciting and worthwhile for others. It’s hard and it takes practice. Sometimes I forget this and my demons emerge… Then I just start again.
Gabriela Hernández Cardoso
Gabriela Hernández Cardoso was named general counsel for GE Latin America in July, 2013. Prior to this, she was president and CEO of GE (General Electric) Mexico from 2010 to 2013, responsible for the operations and business growth of GE in the country.
Before joining GE, Hernández served in both the public and private sector. In the Mexican government, she worked for the negotiating team of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She also worked at the Federal Consumer Protection Agency as under- attorney; in the Ministry of Communications and Transportation, she was general director of telecommunications and under-secretary of communications.
In the private sector, Hernández worked in corporate law and international trade for global companies such as Motorola and Tellabs Inc Mexico. She has also taught modules about foreign trade and law in public and private institutions.
She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from Escuela Libre de Derecho as well as postgraduate qualifications from the same institution.