08.10.2016Personal Tech

Leadership success in our diverse and accelerated era

By: Jason Moriber
Former Michelle Obama advisor discusses how to lead and innovate by scaling cross-cultural communications
Leadership success in our diverse and accelerated era

The vision for this series is to surface and share the experiences, trends and insights of thought-leaders, trail blazers, and subject experts who either live at the cutting edge of technology and/or seek to make the world a better place. We can each learn from these experiences and potentially take the first steps towards making the innovations that matter to us.

Before meeting in person, I’ll speak on the phone with the people I interview. We talk for about 20 minutes as an informal introduction. Within the first five minutes on my call with Maria Cristina (“MC”) Gonzalez Noguera, she not only serenely and formidably encapsulated my project back to me in a clearer way than I could have described it, but then provided guidance on how to improve on the work to date. Within ten minutes of meeting MC, she had solved a handful of problems I didn’t know I had. Call it pattern recognition, call it hyper-clarity, call it solid experience; whatever we decide to call it, MC has the premiere facility to quickly understand, identify and then convey her insights with grace. 

It then made even greater sense to learn she was a special assistant in the White House, as the Director of Communication for Michelle Obama, and was now shifting towards a new, global public affairs role at The Estée Lauder Companies, empowering women internationally. MC is an understated rockstar who makes great impact.

We met in person at the Union Square offices of interactive agency, AKQA. MC has presence. As she exited the elevators, whoever was in the area slowed their step and turned their attention towards her. They knew someone with clout had entered their sphere.

As we sat down in the conference room, I shared some of the history of the interview series - what questions people were responding to, what they were conveying. MC said, “Great, let’s get started,” in the rooted manner of an executive being generous with their time.

Maria Cristina

I started our conversation asking about her vision of the future of technology, thinking ahead 10 to 15 years. Our questions and answers are below…

MC: So the reality is we don’t know yet. Right? That’s the great thing about technology - it keeps surprising us. But there are some consistent deliverables; technology looks to improve our lives, our health and the way we connect with other people and other institutions. The one consistent thing about technology is that it tends to improve things. We are finding that the professional generation that is coming up, below us, is really using the forces of technology for better. Of course technology can be focused on free-market businesses, but you are also seeing technology being used for multiple things, improving relationships, improving society and I think that is a great omen.

Jason: How can tech of the future, which might be socially minded, succeed when it’s not tied to the bottom-line of a business?

MC: That’s a very philosophical question. You need to be grounded and real about the bottom line and the need to return value to your shareholders. If you are running your enterprise in the most efficient and effective way, then you will be able to innovate in a way that helps others. There has to be an understanding, which is probably why we’ve seen in the last 30 years, a development of CSR departments in big Fortune 500 companies. So it doesn’t have to be one way or fully only make money or fully only do good. You can certainly bridge the two and I think technology companies are well poised to do that.

I’m probably being a little too literal right now and I think technology companies and healthcare companies can be as compelling as a technology company. We’re seeing financial companies do that too. The story in The New York Times about Goldman Sachs saying, “we’re not about financial services, we’re about technology.” So clearly the impact that technology/digital innovation is having on industry is real, whether you’re in health care, financial services or commercial goods. It’s forcing you to think differently about how you run your operation and how you innovate your operation.

Jason: Like the TOMS shoe model?

MC: It’s a one-for-one model. I think that’s the ideal. We all should aspire to something bigger and better than who we are or what we are. I think companies should be similar. I think it is fairly easier for a company like TOMS to start out that way and to have that be its mission; for a company that has been around for 50+ years or 25+ years, it’s harder to change.

Jason: That’s insightful. Thinking aggressively, should an established company launch a new company that has these next-generation elements and then wind down the “old” one?

“I think things take hold when they are evolutionary. And so bringing people, minds, hearts and souls together is probably going to produce deeper roots and, therefore, better results…”

MC: It really depends on the company. Do you have to scrap something that was started 50 years ago that did not have this cause philosophy embedded in its corporate mantra and start something new? I would not. I think things take hold when they are evolutionary. And so bringing people, minds, hearts and souls together is probably going to produce deeper roots and, therefore, better results than trying to collapse an enterprise and starting another. Not to say that that hasn’t been successful in other industries, but from my point of view, the evolution is important.

Jason: How can a company balance the current demands of ROI to investors with the socially focused interest of new generations?

MC: That’s when you have to start talking or thinking about leadership. And who or what style of leadership does the enterprise value, because there are certainly some leaders in my life who understand the significance of winning hearts and minds and bringing them along. At the same time, let’s continue to paint a picture. So Wall Street, right? So be able to paint a picture for your shareholders or your constituents…if you come along for the journey, you will also benefit from the end result. It’s a complex narrative and the right type of leadership can manage both sides of the equation. None of this happens in a vacuum. People who can articulate a mission and can demonstrate action against that mission, once you start demonstrating action, that’s the type of leadership needed.

Let’s bring up Wall Street again. Shareholders start to see some sort of value. And the other side of the equation, your employees, suppliers, etcetera, also start to see the good that is coming out of it and want to be part of it and continue to be part of the enterprise. That’s success.

Jason: Let’s stay on leadership for a second, what are the five values you would recommend for a leader?

MC: Vision, relentless focus, empathy, raw intellect, agility -- learning and physical agility. The ability to quickly pivot when something isn’t working.

Jason: Do you see organizations that have this ideal leadership in place?

MC: I think that is an ideal. I would feel comfortable working for a company that has 3 out of 5 and that the other 2 were aspirational or part of the conversation. I don’t want to work with a superwoman or superman who is so perfect that it would be impossible to be a part of that.

Jason: Thank you. Let’s go back to innovation. Similarly to leadership, are there key principles?

“You have to give some thought to what is it that we are trying to accomplish and what does that look like. And you have to literally paint that picture whether it’s with words or pictures. What is your end state? And then you reverse engineer your need to get there.”

MC: Well I think there is the end state, which is important. So coming up with your end state, your end goal is important. I am a big fan of reverse engineering. You have to give some thought to what it is that we are trying to accomplish and what does that look like. And you have to literally paint that picture whether it’s with words or pictures. What is your end state? And then you reverse engineer into your need to get there. And part of that need to get there is the evolutionary journey, because your end state may point to a value or product. Something as broad as a value and something as tangible as a product or service that your current enterprise does not provide and that getting to it is going to take a significant amount of hard work and financial investment. And so, you must then reverse engineer and decide, well, how do I get there? Whether it is the quickest way, because I have to demonstrate shareholder value, or in a more evolutionary way that is so important I need the process to take root in our culture and environment; your end state has to be grounded in substance.

Jason: Is there something current that technology could be doing something but they’re not? Like why are we not desalinating water, there is a drought in California. What is the potential?

MC: I am not smart enough to tell you the full use of technology for those sorts of projects. But I do think, again going toward this like a philosophical question, when you think about why is it difficult sometimes for leaders to come together and make policy decisions? Or why is it difficult sometimes for people to simply understand each other? And I think about a company like Verizon - How can you innovate to decode some of the cultural biases that exist that make it difficult for better, more substantive, more relevant policies to come to play?

Jason: The cultural bias.

MC: Again, I’m not the scientist, not going to tell you how to have healthier, purer water…but the space that I live in is the space where I sometimes see culture. I myself am bi-cultural. So I see people become so entrenched in their cultural biases that they can’t see past them.

Jason: So even like corporate culture.

MC: Especially like a corporate culture. If you think about email, one of the things that email did 30 years ago is it allowed people, for better for worse, to have a better and clearer conversation. If you want to get a message across, you can do it in a minute, quite succinctly, over email. That is where technology and communication met.

One of the most important characteristics is the ability to adapt in life. If you are the CEO and still waiting to figure out how things have changed, then you might as well send your resignation to the board. (Laugh) Because change is constant.

Jason: And how does this relate to diversity in workplace?

“I still encounter moments in my day-to-day interaction where I am dismissed in a conversation or just ignored, or not brought into a conversation. I don’t know if it because I am female, if it is because I am Hispanic or because the person in the conversation isn’t capable or smart enough to want to bring others into that conversation. But those barriers, that gap definitely exists”

MC: So if the question is about diversity and the lack of diversity whether it’s in technology or in any work environment, I think it’s harder to get to a neutral end state. I shouldn’t have to say this but there are real inequalities in the education system that make it harder for a child born in the inner city to get to, say, Stanford. There is a misperception that all the barriers were eliminated and now everyone has a straight shot to Stanford. As long as that child is smart and applies himself or herself, the opportunities will be granted. That is just not true. There is an enormous amount of work to do in that space. And society must decide if that’s a priority or not. I certainly see gaps in terms of female potential in the work environment. And I think part of it is who I am and where I am in my life. I’m a 41-year-old Hispanic woman with a four-year-old son and a supportive husband, I am educated by all accounts with a resume that shows I’ve worked hard and have been focused in my profession. But I still encounter moments in my day-to-day interactions where I am dismissed or just ignored or not brought into a conversation. I don’t know if it because I am female, if it is because I am Hispanic or because the person in the conversation isn’t capable or smart enough to want to bring others into that conversation. But those barriers, that gap, definitely exists. And I think it’s similar to the conversation on diversity.

I am of the Madeleine Albright philosophy that we have not solved all the issues of women in the workplace and women in society. There are a lot of younger women who have gotten very comfortable in their space, and that could lead to evolutions in big corporations. If you are working in smaller environments perhaps you don’t have to battle some of the institutional inequities that exist in a large multinational corporation. So perhaps that is what is leading these younger female professionals who have a more entrepreneurial mind to think that we have achieved equality. When, in reality, they will hit a significant roadblock.

Jason: I wonder if that’s why there’s such a large movement of women in small business…

MC: Yes, absolutely for a woman, and also men, who hits a certain milestone in her life. Whether it’s becoming a parent or caring for an aging parent, or hitting the financial security that they’ve been working for. They look back and they see how they got to this place. They think, “I am still not truly considered an equal, so to hell with this. I’m going to do my own thing.” But I’m answering this question and I’m trying to think of another gap because that one seems obvious. The female professional gap is an obvious one. I wonder how the workplace will continue to change.

In society today, if you come from a different culture (and everyone comes from a different culture ultimately), you don’t necessarily want to assimilate. You want to hold tight to your original cultural affiliations and your identity affiliations. How you manifest that in your working environment is different today than it was 20 years ago. I can tell you about my mother: We moved to New London, Connecticut, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1988. And my mother has a thick accent; she’s retired but she was a clinical social worker. I learned English and I was five then and I did not have an accent. My mother really drove home the point that I was to be bilingual, bicultural. In parent-teacher conferences, she was told to only speak to me in English at home. Because that was the language that was used to teach math and science, etcetera. They assumed I was a bit slow because there was a language barrier at home. Now you and I know because we have kids because that is COMPLETELY different today. How that then impacts the work environment is that companies are looking for people who can speak different languages and can adapt to different cultures where they are doing business. Could that be creating some sort of gap? How is that evolving a corporate culture?

Jason: Ok, more specific to you...what is the problem that you want to solve?

MC: The barriers to cross-cultural communication. This is why I believe in diplomacy. I believe in our foreign service. I believe in leaders who understand the art of negotiation. If I can play a role to ease state-to-state tensions or improve leadership to employee communication.

I think a lot of it is built on trust and trust is very difficult to foster in tense conversations and negotiations. To your point earlier about how CEOs realize things are changing, how do you create a corporate environment where failing is accepted? And you don’t want your employees to fail every week, but where failing is accepted so that innovation grows out of that failure. There’s the pressure to perform at such a high level…even the phrases that we all use. The corporate jargon of “seeing around corners.” The corporate jargon…

Jason: “Air cover”…

MC: It implies protection. Going back to the point of diversity, how do you smooth cross-cultural communication. Part of it is you truly invest in diverse talent, to ensure that you have the mechanisms in place for diverse talent to voice ideas, suggestions and opinions. So it’s not just how many Hispanics, African Americans you have in the employee count, but how many in leadership positions, how many are top talent that you are grooming? How many are you taking the time to maybe teach some of the ropes that weren’t part of their day-to-day life skills?

Jason: I was speaking with Kiwoba Allaire about this topic. She thinks you have to pick one person up at a time. That it’s a lot of hands-on work, so her issue is scale. I’m paraphrasing, but everyone has to pick a person. She thinks it’s going to take 10-20 years. She’s reaching for the middle-schoolers now, but she feels that there is a gap and that young professionals will be missing out on this….

MC: I think she could be right, our generation right now, in order for the kids in high school to see a better, more productive professional environment for them. That supposes our generation and those who are 5-10 years younger than us feel the same commitment. And I just don’t know whether they do or don’t.

Jason: It’s a tough one.

MC: I certainly feel it. Because I’ve had enough people help me in my professional development, seeing other Hispanic women, even other women period, and men who have taken the time to help me shape my professional identity.

Jason: So in order to scale cross-cultural communications, in tech specifically, everyone’s going to have to change what they’re doing…

MC: You have to start somewhere. If we sit here and talk too much, then we become paralyzed. Then you realize the truth, which is, it’s insurmountable (Laughs). So you have to start somewhere, you have to start chipping away at it.


As MC made that last point our time was up. It was a fitting end cap to our conversation, especially when seen through the lens of “evolutionary” change. Making impact at scale is daunting, and seemingly insurmountable, but we have to start somewhere.

Just before MC entered the elevator, we shook hands in the lobby and she looked me right in the eyes, in reaffirming sort of way. She was making sure I was a person who would carry this message with responsibility, with care. Her wisdom is not shared lightly, and I hope I provided our conversation above with a touch of the determined grace MC brings to the world.

Read more conversations from this series:

Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @designinginnovation