Interviewed By Robert Bard/Written By Gloria Romano-Barrera.
Using their own experience, wisdom, and influence, mentors and sponsors can make a significant positive impact on a person’s career. Whether looking to advance into a leadership role or want career guidance, a mentor or a sponsor provides a support system that can open doors to new opportunities.
With 42 years of telecommunications experience, former AT&T Vice Chairman and CEO of Business Solutions & International, Ralph de la Vega, has encouraged, inspired and supported Latinas to succeed in the corporate environment and advance in their careers. He has developed and nurtured Latinas and women not only become the best of themselves but move up the corporate ladder—many whom now hold senior executive positions at their companies.
Jennifer Biry, SVP of Finance at AT&T, Maria Lensing, formerly the chief of staff for de la Vega and now chief of staff for CEO of Business and International Thaddeus Arroyo, and Carmen Nava, SVP, Premium Care and Customer Loyalty, have been inspired by de la Vega’s wisdom.
“I have been blessed to have Ralph as a vocal sponsor of mine for years,” states Biry. “He advocated for me to be placed in high-profile roles and projects, he gave me jobs outside my comfort zone to help develop my skill set, and was there to coach me through challenging times. Ralph has a special gift in ensuring under represented work groups have a voice at his leadership table. He goes out of his way to champion the value of diverse opinions because he knows they drive better business results.”
Responsible for the company’s integrated Business Solutions Group (wireless and IP) which serves more than 3.5 million business customers in nearly 200 countries and territories, including nearly all of the world’s Fortune 100 companies, de la Vega held numerous executive positions, including President and CEO of AT&T Mobile and Business Solutions, and President and CEO of AT&T Mobility where under his leadership, AT&T Mobility became one of the world’s leading smartphone and mobile Internet providers and expanded into new growth areas such as connected cars, and home security and automation.
He was also Group President, AT&T Regional Communications and Entertainment; COO of Cingular Wireless, responsible for the integration of AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless following the largest all-cash merger in U.S. history at the time; and President of BellSouth Latin America, responsible for wireless operations in 11 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay.
It was two decades ago when working at Bell South International in Latin America where the absence of women in leadership across all industries caught his attention. “It was many years ago but it was still something that was pretty obvious,” he shares. “When I looked, I thought that was a huge opportunity for us because we were in a business that was selling our products to men and women; women make up 50 percent of our customers, and how could we not have women in positions of influence in our company was just beyond me because we needed to know the women’s point of view in selling our products.”
For de la Vega, diversity is not about counting heads. “Diversity is about making heads count,” he shares.
Having diverse teams is significant because it gives companies the best information about how to approach the consumer. “The absence of a diverse team in a company that was primarily selling to consumers just didn’t make any sense,” he states. “So, we put in a plan to proactively look for talented women that we could bring on board. And it was fabulous, because while all of my competition was focused on other things, we were focused on getting the very best women.”
Executive women brought on board included the General Counsel in Venezuela, the Chief Financial Officer in Uruguay, the Chief Marketing Officer in Guatemala, the Chief Marketing Officer in Chile, the Head of Sales in Colombia, the list goes on.
“We found the right women that we could bring on board and it was an exceptional run,” he shares. “We found a way to win by doing the right thing and making sure that we had a diverse mix of men and women that helped us to win in the market place.”
For de la Vega, mentoring is not one formula. The relationship of trust between a mentor and mentee is always a two-way street. “You cannot mentor somebody by force, it has to be somebody that is willing to take advice,” he shares. “I get as much out of mentoring as they get from me. I may mentor you remotely, via electronic mail. It can be done any number of ways. Sometimes it’s a short brief session on a specific subject, sometimes it goes on for several months or years. I haven’t found any specific way that I could tell you, yes if you do XYZ it works. But I can tell you the one underlying theme is that they have to be willing to put effort into it and to do things that make the relationship work both ways.”
Biry’s ideal relationship between a mentor and mentee is to learn from each other where both parties have room to grow and learn, regardless of their job title or years of experience. “Mentorship opens doors that would go unexplored otherwise, and those connections can be a helpful stepping stone in your career path,” she shares.
For Biry, a formal program to find a mentor or mentee is not needed. Her best mentoring relationships started through networking and forging a connection with someone.
She also believes finding a sponsor is just as important as finding a mentor. “A mentor talks to you, while a sponsor talks about you,” she shares. “Mentors provide advice on a day-to-day basis, while sponsors are typically one or two levels above you and act as your advocate among their own peers.”
Lensing met de la Vega at a mentoring program that he initiated at AT&T called “Know & Grow.” At the time, she was in a comfortable position and doing well.
“Ralph asked me a key question: “Are you willing to take a risk?” My default answer was yes, that I had taken many calculated risks throughout my career. He said that may have been true, but that growth in a global market requires moves beyond the city that I had stayed in for about 20 years. Think about how powerful that was: Succeeding in a global market might be helped by your willingness to become global yourself. This conversation led me to reflect on how I had limited my “calculations” to the risks of change and the risks of acquiring different professional skills,”
What Lensing had not contemplated was the kind of growth that she would experience through geographical change. “I am growing leaps and bounds, and all because of a little seed that helped me see change from an entirely different perspective.”
She believes mentoring helps you grow in areas that you may not have the opportunity to practice, allowing the person to gain a new perspective and develop new views through a different lens that you may not have had before.
“Ultimately, the right kind of mentoring should help you develop eventual sponsors, who will help you grow professionally,” she states. “It’s important to recognize the difference between mentor and sponsor, and how it is necessary to have both if you want to continue to grow professionally.”
For de la Vega, mentorship is also about understanding his mentees’ needs, giving the mentee advice and helping them find fulfillment. “I’ve worked with women inside and outside the company and I found that it works well if both are willing to contribute and it depends on what they need and what they’re looking for. Not everybody has the same needs.”
A mentor need not be a colleague, or Latino for that matter. Outside of the company, he mentors executives such as Nina Vaca, Pinnacle Group’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
“Nina is a self-starter,” he shares. “You don’t have to give them much before they get it and the next thing you see is they are having success and calling you back saying ‘hey, that worked, thank you.’ That’s the way we approach it.”
For Lensing, mentorship programs provide support and exposure that help many individuals grow professionally. “For the Latino community, this is especially important because some have not grown up with parents that have operated in corporate America,” she shares. “Getting guidance about the nuances of corporate interactions and begin exposed to key professional leaders to emulate can be key to improving the success of our Latino professionals.”
De la Vega doesn’t make distinctions in terms of who and how he mentors. Whether you’re a woman or a man, whether you’re a Latina or not a Latina, he treats everyone as an individual case. “I’ve never approached it that way, it’s never one of OK you’re a Latina so I have to treat you a certain way,” he shares. “I ask you as a person, what are the things that you want to accomplish, have you prepared yourself, do you have the support of your family to where you’re going to go, and help me understand what I can do to help you get there. I think, in mentoring people it’s just as important to make you address what’s happening in their families as you do what’s happening in the office.”
Serving on several boards, American Express Company, New York Life Insurance Company, Junior Achievement Worldwide, Boy Scouts of America, de la Vega has no plans to stay still. He will reflect on his experiences.
“Short term, I am going to do a lot more fishing than I’ve ever done,” he shares. “Longer term, you’ll hear more from me once I sort out what will be next. I look forward to continuing to be engaged and I like the communications medium sharing the advice that I have with others, so we’ll see where it takes us. Right now, I couldn’t be prouder to leave AT&T at such a great moment in AT&T’s history. We’re in a great spot. I’m really proud of the work that Randall Stevenson has done. I’m proud to have taken the company with him and his leadership team to where we are and now they’re going to continue to take it to a completely different level. You want to leave on a high and I couldn’t have picked a better time or a better moment. I’m really pleased to where I am.”
Leadership in turbulent times is not easy but these are the moments de la Vega has learned the most from. “When things are tough, even when you don’t see a clear path, opportunities are still available for those who are not the limited by situations they face” he shares.
His advice is to not let anybody believe that opportunities are going to be less for anybody, especially Latinas. Turbulent times do not change the opportunities that are available for Hispanics or for Latinas. “I think you have learn how to seize the opportunities created turbulent times. And it’s not just Hispanics or Latinas that are going through that turbulence, but many other people,” he says. “I see turbulent times creating new opportunities for those that understand the opportunities are really problems in disguise.
I want to end it with this thought: With the last election, we almost elected a woman, and I often get asked, well we had an African American president, we almost had a woman president, when are we going to have a Hispanic president?”
My response: We’re going to have a Hispanic president in the future and she is going to be terrific.”
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