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December 29, 2013

CEPEDA: When mentors really mentor

“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.’”

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