Cesar Cernuda’s role as President at Microsoft Latin America and Corporate Vice President at Microsoft Corporation has made him one of the most influential Hispanic leaders and a key player in dissolving the glass ceiling by fostering full inclusion at all levels of the organization.
Cernuda began his journey in Microsoft more than 22 years ago, serving as president in the Asia Pacific region. In his current position he supervises a business that includes 35 offices in 21 countries with more than 2,500 employees and 80,000 business partners. In 2019 he was named co-executive sponsor of the Women at Microsoft Employee Resource Group.
Cernuda’s key area of focus is to support the Latin American Region to accelerate its digital transformation with the help of AI.
He graduated with a degree in Business Administration and Marketing from ESIC University in Pozuelo de Alarcón, Spain. He then moved on to complete the Management and Development Program (PDD) at the IESE Business School at University of Navarra, and a Leadership for Senior Executives program from Harvard’s Business School. Among other awards, he was honored with the Ponce de León ‘Executive of the year 2019’ award presented by the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce.
For relentlessly working towards full inclusion at all levels of decision-making at Microsoft and their partners, we honor Cesar Cernuda with the 2020 Hall of Fame.
Red Shoe Movement — What are some of the key traits of a great leader?
Cesar Cernuda — I think the central trait of a leader is serving others. True leadership is not about being at the center of anything, quite the contrary, a leader strives for others to succeed. There are many ways in which great leaders achieve this but there is always that commitment and dedication to helping others achieve their goals and find their best selves. Personally, I believe that curiosity, empathy and a passion for learning really help, particularly when you realize being a leader is a journey and not a static final state.
Fostering full inclusion to help great leaders arise
RSM — Why do women make great leaders?
CC — One of the most important and perhaps complex things about leadership is the fact that there is no single formula for it. Of course, we can see some common trends like empathy and creativity, but leadership goes beyond a list of preconceived qualities; it is not designed but developed, and true leaders are constantly learning and adjusting.
Every time we believe someone can or cannot be a leader we are operating on a fixed mindset and pretty much condemning our venture to fail from the get-go. Personally, I don’t believe men are good for some things and women are better at others. I think people have unique talents and the important thing is to not reduce them to any specific set of traits attributed to gender, race or any other category. Understanding that no group could ever possibly lay claim to such a subtle, human and powerful quality allows true leaders to drive success for others. It is vital that we realize that full diversity of backgrounds –gender being one of the most crucial– is the only field from where great leaders can arise.
RSM — How open is your door for your associates to approach you and what’s the best way to do it? What do you expect people to come with when they ask for a few minutes to see you?
CC — I know people in leadership positions want people to be able to approach them as directly as possible, and it’s crucial to communicate this, but it’s also vital for leaders to develop a structure people can trust. Particularly if you are part of a big organization. It’s always positive to know a leader is aware of an issue and is open to direct engagement, but even the most well-intentioned of statements will pale in comparison to structural action.
Having said that, whenever someone approaches me, I really make an effort to not have a preconceived idea of what they need. Even if it’s someone I work directly with and I can probably imagine what they’re there for. In the end, an open door counts for little without an open mind. Perhaps the only thing I would expect from people is for them to be as honest as possible with whatever it is they need; if there is no honesty it becomes very difficult to solve any issue or situation. With this in mind, it’s crucial to make people feel comfortable to express whatever is on their minds, no matter their position or requirement.
Diversity as our reality: making inclusion happen
RSM — What would you say are the most effective ways to get men to become female champions?
CC — I think we need to understand that it will never be enough to assume inclusion will just happen by itself. Although there is undoubtedly a positive trend in this regard, men need to take this as a personal commitment and take concrete steps towards this, particularly in the business world. Having a diverse team needs to be a priority for anyone who seeks to bring success to their projects. That might be easier said than done as sometimes we don’t realize that we surround ourselves with people who think like us, that is undoubtedly a weakness in any team. As men, not only do we need women in our teams, we need women to lead us in order to achieve success.
Specifically, at Microsoft, we work to get men to be female champions, by educating and encouraging male allies to advocate for, mentor or sponsor women during their career journey. Also, in many cases, like our LATAM region, there are male sponsors of our female employee resource groups who provide perspective as well as advocacy for the goals and objectives of the group.
RSM — In your experience, how does having a diverse and inclusive team of executives impact your bottom line?
CC — One must understand that diversity is not an ideal or an imagined state; diversity is simply the best description of our reality. For any company of any size, working within any industry, be it locally or globally, the market they operate in is always a diverse one. Once you realize this, it becomes clear that success and innovation can only be driven by developing a business that reflects such reality, and the only way to build such a business is through an inclusive workforce. 45% of my immediate team is female and the diversity of perspectives makes for richer, more effective leadership. You want to be relevant, successful and thrive? You have to be inclusive.
RSM — At your level of responsibility, what do you spend most of your time on?
CC — To be honest I try to spend my time learning as much as I can. I’ve been fortunate to have global positions within Microsoft and even though this has allowed me to live and get to know different cultures it has also implied I spend a lot of time traveling. I have always been inspired to help others, so in a way, I am lucky to say that I love to spend time with people and learn about them. Specifically, I like to get to know the people I work with, what their motivations are and the challenges they face. In many cases, you end up talking about more than just work and while it’s crucial to respect people’s privacy and whether they want to share something or not, I personally like to get to know my team as much as I can in order to do as much as possible to aid them in their careers and, therefore, in their lives. I always tell my teams that by “getting the people equation right” you will get the results you need.
Ways to overcome inclusion barriers in tech
More women in tech and innovation
RSM — What is Microsoft doing specifically to attract more girls to STEM?
CC — There are some good initiatives that we’ve worked on. One of the best ones has to be DigiGirlz, part of our YouthSpark initiative that aims to help students and youngsters develop the skills they need to lead us into the future. Girls Who Code is another organization we partner with around the US to encourage young girls to learn computer programming. Both organizations play a very important role in terms of exposure that can encourage girls to get into technology. Getting more women into tech is vital if the industry wishes to continue innovating. Through these and other initiatives, we have continued to increase our female representation, but we acknowledge there is still an untapped potential including half of the world’s population in this regard. For an industry like ours, mostly dependent on ingenuity and passion, this is simply untenable.
RSM — In terms of leadership lessons, is there a particular mistake or failure that you now “cherish” because of what you learned from it?
CC — Of course, I have made many mistakes during my career and I still make them and will make them. However, in order to learn, you first need to be humble enough to acknowledge your mistakes. It is not always easy to acknowledge or even recognize mistakes as it requires courage, self-confidence, and humility. One of my biggest lessons was years ago when I started managing teams. I hired a person who was not qualified for a specific position. He didn’t like the job, was being overworked and was not having a good time – naturally, he was also not delivering on job expectations. My team eventually approached me and pointed out that I was not doing my job by keeping a talented individual in the wrong place. They opened my eyes by sharing how my lack of leadership and decision-making ability was affecting everybody since the whole team depended on delivering those. As he was reassigned I learned how important it is as a leader to ensure you have the right people doing the right job and how to help different individuals work together as a team.
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