Hispanic Heritage Month – An Interview w/ Nina Vaca

“[My family] had faith that if they worked toward their goals, they could achieve them. So, I grew up believing that if I wanted to do something, I needed to work to achieve it… and I would” – Nina Vaca

For this edition of Leading Wright, I’m going to shake it up a bit. As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, I thought it appropriate to recognize and feature a successful Latino leader – providing insight to a leadership approach and perspective different than my own. That’s the beauty of diversity isn’t it? Different backgrounds, different experiences, and different perspectives provide the fundamental building blocks for new ideas and approaches to solving the challenges we all face in leadership.

With that, I asked a fellow business leader, successful entrepreneur, and good friend of mine – Nina Vaca – to join me in writing this message by sharing some of her thoughts and insights on the secrets of her success, the importance of diversity in the business community, and what advice she can offer to those aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs to help them achieve similar success.

Nina is both an accomplished leader and a fierce advocate for the Hispanic community. Born in Quito, Ecuador, she and her family immigrated to California early in her youth before eventually taking permanent residence in Texas. Her academic career includes an undergraduate degree at Texas State University, and a number of executive education programs at several prestigious schools – Harvard Business School, Tuck School of Business, and Kellogg School of Management. She also holds honorary degrees from Northwood University, Mary Mount University, and Berkeley College.

Nina is the founder and Chair/CEO of Pinnacle Group (a direct competitor of my own Genuent). She and her leadership team have led Pinnacle on a tremendous growth curve, including recognition as one of the fastest growing Women Owned Businesses in 2015 and again in 2018. She also serves as one of the few Latinas on the boards of publicly traded companies, & has dedicated much of her time to empowering women and minorities and expanding their opportunities.

Her background not only includes success in business, but also an active role in the promotion of women and Hispanics in business and leadership. In 2014, Vaca was appointed by the White House as a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship to help inspire entrepreneurs worldwide. Last year, she was also elected as a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

A passionate advocate for higher education, Vaca supports many organizations helping grow the next generation of global leaders, including through programs like Pinnacle Group Academic WorldQuest and Dallas ISD/Dallas Community College District’s P-TECH program. She has also spent two decades raising scholarship funds for minority students through the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Law School Yes We Can, and the Nina Vaca Foundation, among many others.

Vaca was named an EY Entrepreneur of the Year and has been called one of the country’s 100 most intriguing entrepreneurs by Goldman Sachs. She has also been named one of the top 101 Most Influential Latinos in America by Latino Leaders Magazine for over a decade.
Impressed enough yet? Good. Now let’s hear directly from Nina.

Kip:
So Nina, tell us a little about yourself – your background and your journey.

Nina:
I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, and my dream was always to grow a business that no one would want to leave while supporting my family.

Pinnacle’s evolution and astronomical growth is the result of fearless approach to overcoming challenges and intense focus on two core values: delivering impeccable service to clients and putting people at the heart of everything Pinnacle does.

Some of the important early lessons are the same lessons that still apply today – you must be able to adapt to changing circumstances – the current pandemic is a perfect example, but another early example was 9/11 which happened after we were in business for less than 5 years, and then again the Great Recession in 2008-2009 – each time we’ve had to reinvent the business based on what customers need now.

Kip:
You have achieved amazing success – entrepreneur, public company board member, philanthropic leader – What has been the secret of your success?

Nina:
When I started my own business, I wish I had known that I was not alone and in fact belonged to something much larger than myself or my company. I had become a part of the American economic engine. I didn’t yet understand everything that I was capable of achieving until I started working on the business, not just in the business.

Being an entrepreneur is extremely hard work. It’s time consuming, risky, frustrating, and, sometimes, downright terrifying. But it’s also the most rewarding work you can do. So, to put yourself through all of the tough things that come along with entrepreneurship, you better have a really solid reason why.

Kip:
As a female Latino entrepreneur, you can appreciate the importance of diversity. Can you give us your thoughts on the importance of diversity for corporate America?

Nina:
As a Latina entrepreneur, I am living proof of the ways that immigrants can make positive contributions to this country. I’ve been blessed many times to be the first Latina at the table, but I don’t want to be the only Latina.

For me, true success is opening doors for others and expanding opportunities for women and minorities in business. I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to invest in people and what motivates me is helping the next generation to reach even greater heights than we ever dreamed.

As a business leader, I have seen firsthand how diversity and inclusion fosters a more creative and innovative workforce. These benefits translate into improved bottom line performance for companies, which has been studied and reported on by McKinsey and others for several years.

Kip:
For aspiring future leaders, what advice would you give them?

Nina:
Surround yourself with people who truly want to be successful. After all, no one accomplishes anything alone, in business or in life. Look for groups, like councils and chambers, who can share experiences and wisdom with you.

Mentorship is another invaluable tool on the journey to success. Find someone to guide and push you to achieve greater.

Understand the realities of your situation and what you’re facing, both in terms of business impacts and the significant personal impacts this is having on your team.

And finally, leaders must respond, not react. This means taking the time necessary to gain perspective and be thoughtful in setting a course before taking action.

Amazing insight from a Latino leader who has not only achieved professional success in business but has a clear and impactful history of giving back to the community and helping others in their own personal path to success. I’m grateful she was willing to share her thoughts here on Leading Wright.

What You Learn in a Low Tide

“Just because the Tide is low doesn’t mean there is less water in the ocean” – Seth Godin

In my most recent leadership blog, I shared a message about surviving the storm. That post was shared on March 5th, before all of this COVID madness hit us. Little did I know the lesson would be so relevant today as we find ourselves in unchartered waters navigating one of the worst social, economic, and medical crises of our time. Truly a surreal moment for all of us.

In that article, I shared how relieved I felt to have reached the safety of the harbor. Most times the harbor is a safe place. But, in the crisis we now face, the harbor doesn’t feel so safe. Metaphorically speaking, it seems the tide is out, and we find ourselves in a much different predicament than the storm we’ve been navigating.

With no water in the harbor, the dangers that lurk below the surface are all around us. Sunken ships once 20 feet below now tower above the water. Pilings, rocks, and other debris are now clear obstacles we previously never concerned ourselves with – obstacles that prove increasingly difficult to navigate. Continue reading

I Miss My Friend

NOTE:  For this month’s post I am hijacking my blog to share a tribute to a great man – Jamiel Saliba.  On January 9th, 2020, Jamiel was called home to be with the Lord and serve as one of his angels.  And on Saturday, January 18th, family & friends gathered in Birmingham, AL to send him off on this new journey.  Today I share my thoughts and reflections on this great man in hopes it is a small tribute to an unbelievable life, and to the impact he made on so many of us.  www.leadingwright.com is here in part because of that impact, so its only fitting that I post this. 

I MISS MY FRIEND

I remember the first time I met Jamiel.  It was sometime in 2004, and we had just completed the merger of COMSYS and Venturi Partners.  Jamiel was the head of their MSP program, vWorx, and I was running ours (COMSYS VMS).  We met at Don Shula’s Steakhouse in Birmingham, AL, but the initial meeting wasn’t instant friendship.  In fact, both of us approached it trying to show the other who was the “bigger man”.  I was on my phone, as was he, and we both gave each other the “wait a minute” finger to let the other know who was more important.  As we sat down for dinner, the topic of drinking came up immediately.  “You able to hold your liquor?”, he asked.  “I got a PhD in drinking from LSU”, I responded.  And then it was on.  Cocktails, bottles of wine, after dinner drinks – and somewhere around 1:30 am I called uncle and admitted defeat.  Score one for Jamiel.

I miss my friend.

Our work relationship was built from that point forward.  While I was given the nod to lead the new combined group, it was clear this wouldn’t be a one man show.  Our business debates and arguments were epic.  I was the dreamer, Jamiel the realist.  And it seemed every single idea I had would be countered with all the reasons why we couldn’t.  Thank God, as more often than not he was right.  But even when we didn’t, once it was decided he would step forward and make it happen as if it were his own.

I miss my friend.

In business, Jamiel was simply the best operator I have ever worked with.  He never missed a budget.  Let me say that again, he never missed a budget – EVER.  If you worked for him, you knew you had to perform.  Compassionate, yes, but he had expectations and you never wanted to let him down.  As I look across this audience, I see dozens and dozens of people who all worked for him and know this fact well.  He was the best.

I miss my friend.

His leadership meetings were unconventional but effective.  He would assemble the team in either Orlando or Destin (generally at his time share), and you would be asked to bunk up with your fellow co-worker as part of it.  The meetings themselves would be held at vacation resorts in their on-site activity centers, if they weren’t held in one of the rooms.  Dinners were routine – we would generally cook in.  One night was always spaghetti, and the other steak.  Cooking and cleaning were a group effort, and everyone was expected to do their part.  No fancy hotel conference rooms, no group dinners at The Palm.  That wasn’t how Jamiel wanted it.  No, this was about building culture, building a team, and creating trust.   Oh, and saving money to make budget.  And it worked.

I miss my friend.

When we were acquired by ManpowerGroup, Jamiel and I were charged with driving the TAPFIN program globally.  “The World Tour”, he used to call it.  Oh the fun we had.  Well, if you can call that fun.  From London to Paris, from Brussels to Frankfurt, we pushed forward to spread the TAPFIN way.  The Belgians were the first to come on board, the Germans followed shortly thereafter.  The French fought us for a good year before finally giving in.  And I’m not sure the Brits ever really complied.  But ever the soldier, Jamiel pushed forward.  “Attack in Force”, he used to say.  In the end, he helped build TAPFIN in to the world leader in MSP, with a geographic reach that is the envy of the industry.  The World Tour became World Dominance.

I miss my friend.

A creature of habit, he was ever the loyal patron.  If you flew overseas with him, you flew Delta.  Period.  The man must have achieved some godlike status on that airline.  Hotels?  You got it – Marriott or bust.  There was never a discussion – if you traveled with him, you stayed at his hotels.  And dinners?  Epic!  They were always the same – Bone’s in Atlanta (and it had to be Peter serving us); Amarone’s in New York; Orjawon in London (Fatima always ordered for us); Tuscany in Destin.  I’m sure many of you have a similar list specific to each city.  That’s just the way it was.

I miss my friend.

Our relationship was based on business, but it quickly became something more.  The man has a personality that was infectious, and I was infected from the first time I met him.  We had so much in common, and yet so little.  And in the end, that’s what made our friendship special.  Ever the Alabama fan, I had to endure the full force of his passion.  That’s not easy for an LSU fan, I assure you.  “27 SEC Championships, 17 National Championships, and the Greatest Tradition in College Football – This is Alabama Football” he used to say to me.  And to make matters worse, I had to listen to that every year as the count increased.  It would piss me off – and yet I’d look forward to his beaming face every time they won another championship.

I miss my friend.

Jamiel had many passions, but there were four that stood out above all else.  God, Country, Family, and Friends.  He was clear and steadfast in his religious beliefs.  He didn’t need to be a man of the cloth to do so.  Christ was his man, and he made no apologies for his beliefs.  No doubt he is sitting in heaven right now singing “Sweet Home Alabama” to the angelic masses attracted by that magnetic personality.  Heaven is better today because he is there.

To say he served his country would be an understatement.  Tours in Germany, Italy, and Bosnia capped a 23 year career in the US Army, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.  I could never do justice in speaking to his career as a soldier – I’ll leave that to his good friends such as Tommy Fricks and Al Lumpkin.  What I can say is that this country is safer today because he was there, and there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of soldiers whose lives were forever enriched after serving under his command.

What can I say about his love for his family?  In a short moment you will hear directly from them.  What I can tell you is that nothing was more important to him.  He adored his wife, Ellen (who doesn’t?).  His daughter, Jeannie, meant the world to him – and her passing tore him apart.  His two sons – Jamiel III and Jonathan – were his pride and legacy, and sharing his passion for BAMA football with them his greatest joy.  His life’s commitment was to raise his granddaughter, Shauna, in honor of Jeannie.  And his grandchildren meant the world to him.  I’m honored to be considered a small part of this family, and I have Jamiel to thank for getting to know them as such.

And last but not least were his friends.  I look around this room today and I see so many of those faces – so many people who’s lives he touched in profound ways.  Just to be in the same room with Jamiel was an experience.  Its like his energy drew you in.  And if you let him get to know you, you became one of those friends.  Dave McGonegal said it best to me recently – “I’ve never met a man who would wake up, walk down the hall, and meet three new people who would be friends for life.”  That was Jamiel.

I miss my friend.

But for all of that, I want to be selfish for a minute.  To me, he was more than a friend.  He was my brother.  My father.  My idol.  What defined him was his authenticity.  He was real.  He was present.  He was caring, compassionate, empathetic.  He was tough on the outside, and a big soft teddy bear on the inside.  I’ve learned so much about life, family, friends, business, and being a leader from him.  My life is SO MUCH BETTER having met him.

His departure from this world has left me shattered.  I am completely broken.  I am lost.  I ache.  I yearn to hear his voice again, and grieve that while I am in this world, I will never spend another minute with him.  Maybe one day in the future I will find a way to fill the hole he left in my soul.  But today….

God, I miss my friend.

Contrasting Success Factors – Accountability vs. The Blame Game

“Take accountability… Blame is the water in which many dreams and relationships drown” – Steve Maraboli

I’m a little behind in my blog posts this year, probably not the best way to showcase attributes of successful people. I’ll take the blame on that one and chalk it up simply to letting my schedule get overwhelmed. That’s not what successful people do. Then again, successful people take ownership for their actions, don’t they?

I find it amazing how quickly we make excuses or tend to point fingers when things go wrong. I don’t know if this has become a cultural phenomenon, but it sure feels like an epidemic. When things go wrong, we immediately look for someone to blame. Someone who didn’t do their job. Someone who failed to see the warning signs. Someone who simply dropped the ball.

I have a routine I have done every morning now for years. On the way in to the office, I flip between CNN and Fox News, largely for entertainment purposes. I guess I could tune my SiriusXM to the comedy channel, but I find more humor in these two networks. To be fair, they sprinkle in a little bit of news here and there, but most of it is one sided color commentary, and often it’s an amazing example of the blame game on steroids. Continue reading

Captain, my Captain

“The easiest way to lead, it turns out, is to serve.”

“It’s the notion that the most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains historic greatness is the character of the player who leads it.”

[Sam Walker, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams]

For those who do not know me well, I am a bit of a sports fanatic. Many a posting on this sight has been inspired by sports legends – coaches and players alike whose leadership drove their team to unimaginable heights. Although it’s a bit cliché these days, I’ve always loved the sports analogies – largely because their notoriety helps us relate to the principles we see them embody.

When it comes to NFL football, I am a die hard New Orleans Saints fan. Having been born in Louisiana, it’s a birth right to be one (or better put an expectation). Who Dat Nation! In good times and bad! Whether its suffering through seasons where fans wore paper bags over their heads with cut out eyes, or celebrating our first Super Bowl victory in 2010, once a Saints fan, always a Saints fan.

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Reflecting on the Legacy of Sen John McCain

“We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears.” – Sen John McCain

“I don’t mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I’ve had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way: In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test.” – Sen John McCain

When Sen John McCain passed away last week from brain cancer, our country lost a national treasure.  There is simply no other way to put it.  There are few men or women in our time who have made the impact that Sen McCain had on our country.  Courage, compassion, respect, integrity – all of these are words that are often used when describing Sen McCain.

So if you will allow me, I would like to dedicate this leadership blog to John McCain, pay respects to the qualities that made him such a great leader, and offer parallels on how we can live our lives in the spirit John showed in his own.

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Are You Set Up For Success Tomorrow?

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” – Stephen Covey

Several years ago when I was working as an executive at a large national technology staffing provider, we undertook a project to find the silver bullet for evaluating and hiring the best sales and recruiter staff members. We had developed a culture of performance, and up and down the leadership ranks we were obsessed with hiring the best talent we could find.

In our business – like so many others – hiring the right talent made all the difference whether your company would outperform the competition. That meant you had to hire sales resource who could consistently find, qualify, propose, and close profitable business day in and day out. You also had to hire recruiters who understood the technical market, could source and qualify top talent, match them well to our clients’ needs and culture, and bridge the expectation gaps often created around compensation.

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A Servant Mentality…

“The happiest people are those who care more about the happiness of others.” – Father Manuel La Rosa Lopez

“Before you are a leader, success is about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is about growing others.” – Jack Welch

What in the world do these two quotes have to do with each other? One is a clear reference to a personal state of mind, while the other is a reference to a professional mindset. Two completely different topics, so why try and blend them into one message?

In truth, they are exact mirrors of each other. Let me explain…

First, let’s examine the quote on happiness. My daughter recently graduated from high school and was fortunate to be awarded one of the Ronald McDonald House Charity academic achievement scholarships. To recognize the recipients the Houston chapter of the Ronald McDonald House held an awards breakfast in late May of this year. As part of this event, they brought in several speakers to share wisdom on both the importance of education and the necessity of hard work and effort in achieving long term success. Continue reading