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Six Characteristics Define Leadership During Times of Business Evolution

07/06/2015 10:55AM

By Glenn Llopis

As the Vice President of Inventory Management at CVS Health, Lou Mercado has a role and an organization that impacts all of retail at CVS Health.  That translates into making decisions for 7800 stores and 18 distribution centers in the U.S., with a responsibility reaching into the tens of billions of dollars. 

With more than twenty years of experience in supply chain, retail, logistics, inventory management and operations, Lou as emerged as one of the 21st century leaders able to drive organizational improvements in the new workplace and prepare leaders and teams for unseen opportunities in the marketplace – most recently with the cultural demographic shift™ that is transforming the future of American enterprise.

I recently spoke with Lou about the six characteristics that define the immigrant mentality that is necessary for all leaders today to tap into; it is these characteristics that give leaders like Lou a distinct advantage in business and in life by letting their values and natural tendencies influence how they think, act and lead others.

Glenn: How have the six characteristics played an influential role in your career?  Let’s start with the first one, the ability to see opportunity in everything.  It’s the notion that opportunities are everywhere – like preparing for the cultural demographic shift that we discussed in our last article – but very few have eyes to see them.  How does this ability to see and seize opportunities contribute to one’s success as a leader?

Lou:  If you look at the great leaders of our times, they have a heightened ability to see where the opportunities lie.  For example, there were those like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who saw the major shift in technology early on with computers, and again in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were the Mark Zuckerbergs who understood that the Internet was bringing about another great shift.

In our business, we knew there was going to be a global economic expansion taking place and we recognized the shift this would bring, such as how our country did business with Asia.  Within the U.S., the big shift – and opportunity – we’re seeing now is with the growing Hispanic population, and their increasing purchasing power and political influence.

For me it’s always been about: how do I get involved with these shifts?  What can I learn from and about the shifts that are taking place, so that I can better understand them, get out in front of them and start taking advantage of the opportunities they inevitably represent.

So being successful in your leadership position means knowing what it’s going to take to be successful with these shifts.  Learning what you can about them and partnering with organizations that can enhance your educational capital regarding the shifts – as well as help educate your teams and other leaders in the company. 

Ultimately, it’s about seeing the opportunities that come in the form of major shifts, and helping others see them as opportunities, too.

Glenn:  That sums it up nicely.  How about the second characteristic, which is an evolution of the first one: the ability to anticipate the unexpected.  To recognize crisis and manage it before circumstances force your hand.  How has being adaptable and flexible allowed you to be change agent in your career and to remain relevant in your leadership?

Lou:  If you look back at where I came from, growing up in Harlem and Washington Heights, NY, I learned early on that change is inevitable.  So it’s important to prepare yourself for change, to always be ready for it and to be extremely flexible when it comes.

Business changes constantly, technology changes how we do things, and perhaps most of all, people change.  Their thought processes change and how they think and what motivates them to act.  Throughout a long career, you’re going to see the generational changes in people.  And the needs of customers are always changing and evolving, sometimes on a grand scale like the cultural demographic shift.  If you don’t understand these changes and aren’t nimble enough to change with them, you’re not going to be successful in the long run.

Pan Am is a great example of this.  At one point in time, it was the preeminent brand in the airline industry.  But because of their inability to change, and their unwillingness to look beyond their success at the time, they didn’t survive.  I often say, if you’re only thinking about today, you’ve already missed tomorrow.  You have to understand that change and even crisis will happen – and make sure those around you are prepared for it too – so that when the time comes you can maneuver through it, and even have the vision to be able to build new paths to success.

Glenn:   Building new paths is a nice segue to the third characteristic,  which is the ability to be a potent pioneer who has the courage to explore endless possibilities.  How does being a pioneer enable you to unleash your passionate pursuits towards excellence and shape your leadership career?

Lou:  My mom was a big influence in that regard.  How she raised us, and the example of her work ethic, instilled a passion and a desire to not only do well in life, but to never settle for the status quo.  It’s why I have a passion for exploring new things and for driving myself – and my team – harder and harder. So that we not only have stellar results all the time, but we continue to learn and grow and understand what’s going on in the marketplace, as with the cultural demographic shift.

With drive and dedication and a desire to keep your dreams alive, you can accomplish anything – as long as you work hard enough, but also as long as you keep looking beyond where you’re standing today. 

Glenn:  The next characteristic plays into that idea as well.  It’s the notion of living with an entrepreneurial spirit.  That you don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be entrepreneurial and to invest in relationships and innovation.

Lou:  There are individuals who enjoy being good at one thing, but I am someone who needs to embark on new ventures and try new things and explore different aspects of the business. But the personal satisfaction and success I’ve had doing that would never have occurred if I didn’t build it around people – which is a lesson I learned from the great mentors in my life.

They showed me how important it is to build a network and surround yourself with people who want to  learn as much as you do.  There’s nothing so gratifying as to see people develop their intellectual capital and grow into their leadership potential. That in turn gives me the drive and energy to continue to want to learn new things – and is why I spend so much time talking to young leaders and people throughout the organization at all levels, even outside my immediate responsibilities. Every time you touch base with someone, you learn something new, and that is what allows you to grow as an individual.

Glenn:  What is the value of those relationships to the business?

Lou:  No company can be successful without people – and the ability of its leaders to bring people together. You have to be able to bring people together and build relationships to ensure everyone understands your vision and your strategy, so that they can execute on it.  It’s very rewarding to be able to connect the dots, and connect teams, and then see them be successful together.

As you’re building your teams, you of course have to make sure people are motivated to help you achieve your goals, but you also have to give them opportunities to grow, not just inside the organization, but outside it as well.  What I mean by that is based on something my wife said.  That you’re not just having an impact as a leader on the individuals on your team, but you’re having an impact on the lives of their families as well.

Glenn:  That’s a powerful thought.  How does that impact the next characteristic, which is about trusting yourself enough to have a generous purpose?  As Hispanics, we’re raised to think of others’ needs as much as our own, and that we’re part of a larger community of people. How does having a generous purpose translate on the job and inspire you to advance yourself by serving others?

Lou:  The mentors I mentioned earlier embodied this idea of having a generous purpose. They spent a great deal of their time to ensure I was successful and if they weren’t a part of my life I think things would have turned out a lot differently from a professional standpoint. When I look at their example, I know I have a responsibility to my community and to people in general.  I have to give back by dedicating my time and my knowledge so that others can become successful too.  

Beyond the business, it means being a leader who’s involved in your community, whether it’s working with kids or people in need, or being involved in different charity organizations. The Elijah Project and Phoenix House are two in particular that mean a lot to me and allow me to give back to the community. My team members get involved as well and we do charity work together.  This helps create stronger bonds between us, which translates back into the workplace, and makes us a more cohesive and efficient team.  

Having a generous purpose is actually very gratifying, because you get to see people grow and become great leaders themselves, and know you had a hand in that. I also look at my daughter, and know I have to be a good influence and role model for her, so that she grows up committed to helping people too and serving her community.

  That brings us to the sixth and final characteristic, embracing your cultural promise and leading to leave a legacy.  It springs from the notion that success comes most to those who are surrounded by people who want their success to continue. How has the mindset of collaboration and reciprocity and respect before recognition allowed you to sustain success, and more than that, find significance in your leadership?

Lou: You cannot be successful without having a collaborative environment and being able to build partnerships within and across verticals and different departments.  Those partnerships will enable you to be more successful because it creates an environment of working together to achieve goals, overcoming obstacles and solving difficult situations together to see better results and a better way of operating the business.

No one person has all of the answers, so you’ve got to infuse collaboration into every thought process and everything you do so that it becomes part of the DNA of the organization, at every level. Everything from the metrics that you drive together to the visionary thinking that propels the company forward derives from your ability to build those partnerships and the great teams you need to get where you’re going.

Otherwise, you’re going to be standing alone, and that means standing still and not making a difference.  Maybe being successful for a short run, but not being significant enough to fulfill a cultural promise.

As Lou Mercado so clearly demonstrates, it is these six characteristics that will define success for all 21st century leaders.  They have allowed him to build a career and sustain his leadership by understanding trends and foreseeing the shifts taking place, by anticipating changes and preparing himself and his teams for them, and by being flexible and adaptable enough that even the seismic cultural demographic shift that we’re experiencing today is seen as an opportunity to achieve goals by serving others, to sustain success by being significant.  

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The cultural demographic shift™ in the United States is about the workplace and marketplace telling us that it is becoming less about the business defining the individual and more about the individual defining the business. This is exactly why Hispanics – both entering the workplace in search of the right employer who will allow them to be their authentic selves as well as those professionals who have been battling the gulf between assimilation and authenticity – are now ready to advance as 21st century leaders by activating their immigrant perspective; that is, the influence their cultural values have on the natural ways they think, act and are motivated to perform at work.