Developing Leaders in Latin America: Understanding Managerial Derailment

Developing Leaders in Latin America: Understanding Managerial Derailment

Miguel was on the fast track, or so he thought. As a manager in a rapidly growing multi-national bank, he had always enjoyed a reputation as a “high potential,” and had been promoted quickly because of his strong technical competence. That’s why he was surprised to learn he’d been passed up for his next promotion to director.

His aloof, tough style that discounted the need to connect at an interpersonal level had previously been overlooked by his managers. Until this “derailment moment,” he hadn’t seen the need to shift towards more managerial and strategic competencies, assuming his technical expertise would keep paying off.

Miguel, like many new managers with a lot of early promise, had failed to reach his full potential as a leader in his company. Managerial derailment like Miguel’s can hurt the morale of coworkers and be financially costly to the organization.

We conducted a research study on managerial derailment in Latin America to help our clients and colleagues target and tailor developmental opportunities in this region.

In our white paper on developing leaders in Latin America, we draw on knowledge and best practices of the field, while asking new questions and adapting our approach to the specific cultural, economic, political, and social contexts in which leadership is needed. One such question is why some managers, like Miguel, “derail,” and how these factors differ (or remain the same) in Latin America, as compared to other regions of the world.

Preventing Derailment Among Latin American Managers

Below, we offer suggestions for keeping Latin American managers on the track of career success and explore cultural factors that may underlie the data. In particular, 3 key findings may be of interest to those tasked with developing leaders in Latin American organizations.

Finding #1: The top derailment risk is having too narrow a functional orientation.

Our research found that in both Latin America and the United States, managers struggle most with exhibiting “too narrow a functional orientation,” from their bosses’ point of view. This means managers at high risk for derailment lack a broad perspective and are too focused on their specific role or function within the organization. Managers who struggle here may not be knowledgeable about other parts of the business, or may not be able to see how their realm of expertise is applicable elsewhere. They lack the depth to manage outside of their current function.

“Difficulty building teams” and “problems with interpersonal relationships” were ranked as the second and third most concerning derailment factors for both Latin American and U.S. managers. In the Latin American sample, “failure to meet business objectives” ranked fourth, and “difficulty changing and adapting” ranked fifth.

To prevent career derailment for Latin American managers, help them boost their self-awareness. An accurate understanding of how others view them allows managers to proactively address any perceived shortcomings and develop needed skills.

Finding #2: Raters in Latin America tend to rate managers more negatively than their U.S. counterparts, while managers in Latin America tend to rate themselves more positively than managers in the U.S.

Our research also found that bosses see more signs of derailment in their Latin American managers than in their U.S. managers (i.e., their ratings of derailment for managers are higher than the managers’ own self-ratings). Latin American managers had a greater likelihood of derailment than U.S. managers on all derailment factors, according to the perspective of their bosses.

Two factors in particular — “problems with interpersonal relationships” and “failure to meet business objectives” — were significantly higher for Latin American managers. In fact, Latin American managers were consistently rated worse on these 2 derailment factors by bosses, as well as by peers and direct reports. (We should note that these differences aren’t huge. Statisticians would describe the findings as small in effect size, meaning that while statistically significant differences exist, practically speaking the difference may not be noticed by the average observer).

Perhaps an even more interesting finding is that managers in Latin America rate themselves at less risk for derailment than managers in the U.S. on all 5 derailment factors. The ratings were significantly lower on 3 factors: “difficulty changing or adapting,” “difficulty building teams,” and “too narrow a functional orientation.”

Finding #3: Latin American managers face a perception gap.

Our study found that Latin American managers were consistently rated more harshly by others on the derailment scales than managers in the U.S., even as their self-ratings tended to be more favorable.

There were significantly larger gaps between self and other ratings in overall derailment scores in Latin America than there were in the U.S. for every rater type: peer, boss, and direct report. Moreover, it was the self-ratings that were causing these larger discrepancies. In other words, the managers in Latin America were more lenient in how they rated their own derailment tendencies than were the U.S. managers.

That’s why a commitment to boosting self-awareness may be of particular importance for Latin American managers.

Latin American Leaders: The Role of Culture

How can we make sense of these findings? Cultural factors may play a role in our derailment findings.

A greater discrepancy between managers and their raters in Latin America signifies a disconnect between 2 sets of perceptions and seems to reveal a lack of self-awareness on the part of Latin American managers.

One relevant cultural dimension is power distance, which can be defined as the extent to which a community accepts and endorses authority, power differences, and status privileges. High power distance tendencies in Latin American cultures can lead to following the leader and discouraging questioning, what is sometimes referred to as the efecto patrón — where senior leaders are expected to know best and guide the collective, not necessarily ensure that things are fair, equitable, and participative.

This may inhibit the practice of feedback and, consequently, result in a lack of self-awareness.

3 Recommendations for Latin American Leadership Development

Organizations and individuals differ greatly based on factors including organizational culture, traditional versus international business models, and level of and kind of education of the executives and managers involved. Based on this study, we see several potential opportunities for organizations to develop leaders in Latin America with an eye to avoiding derailment.

1. Ensure “meeting business objectives” is a clear priority within your organization.

Latin Americans are often proud of their ability to navigate a volatile, uncertain, and complex world. This is sometimes seen as being at odds with results-driven organizational cultures. Yet, in our experience with high-level managers in Latin America, many of them view driving results as key to their success.

The derailment data suggest that meeting business objectives may need to be a clear priority for Latin American managers early on in their careers in order for them to achieve future success and promotions. Training and development efforts (Latin American leadership development programs) should be established to support this priority.

2. Provide training on “communicating up.”

Leadership development initiatives within Latin American organizations can improve upward communication. This type of training also begins to break down the power distance that has lived in older paradigms of hierarchical leadership, and it helps to develop relationships between managers and their bosses that focus on development and feedback.

3. Invest in self-awareness.

Support an organizational culture that promotes seeking and providing feedback and emphasizes its necessity for improvement. Provide opportunities and guidance for personal reflection and assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Bear in mind that even when people are committed to boosting their self-awareness, it can be an uncomfortable stretch, and requires strong organizational and managerial support.

In closing, the changing nature of leadership is finding a footing in the realities of Latin American leading and managing. By understanding the potential for derailment, organizations and managers will be able to identify problems and seek development solutions for Latin American leaders that will have the greatest impact.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

We offer our leadership programs in English and Spanish to help you develop your Latin American managers. Partner with our Latin America team, serving clients throughout Central and Latin America and the Caribbean, to start developing your Latin American leaders.

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June 10, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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