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Lessons of Leadership

Sol Trujillo is missing something. This is odd because in all the time we’ve been acquainted, I’ve not known him to miss much.

Trujillo started with a hardscrabble childhood, got a business degree from the University of Wyoming, mixed in an astounding work ethic that came from his parents, added 35 years of lessons learned while climbing the corporate ladder, threw in lots of experience in leadership and emerged as one of the Titans of Telecom.

Trujillo, 60, is by all accounts the first native-born Latino to serve as CEO of a Fortune 200 company. He worked as president, chairman and CEO of US West from 1995 to 2000. In 2003, he became CEO of Paris-based Orange SA, the wireless giant with 50 million customers in 19 countries. And in 2005, he was appointed CEO of Telstra, Australia’s largest provider of mobile phones, mobile devices and broadband Internet services.

Many want to know what enabled him to succeed. His answer surprised me: “I can say that naivete was one of my greatest strengths,” Trujillo said. “I didn’t know protocol. I didn’t know a lot of things that you’re supposed to do in terms of pecking order and hierarchy. When I sat in certain meetings where you’re not supposed to speak, and I had ideas, I spoke. I didn’t know better. And that turned out to be an advantage, because I was always looking for a better way, how can we do things better, and that’s part of the competitive spirit I have.”

Now he also has an active and engaged lifestyle, with investments around the world, friends in high places, and the freedom to do what he wants when he wants. Not bad for a son of Cheyenne, Wyoming who learned to pursue his vision, trust his instincts, learn from his mistakes, and be right more than he was wrong. I asked him if he considered Wyoming his home, even though he hasn’t lived there in a few decades.

“Up until I got married and had my own kids,” he told me, “home for me was always where my parents were. That was Cheyenne, Wyoming. But I’ve never had as part of my identity that a city or state is my home, because I’ve lived in so many different places over the years. Actually, the percentage of time that I lived in Wyoming is now less than 50% of the time I’ve lived around the world. Now, home is where my wife Corine and I live and where my kids consider home.”

Sol and Corine Trujillo have three daughters and consider Southern California their primary residence. He has warm memories of his family as he was growing up, and a sense of appreciation. “I’m a big believer in role models,” said Trujillo. “And for me, my role models have always been my parents. In my case, my parents got married in their teens, and had maybe a sixth-grade education. They had to struggle. They didn’t have anything but each other. And they had children. When I was little, I watched them work harder than anyone could work. And I saw them never complain about their lives.”

Now, Trujillo wants to create more success stories by offering a positive example to others. “Young people need role models in business,” he said. “We always like putting out front, actors and athletes and politicians. But what people need to understand is that they can become CEO’s, they can be global leaders. They can be successful in that field, and still be Latino.”

That one can succeed and still “be Latino” is a recurring theme for Trujillo. He knows that there are many Latinos who seem to become the less ethnic the higher they go up the ladder. It’s obvious that Trujillo has little use for these kinds of people.

“I have always been a guy who is a Latino,” he said. “I’ve been a businessman and CEO. There are a lot of Latinos who get to positions and then pretend they’re someone else.You need to do what you need to do, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be who you are and reflect your heritage. I’ve always treated being Latino as a strength, and I’ve always been proud of who I am.”

But who is Sol Trujillo? The answer is complicated. He’s a husband, father, businessman, investor, partner, visionary, mentor, and friend. He can also lay claim to a title that is in short supply these days: Leader.

“None of us are born great leaders,” he said. “We learn. Because we all make mistakes. Early in my career, I was pretty good. But I thought I could do anything and that I could do it without others, and so sometimes you have to bounce into walls and you learn that there are better ways, less painful ways to get things done.”

So what did he learn? What makes a good leader? His mind makes lists. So the answer went like this:

“No. 1, you have to have a personal standard of performance that is very high, higher than most and that you are willing to role model it. You have to live it. No. 2, you have to have the capability to be a good problem solver and visionary. No. 3, you have to be a good listener. You’re observing, studying, listening to the people you work with or work around. Everybody wants to be heard, to be engaged, to be contributing. No. 4, you need high energy. You have to keep at it, so people see you’re passionate and willing to give it your all. No. 5, hard work and determination will get you where you want to go. There is no easy path to any kind of success, and so your ability to stay focused over time is really important.”

As Trujillo sees it, another thing that is really important is knowing how to take criticism and benefit from it. “I like to hear criticism,” he said. “You have to develop a thick skin and the ability to process input. And if you’re only looking for those who agree with you, you get in trouble. But if you’re always mindful of counter views, and counter opinions, I think you can always come up with bigger and better ideas.”

One constant in Trujillo’s career is the strategic value of diversity, which he has championed at all the companies he has run. Not because it was the right thing to do, but because it helped the bottom line. In that vein, I wanted to know why he thought there weren’t more Latino CEOs of major corporations. He said there were several reasons. Time for another list:

“No. 1, historically, we did not populate business schools and get the MBAs that allow for the hiring; we tended to go into political science and social services, etc. You get a later start. No. 2, we Latinos are brought up to be very respectful, very mindful of elders and all that. I was brought up as an only son to share my opinion whenever I wanted. That was helpful in business but in our culture, sometimes that’s a problem. No. 3, there is the risk taking. A willingness to take risks or make bets when running a business or managing departments is critical, and we tend to be less willing to do that. When you take a risk, you could be right or you could be wrong. So you have to be willing to be wrong to be really good. No. 4, there are perceptions that still exist about Latinos that are barriers. People talk about glass ceilings, etc. But if you’re a Latino who looks a certain way and fits a stereotype that people have been brought up with, immediately you start getting categorized. If you speak with an accent, you tend to be thought of as not as articulate or eloquent as the next person. These things tend to be more subtle in terms of perception. No. 5, personal and professional networks are really important. And we have not been as sophisticated in building networks and maintaining networks and leveraging networks.”

Trujillo gives you the impression that he can walk into any room, anywhere in the world, sit down and strike up a conversation with whichever president, prime minister or king is holding court there. I wanted to know where that came from. The answer took us back to where we began---his parents.

“It was always about pride,” he said. “I grew up in the state of Wyoming, in city called Cheyenne where a name like Trujillo is not a common name. It’s a name that people might pronounce: ‘Tru-gil-lo.’ And my father---who loved music and started his own mariachi band---always made sure that everyone always pronounced our name correctly because it was that element of pride in terms of who we were.” Trujillo recounted that he played trumpet in his father’s band, called Sol Trujillo and his Mariachi Brass.

And that brings us to the point that Sol Trujillo missed. In his upbringing, he recognizes that he drew his inspiration from his father and mother. But his father probably would not have felt the need to assert his family’s heritage and culture had they been living in Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Antonio, or any other city with a larger Latino population than one finds in Cheyenne, Wyoming. That’s where Sol learned about pride.

It’s what tends to happen in the place called home.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a CNN contributor, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, and the author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam). You can contact him at


Sol’s Resumé

• At age 32, became the youngest executive officer in the history of AT&T

• First U.S.-born Latino to serve as CEO of a Fortune 200 company, U.S. West

• First American to lead a CAC-40 company, Paris-based Orange, SA

• First to lead three different $50 billion market cap companies in three continents

• Received Ronald H. Brown Corporate Bridge Builder Award from President Bill Clinton

• Served on President George W. Bush’s Trade Advisory Council

• Has served on corporate boards of Target, Promerica Bank, London-based WPP, Western Union, Pepsico, EDS, Gannett, Bank of America and other companies



Sol on Politics and Business

LATINO: You’ve become involved in politics in the last couple of years---not as a candidate but behind the scenes, trying to help shape policies and influence elected officials. Why?

Trujillo: I’ve had the opportunity to live and work outside the U.S., deal with other governments, etc. The biggest motivation for getting involved is that I love my country. I love what we stand for. The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. All the things that uniquely identify the United States of America as a special place, because individuals have rights in the face of government. I look at that, and I’m always thinking about what is best for our country.

LATINO: In your experience, how is politics different than business?

Trujillo: In politics, success is a function of people liking you. In business, success is a function of your ability to deliver results.

LATINO: What political issues matter most to you, and where do you want to have the greatest effect?

Trujillo: As I think about politics, I think about all the issues---trade, immigration, balancing budgets, thinking about how we create more revenue without being heavily taxed. These are all things that are important to me. So I engage, because if we as citizens don’t engage and care about those issues, we’ll always have people on the fringes---far right, far left---that end up determining policy. I don’t think that’s healthy for the country.

LATINO: How would you respond to the criticism that people like you, who come from the business world, always seem to expect politics to run like a business---and so you’re always frustrated and disappointed when that doesn’t happen?

Trujillo: First, that’s true. But just because it has been that way doesn’t mean it has to be that way. In politics, as in business, you can force change. I might sound simplistic but I believe it’s possible. We need less polarizing language, and more pragmatic solutions. It might be naive, but I do believe it’s possible.

LATINO: Both presidential candidates are courting Latino voters with mixed degrees of success. What advice would you give them?

Trujillo: Both candidates have severely underestimated the importance of Latinos to our economy and our country’s social fabric today and is not just about an election, but about respect, acknowledgement and inclusion on all issues starting with a detailed solution to immigration reform. Our nation’s competitive advantage and opportunities for further growth are highly dependent on this new reality.