ManpowerGroup’s Mónica Flores Barragán on Leading and Communicating with Authenticity
Bullhorn’s Jessie-Maria Mendoza-Bollam and Leah McKelvey spoke with Mónica Flores Barragán, President, Latin America at ManpowerGroup, about the power of honest communication, the challenges facing women leaders, and the fast-paced, exciting environment of the Latin American staffing industry. Read the full interview below. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
RIX: The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was “Choose to challenge yourself.” What does that mean to you in terms of your career and your journey within ManpowerGroup?
Mónica Flores Barragán: Challenging myself is more like a philosophy than a theme for a day or a month. I think it should be a way of life. People that challenge themselves are ambitious in the right way. They are open to learning. They are open to innovation. They are open to changing the world.
RIX: What type of challenges have you overcome along the way that you feel have been vital to your personal growth as a leader within ManpowerGroup?
Mónica Flores Barragán: I can classify them in blocks. First, there are cultural and societal challenges. As a woman, I’ve faced certain stereotypes: I should be thin and beautiful, be obedient, have six kids, and get married.
There’s pressure to do what other people say that you need to do. You have to have the effort and the character to live your life as you want, not how it is expected that you should behave. And that pressure to conform is something everybody faces —women or men—because everyone has their own stereotypes.
But those professional challenges can be more difficult to face as a woman. We can be made to feel more insecure by society, and we’re often taught not to take risks the way men do. Raising your hand is a learning process, and with time, you understand you don’t need to be perfect to face this business or this opportunity or this promotion.
Then there’s the challenge of balancing your personal life and professional life. At the end of the day, it’s not a matter of how many hours you dedicate to your family or your job, or yourself. It’s “How do you feel?” Are you happy with your life?
You need to decide what you want for yourself and your family and then prioritize.
You have to ask yourself what is most important to you. Is it your kids, your promotion, your spiritual life, your salary, your professional development? If you have clarity in those priorities, it’s easier to navigate.
Often when you make those decisions, you are young, and the decision you make will set the path for the next several years. Now, as I look back, it’s easier because I have 30 years of experience to inform a decision like that. But it was a challenge I had to face as I grew my career.
RIX: What habits have you implemented not only in this past year but in your whole career that has allowed you to communicate effectively across cultures?
Mónica Flores Barragán: One of my habits is to work with a lot of discipline. I look for the best from myself. Not perfection, because I’m not perfect, and nobody’s perfect. But I look for excellence, almost always.
One lesson I’ve learned in my career is to celebrate small victories. That reenergizes me and reenergizes the team. The other habit is to lead by example, especially in the last year, when everything has changed.
And with the pandemic, there’s even more time and incentive to study different areas. For example, I’m dedicating time to learning more about digital marketing analytics and artificial intelligence. If I didn’t want to learn all the time, I would become obsolete.
I constantly read from authors around the world. Not only business articles or management books but novels as well. It helps you understand different cultures and how other people think.
Finally, becoming a better communicator is a matter of practice. When I was a kid in elementary school, I was very shy. My teacher told my mother that I should learn to speak out and raise my hand. My mother took me to public speaking classes, and then I took theater classes. Those classes taught me how to express myself and how to communicate.
When I took over responsibility in Central America, I took more public speaking courses because I was invited to conferences and interviews there, and I wanted to excel.
Of course, this is the external part of communication. I’ve learned through the years that communication isn’t just about expressing the right words; it’s about expressing your feelings and understanding the feelings of other people.
Communication is one of the most in-demand skills right now and one of the most difficult to find in the labor market. Communication should be more personal than ever. It needs to be more honest than ever and more human than ever.
RIX: As you think about adapting your communication style and working with many different global business leaders, have you shifted your style or adapted your style when working with different global peers?
Mónica Flores Barragán: I communicate differently depending on if I’m speaking Spanish or English; I adapt my language to suit the audience.
And in terms of the audience, the setting matters. It’s not the same to speak with you in this interview as it is in a board meeting. It’s very informal, compared to expressing yourself in a setting like that. It’s not the same speaking to older people as it is speaking to young people in their 20s. Young people want quick ideas—they have to be concrete and fresh. Others prefer you to be more formal.
But the common thread in all of these different types of communication is to be honest, direct, and clear. That’s the secret to communication: If you have a true belief in the things you talk about, that authenticity will shine through.
RIX (Jessie-Maria Mendoza-Bollam): As a bicultural person, I always find that I want to bring the Latin flair I grew up with into meetings, but I have found that I need to tone it back a little bit, depending on who I’m talking to. Have you found a way to adapt to that, or do you try to always introduce your personal style into it as well?
Mónica Flores Barragán: I try to maintain my personal style because that is what I do best. At the end of the day, you communicate better when you are your authentic self. People can tell when you are authentic, and they appreciate that.
RIX: Do you think the pandemic and the impact of Zoom and virtual calls are enhancing that appreciation for authenticity? Now you’re seeing people in their homes and meeting their families.
Mónica Flores Barragán: I believe so. With the pandemic, people need much more human contact as they are under more stress and face more emotional challenges. If you are more authentic and more human, you connect better than if you are acting. And it’s easier now because we see each other in a very different way. If I’m working with you, I will see your living room and your stuff at home, and I’ll see your kids running behind you. I will probably hear your mother calling you, and I will probably see someone cooking in the kitchen.
That fundamentally changes the way people communicate. I personally think for the better because it broke down the office persona we would all put on in one way or another. And now it’s more about who we are, regardless of if we’re in the office or not.
RIX: Reflecting on your many years of experience there, what would you say is the most exciting aspect of the Latin American market right now? How did this inform your differentiation strategy that helped place ManpowerGroup where it is now within that market?
Mónica Flores Barragán: For me, it’s the Latin American culture. I’m from Latin America, so my opinion is not subjective, but I think that the best part of this labor market is that people aren’t only looking for money in a job. They also want to have fun and build relationships.
In Latin America, leadership styles should be very human because the people here connect differently. It’s difficult for Latin Americans to just go from 9:00 to 5:00. You want to work and build and have friends and celebrate birthdays.
We find many young people looking for a job that’s interesting to have because, in some other geographies, you don’t find that kind of energy. We tend to adapt faster because we have been living in crisis with economic and political issues that are not prevalent in richer countries. We learn to adapt to challenging circumstances, and we find a way to survive.
RIX: We know that the Mexican government is considering legislation that could impact your business. How do you approach this type of challenge? As a major employer in Mexico, how do you view your role in working with the Mexican government to ensure the best possible outcomes for your employees and your business? How do you manage that?
Mónica Flores Barragán: I spent a lot of my time during the last months talking to authorities and to legislators because not all of them—some of them, but not all of them—understand the labor market because they haven’t been in a company creating jobs. Their view of the market is different.
We support that the market should be legislated. There’s a reason why that initiative is in place. In the past, a lot of people were evading taxes or paying low salaries, or they were not providing social security to their employees. That is wrong. We need to punish those practices, and we need to find the right balance with regulation.
We are going to adapt because we have the resources, the brands, and the infrastructure to specialize in certain fields in the market and in certain business lines. Beyond staffing, we do perm, we do human resources consulting, and we have the Experience brand, which is focused on IT, for example. These business lines allow us to adapt to any situation.
Right now, no one knows the final outcome of that initiative. Ultimately, you need to adapt to the market, to the legislation, and to your client’s needs.
RIX: That goes back to what you said earlier, that you need to be able to adapt and move quickly. And that is, like you said, a uniqueness of the Latin American market that you really never know what’s coming next. You have to be able to work on your feet and do the best for both your clients and your business. And that is a very important talent to have.
Mónica Flores Barragán: Here’s an example I can share: we have operations in Argentina. We know the challenges that the country is facing: hyperinflation, political issues, and a pandemic. And In that region, the best-performing country in 2020 was Argentina, despite all of those aforementioned macroeconomic challenges.
You tend to think the countries with more stable lows or without those macroeconomic challenges would be in the best position to perform, but that isn’t always the case.
RIX: Why do you think that is? When you look at your different regions, and they overperformed compared to their peers, what do you think contributes to that?
Mónica Flores Barragán: Well, we have talented people all around the region. I’m proud to say that I think we have the best talent in place in the industry.
Sometimes when you need to survive, you do unexpected things. If you are comfortable, you don’t put in that same level of effort.
That’s why I said that Latin America would respond quickly because if we don’t do anything different, governments are not going to help us. Companies are not going to help us. We don’t have enough money or resources, we don’t always have the knowledge that we should have, and that’s why people move faster and are more creative and more open to new ideas.
RIX: Do you think that the constant change and influx of new challenges to adapt to is what has kept you at ManpowerGroup for two decades? We often see great leaders like yourself move around in this hyper-competitive industry. Why have you stayed with manpower?
Mónica Flores Barragán: I first worked with ManpowerGroup in the 1990s, I left the company, and then I came back. And I came back because I know that the purpose of ManpowerGroup fits with my personal purpose.
We change lives every day. When we train people, when we help someone to change jobs, or retire, or to finally get a job or an opportunity, we are changing lives. And I truly believe that. It’s amazing to have a job that allows you to be a better person at the same time. I remain at Manpower because I really love what I do every day. There are not two days that are equal in terms of challenges or lessons learned. There is no time to get bored. There’s always something new. There’s always something exciting happening. That’s why I’m here. I love that.
RIX: Have there been any moments in your career where you’ve wondered, “How do I find the drive to keep going? How do I get to the next level?”
Mónica Flores Barragán: For sure. It’s natural. We’re human. Sometimes I feel frustrated or tired or angry, and sometimes I don’t know what to do. But when I feel like that, I step back and see the whole picture. It’s not the end of the world. There is always something else. When you have perspective, you become more objective. Then you can act accordingly. The secret is to be surrounded by positive, honest people and to get away from toxic personalities. The worst thing you can do is to work with toxic people or lead with toxic people.
RIX: What do you think about 2021 and getting in the offices again? Are you excited to travel again? Where is your mindset?
Mónica Flores Barragán: We’re facing the future. Everything has changed. I won’t travel as much as I used to, and not all the people will be coming back to the office as they used to do. We will have a hybrid model. We will have new positions to fill that didn’t exist in the past. We’ll have new job descriptions, new processes, and new needs from our clients. There will be new expectations from our candidates and associates. That’s exciting because nobody knows what it will look like. I think that the world will be more sophisticated and more demanding of soft skills. We will see more innovation than ever. Changes will come faster than ever. Technology is going to change even more jobs and our lives.
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