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“The foundation of a good executive starts with being confident” with Roxanne Martinez

I think the foundation of a good executive starts with being confident enough in your true self and abilities that you can admit a mistake. Executives are in the business of making decisions, and those choices don’t always work out. You have to have the humility to learn from your mistakes, so people who can’t […]

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I think the foundation of a good executive starts with being confident enough in your true self and abilities that you can admit a mistake. Executives are in the business of making decisions, and those choices don’t always work out. You have to have the humility to learn from your mistakes, so people who can’t tolerate that type of humility will find executive leadership a tough place to be, in my opinion. Today, executives also need to be grounded in data to support decisions, embrace and understand workplace technology, and strategically consider multiple solutions for the same problem. An executive should be authentic, motivating or inspiring, willing to listen, respect diverse perspectives, and be open to differing viewpoints. If you can’t put the needs of others before yourself, executive leadership is probably not the right fit for you.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roxanne Martinez, Chief Human Resources Officer and Executive VP, DentaQuest.

Roxanne leads by empowering others. She’s influenced by her passions for teaching and inclusivity, noting every organization can and must continuously advance. Defining coaching as a “two-way street,” she champions accountability, identity, and the importance of being present. She knows executive leadership is about impact, which she’s learned should be incremental — solving immediate business issues, not postponing for large-scale solutions.

At DentaQuest, she’s working to authentically foster employee engagement and the exchange of diverse ideas. She’s executive sponsor for two employee resource groups (ERGs), coaching members to understand there’s influence in their unique perspectives to improve and enable the business. A longstanding advocate for the benefits of workplace diversity and inclusion, Roxanne promotes authenticity and skillfully creates alignment for the organization. Dedicated to empowering all and ensuring a sense of belonging. To her, leaders must recognize answers can come from anywhere and must empower change to support inclusivity.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Tell us a bit about your “backstory” — What led you to this career path?

I grew up as the oldest of 6 kids in a household where I was the first to go to college. Even though my parents were not university educated, they championed an education-first mindset. I also learned the power of team and individual sports from my parents, who believed a great coach can mold leadership skills early and teach true collaboration. It was thanks to valuable education and so many coaches — both in and outside of sports — that I ended up on this career path. Over the years, from thinking I would become a history teacher to studying law, I was exposed to so many aspects of complex projects and many diverse roles and disciplines that needed to come together for the best result. After graduating from the University of Denver’s law school, I realized my varied interests and education can be applied to more than being a lawyer. I became a consultant working in the finance, tech, life sciences, and professional services industries, where I ultimately grew fascinated with HR and its complexities. When I made the decision to consult, I was in my 20s, and I’ve never looked back.

What is the most interesting story that happened to you since you joined the C-Suite?

Six months into my new role at DentaQuest, a national health care company, and my first as a CHRO, COVID-19 hit the U.S. This was an important strategic time for both the company and me — work on the organization’s official multi-year strategic plan began more than a year prior. I spent my first 6 months in the deep end as a member of the executive team working through what was supposed to be the final stretch, culminating with an enterprise-wide launch of this new strategic vision and plan. Then suddenly everyone had to pivot. The decision to focus on the health, safety and overall wellbeing of our employees before anything else was definitive, with implications far beyond the company. Priorities shifted dramatically, and I was developing relationships in days across the organization that normally take months. There was truly no other way forward — we had to band together for everyone’s health and safety but also to ensure business continuity as employees transitioned to work from home indefinitely. It was an awesome and unique experience to be that aligned with so many colleagues around a common goal at the start of a new job.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson did you learn from that?

Early in my career — and before mobile devices/phones — I traveled a lot. On one work trip, I was heading to a client site for a new project. I packed up the night before, as I usually did, and headed out to get to the airport for a 6 am flight from New York. When we landed on the West Coast, people were already halfway through their mornings at the office and I was getting the rental car, trying to arrive as early in the day as possible. Then I realized: I didn’t write down the address or have directions to the client location! I had to drive to find a payphone to call for help! I tried to have someone at home search for my notes but, in the end, I had to call the office. Lesson learned — review the details before going to any meeting, whether travel is involved or not.

What is it about the position of executive that most attracted you to it?

Being inspired and empowered by capable leaders has always been important to me. I aspired to be CHRO because I wanted to create and set an agenda that directly impacted the way people learn, develop and grow a career without losing that element. I knew this role at DentaQuest had to be mine when I walked out of my first meeting with Steve Pollock, our CEO — I called my husband right away to say, that’s the person I want to work for and this is where my work will tangibly make an impact. I was taking a significant step in my career growth by seeking out a CHRO role, but it was an imperative that I still feel inspired by the leaders around me and the purpose of the next organization I joined.

DentaQuest’s CEO proved to be a true, genuine person motivated by and inspired by the brand’s mission. My first impressions were validated by the rest of the executive team as I met them one by one, and I grew into seeing myself as part of the team so seamlessly. Fit and leadership are critical when selecting a new job, and this just felt right.

Choosing DentaQuest was also about a personal connection to the company mission. My father’s cancer was discovered because of complications during dental work/oral surgery. His oral health was a critical piece in his whole-body health. The importance of this connection is what those of us who come to work at DentaQuest aim to advance every day. Thanks to the advice of a dental provider, my father was able to see the birth of his first grandchild. This just reinforced that I was meant to do something good leading the people at DentaQuest.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an HR executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other HR leaders?

The biggest difference is an HR executive is the decision maker. In this role, you set the talent strategy at the enterprise level and get executive peers on board with it to enable the business, rather than primarily focusing on alignment with other HR teams as you do when you’re not the chief HR executive. While other HR leaders have responsibility over a business segment or specific area of human resources, the HR executive always needs to engage in big-picture thinking to understand and guide the organization as a whole. As a CHRO, you’re always working for the best interests of the company and its aspirations and the people who make those aspirations a reality, thinking about things through the voice of employees but equally balancing risk to the company.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Coaching. Since childhood, my parents taught by example that coaching is a critical element of being a strong leader. In HR, you come across so many people from so many backgrounds in so many different functions, which requires thinking differently about what coaching can mean. This is one of the most satisfying parts of my job. I am thrilled when people trust me enough to come talk to me about their own career because I want to help people on their paths the way others have helped me on mine. As a coach, I always say that the worst thing you can do is not take a chance. I try to help people get comfortable with taking a calculated risk and helping people learn from how it plays out.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

As an executive, you know you will not please everyone. At times, that can be difficult, especially in a function that requires balancing the needs of employees with the needs of the company. Those two things don’t always align. There are people you will not be able to satisfy. Even when you and your team do your best, a percentage of employees will always disagree about the value of a program or service. Of course, it’s hard to see your team feel less than appreciated when they work hard to find a solution and they don’t hear “thank you” or when complaints are made, but HR executives realize everyone comes from a different and often personal place.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I find people assume executives have all the answers. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Executives seek answers just like any other employee — solutions can come from a variety of sources. When an executive makes a choice, that isn’t necessarily an indication of right or wrong, but rather a strategic decision informed by that executive’s experience and expertise from strong teams or individuals.

That’s why it’s important to invest time developing company culture and building strong team dynamics. Building trust within your team and organization overall can help bust the myth that successful executives always have the answers 100% of the time.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Female executives are confronted with a myriad of unique challenges, however, the one that jumps out is balancing the co-existence of work and life in a calm, collected way. When women in the workplace aren’t 100% composed and calm, they can be perceived as unbalanced or too emotional. So unlike men, women are held to an unattainable standard based on the stereotype of what it means to be emotional. True balance in work and life is what you make of it and is different for each person (executive or otherwise). My balance may be different than yours, however a male counterpart’s balance may not even be in question.

What’s more, women, at times, face an invisible line of perception. How you project calm and confidence as a woman can be appreciated but can often be seen as too aggressive — we must be calm and confident but not too confident. Whereas for men, overconfidence can be seen as a sign of leadership. Women should focus on bringing our true selves to work, balancing the best way we can (and to our own definition), and partner with strong leaders who ensure women remain at the table.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Not shockingly, the difference is that I expected to actually meet people in person! I should be traveling to learn about our business across our offices and practices, gain better understanding of what people do, and develop in-person relationships. This COVID-19 ground stop has changed the way I need to learn about the company and the people in the organization. Now, I encourage and reinforce a virtual “open door” policy, meaning I welcome the unscheduled chat or video call. I offer my time to do town hall meetings, serve on internal panels, sponsor employee resource groups — anything to fill the interpersonal void. After all, I’m in the talent business and you need to get to know the talented people who drive our work each and every day!

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I think the foundation of a good executive starts with being confident enough in your true self and abilities that you can admit a mistake. Executives are in the business of making decisions, and those choices don’t always work out. You have to have the humility to learn from your mistakes, so people who can’t tolerate that type of humility will find executive leadership a tough place to be, in my opinion. Today, executives also need to be grounded in data to support decisions, embrace and understand workplace technology, and strategically consider multiple solutions for the same problem. An executive should be authentic, motivating or inspiring, willing to listen, respect diverse perspectives, and be open to differing viewpoints. If you can’t put the needs of others before yourself, executive leadership is probably not the right fit for you.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Overall, I recommend female leaders start and maintain an open dialogue about professional development. The team thrives on your authenticity and motivation, so admit it took work to get where you are. Share your anecdotes, the things you can laugh at now but stressed out about then. Remind the team it’s okay to make mistakes and remember for yourself that it’s okay to say I need help, or I don’t understand this. We all should have the freedom to know that there’s a time and a place to say I’ve had enough and to make wellness decisions for ourselves. To all the aspiring or current leaders reading this, realize how much control you have over your career and don’t wait for someone to tell you what’s next.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I got here today first and foremost thanks to my parents, who taught me the value of hard work and focus. Because of that work ethic, I earned opportunities to grow. But there are a few other people from specific moments along my career path to whom I am most grateful. This was a very telling exercise — anyone reading and considering their career trajectory should really do this, too!

Thank you to:

  • My manager at my first college job doing data entry who was confident I could manage a project and gave me that chance.
  • A well-respected attorney who told me that I can be anything and reinforced that message as a mentor.
  • The leader of a consulting firm who spoke to me plainly about making decisions for my career and what the ramifications for certain decisions might be. I was treated honestly, thoughtfully and respectfully, and I learned to do the same for others.
  • An HR executive who reinforced a “global” mindset when thinking across the implications of talent decisions and the power of diverse teams, across countries, functions, and levels of capability.
  • Two leaders who gave me my first chance to take a position of significant responsibility and trusted in my capabilities despite what I view still as my lack of experience. They were direct in their praise and critique and, with that, they prepared me for increased responsibility.
  • The leader who trusted my perspective and voice in significant business decisions at a time of strategic changes.

And of course, my husband, who is my biggest advocate of all and has reinforced that I can do anything I set my mind to doing.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Young women need role models and examples of women in leadership positions. I shared that coaching is one of the most fulfilling elements of my career. That is true outside of my job, as well. I have been a soccer coach for young girls, and my husband and I, who coach together, focus on teaching them leadership skills early. My passion for coaching has contributed to my personal success and I think these future leaders are learning lifelong capabilities that give them an edge for their future. Beyond coaching, I try to help ensure children from all backgrounds have similar foundations for their futures. I’ve worked on boards or dedicated fundraising time for children in foster care, children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I also have dedicated significant time on a board in support of the career achievements of the latinx community.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Leadership isn’t a popularity contest. It took me a long time to learn how to acknowledge that I’m not perfect and I can’t make everybody happy. Not everyone will like you and that’s okay.
  2. Authenticity counts. An interview is a two-way street — you are interviewing a company as much as they are interviewing you and being true to yourself means you can say no even if they extend an offer. I learned this the hard way, once accepting a role that simply didn’t work for me.
  3. It’s ok to admit you don’t have all the answers. You need the humility to say I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you. I wish I understood how much you can learn once you can admit what you don’t know — I probably would have gained more from those early leadership decisions that may have informed those that came later.
  4. Be open to all possibilities and embrace the unknown. I think I gained from others’ missed opportunities and made a career out of being open to roles and responsibilities that didn’t fit squarely in my wheelhouse.
  5. Embrace building new skills. Jobs evolve and new ones are created as technology evolves. Building skills enables a person to pivot toward new opportunities and even reinvent your career.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am inspired by what I see happening today in terms of this national reckoning for racial justice and I aim to drive that progress forward in every organization I am a part of now and in the future. The movement to truly achieve diversity, equity and inclusion is complex and grounded in planning, taking action, and achieving result. Beyond the talk, the movement is about the walk. We must aspire to hold ourselves accountable to creating more equitable workplaces.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”– George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.

As student of history, I never forget that. In fact, I first saw this quote 34 years ago while visiting the memorial at the site of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. I still get emotional thinking about this visit. It’s where I first felt that quote resonate, and it has remained relevant throughout my life. You have to listen to the past; you can’t be part of change if you are continue being part of things already tried and failed. Today, we are all recognizing new things about history, so this message resonates even deeper.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them!

From his music to his work protecting Latin American rainforests, I find Sting fascinating. He constantly reinvents himself, as teacher, lead singer of The Police, a rock solo artist… He envelopes his work in his passions. He sings in Portuguese and Spanish, speaking to those who live near the lands he helps protect. To me, getting to know this ever-innovating prominent person would be inspiring and enlightening. But I don’t even need breakfast or lunch — Sting, I am ready for a Zoom call any time!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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