In a World Full of Alphas, a Director Learns to Own His Authentic Leadership Style

A conversation with Leo Saldana about his experience in the Asian Leadership Program

October 11, 2023

Leo Saldana

As a senior director with Nike’s advanced innovation team, Leo Saldana meshes creativity with strategy to help develop innovative products and services. Goal-oriented, energetic, and seasoned, Saldana enrolled in the Asian Leadership Program to help him navigate the dominant leadership culture at work and step up to the next level at the shoe giant.

Tell me about where you are in your career and what you’re working on?

I just had my 17-year anniversary with Nike and I’m still really enjoying it. I’ve spent about half of that time in the innovation organization. It’s allowed me to explore new territories where I can make a difference by thinking about innovations that push the edges of sport, like breaking the two-hour marathon performance barrier, as well as address the latent needs of unserved or underserved athletes, like first-time female runners – groups you don’t often see being marketed to. It’s inspirational.

What was it that led you to enroll in this program?

When I reflect on my career, it’s been fantastic. I’ve had great performance ratings and advancements and felt like there was room for me to grow. But as I got more involved in diversity and inclusion conversations over the last few years, some of the things I was hearing resonated with me…like the challenges of working with more alpha leadership styles for folks like me who have a less aggressive, quieter approach. I realized I’ve found myself at this ceiling: I’ve gotten this far, but for some reason I can’t crack that next level. You can’t help but reflect on the situation, on the fact that I’ve never had a manager until last year who is a minority, never somebody who looked like me. I wanted to understand how to deal with that going forward – to learn to be authentically me but to work within this culture.

What were some takeaways from this program and from your cohort?

One thing I learned is that clearly what I see is not unique to my workplace. Through conversations with my cohort, I realized some really common themes. One was, we are who we are. We have to be authentic to who we are.

The first day walking in and seeing folks that look like me or who I could relate to, it was just so great. It just brought a smile to my face. It was so empowering.
Leo Saldana

We need to understand what the culture we are working in is, and we need to, for lack of a better way to say it, learn how to play the game.

Another key takeaway was remembering that we have transcended to senior-level leadership because we’ve worked hard, and we’ve earned it. We need to use that as fuel to continue to aspire to get to higher ground.

What impact did the sessions on building power and influence and effective communication skills have on you? Did they alter how you present yourself at work?

I am now less afraid to tell people up front about who I am and how I operate. Now, when I meet with people one-on-one or in meetings, I recognize folks looking at me thinking, are you going to jump in here and say something? So I say, “I’m one hundred percent engaged in this conversation. I like to think and process more deeply before I articulate something. I promise I’ll share my perspective.” In the past, I might have withheld my thoughts until I could write an email to somebody. I see now that could have been a confirmation that I am passive and perhaps not up to leadership levels. Now I want people to understand who I am.

Would you recommend this program to others?

Absolutely. I’ve already done so; I’ve recommended it to many colleagues, those who like me, are senior directors and find themselves just right there, at a ceiling, and are not having any luck advancing to the next level despite the fact that we are all performing at high success rates and take on complex, big initiatives.

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