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The People Project with Ricardo

Interview with Ricardo Pessoa, USA

Hi Ricardo, tell me what you love about the country of your birth?

I was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil and moved when I was very young to Barretos. This was a small town, by Brazil standards, of a 100,000 people. When I was 15, I spent a year in Saskatchewan, Canada. After that taste of North America, I decided to emigrate to the US at age 17. Similar to the United States, Brazil is a melting pot with people from all over the world. In the south of Brazil you have people who originally came from Germany, like my great grandmother. There are lots of Italians, Japanese, Africans, and many other nationalities. My last name, Pessoa, is actually Portuguese. I love the diversity found in Brazil, the warmth of Brazilian people and, of course, the food!

Is Brazil like in United States in that people identify themselves by their ethnic background, even if they are first or second generation Americans?

Not so much! The topic may come up in a conversation, but it is not as common as it is here. I often hear someone say "I’m Italian American," but they don’t speak Italian themselves. It was their great great grandparents who had migrated to the United States many decades earlier.

Do you think people in the U.S. use these cultural identifiers to connect or separate themselves?

I think most people do it to connect. I find that people will look for things that they have in common. It shows some identity and roots, which I always find interesting. I do it, too. When I’m speaking with someone, I often find myself mentioning that I am originally from Brazil, especially if that person is also a foreigner. Sharing this commonality helps us connect.

Since we're on the subject of culture, what do you think about the US work culture, if we can generalize for a moment?

Sometimes this causes you to lose a sense of purpose -- "Why are we here?" and "Why does it matter?"

I’ve experienced very different company cultures here in the US. But if I were to generalize, I’d say that the work culture in the States is more transactional with a focus on getting things done. When compared to Brazil, where people tend to have more interpersonal focus, but with that, speed suffers. You've got long lunches, more hallway conversations, people get more sidetracked and involved in personal conversations and consequently, you're slower in getting things done, but that’s ok! In the U.S. I've had both experiences. I worked with a group where it felt like a family at the G.E. Learning Center. We all went to lunch together, went out for drinks and connected on a personal level. Actually, in that case, being connected also helped us to get things done. There was a high level of trust, cohesiveness and absolutely no hidden agendas. I've also experienced "just get things done" cultures where the focus was purely on work, very transactional, and little focus on relationships. Sometimes this causes you to lose a sense of purpose -- "why are we here?" and "Why does it matter?" I prefer it when people are more connected.

How does human connection in companies correlate to a sense of purpose?

You can feel good that your work is not only benefitting yourself but you’re benefitting the community as a whole

When many people are able to share a common vision and march in the same direction towards accomplishing a goal, it creates a stronger desire for getting things done and a stronger cohesiveness among the team. This improves communication and speeds up decisions and execution. On a human level, you know that when you achieve a milestone, the team gets the credit and everyone celebrates together. It’s about doing something as a team. You can feel good that your work is not only benefitting yourself but the community as a whole.

Considering that we've been isolated for a long time due to COVID, do you still think that all people have this need to form communities or has COVID proved that wrong?

Even introverts ... benefit from sharing from sharing in common purpose.

There are many studies out there that say we are all social beings. That's how we are wired. I can see people light up when they’re next to one other and are connecting on any number of levels. Even introverts like myself, who usually get their energy from within rather than from large groups of people, are missing the office and some in-person human interaction. With that said though, COVID has provided us with a unique opportunity… An opportunity to connect differently at a different level. Now when we attend conference calls, we make a point to turn on our cameras, we see family pictures, our kids come into the room and get introduced on the calls, even our pets are participating in our videoconferences. All this has allowed us to get to know each other even better and has strengthen our relationships.

What is the nature of your work today?

We provide people with capabilities to get their jobs done.

I work in the Learning and Development space, which helps create the capabilities inside organizations to help employees grow. Right now, it’s all about COVID-19. Our work revolves around enabling people to work from home, being productive while working virtually, connecting with one another, learning to use the tools we have from home. Our work doesn't stop at enabling technologies and tools. We provide support to leaders who now must lead remotely without skipping a beat. We help our employees to interact and negotiate with clients and stakeholders in a completely virtual environment. We provide people with capabilities to get their jobs done.

In a crisis situation like COVID, companies activate their Business Continuity plans that ensure that people have a place and the technology to continue operating with minimal disruption. Where does your work come in?

Some managers believe if they can’t see you, then you’re not producing.

If you’re a leader and have never worked from home or your team has never had the experience of working completely virtually, it becomes a daunting challenge and a difficult change to make. How do you do that? How do you support, engage and stay connected? Should you have frequent teams calls? Check in on individuals? Use a camera? How do you deal with the intangible element of trust? Some managers believe if they can’t see you, then you’re not producing. So some need help understanding that they can manage by results; that their teams can be effective if the manager can provide the right level of support and trust. There are other issues around remaining flexible, managing expectations, and recognizing that people may have kids who are being homeschooled, and may be running around and making noise. How do you accept the new normal for the time being? It's hard to change on a dime from a pretty rigid culture of productivity to one that requires you to use a very different skill set and mindset.

From your perspective, has this Pandemic created an inexorable shift in the way we live and work?

many of us are now connected by a common experience

We are in a prolonged disruption phase, and it is creating a new normal as we speak. People are physically separated, but are connecting on a different level. We see more of one another’s lives. We connect from our kitchens, and see one another's homes with pictures on the walls. We see each other’s kids, and we give each other space because many of us are now connected by a common experience. We're in the same boat, whether it's teaching our kids at home, or missing our family members. And when we all go back to work, it's not going go back to the way it was. We should expect more change. When we come out, some people may not be as social as before or want to shake hands or hug. We need to be prepared for a significant transitional period, and remain very flexible and ready for more change.

What form does this preparation take? How do you help someone empathize with someone else?

In our company, our Communications team is working with our leadership. For instance, one of our presidents is sharing where he works and his thoughts on well-being and how to burn off some of your energy when working at home. To demonstrate, he went to his basement, put his boxing gloves on and did a demonstration work-out with his punching bag. Different leaders are doing different videos, sharing coping strategies and reinforcing the message that we are all in this together.

How did you get into Leadership Development?

for the first 8 or 9 years, I did construction and labor work

When I came to the US, I barely spoke any English and ended up working in construction for a while. After a couple of years of doing heavy work, I started climbing up in the ranks and transitioning to other roles. I soon became the construction foreman and managed a large construction project where I learned a lot along the way. I was eager to do more and ended up opening my own handyman business where I was doing quite well, but still had the feeling that I could be doing even more, doing something different. After 8 years in construction, I decided to go to college, and this is when I started seeing other possibilities and having the desire to do office work rather than manual labor. Through a temp agency, I found a job in the mailroom of GE Capital Center for Learning and Organizational Excellence (CLOE) in Stamford, CT. Although I was not directly involved with the programs, I was able to observe many classes. This was the first time I was exposed to corporate learning and I found it fascinating. My job was helping the learning coordinators ship out training materials, and started offering opportunities to improve certain processes and speed-up the work by doing mail merges, automating processes and more.

That's pretty gutsy for an immigrant to take the lead and say "I can make this better."

So impostor syndrome was almost held me back.

My work was noticed and after only 3 months in the mailroom I was tapped on the shoulder to apply for a full-time position. I actually said “No, I’m still going to college at night and need the flexibility, so temp work may be best for me at this time. I also feel that I need to improve my English before I can work full time for GE.” I think that I just wasn’t quite ready to join a large, very reputable organization… so the impostor syndrome almost held me back. Luckily a senior leader at CLOE had already observed my work and believed in me. She really encouraged me to apply… GE offered to pay for my college tuition and provide a very flexible schedule for me to go to college during the day while working full time. It was like a dream coming true and I am to this day so grateful for that opportunity. I ended up spending 4 years at CLOE before I was transferred to GE Crotonville where I spent another 5 years. During my 9-year tenure at GE, I learned a lot about learning operations, process improvement, leadership development and more. It was also during that time that I was able to complete my master’s degree in Leadership and Strategic Management. It’s incredible how throughout my career I always had someone who looked out for me and offered me great opportunities – I have been very fortunate!

Why do you think you were interested in this type of work?

I love to see people grow, and to give them the opportunities to problem-solve and work on career development. Look at my own path. I came to the US with $500 in my pocket and had to figure out how to get things done. I’m energized by providing the same type of opportunities to people and seeing their eyes shine when they learn something that’s going to help them succeed.

That experience speaks to a sort of resiliency I hear a lot from immigrants.

I think my life experience helps me to put things in perspective. When there's lots of change and uncertainty at work or in life, like now, it helps to remember that I made it over some steep challenges, so by comparison this is less of a big deal.

Can we talk abut how people learn best? How can we learn if we can't get together in a room as often?

The shift to virtual started a few years ago. The appetite of spending three days in a classroom to learn is long gone. Much of our learning now happens in small bites of information. It’s harder to build skills without making it experiential or providing the practice, What I keep challenging my team to do is to make sure we are able to support the entire 70-20-10 model. We must go beyond the 10%, which is traditional classroom training.

What is the 70-20-10 model in Training?

we need to ensure that the experience is actually happening closer to the job and to the business

It’s a rule of thumb that says that 10% of what people learn is acquired through formal training. 20% of what we learn is acquired through coaching or mentoring and 70% is learning on the job. So we need to ensure that the experience is actually happening closer to the job and to the business and not only in a classroom.

I am really energized by growth mindset individuals who take every opportunity to learn and do that by seeking formal training themselves, joining projects that cause them to stretch and perhaps even fail and by asking for constant feedback from their stakeholders so that they can learn from their mistakes and improve. My role in this environment is more to provide structure and guidance rather than just the traditional learning programs.

Isn’t that expecting quite a lot of managers to manage change, to manage their processes and now to be coaches and mentors?

Yes, I agree. Life of a manager is chaotic. There’s too much information, change and expectations sometimes. We can give them the tools and set priorities to create a shared vision and a sense of purpose, but it’s a tough environment. With that said, good leaders are the ones who can motivate and enable their teams to get things done. It is the leaders who do coaching and mentoring naturally, and regard this skill as a basic expectation, and not an add-on to their jobs, succeed at much higher rates

What skills are going to be required in the next 5-10 years? What should we focus on in our hiring practices?

We are going to need people with a growth mindset

We will need agile individuals who are subject matter experts in their fields and can create strong human connections. The insurance industry is being disrupted as we speak. Artificial intelligence, digitization and real-time risk visibility are allowing for simpler insurance premiums to be written without human intervention… this will only get better and more and more will be done online. More complex insurance premiums will continue to be written by SMEs and we will compete on the quality of customer service and ability to create strong and lasting relationships. Coming back to what I said before, individuals with growth mindset will be the ones who will thrive today and in the future.

Not to get too wonky, but do you think Learning & Development, as a field, has the respect it needs to drive & support change? Do you have a "seat at the table?"

Getting that seat at the table has been difficult

Often L&D is viewed as a function that provides formal training solutions rather than performance improvement strategies. There are plenty of people who approach us when they need training arranged, but there aren’t as many asking us to solve real business problems and help improve overall performance. We need to continue evolving as a function and showing value through metrics and tangible outcomes. Getting a seat at the table has been difficult.

Now, I'm going to ask you 5 questions, which you have to answer very quickly with one or two words. Ready?

What offends you?


What’s one lesson do you feel most qualified to teach another person?

If you do the right thing, it'll be rewarded

What makes you cringe?

Office politics

When you're at your best, you're...

Learning and problem solving

What change are you working on?

Getting better at saying no.

Its' been great to talk to you, Ricardo. Where can people reach you?

Please visit me at:



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