Leading in Rapid Growth

Few tech leaders have the perspective Dolores Bernardo enjoys. As a talent development leader at thriving brands including Airbnb and Google, her mission has been to help build a culture of leadership where everyone from executives to new-hires feel they can make a big impact. Bernardo’s career has taken her through tech campuses of Silicon Valley, helping build programs that inspire and support diverse, high-performing leaders and teams. Her finger is on the pulse of her organization, but her perspective is broad, keeping an eye on the evolving needs of the newest generation of employees — millennials — shaping the job market. She gives her take on how leaders, educators and employees can develop new skills and mindsets to be effective leaders of game-changing companies.

It is no surprise Dolores Bernardo chose the field of leadership development. She remembers reading the business section as a teenager while sitting around the table with her father, an economics professor, assessing the successes or failures of the day’s economic policies. Naturally, Bernardo majored in business administration when she arrived at Cal Poly in 1991.

Though she concentrated in finance, she remembers several organizational behavior courses ignited her passion. Management Professor Abraham “Rami” Shani, business law Professor Lee Burgunder, and international business Professors Michael Geringer and Colette Frayne led Bernardo’s favorite courses on team dynamics and business strategy. “I loved everything about those classes, and they helped me realize that I wanted to work with people and teams,” she said.

Bernardo soon found another passion in Cal Poly’s multicultural programs and international opportunities. She remembers mentoring and tutoring first-generation college students during summer break, joining an international business club and studying abroad in Spain. A Rotary scholarship even took her to Costa Rica for a full year to study after graduation.

After several years of working in management consulting, Bernardo fulfilled a lifelong goal of earning a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, one of the most globally diverse programs in the prestigious university. Bernardo said she enjoyed that invaluable perspective while studying business ethics, human rights, global competitiveness and economics. Among the highlights from her year in Boston was studying adaptive leadership with Professor Ronald Heifetz, learning about global business competitiveness with Professor Michael Porter, and examining complex global negotiations with MIT Professor Larry Susskind.

“I realized a lot of what I was learning about successful talent management, culture and women’s advancement efforts came from leadership commitment at the top of the organization,” Bernardo said of the epiphany she had while at Harvard. “And great leaders are able to do that — they’re able to build organizations that amplify all of their talent. Not just for one half of the table; they’re growing everyone around them.”


Steering Silicon Valley

Shortly after graduating from Harvard, Bernardo joined Google’s Diversity and Inclusion team, where she helped establish the company’s early employee resource networks and women’s advancement efforts aimed at enabling a worldwide workforce to thrive.

After two years, she made the move into leadership development with the goal of training thousands of Google’s people managers to grow and scale their teams. But instead of allowing her diversity and leadership programs to remain separate, she combined the two, stressing that good managers build inclusive environments.

“I loved developing new programs to engage leaders as they reflected on their leadership and how to rapidly scale their team’s impact,” Bernardo said. One of the most popular programs she created, called Leadership Impact and Presence, has been taken by more than 500 Googlers. Another program she facilitated, Search Inside Yourself, caught the attention of the New York Times. Many of the programs and strategies in her portfolio were written about in Laszlo Bock’s 2015 book, Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead.

After nearly a decade at Google, Bernardo took her skills to Airbnb — a global platform and trusted community marketplace for people to list, discover and book unique accommodations. She was attracted to the company’s mission to “belong anywhere” because of her own multicultural background. With the move came the chance to develop strategy and programs from the ground up to influence how the company grows its talent.

“When you’re building a brand new organization, there is a lot of opportunity to look at new ways of developing people. I often ask, ‘How can we help foster belonging through our programs? ‘How can we help teams work more effectively together, faster? How can we help leaders model our core values?’”

Bernardo says those questions can be harder to answer on a hyper-growth timetable. Airbnb, which has expanded from one air mattress to listings throughout more than 150 countries in less than a decade, and their leaders must scale their skills up without burning out.

“We’ve helped people stay resilient, build their leadership skills, and take time to reflect on and grow themselves and their teams. It can be quite demanding,” said Bernardo.

Inspired by her experience in Silicon Valley, Bernardo has recently launched her own consulting venture focused on talent development strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. With each client, Bernardo hopes to capture the essence of what makes the company unique and amplify those essential elements throughout the organization through leadership, innovation and inclusion programs that support the company strategy. With her clients, she helps build an inclusive, high-performing culture rooted in Learn by Doing.

“Looking back, I really learned about team development in Professor Shani’s class, and I’m convinced that effective teaming is more critical now than ever,” she said. “In today’s business climate, which can sometimes be described as disruptive, volatile and uncertain, it’s incumbent on teams to trust each other, experiment and learn from their mistakes. If something doesn’t work or a product fails, teams that can adapt quickly can pivot to the next opportunity.”


What’s Next

 Thinking about what’s ahead usually has Bernardo thinking about the past. “Leadership development is a field with lots of history. A lot of the practices have been taken out of military philosophy or spiritual disciplines. Before we talk about executive presence — posture, eye contact, projecting your voice — I start with being present in the moment and introduce participants to a brief mindfulness meditation.”

In addition, Bernardo believes the next generation of leaders will be different than those that came before. “I think we need to produce leaders who are incredibly good at working in a complicated global context. We need people who can see problems from multiple perspectives and who understand that leading is not just about achieving their company goals, but getting involved in the communities in which they operate and giving back.”

Bernardo puts these observations to good use as a member of the Orfalea College of Business Dean’s Advisory Council and a frequent host and mentor for Cal Poly’s student groups. “The rising quality of the next generation of graduates is striking,” she said. “Their questions, insights, and desire to go make a big impact in the world keep me coming back to talk with students year after year.”

Bernardo believes that Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing approach helps graduates prepare for success. “Project-based learning helps someone become really well-prepared for a career in Silicon Valley because so much is done in teams. Learning how to get work done with others is a great way to build empathy, work with different disciplines and collaborate to get something amazing done,” she said. “It is one thing to be a talented founder or leader, but in launching great products, you need a leadership team that works great together.”

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