Blog / Lewis Leader Spotlight: Board Member Manuel San Miguel
October 16, 2023
Elizabeth Murray ,
Manny San Miguel
Lewis Leader Spotlight: Board Member Manuel San Miguel
Lewis Leader Reflects on the Importance of His Hispanic Heritage, Culture, and Why He Chose Lewis
Manuel (Manny) San Miguel
The small note was carefully tucked under the keyboard on his desk. Para leer este artículo en español, haga clic aquí.
Manny San Miguel was working late and might not have noticed the folded sheet except that it was penned on stationary that he didn’t recognize. He was the last person in the office that night and, as he quietly read the handwritten message, felt his life pause for a moment.
“Dear Mr. San Miguel….” it began. The note was written by a member of the cleaning staff—contracted employees with whom he’d had no formal introduction or engagement. The note explained that, due to some misunderstandings and failure to reach a resolution, the crew had been relieved of their duties and the cleaning contract would be going to someone else. He continued reading, admittedly skeptical about the direction of the message, however the note took an unexpected turn that has remained with him since.
This crew, with whom he’d had no real interactions, noticed who he was. They noticed his executive role in the company. They noticed he was Hispanic.
“I just wanted you to know that it was a pleasure coming to work at a place that had a Hispanic leader in a position such as yours.”
The short sentence stunned him. In that instant, San Miguel was flooded with a range of emotions from shock to humility, but the realization that jolted him the most was that they NOTICED. This crew, with whom he’d had no real interactions, noticed who he was. They noticed his executive role in the company. They noticed he was Hispanic.
It was an impactful experience that never left San Miguel and continues to influence his life, leadership style, and perspective on the impact a leader’s culture and heritage can have– even with people they’ve never met.
Rooted in Culture
Born in Puerto Rico to parents who were doctors, San Miguel’s childhood was split between his beloved island and the United States as his parents continued their education. And while San Miguel spent a number of his formative years in the States (including high school), he proudly credits his Puerto Rican upbringing and culture as driving forces in his personal and professional life.
Since the very beginning of his distinguished career, San Miguel has always placed a high priority on creating teams that function like family. Quick to concede that “finance isn’t always fun,” San Miguel works diligently to foster strong bonds. He instinctively champions transparency, encourages his team members to speak up, and strives to build a culture of comradery by sharing meals together and enjoying each other’s company. “I started that from Day 1 because it’s part of Hispanic culture—that warmness— creating teams that were families,” shares San Miguel. “It wasn’t until many years later that I realized how different that was—but now I’m really glad I did it that way.”
For nearly three decades, San Miguel’s successful career path has taken him to C-suites and board rooms across the globe. He has held executive leadership positions with QualiTech, CHS Inc, and PepsiAmericas, and now serves as Chief Financial Officer at AmesburyTruth, a subsidiary of Tyman plc. Over the years, San Miguel has remained faithful to his Hispanic roots and people-centric style—which is what drew him to Lewis.
For San Miguel, the decision to serve on the Board of vegetation management industry leader, Lewis, was easy. On paper, Lewis was already doing important work, in an impressive industry, and experiencing unprecedented growth. However, while the numbers and expansion charts were certainly compelling, San Miguel was struck by something even more remarkable than reports: Lewis’ laser-like focus on its people.
“Every time I spoke with the leadership team, it always came back to their people and the importance they placed on the employees as a group, employees as owners,” San Miguel recounts from the interview process. “That’s big,” he continues. “You’d be surprised how many organizations don’t have that. It’s striking. It’s not cookie-cutter. It’s not boilerplate. The “body” of employees that we have at Lewis is almost like a 3rd person in the room—that’s how “present” the employees are in every conversation.”
Once officially appointed to the Board in 2022, San Miguel’s early impressions were immediately validated and he quickly transitioned from referring to Lewis as “they” to proudly embracing “we.” As one of Lewis’ newest Board members, San Miguel enthusiastically assumed his role not only as a company leader—but a HISPANIC company leader. And for a company with a significantly Hispanic workforce, San Miguel was excited to become a contributor to Lewis’ culture and future.
The Impact of Culture
Every time I spoke with the leadership team, it always came back to their people and the importance they placed on the employees as a group, employees as owners…You’d be surprised how many organizations don’t have that.
Founded 85 years ago in Rochester, NY, Lewis’ ranks have expanded to more than 4,000 employees operating in 27 states as the company has established its place as one of the most respected vegetation management companies in North America. Lewis is proud of its strong legacy and robust business growth, but the organization is especially proud of its diverse team. In 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than 77% of the U.S. labor force was White. However, demographics across the U.S. labor force are changing rapidly. Lewis’ workforce demographics show that more than 67% of our current employees identify as Hispanic, Latino, Black, and/or African American.
The significance of Lewis’ racial, ethnic, and cultural composition is critically important to company leadership. Heather Steranka, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, explains, “Our cultural backgrounds impact everything—the foods and music we like, how we form relationships, how we build trust, and even our leadership styles.” Steranka continues, “And in a high-risk industry like ours, where communication and trust are imperative for maintaining safety, it is incumbent upon us to create and sustain the most inclusive culture possible for our employees and those we serve.”
Creating Inclusive Spaces
During the pandemic, San Miguel witnessed firsthand how creating a culture of genuine inclusivity can impact every facet of an organization, from recruitment and retention to productivity and pride. As businesses across the U.S. continued to grapple with labor shortages, San Miguel’s company at the time found themselves in a puzzling predicament. The company was located in a region that included a rich pool of Hispanic potential employees, however their recruitment efforts continuously failed. Leadership could not understand why these talented laborers didn’t want to work for them.
A local agency that specialized in working with the Hispanic community opened the company’s eyes to what was missing and encouraged them to create a workplace that was welcoming and supportive for the community—an environment that reflected the Hispanic workers, that had posters on the wall in Spanish, that provided bilingual instructions, and that inspired job candidates to say, “This company is for someone LIKE ME.”
San Miguel admits that his company wasn’t doing these things very well, so they committed to making important, purposeful changes, which resulted in a more welcoming, comfortable workplace. They partnered with the local agency, hired great staff, and the impact was incredible. San Miguel shares, “We got past the labor issue—and then some. We started setting record-level performances related to volume and productivity, and that was no coincidence.” He continues, “The changes we had to make weren’t necessarily “easy”, but they were simple things that we were overlooking and not paying attention to. Once we addressed them, we were able to make it a better workplace that was more attractive and rewarding for a diverse team.”
San Miguel learned some significant lessons from that experience and offers another simple but poignant recommendation for creating more inclusive environments: LISTEN. When trying to create a better work environment, he underscores the importance of listening to each other’s needs to understand what coworkers are passionate about, and what they need to be successful. Taking it a step further, San Miguel urges leadership to encourage their teams to speak up. For a company like Lewis, where communication is closely linked to safety, effective communication among workers is key to maintaining safety and delivering the kind of results Lewis calls Job Done Right®.
Walk the Talk
Reflecting on his initial conversations with Lewis leadership and what he has experienced so far during his Board tenure, San Miguel states, “I’ve never seen anybody “walk the talk” like Lewis does when it comes to how much they care about their employees.” For San Miguel, “walk the talk” comes to life in ways big and small. It means taking deliberate steps to create and maintain a culture that is inclusive, welcoming, and supportive for all. It is an investment in teams and resources to keep employees safe. It happens when people from diverse backgrounds feel included and engaged. And “walk the talk” is manifested in diversity at all levels of the organization, and opportunities for growth for all.
Though San Miguel has achieved many notable successes during the course of his career, he has never forgotten that simple but profound note he received years ago. With great humility, San Miguel knows that people are always watching and listening. They can tell whether diversity, equity, and inclusion are revered core values or empty words on a poster or company website. They know if opportunities for advancement are superficial or authentic. As a board member and proud Hispanic leader, San Miguel is honored to be part of the Lewis legacy. And though many vegetation management workers at Lewis may not ever interact with Manny San Miguel, he wants them to know—thanks to the cleaning staff in his company long ago—that he notices THEM and feels privileged to represent them at the highest levels of leadership in the organization.
I’ve never seen anybody “walk the talk” like Lewis does when it comes to how much they care about their employees.
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