Editor's note: This article is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month Q&A series highlighting leaders of Latino and Hispanic heritage.
Rafael Santana is President and CEO of Wabtec (Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation), leading a team of about 25,000 employees in over 50 countries. He led Wabtec’s transformation into a Fortune 300 company, overseeing the successful integration and execution during a time of significant challenge in the industry. With revenues of roughly $8 billion, Wabtec is a leading global provider of equipment, digital solutions and value-added services for rail industry. Since January 2022, Santana has served on the board of Travelers Corporation, one of the largest insurance companies in North America. Rafael has a degree in engineering from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil.
How did you approach your readiness to lead? Was there a defining moment that led you to this point in your career?
Growing up in Brazil, my parents taught my sister and I the value of hard work, adaptability, and resilience. At a young age I was exposed to sports, which opened up an opportunity for me to move to the United States for a year during high school and compete as a swimmer. At the time, I could hardly speak or read English. That experience taught me grit, how to be resourceful, how to adapt to an unfamiliar environment, and that no challenge is too big to overcome. Some of these values became evident as I grew in my career and moved into expanded leadership roles in Germany, Italy and the U.S., where I quickly immersed myself in new businesses and cultures and fostered a collaborative culture of high-performing teams.
There have been several experiences throughout my career that have shaped me as a person and leader. A recent one that stands out is when I was tapped to serve as President and CEO of GE Transportation. Roughly two weeks into the role, I was informed by leadership the business would be sold. Tension and uncertainty ran high amongst our global team. Concurrently, the rail industry was undergoing its most significant downturn across the North American market. To overcome these hurdles, we focused on building a high-performing team grounded in communication, speed of decision making, accountability, and trust. Together, we integrated distinct business units, cultures and product portfolios under one umbrella, navigated through complex challenges, and continued to develop a culture grounded in purpose and passion – all while delivering significant value creation in a contracting marketplace.
Have you faced any specific difficulties during that process? What have you learned from that?
Throughout my career, every experience (including the one I described) shaped me as an individual, colleague and leader, and reaffirmed my belief in three core tenets that turn good companies into the best companies.
First, I firmly believe that customers are the lifeblood of any organization. By listening and understanding their needs and challenges, and aligning our success to their success, we will develop the right products and solutions, and be a trusted partner they come back to again and again. Make sure you understand your impact, the commitments you are making and be vigilant on exceeding expectations.
Second, we will succeed as a team, not as individuals. Winning teams embrace a culture of trust and collaboration. They believe empowerment comes with accountability. Winning teams operate with integrity and they know how to have fun – even in tough times. In any team I am a part of, I expect transparency and candor – that we own up to what is going well, admit to what is not working and have the courage to drive change. Healthy teams are willing to debate issues and tell each other – especially their leader – when they disagree. They search for the answers to improve and not the excuses of why it didn’t work. I value diverse individuals and perspectives, collaborative team players, positive thinkers and creative problem solvers. Great teams are focused on making amazing things better every day.
Finally, none of this means anything without results. Execution matters. Doing what we say we are going to do matters. Being accountable for ourselves and our teams and to our shareholders is key. Our credibility is all we have in the end. My promise to my team is the same promise I share with our customers and investors – an environment grounded in execution rigor and accountability, a culture built on transparency, and a focus on outcomes that matter.
What lights your fire as a leader?
I am inspired by the people around me, our teams, and our customers. I love to help others grow, learn new things, and solve business challenges that help our customers’ and teams’ win.
Leaders of Latino/Hispanic heritage are often the “only” ones or the minority at the top of companies. Have you ever felt that way?
Where there were times I have felt that way, I always felt stronger about the learnings that came from these experiences. In turn, I make it a point to encourage members on my team to speak up and feel empowered to grow and do their best work. Clearly, these elements are critical for diversity of thinking to emerge. I learned that early in my career.
What is a piece of advice you could offer other professionals of Latino/Hispanic heritage to tap into their full potential and become their full selves as leaders?
Find your best everyday to inspire others. Your greatest work will come from teamwork. Remember … there is no shame in asking for help especially when the help of others guarantees the teams’ success.