SG Articles

One in a Million

A veteran leader talks shop
By Anna Campitelli, editor

Last year, Jose “Pepi” Diaz beat out more than a million candidates to become a contestant on season five of NBC’s The Apprentice. While he started off strong, coming up with Team Synergy’s name and volunteering early to be a project manager, he was “fired” in just the second episode.

When a finalist brought Diaz back to help with the last
Apprentice task, most viewers were shocked, given his early exit. However, it came as no surprise to us at Student Leader. After bearing witness to his exceptional collegiate career, we’re used to seeing Diaz “trump” expectations.

In college, Diaz became the first-ever Hispanic president of the Southern Interfraternity Conference---despite being told that a minority would never garner enough votes. During his term as the University of Miami’s student body president, Diaz received state, national, and even international accolades when he won Florida Leader’s 2002 Florida College Student of the Year Award. He later graduated with honors from Columbia Law School in New York and currently works for the largest law firm in Miami.

Although his reality TV stint was brief, Diaz chalks it up as another valuable learning experience. He recently shared his thoughts with
Student Leader.

Q: How did you approach your experience on The Apprentice?

JOSE DIAZ: This might seem very cliché, but I went into the experience with a positive attitude and a philosophy of having no regrets. I’d seen every season of the show, read all of Donald Trump's books, and knew that my work ethic could compete with virtually anyone.

My parents also instilled a sense of determination in me at an early age. They both came from Cuba in their pre-teen years and had to work extremely hard not only to survive, but to learn English and establish themselves in a completely new environment. So, I came into the show knowing that if my parents were able to accomplish everything they did, then I could certainly compete on a national stage if I gave it my all.

Honestly, my ultimate goal was to be the next "Apprentice," but my underlying focus was on making sure that I stayed true to myself and the values that my family taught me throughout my life. Yes, I might have done a couple of things differently that might have helped me evade an early exit, but the overall experience was positive. I came out of the show with my dignity intact, and my life has been positively affected by the experience as a result. 

Q. How did your previous leadership roles prepare you for being a contestant?

JD: Over one million people applied for the show, a large percentage of which had more real work experience than me. I was actually the second-youngest person on the show, and the only person to be picked that was coming straight out of school. That means that I was at a competitive disadvantage, since a majority of the candidates came in with decades of varied and relevant work experience.

I wasn’t too concerned about my lack of work experience, though, because I had been actively involved with student activities since I was in high school. My decade of student leadership roles gave me the experience, self confidence, and decision-making ability that were needed to make the cut. The experiences of a student leader should not be written off as trivial—I wouldn’t have been selected as one of the 18 competitors without the years of training I received in Student Council, Student Government, and other like-activities.

Q. In what ways did leading a team on a reality show differ from your real-life leadership experience?

JD: I was nominated to be project manager very early on in the season. Being a leader on a reality show was totally different from a typical real-life situation because everyone was not only analyzing all your decisions so they could have fodder for the boardroom, but they were also working against you a lot of the time to make you look like a flawed leader. Plus, having several cameras on you at all times makes you second-guess most, if not all, of the decisions that you make.

I made tough decisions when I was a student leader, but I knew that if they turned out poorly, I could learn from the mistakes and apply those lessons to future decisions. On the show, I knew that every mistake I made would be seen by millions of people. The potential of embarrassing yourself in front of a national audience is a really overwhelming feeling. But, the experience was absolutely worth it. 

Q: What are the challenges of building a cohesive team when members come from all different backgrounds and may not share the same goals?

JD: The fifth season of The Apprentice was actually the most diverse season to date. The producers of the show made a concerted effort to have an international group. I was Cuban-American; others were Indian, Portuguese, Russian, Canadian, Filipino, etc. It took us all a while to get used to each other, since everyone came with such a unique perspective. In the end, I’m glad that the group was as diverse as it was. It really allowed us all to learn a lot about ourselves and other cultures. 

Q: Because each team member was also a contestant who wanted to win, how difficult was it to work together?

JD: Every cast member is uber-competitive, so every task becomes exponentially harder, with every single person trying to outsmart the others.

Something that I learned early on in my student leadership experience was that having a cohesive team is worth its weight in gold. I was always lucky to surround myself with amazingly talented people that complimented my strengths and weaknesses. Post-Apprentice, I can say that I would have no problem working with a majority of my cast-mates. But during the 16-week experience, it was anything but easy to keep everyone on the same page. 

Q: Gaining and maintaining respect can be crucial to your success as a leader.  Is it possible to earn colleagues’ respect in a short amount of time? If so, what are some ways that you can do this?

When you come into a group of new colleagues, I think that it’s important to demonstrate unique skills that will set you apart. It’s equally important to be self-confident in front of your peers. One of the quickest ways to lose someone’s respect is to be unsure about your decisions very early.

Something that I always appreciated in my teammates was if they were honest with me from the onset. No one wants a teammate that they can’t trust. If you are yourself and you work hard, people will see that and respect you. 

Q: Is it important to be passionate about projects that you’re working on? Or can good leaders “fake it” to get a job done?

JD: It’s very difficult to fake passion. Most leaders have a unique ability to advocate for their projects and learn to truly believe in them. If you’re morally or ethically opposed to a project, then you will never be able to be passionate about it. That’s why you need to become involved in a profession or with projects that you can really care about. Those who lead with conviction inspire others.

Q: Why should a leader be a good listener?

If you don’t listen to your team, you might miss a big ticket idea. Worse yet, you could make someone feel like they’re being ignored. Whether you’re the leader, manager, or just a member of the team, it’s important to hear everyone out. I’ve dealt with so many people that have a difficult time accepting anyone’s ideas but their own. These are usually the first people to make enemies in a new environment and the first to get ostracized. 

I’ve also learned that no matter how important someone is (i.e. Donald Trump), they will respect and listen to you if you have something productive to say. The additional caveat to that is that you don’t need to speak just to speak. Listening is so important in a group environment, and sometimes the smartest people are the ones that are speaking the least. That way, when you say something worthwhile, people will take note. 

Q: How important is it for a leader to be decisive? Why?

Being decisive is a big component of self-confidence. Once you’ve made a decision, you need to stick by it in order for others to keep their spirits high. If you start second-guessing yourself only minutes after you make your initial decision, others will lose faith.

That’s not to say that you can’t change your mind and try to fix a mistake once you catch it. But, be decisive. Be sure of your decisions. You were elected or chosen to your position because someone believed in your abilities. You owe it to your constituents to fight for what you believe no matter what. 

Q: What are some ways that you resolve conflicts? Were any of these methods successful on the show?

JD: As an attorney, I was trained to mediate and resolve conflicts, and it has become almost instinctual. It’s also hard to imagine that the daily problems we face while we’re student leaders can teach us big lessons, but they actually do.

I remember my time as student body president at UM fondly, but there were certainly times when I needed to resolve personal conflicts that seemed unmanageable. For me, it’s always easiest to be detached, so as to not choose sides, while being empathetic about other people’s feelings. The human psyche is an amazingly powerful thing, and many of our best leaders are really vulnerable and concerned about how other people perceive them. If you come off as choosing one side over the other, most people will naturally become defensive.

During my time on The Apprentice, I actually had to handle a major conflict between two of my teammates. I choose to keep them away from each other, and this ultimately caused us to lose a lot of precious time. I learned that in the future, it’s important not only to deal with the conflict, but also to do so efficiently. 
Q: When someone attacks or undermines you, how do you deal with it?

JD: In the real world, it’s difficult to figure out when someone is purposely undermining you. But, on The Apprentice, it was easy to see if someone was setting you up for the fall. In my opinion, you can either confront this person directly (and speak with him candidly in one final attempt to establish harmony), or you can form alliances with other team members who will continue to work hard in spite of the resistance you’re facing. Obviously, if you have the ability to fire or transfer the team member, that might be another option, but that might end up inspiring other people to go against the grain.

Q: How important is delegation to the successful completion of a task? Is it possible to delegate when you don’t trust your teammates to do an adequate job?

Great leadership is 90 percent delegation. Some of the most successful people I know are the ones that have great people around them. If you trust your teammates, you will be able to focus on the big-ticket items that need your attention. Micro-managing simple tasks can only work against you. That’s why it’s particularly important to surround yourself with people you trust. 

Q: If a team member constantly distracts others from the task at hand, or brings others down with negative energy, how do you deal with that?

JD: Most people with negative energy have tremendous potential for disruption. It’s up to the leader to ensure that teammates gel and form a cohesive unit. If someone is becoming a constant distraction, I believe that you must address it immediately. Under the parameters of reality television, this is a bit more difficult to actually pull off since you don’t have the authority to discipline anyone.

Q: When teammates lack focus, what do you do to get everyone back on track?

JD: After a long day, it’s easy to lose focus. I think that throughout the day, week, month, or whatever time frame you’re working with, it’s a good idea to re-group and re-evaluate where you are on the way to your goal.

One thing that our first project manager did was get everyone together when there was one hour before the task was over. She energized everyone and challenged us to work harder than ever, since one sale could make the difference between winning and losing. That simple speech made a gigantic impact on our performance and we ended up winning. 

Q: Which is more difficult for you–leading a team of people who don’t share your vision and goals, or following a leader that you don’t believe in? Did you face either situation while on the show?

JD: Leading a team is usually more difficult than being led. That applies in good times and in bad. When a team doesn’t buy into your goals, you’re doomed from the start.

I faced a situation where certain members of my team didn’t share my vision and goals. This was especially problematic considering that a boardroom was to follow. 

Q: How do you motivate others to follow you?

JD: I’m a firm believer in leading by example. I’m the first one to get my hands dirty. Plus, I make sure that everyone becomes invested and involved in the task at hand. There’s nothing more crucial to success than empowering your teammates. It’s not just about having people do menial tasks; it’s about getting them to make big, bold decisions that benefit the whole group. 

Q: What image do you try to project as a leader? Do you feel that you were portrayed that way on the show?

I don’t think that I consciously try to portray a specific image as a team leader. On the show, my time as project manager was very short. Most of the episode where I was fired focused on other team members, but I was happy with the way that I was portrayed. I think that I came across as a reserved but confident person. Many of my friends from the show felt that they were portrayed incorrectly, but for the most part, I was happy with the way that the story was told. 

Q: Did you feel that you had to have a “game face” on 24/7?

Being filmed 24 hours a day challenges you in many interesting ways. You have to be at your peak with your “game face” on from first thing in the morning until you go to sleep. 

Something that most people don’t see on TV is the amount of time that the candidates put into each task. Breakfast and lunches are almost non-existent, as is sleep. It’s really the most extreme environment, and that’s what makes for such great television. You don’t want to be the person that fell asleep at midnight, and you know that someone else is going to stay up all night and continue working—so you have to buckle down and do the same.

The lack of sleep and eating are a great recipe for television drama. Everyone is at their wit’s end and it’s only a matter of time before someone snaps. Luckily, I was able to keep my composure, and I learned a valuable lesson about my ability to continue working hard even if I haven’t slept in a couple of days. After The Apprentice, a 12-to 14-hour work day seems easy. 

Q: A lot of viewers were surprised that you were chosen to help during a final task, given your early firing. Why do you think you were brought back, and why was it the right decision?

JD: The fact that I was chosen for the final task was a pretty controversial decision. Though biased, I thought that it was a good decision since I had spent significant time getting to know that last task manager. We had similar family and educational backgrounds.

But, it was a big, calculated risk. I had never worked with the final project manager before and this could have been a real problem if we didn’t work cohesively. Luckily for that manager, we ended up working well together and we had a blast during the final task.   

Q. Were any key moments edited out that, if left in, would have told a different story?

Each episode on The Apprentice covers one task, and each task takes several days. With as much footage as the producers have, it’s absolutely impossible to include everything that happens, especially since in every episode each team only gets about 10 minutes of screen time to develop the plot. 

Q: How similar was your experience to that of a modern-day politician, who is constantly in the public eye and followed by the media?  Would your experience make you think twice about running for office one day?

I think that the reality show experience is a bit different from that of a modern-day politician.  Obviously, the lowest common denominator is the continuous presence of the camera, but in all actuality, the reality show doesn’t produce as many good sound bites as one would think. A politician usually has speech writers, and rehearsed messages, while someone who’s on The Apprentice is dealing with unfolding events while the camera’s still rolling.

The side-bar typed interviews are very unsettling though. Being asked a series of un-related and perfectly calculated questions keeps you on the edge of your seat. You never know what sort of questions the producers, or Donald Trump for that matter, are going to ask about the task at hand.

Q: Did you learn anything new about yourself while on the show?

JD: I learned about my ability to work under extreme pressure. I also learned to appreciate my unique background more. The 18 people that were chosen for the show could not have been any more different. Again, I was probably ten years younger than a majority of the cast, and I was still able to capture their attention because of my diverse background. It’s always fun to teach people about new cultures and about how similar we all really are at the end of the day. 
Q: How has your life changed since appearing on The Apprentice?

JD: Not only did I come out of the show with a whole new group of business contacts, but my professional life at home was impacted in an amazing way. Right off the bat, I was able to start a successful Internet networking site for Cuban-Americans ( I was also able to meet people at events that would have been beyond my pay scale for quite a few years. My friends, family, and law firm embraced my experience and supported me throughout. I could not have asked for more. 
Contact Diaz at

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