From the National Guard to Organizational Leadership: Lessons Learned from a Journey of Resilience, Determination and Success

By: Migdalia Diaz, Chief Operating Officer

When I tell people that I began my career serving in the Connecticut Army National Guard, I get a lot of questions about how my military service shaped me as a leader and how that translates into the work that I do now: leading operations and culture for a Latino-founded organization working to elevate the leadership and representation of Latinos within the education sector.

In my eight years of service, there are two lessons, in particular, that have stayed with me all these years.

The first lesson taught me that the effectiveness of a team is directly tied to the environment created by leadership. I have seen the same team fail under one leader and thrive under another simply as a result of the company culture being created from the top down. Even in an environment like the military, where orders are expected to be followed, a mediocre leader (at best) will see orders followed exactly as given, no more, no less. A great leader creates an environment where orders are followed in a way that creates innovation along the way.

The same can be said whether you’re running a government agency – which I did as COO of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development – or whether you’re managing a growing team within the nonprofit sector; creating an environment that supports organizational and employee growth is predicated on a culture of transparency and collaboration.

The second lesson taught me how to be a compassionate leader who brings out the best in people. In high-stakes or difficult situations, I quickly learned how to manage my emotions – and remain calm – in order to focus on the task at hand, a skill that I’ve come to realize is vital for any leader. When you’re managing difficult situations or conversations, it’s important to suspend any judgment or emotion and listen to your team before responding. That is how I’ve built trust and resolved differences throughout my career.

After my service in the national guard, I spent nearly 17 years working at global consulting firms providing public accounting and tax consultation services and products to both large and small organizations. During this time, I became fascinated with understanding how companies create operational agility – through their finances, operations, and teams – to respond to quickly changing environments, whether economically driven or driven by changing legislation. A fascination that meant I needed to consider a career change.

It was at this point in my career that I decided to get more involved with a nonprofit organization that was pivotal in helping me understand how to integrate my American upbringing, Puerto Rican heritage and military background in a way that allowed me to show up in every aspect of my life with integrity. In the spring of 2012, The Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA) welcomed me onto the board of directors for the Boston Chapter and in the fall of 2013, I became the Boston Chapter President. By May of 2015, my contributions as President led to my role as national COO for the organization, which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for in my personal and professional journey.

ALPFA taught me about the diversity in the Latinx community and the varying challenges our community faces across the country. In the time I spent there, I was most proud of the work we did to right-size our finances and streamline operations to support the incredible work being done in each state and in Puerto Rico. In fact, this work created the foundation I needed to deal with the operational challenges I faced in my next role as COO of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development throughout the pandemic and in the ensuing aftermath. Dealing with the realities of a sudden 2000% increase in benefit services needing to be delivered and the impact that growth had on our operations, and on our employees was a lesson in resilience and how company culture can make or break an organization experiencing that kind of stress. That time also provided another lesson, it showed me how all the inequities the members of our community experience are connected and how we must act collectively to truly make a difference in the long term. It was this lesson that informed my next role. I knew that I needed to be more focused on affecting the day to day reality of my Latinx community in a way that leverages my strengths.

As I step into the Chief Operating Officer role at Latinos for Education, I am inspired by the organization’s mission to create a world where Latino students have unlimited opportunities to succeed and where they see themselves reflected in the world around them. This work is deeply personal to me as I reflect on my own experiences and that of my nieces. I dream of a future version of a world where Latinx children perceive their future as limitless. For me, that starts with figuring out ways we can scale the impact of Latinos for Education programs.

My goal is to ensure that the work Latinos for Education does touches more educators, students and families in the years to come so we can truly build an education system where Latinos can be themselves, truly and freely. This will require us to scale our impact and build the proper infrastructure and team to deliver on our mission. All my experiences have led me to this moment and this challenge, and I’m excited to serve my community in my new role – with purpose y sin miedo.


Migdalia Diaz serves as Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Latinos for Education. Previously, Migdalia spent more than 2 years as COO of the Association of Latino Professionals for America, Inc. and 5 years in State Government as Chief of Staff and then COO for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. She spent the first 17 years of her career as a consultant in the private sector. Born in Puerto Rico, Migdalia began her career after graduating from the University of Connecticut while serving in the Connecticut Army National Guard, where she served for 8 years, an experience that has helped shape her leadership and team management skills throughout her career.