As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Marianna Zangrillo.
Marianna is a transformational leader, an author and a business angel. Besides a successful senior management career in multinational companies like Nokia, Kemira and Swissport, she pursues a second career as an author and has recently published the book “The Next CEO: Board and CEO Perspective for Successful CEO Succession”.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
It was just a coincidence. At first, I wanted to pursue a career as a judge, but once in Finland as an exchange student, I fell in love with the country, and decided to specialize in international contract and commercial law. With that education I found my first job at QPR Software, a small software firm in Helsinki, and from there I went onwards to various organizations.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I was recruited to Kemira, I was told that I was the youngest female foreigner ever appointed in a VP position in a Finnish multinational. Kemira was a very traditional, Finnish, and male dominated company, where, especially in the factories in Northern Finland, they made decisions without headquarter interference. After my first visit to one of the factories, the plant manager called the CEO and said that if I went there again, he would shut down production. When the CEO called me, he was clearly nervous, but he had initiated a major corporate change and was prepared to face the headwind and back me up. The following months were not easy. I traveled frequently to the less collaborative plants and in the process gained their trust to eventually implement the changes. With humbleness and a human approach one can go a long way.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had just dropped off my kids at school and arrived running to the Nokia Headquarters in Finland. I parked the car and saw someone entering from a back door, so I rushed over and squeezed in behind the person walking in before the door closed. He then walked to an elevator that I had never seen before and I thought oh great, I don’t need to walk through the entire building. When I got in the elevator and the person turned around, I noticed it was Jorma Ollila, Nokia’s CEO at the time. I was too surprised for a good elevator pitch, but I did manage to have a friendly short conversation. We went up, greeted each other and I then walked to my desk. Later, I learned that it was an entrance for the CEO only and so was the elevator. But Nokia was a very flat organization and walking up to the CEO’s door was completely acceptable, so although I made a mistake, no one said anything. I am everything but top-down, and that’s something I learned in Nokia for sure.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would like to recall someone who made a difference in my corporate career, and another one for my career as an author.
In one of my jobs, I got hired because an HR manager saw my application for another position and moved it to the pool of applicants for a role which was more senior by 2 levels. We tend to underestimate the importance and added value of the HR function, which can seriously empower an organization.
As for my career as an author, I am genuinely grateful to Prof. Kari Tanskanen at Aalto University in Finland, as he convinced me to do my PhD alongside work. My husband thought I was out of my mind, but eventually agreed that I could manage that alongside work and family. And in the end, this has led to all the writing I do which I really enjoy.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I don’t have any specific practice to prepare myself. Outside work I value a peaceful family life and I try to sleep and eat well, and do things I genuinely enjoy doing, because in the end they help to relieve stress. Once I need to get my work done, I just go with the flow.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Over the years, I have interacted with quite a few homogenous management teams. When that happens, one can almost predict what they are going to say in any given situation and what arguments they will use to push diversity out. Different perspectives, experiences, and points of view are needed everywhere because, while they might increase disagreements, they allow the collective intelligence to grow, decisions become better, and corporate performance can only benefit. Research backs this up as well. However, organizations with very homogeneous management tend to misunderstand diversity and accuse diverse individuals of “being difficult, incompetent, or not senior enough” for certain roles.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
The discourse around diversity and inclusion tends to be about gender and this is a misleading approach and the wrong focus. Creating a diverse, representative, and equitable society means allowing everyone to be involved, included and heard and utilize all the capabilities to improve business and society.
Which concrete steps to take depends on the starting point. For instance, if an organization wants to expand to Asia, an Asian national in the top team will be a good choice. If a management team has 15 men, it is important to identify and appoint a few women, as anything less than 30% female participation raises questions on the fairness of the organization. Similarly, if the full management team has spent the past 20 years in the same industry or even the same organization, it is necessary to hire from outside to shake things up.
What is more important though, is that just hiring is not enough. Often organizations hire for diversity but do nothing towards true integration or might even actively isolate the people they hire. There are extreme cases like the former CEO of Credit Suisse, Tidjane Thiam, who was a truly diverse hire for a traditional Suisse bank given his roots in Ivory Coast and his career in insurance, but he was never given a real chance to integrate.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
What really sets executives, and especially the CEO, apart from other leaders is the breadth of responsibility because they need to understand the full business and must orchestrate and integrate various dimensions. And if they have a challenge, the CEO especially has no one to escalate their problems to.
Also, CEOs and executives make decisions that may give or take away jobs from many people, such as growing or downsizing, shutting down entire business units or transferring them to low-cost countries. These decisions carry an incredible amount of stress and sometimes even guilt. We tend to see the cool aspects of being a top manager, but there are also other aspects of the job which may be a good enough reason for not wanting to be one.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is probably the idea of the lone hero. In the press, executives and especially the CEO are often described as superheroes or, if they fail, as the super villains who all alone can change an organization for better or worse. Running an organization is a team sport and to get anything done in a large organization you need a solid team with whom to think and collectively drive the organization.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Nowadays men and women are equally capable of running organizations, and some studies have even suggested that female leaders may have a more empathic approach and may do better in the long run. However, it still seems that female executives are often measured by different yardsticks compared to their male counterparts.
If a female executive is assertive, she is described as aggressive. If she acts empathic, she is described as weak and not decisive.
When a male executive leaves the office early to attend to a sick child or to simply attend to a school event, he will be perceived as a more human executive. If a female executive does the same, her commitment to the job might be questioned.
Female executives also need to watch their behaviors far more than their male counterparts. Take a simple behavior like offering a coffee at a meeting. If a male executive offers coffee in a meeting, he is being perceived as a good host. If a female executive does the same, she will be perceived as a secretary.
Additional complications are added when the woman is also a mother. Women with children are often seen as the main care givers, and many have reported that during interviews they have been asked, directly or indirectly, if they have children even though this is illegal. It has honestly never happened to me in Finland, a country known for gender equality, however, it has happened to me in Switzerland. At the final round for a couple top jobs, I was asked if I had children, and then told directly: “Sorry, this is no job for a mother of 3”. However, things are changing — the younger generations are more used to sharing housework, to seeing women in top positions, and I am confident that we are moving in the right direction.
What is the most striking difference between a CEOs job and how they think the job will be?
Based on the many interviews conducted with CEOs for our book, some common themes emerged. First, few CEOs realize beforehand how all-consuming the CEO job can be. As one CEO told us in confidence: “I wake up every morning and there is a crisis somewhere waiting for me. And I am expected to somehow resolve it. I was not prepared for this”. Then there is the issue that in any other job you can escalate a decision up the chain. As a CEO you simply cannot do this and when you do raise challenges to the board, you risk the board seeing you as incapable. Many CEOs have commented that they were unprepared for the breadth of the responsibility. Even if they were appointed to CEO from inside, a whole set of new things appeared, making them feel as if they were completely unprepared. And finally, some CEOs said that they thought the job would come with automatic authority and then found out that as CEO they also needed to sell their ideas and get the organization to support them.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
We are used to seeing mostly overconfident alpha males in the board room, but if we were more open to diversity and inclusion, the board room could be populated by more diverse teams and then more types of people could get there.
However, for the time being we do see typical characteristics of executives, and therefore strong, determined and persistent people, typically good at networking and selling themselves, tend to have an upper hand and are more likely to become executives. I would, however, encourage whoever desires to become an executive to work their way up working hard, always being ethical, but also identifying the relationships which might become useful for their goal.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be yourself, do not try to fit in the established corporate practices and give your teams the room to grow in a more genuine way, with the flexibility to balance work and private life as they please, as long as they perform. This is more human and can infuse organizations with new energy and raise their potential.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Sadly, not yet. I support a variety of charities and often offer free advice when I am asked to help review a CV, write up an application or consider career options, but I have not yet engaged in any systematic activity of that kind. But that is in the plan, so stay tuned!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Will is power. At times you may feel overwhelmed, work and family may take it all, but you do need to be persistent and prioritize what matters to you to make it happen.
- Be organized but be prepared to deal with surprises. I am a very structured person but when you have two careers and a family with kids, at times you get desperate. Calls from school in the middle of a meeting are a classic. You need to accept that you may not be able to plan everything in advance but do try to think of possibilities ahead, have plans B and C ready and if nothing works, just be relaxed about it and most of the time people will understand.
- Relationships often matter more than performance. I truly wish I did not have to say this. I have always tried to get my next job through performance rather than relationships and that has not helped me. To young people I say, pay attention, focus on doing the right things, but do not neglect those who matter and can give you a hand if needed.
- You need lots of energy. Sleep well, eat well, exercise and do the things you enjoy and give you energy. When life gets tough, the tough needs to get going and you cannot do that without enough energy reserves.
- Never take it personally. As a female leader working abroad, I have been often sidelined. You need to be prepared for that and learn not to take it personally.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a mother of three, I can only see the importance of education and how different the opportunities are that children get in the modern world. Today more than ever, I wish all children would have the right to a good education, because without this the chances of achieving anything in life are much reduced. A fair society starts from strong education for everyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The chain is only as strong as its weakest link, for if that fails the chain fails and the object that it has been holding up falls to the ground” (T. Reid, Scottish philosopher). That holds true for organizations. We tend to look up to the most visible leaders, who have the task to drive the organization and make the most difficult decisions, but the beauty of any society, organizations included, is that there are all the different people who make it up and the weak links are part of that beauty too. No leader has the right to be too busy or unaware to overlook the well-being of those weak links.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
In Switzerland there is a very well-known story about Oprah Winfrey. In 2013 she entered a luxury shop in Zurich’s most expensive shopping street, and when she asked to see some bags, she was told: “No no, you don’t want to see that one, you want to see this one, because that one will cost too much, and you will not be able to afford that”. Oprah is an amazing person, who has invested her time and funds to help many underrepresented groups. A breakfast or lunch chat with Oprah would be great.