Empathy. As a leader, you often need to make unpleasant decisions. Sometimes, you must drive people hard. Other times, you must let people go. Having the empathy to see the person in front of you and giving them respect — while doing what needs to be done from the organization’s perspective — is essential.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Marianna Zangrillo.

Marianna is a transformational leader, a business angel, and an author. She’s spent the past 20 years working in senior roles across industries, spearheading transformation initiatives that drive operational excellence, higher ROI, and increased corporate performance. In these roles, Marianna has led teams and projects in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. In addition, she’s conducted research on boards, CEO succession, leadership teams, and board design, which has been published in MIT Sloan Management Review, LSE Business Review, I by IMD, her book The Next CEO, and her new book, The Next Leadership Team: How to Select, Build, and Optimize Your Top Team. Marianna is a partner at The Next Advisors, where she advises CEOs, executives, and board members, and a C-level executive at a European multinational corporation.

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

At the moment, I’m busier and more engaged than ever. We’ve just released our new book on leadership teams and have received many requests for interviews and magazine contributions. At the same time, I’m leading the procurement transformation of the company I work for. And then, I try to balance all of this with an intense family life with five kids of different ages and a dog. I couldn’t do it without my amazing husband, who helps on all fronts. I guess I’m one of those half-lucky and smart women who’ve learned to juggle a portfolio of things and pick the right life partner.

We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

I’ve been really impressed by Luka Mucic, the former CFO of SAP, a German multinational software company. I got to know Luka a few years back through a conference; since then, he’s always had an open door for me regarding advice on work topics and my writing endeavors. He’s a truly impressive individual. I’ve never understood how he manages to get back to me in a few minutes — which has been the case every time I’ve approached him, even via email — even during his busiest times.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

As Albert Einstein famously said, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Since I always try new things, I don’t use the word “mistake” as I’d see far too many mistakes in what I do.

But there is something I used to do completely wrong (which I don’t do anymore). My first team leader position happened early on in my career. I was 28 and tasked with leading a team of five sourcing managers at Nokia, a telecommunications and consumer electronics corporation. My colleagues were, on average, 15 years older than I was, both in age and experience. I was so focused on results and obsessed with “making the numbers” that I ended up hurting a lot of people. This went on until someone came to me and said, “You’re making incredible things happen, but you’re also leaving lots of dead bodies around you.”

Hearing this was like being shoved into a cold shower. Right then and there, I learned that the best things happen when people feel appreciated and are free to deliver in ways that work for them. No company has ever sustainably delivered because a top executive proclaimed, “We need to make our numbers.”

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?

The longer I work as a leader, the more I realize that it’s not enough to form a team, motivate individuals, and guide them to high performance. Especially in times of multiple crises, as we’re experiencing here in Europe, a leader must also care deeply about the well-being of their team members.

We’ve seen countless people burn out under the pressure of change and transformation. It’s the leader’s task to recognize when a team member is crumbling and needs help. To create resilience, you need to manage the load for everyone — even when you, yourself, are under pressure. Being a leader nowadays means being more human and less numerical. When leaders do this, the numbers will slowly become right.

Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

In the past, I thought I had to be at every event, every dinner, and every conference. To be visible and to network. At some point, I realized that much of that doesn’t add value, and it discriminates against mothers and individuals who have personal constraints. Nowadays, I go to some dinners and some events. But I’m selective about these commitments and tend to leave as soon as “the official part” is over.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

I think the most important leadership behavior is to protect your team so they can perform. In large corporations, there’s so much nonsense that’s required for reporting, coordination, and more, especially when processes and systems are lacking. There’s hardly any time left to get actual work done.

One of my key roles is to protect my team from such activities whenever I can, to keep them focused and razor-sharp on what we need to accomplish.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

My key advice is to think carefully about whom you surround yourself with as a leader. You must create a strong team. To do that, you need to carefully reflect on what type of team you want to build and what kind of professional profiles you need, given your mandate. Then, go beyond your immediate network and hire the people that fit these profiles rather than hiring those you feel most comfortable with.

Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

For all of us, there is a “first time,” and it’s important to accept and embrace that. No one is born experienced. If a new leader openly says, “Hey, this is my first time as a team leader, but I really believe in the importance of working as a team, and I appreciate that in some areas you’ll have more knowledge than I do,” the team will be more understanding of the leader’s future mistakes.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?

My personal experience and my research on successful CEOs and their leadership teams suggest five traits that modern leaders should exemplify.

Decisiveness. While I firmly believe that leaders must empower their teams and make decisions jointly, decisiveness continues to be one of the most crucial leadership traits. When there are difficult situations, decision by committee simply doesn’t work, and the leader needs to either make the decision or drive the discussion to a decision.

Empathy. As a leader, you often need to make unpleasant decisions. Sometimes, you must drive people hard. Other times, you must let people go. Having the empathy to see the person in front of you and giving them respect — while doing what needs to be done from the organization’s perspective — is essential.

Authenticity. People look at what you do more than what you say. If your behavior as a leader isn’t authentic, people within the organization will quickly spot this discrepancy and stop trusting you. Think about the U.S. automotive executives who preached to their employees about accepting pay cuts and then flew in private planes to Washington, D.C., to ask for funds. Such dissonance destroys credibility.

A low ego. Elon Musk almost destroyed Twitter because his ego was more important than the company. The best leaders let their teams shine rather than trying to occupy the spotlight themselves.

People orientation. In the leadership world, we overemphasize analytical skills and raw intelligence. Of course, leaders need these traits, but more than anything, leaders need to be genuinely people-orientated. Anything that needs to get done in organizations gets done through people. And when the business is in crisis, people orientation really matters. No sustainable results happen when you ignore your people.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

People often misread this statement and think that every day must be perfect or something amazing has to happen. My take is that Wooden is saying we should focus on what we’re doing right now and bring our best.

Since I usually work in transformational roles, I tend to work with underdeveloped processes, limited systems, and overloaded resources. That alone is a major challenge. I stay close to my team and try my best to not let them get pulled underwater. I focus on small, successful steps and quick wins while creating a better foundation for future performance. In my view, our team has created a masterpiece if no one gives up during a transformation.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

In every organization I work in, I hope to leave a team behind that can function without me. Several times, I’ve managed to build teams that became more capable than I was! And that makes me so proud of them.

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

I can be easily found on LinkedIn or through our website, www.thenextadvisors.ch.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!