TEN QUESTIONS WITH MARGARITA MAYO

What do you teach?
I teach Managing People and Teams in several programs, the MBA, the Master in Management and the Global MBA. I also teach executive education courses on Authentic Leadership for senior executives across multiple sectors.

Where is your hometown?
I grew up in Segovia, a city of about 40,000 people, and went to a public school in a working-class neighborhood, very close to where IE University is now located. We lived in a small apartment, my parents and my four younger siblings. Since I was seven, my little sister and I would take a bus after school to go to traditional dancing classes –jotas and sevillanas.

For Christmas when I was 13, I got a blue Olivetti Typewriter that I still have to this day. I wrote every day. I took typewriting classes and the expectation in the family was that I would be a secretary. And then I was the first one in the family to go to university.

The problem at that time was that there was no university in Segovia to study my chosen field: Psychology. This was in the early 80s and a group of students from Segovia organized buses to go to the university in Madrid every day. It took us two hours each way and I found it useful thinking time to plan work and put things together. This initial small group of students became an association called “Cultural Horizons.” We wanted to expand the horizons of our futures.

Where would take someone visiting Segovia for the first time?
First, I would take you for a coffee in the Plaza Mayor. It is not only home to the wonderful Cathedral, but there are the cafes in the “soportales” and the special warm light that reflects on the buildings. Next, the mandatory tourist spots: the famous Roman Aqueduct and the Alcazar. Then, I would take you for some mountain hiking in La Granja. By then, we’ll be hungry for a tasty “cochinillo” in Jose María’s restaurant.

Congratulations on the publication of Yours Truly (Bloomsbury Business).  Did you have an “aha” moment that led you to write this book?
I had a leadership book in mind for quite some time, but the “aha” moment to write specifically about authenticity came while I was on an evaluating panel for the oral portion of the MBA students’ final exams. The students were well prepared in terms of technical knowledge and analytical tools, but I felt that there was a certain creativity and innovation missing in how they approached the problems. It seemed like they were afraid of getting outside the business script.

So, I decided to try to write something different from other management books, one that invites readers to develop their unique leadership style rather than follow the standard path. I worry that we are producing copy-cats when we need leaders with a more individual, humanistic approach. I want to inspire future leaders to express themselves freely and to tackle the world’s complex, technical, and social problems in their own way.

What does it mean to lead authentically?  
To lead authentically means to find what is unique about you and to make the most of it.  Staying faithful to what makes you genuine – in business and life – takes constant calibration. Leaders must continually ask themselves: Am I being true to my best self? Am I learning new habits to achieve my goals?

The path is different for everyone. For example, in my book I talk about Hiroko Samejima, a Japanese fashion designer who left Chanel to follow her passion and start a slow fashion company in Ethiopia. In another manner, Ana Botin, Executive Chairman of the Santander Group is leading a truly cultural transformation in the bank to make it more simple, personal, and fair.

Leaders must also listen to their colleagues and employees and align the mission of the organization with their needs and goals. Employees put a premium on expressing their true self at work and executives who understand this are able to foster an engaged and enthusiastic workforce.

So, does authenticity protect a leader from making mistakes? 
The answer is no. Nothing can shield you from making mistakes – everyone makes them, even the best, most experienced leaders.  But, when you bring authenticity into your work and leadership style – and the rest of your life for that matter – a mistake is not the end all be all.  You are able to recognize it quickly, admit it more easily, and then set about fixing it.  Each of the leaders whom I’ve met and would characterize as authentic are also humble individuals. They don’t let their ego get in the way.

What do you do when you feel the need to refocus your own authenticity?
I try to do something that makes me feel like myself.  For example, I love to dance and am a fan of the tango and bachata so I will go with my friends to some classes. Also, I find it helps when I set a new challenge or put myself in a new situation.  For example, I started training for triathlon two years ago, I love to run but I had to learn how to swim. Now I can swim lengths.

Is there someone who has inspired you?
Malcom Gladwell’s work has been a great inspiration. I admire his ability to make academic research accessible, interesting, and fun to a lay person. I’m fascinated by the way he combines scientific studies, real-life problems, and personal stories.  I was lucky to meet him by chance in a hotel lobby in London when I was presenting at the Thinkers50 Gala last year. I asked him for a photo and now I have a selfie with Malcom Gladwell.

Whom would you like to sit next to at a dinner party?
Taylor Swift. Really! I love her music and videos, but mostly I like the fact that she writes her own songs based on her feelings and personal life.  She connects with so many people and has a clear vision about her career and personal branding. I would love to learn her secrets about how she has accomplished so much in her career while keeping a very candid, honest, and truthful public image.

What other books do you recommend for executives who want focus on authenticity?
Gareth Jones’s books, co-authored with Rob Goffee, “Why should anyone be led by you?” and “Why should anyone work here?” are great for executives who want to build authentic organizations. I strongly recommend both of them.

Professor Margarita Mayo was photographed by Kerry Parke in Madrid.