Dr. Selina Neri is a global, dynamic, multicultural thought leader, business executive, board member, author, dean, professor, and executive coach with diverse experience in large and small, international organizations across industries, including the information technology, higher education, hospitality, tourism & luxury industries. Profound understanding of leadership development, transformation and change management in multi-stakeholder and cross-cultural environments. Recognized for being an inspirational, engaging, collaborative, authentic and well- respected leader. Non-executive director with profound understanding of corporate governance, promoting education, accountability, integrity and transparency to stakeholders and society at large. Executive coach with vast experience in complex and sensitive business and political environments, championing leaders to fulfill their full potential within the context of macro- economic opportunities and challenges, organizational priorities, personal and professional purpose.
Professor of Leadership and Corporate Governance at Hult Ashridge, part of Hult International Business School. Strong work ethic coupled with a can-do attitude and entrepreneurial spirit. Winner of the 2021 Professor of the Year award (Hult Dubai campus), the 2020 Professor of the Year award (Hult London campus) and the 2020 Hult Faculty of the Year award (global).
In an exclusive interview with Higher Education Digest Magazine, Dr. Selina Neri sheds light on the topic, ‘Leadership development and corporate governance’ and shares her thoughts on why understanding leadership impact is key, what it means, how to do it (tools) and how it serves career, personal and professional development. She also reveals her personal and professional journey, female role model, her take on success, and a lot more. Following are the excerpts from the interview.
Dr. Selina, you have taught and researched extensively on the topic, ‘Leadership development and corporate governance’. Can you please tell our readers what does it mean?
Leadership is perhaps the single most important topic in the social sciences and historically one of the more poorly understood. To this day, there is a widespread belief that leadership has a lot to do with job roles and titles, hence, to be or behave as a leader we need a C-level “indicator” in front of our name. This is the opposite of what constitutes true leadership. Leadership is about the capacity to envision the future in the service of others and the willingness to engage the hearts and minds of teams, communities and organizations towards that future. Leadership development can only be centered around a journey of personal and professional discovery and growth, a difficult journey of really getting to know yourself, the first condition to aspire to lead others. In my corporate and academic work, I have made developing leaders the cornerstone of what I do because I truly believe that how organizations, communities and countries are lead will decide the future of humanity. Similarly, corporate governance has historically also suffered from an outdated, not so polished definition and image. At its core, governance remains about control of management to protect shareholders rights and has developed as a field with quite a degree of mystique, of secrecy, with images of boards and investors operating behind closed doors. I research and practice corporate governance from a different and quite new angle. Looking at the unfortunately frequent governance scandals around the world, it is clear that society and the media are very interested in opening the black box of governance. People have the right to understand how the power that sits with governance can be used to the benefit of all those who have a “stake” in an organization, being shareholders, employees, suppliers, regulators, customers. There cannot be true governance without true leadership because the practice of governance formally sits with those at the apex of a corporation, in most regulatory systems above CEO level, and these individuals are expected to serve the organization. Governance is now understood to be about the exercise of corporate power to the benefit of stakeholders. Deciding to say no to a client is an act of governance in view of the legal and ethical ramification of that decision; agism at work is an act of (poor) governance; building an inclusive culture starts with the board; employee engagement is also an act of governance because engaged employees will feel free to speak truth to power. Both leadership and governance are about serving others. The problem is that human nature gets in the way even of the best intentions.
In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, why is it important to understand the impact of leadership? And what are some of the key strategies to develop the leadership skills?
Over the past ten years leadership research has started to focus on impact. Historically we have studied (and companies have focused on) experience, expertise and personality to understand and predict leadership behaviour. We knew that something was missing, something related to people’s natural inclination to make a difference that matters or simply to leave their mark as leaders. We are all naturally inclined to make an impact in different ways, and our natural energy comes from different sources. These can be learning, the pursuit of excellence, the capacity for original and transformational thinking, a drive to turn ideas into reality, energy from orchestrating others in an inclusive and cohesive manner, or energy to experiment, taking ideas and turning them into reality. These different types of energy map out one’s potential in terms of making an impact or the degree to which we feel what we call ‘energetic activation”. It is this energy that brings action at work and it maps out how we make an impact. It is the most fascinating leadership development area of the recent past. We are now able to measure impact and map out five proclivities, in other words five ways in which people make an impact at work, namely Game Changers (transform the future), Strategists (map the future), Implementers (deliver tangible outcomes), Polishers (create a future to be proud of) and Play Makers (getting the best from others). Every business needs all five impact types to be successful. The key is understanding if each unit/team has the right blend, at the right time to achieve its business objectives in a specific context. Understanding our impact is key to develop leadership skills. It allows to understand one’s approach to leadership, creativity & innovation, engaging & influencing, getting things done, thriving not surviving and attitudes to teamwork. The business applications of impact data are endless, from business strategy to recruitment, succession planning, cultural transformation, digital transformation, equality, diversity and inclusion, talent development, operational improvement, sales effectiveness. Impact data at individual and team level helps us answer questions such as: can this person deliver? Can this person make it to Partner? What will this team value? What are this team’s strengths? What sort of tensions are likely to arise? What does this leader need from their leader? Do we have the right people in the right roles? Who can transform the business? Do we have a culture for experimentation?
Please tell us about your professional/personal background.
I am a “corporate academic”, and I do not fit into boxes! I come from humble origins and have built myself from the ground up both personally and professionally by going through very tough times and surviving what life has so far thrown at me. From a very young age I was a “different” child, battling with physical disability, a difficult family background and a very inquisitive mind. At the age of 12 I negotiated with my father to go to London (by myself!) to study English for three months…I fell in love with the language, the city and the gracious family who hosted me during that summer. Being away from home taught me so much about myself and forged my capacity to figure things out. I also learnt that the world is a big place and that there are many ways of living life. I started my career in New York in the tech industry….went from an entry level role to Executive Vice President in a relatively short time, relocated over ten times to different countries, learnt four languages and eventually left tech because I wanted to experience a different industry. Enter luxury and the travel industry, where I also landed my first non-executive director role, as board member of a Swiss listed company. After a couple of wrong relationships, I met the love of my life, my husband Carl. I was 39. It was love at first sight and I am blessed to have found in this human being my biggest supporter, my best friend and the man who knows how to make me laugh. I entered academia by chance, after meeting a Professor of Marketing from HEC Paris who needed my expertise in the classroom. At 49 I embarked on my doctoral studies, eager to learn the art and science of research and was awarded my PhD three years later. What started as weekend work at HEC Paris became my purpose and since 2012, I have been fully active in academia, for the past ten years with Hult International Business School as the Dean and Executive Director of the Dubai campus and a faculty member. Currently I am a Professor of Leadership and Corporate Governance with Hult Ashridge, one of the top executive education players in the world, and I also collaborate with 24 Ore Business School, the most innovative business school in the Italian market. I only have one speed, fast, a curse and a blessing, but I have learnt to be patient with myself and with others. I have also learnt to un-become anything that isn’t me, so that I can truly discover and be who I was meant to be.
What energizes you in the course of your career?
Passion, ambition, experimenting, wanting to make a real difference, and taking risks. I have placed my career at the service of others, whether clients, investors or students. I love what I do because life is short, and we must be selective in terms of how we invest our time.
Over the years, have you encountered any barriers to your success or growth as a female leader?
I have never let being me being used as a barrier. From the beginning I made being me my secret weapon, turning my differences into unique selling points. My mindset refused to see barriers that others might have thrown at me, hence I made a conscious effort not to waste my energy with people who would want to penalize me for being me. Easier said than done but the efforts have paid off. I have worked for many people but only two were true leaders and to this day have remained in my life as friends, role models and mentors.
What leadership lessons have you learnt across your career?
There is always a solution. Find it. Create it. There is always a way, so the future does not look so scary! I also learnt that leading is challenging, is solitary and is exhausting. You are the rock of the people around you…so finding my own rock (my husband) was a paramount moment in my life. Suddenly I could be me, let my hair down and just “be”.
Who was an inspiring woman leader to you growing up and who inspires you now?
My first English teacher was my role model, an English woman living and working in 1970s Italy, where immigration was not as common as it is now. She taught me to stand in my own true colours and not to apologize for being me. She opened up the English language for me and I felt like Alice in Wonderland! My current role models are all my students and clients, young and young at heart. They teach me that I have a responsibility to develop the leaders that will inherit this planet…. Making a difference in their lives is my purpose.
How do you define success? What is your take on the ways to achieve long-term success?
Success to me is about feeling comfortable in my own skin, truly valued for what I bring to the table and being able to keep learning. Long term success is about understanding that life (and a career, which is part of life!) is a marathon not a sprint. Resilience is key and we must play the long game, hence mens sana in corpore sano, as the Romans said, healthy mind in a healthy body. In the early days of my career success also meant financial independence but I never let money be a goal in itself. I have turned down jobs that were very well paid simply because I did not feel them, or I did not feel inspired by the people I was supposed to work for or with.
What is the best decision that you have made in your career till date?
Marrying the man I love, my husband and remaining geographically mobile (in this order!)
Tell us about Selina outside of work, your motivations and what you would like to achieve in the future.
I am a private person and I protect my private life. I give 100% of me to my work, but I have learnt to establish healthy boundaries. My physical and mental practice is very important (I have to stay young or, better, age gracefully!) and finding time to walk, to do reformer, pilates, yoga and the gym is as important as eating my meals and sleeping 7-8 hours per night. I am motivated by learning; hence my future will continue to be filled with learning opportunities! I can also say without the shadow of a doubt that I will continue to be vegan, as I have been for the past 25 years.
You have had a remarkable career trajectory over the years. What is the secret mantra behind your success?
Do not plan too much and be comfortable with not knowing. Professionally I have always known what I did not want. But the rest has been a combination of destiny and remaining open to possibilities. So far, I have made 4 industry changes, so I also learnt to go with my gut, against all odds and that if I put my mind to something I make it happen. In addition, stay focused. The capacity to focus on my career, my personal life, my health, the people that matter to me is of paramount importance. Focus, and keep distractions at bay.
What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs and leaders?
Learn to be a learner. Learning how is much more important that learning what. Nurture the capacity to learn and your character. Hire character train competence. People of character will learn anything there is to learn, but if you do not have character, you cannot lead.