Through Thick and Thin: Developing Resilient Leaders - Featuring Maria Giovanna Vianello


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This episode explores the importance of resilience for leadership development. Our special guest is Maria Giovanna Vianello, Global Leadership Development Consultant at Novartis, a well-known Swiss-American multinational pharmaceutical corporation.

In Maria’s experience, “Leadership is not the power you are giving yourself, but the power people give you because of the role model you represent.”

Maria has been dealing with type 1 diabetes since she was a kid. Her story shows how our biggest struggles might reveal our life mission, in her case, helping leaders reach their highest potential.

Resilience for Maria is being “mindfully tenacious,” which combines perseverance and taking care of her body. Resilience requires incremental proactive steps and avoiding perfectionism, which depletes adaptation resources.

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Connect with Maria Giovanna Vianello on LinkedIn


Stephen Matini - Welcome to Pity Party Over, the podcast for people teams and organizations seeking practical ideas for results in greater happiness. I'm your host, Stephen Matini, let’s pause, learn, and move on. Pity Party Over is brought to you by ALYGN, A L Y G N . company.

Hi everyone I'm Stephen and welcome to this episode of Pity Party Over. How are you? Today we will talk about the importance of resilience for leadership development.

For many resilience equates to toughness and elasticity. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Also it is the ability of a substance to spring back into shape. Essentially life has ups and downs and resilience is how long it takes me to get up when I experience a significant changes, setbacks and disappointments.

The special guest for this episode of Pity Party over is Maria Giovanna Vianello. Maria's Italian, she's a global leadership development consultant at Novartis, a well known Swiss-American Multinational Pharmaceutical Corporation where Maria has worked for almost 10 years.

Maria has a master of business administration and a master of science in business and organizational psychology. Currently she's completing her PhD in transformative studies at the California Institute of integral Studies.

In this episode Maria shares how her hardships helped her become resilient and also unveiled her mission to help leaders do the same.

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I was reading your questions and truly thinking about resilience and when did I realize that I had to be resilient in my life? When did I truly develop consciousness about it? When it was natural? What did I keep from my natural attitude? You know when I was young, for example, I mean, you know my life story, you know, I was struggling with with you know, health issues since I was very young. And so I, I believe that there was a some, some sort of traumatic event, not a fast moving event, a kind of a slow moving event, but in any case it had a huge impact in my life. And so what did I leverage of that throughout my life?

Stephen Matini - If resilience were a percentage, what percentage would you say is your natural resilience, your natural attitude and how much of resilience you have acquired through learning and anything that you've done?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I think my natural percentage will be around 65%. Which I think it's above 50, so sounds good to me. Uh but still, when I'm in very challenging situations, I need to do something else. In addition I need to almost pose, take a deep breath and tell myself, okay, wait, you need to do something else. Your natural level of resilience is not enough.

You need to strengthen your, your capabilities to go to the next level where things will maybe not look easier, but you can get through this challenging experience in one way or the other. And uh and at the same time, because I think that is part of the consciousness, um you can take care of yourself in the process because maybe now that I'm thinking about my own natural resilience level, maybe that can be pretty high, but I could have the tendency maybe even 75% without thinking about it, right? I can go through stuff, you know head down, do move and progress.

But then if I do that and I don't take care of myself, then there is a moment when the all ecosystem, the all infrastructure boom ... falls apart and this is when you have to to deal with challenges and troubles and and it can be confusing daunting and just and then you lose time and you lose resources and you don't know when you can recover because you are completely out of your control.

Stephen Matini - So I can be resilient, but I also need to take care of myself in the process.

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I think that was a huge part of my personal development, I would say most probably during the past 5-6 years or so, I realized how much taking care of my mind was important but my body, it's connected with the mind. And so unless you usually properly you drink, you hydrate yourself properly, you drink enough water, you allow yourself to eat nutritious food almost like celebrating yourself like a gift. So to say you cannot be truly completely resilient.

Stephen Matini - What does resilience mean for those who do not know what resilience is, and what does resilience mean to you?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I think that more or less universally and here I just go back to my coaching and leadership development, you know know how ah it's the capacity to bend and not to break metaphorically when you are dealing with a challenging situation. You adapt, you re-adapt and adapt over and over again and you can make sense of yourself why you're doing that.

So it's not just happening by chance because that is not enough. And for me it's more or less the same with the, with the addition of uh you know specifically caring of about your health, it's crucial and that is my, you know, my additional understanding was there. I thought for a long time that learning things from books and and and studying and then be very diligent in my job, taking care of every task in in challenging times.

I can do things uh and I can do things and to end and top quality and so I am resilient because even if there is a lot of mess, I can go through the mess and see things through, right? But that's not enough because if you don't take care of yourself, you will be in trouble from your letter. And that's I think a very recent, maybe the most recent learning about resilience as a process of it all.

Stephen Matini - For some people, resilience is a synonym for perseverance, tenacity, determination. But you seem to have a different explanation, a different, a different way to explain what resilience is which is mostly connected to taking care of myself 360°.

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I think it's it's about being tenacious but with awareness, be mindful later nations because when you are tenacious, you are using resources in your body and because of the adrenaline under pressure, you are resilient because you are under pressure and so you have to deliver, deliver, deliver.

And with the adrenaline you don't feel the pain in the body. You don't feel you maybe need to drink some water to eat nutritious food. Okay. I don't really need to sleep every night ... 78 hours. I just who cares. I have a lot of things to do and so you go on and on and on and you are tenacious and maybe you will get at the end of the process and you will achieve the results and you will go through the mess.

But at the end, how long would it take to recover and what if something else happened in the meantime, when is the resilience reaching you know the edge of your own capacity? Because I think there is an edge for that and and that's the end. And so what can you do to prolong that?

To avoid that you reach the ceiling almost this glass ceiling and there's nothing else you can do about it. But if you are tenacious and mindful about being tenacious, I think that makes you resilient.

Stephen Matini - How do you become mindfully resilient?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I don't know how in general, I know what for me. Um I think we in general as human being, maybe because of the school system, since we are very young, we are inclined to think that we have to do things aiming for perfection? Mhm That's beautiful, right?

Achieving perfection is beautiful, but I don't think that is crucial in an extremely challenging, complex situation when you don't know how things would develop. So to me, it's not about perfection, it's taking things step by step, being compassionate with myself in the process, finding time to acknowledge and celebrate every tiny tiny little step.

I can share my example. Recently I moved back from, from Singapore to Europe, back to Italy to my home country. I organized the move and the old logistic in in three weeks I had to do most of the things on my own, booking flights organizing the move and all that sort of stuff that you do when you are moving across the world.

Stephen Matini - Yes

Maria Giovanna Vianello - Then I arrived back to my country and I realized that it's almost more complex to move back in your own country rather than being an expat in a foreign country, right? Because if you are an expat, someone will tell you what you are supposed to do. But if you are back in your country, you're supposed to know everything about rules, regulations and permits and and and and everything.

So I realized, oh my God, I am on my own, how am I gonna do that? Right, just crazy. What am I gonna do with the, with the custom for for the move? How am I going to rent an apartment? How do I get my documents? How do I open a bank account? I mean, these are all the basics, right?

But even that for me was extremely challenging. But to do that, um I have to do things step by step very slowly uh Giving myself the time, acknowledging that I cannot do 10 things per day because that will be too tiring and I mean, I will expose myself to, to doing mistakes. But if I do tiny incremental steps every day, I can achieve way more. And if I do any of the things one at a time, even if I do a mistake, it's going to be a tiny little mistake. Not a big one because I'm engaging with, with a small step and, and with those tiny incremental steps, uh you can almost assess your own well being in the process because you are not rushing too much. And that made a huge difference.

So If you ask me after a month, I moved back on April 27. Now it's ah you know, June six a mouth and a week. Do I feel tired? Yes. Did I achieved what I needed to achieve? Almost. Um Am I fulfilled satisfied at ease with the process that I'm facing, I do. When I go to bed at night can fall asleep, which is amazing and priceless. And that's because I did all these tiny little incremental steps and again, I did some mistakes and it's not over yet and it's going to take, I think a couple more months to finalize everything.

I mean I don't have a driving license and I need to go through a, the approval process to get my driving license because it expired when in 2020. So because of Covid, I could not travel back to my country to renew the driving license. And so I need authorization from the, you know, it's all complex and, and I can not fix this in one day. But I know that one step at a time I can also deal with that part. It's not perfect because I need a car.

Honestly, I would really like to be able to drive a car to go around instead of taking public transportation and then walking. I mean it takes me twice the time to go from one place to the other. But again, it's not about perfection. There's nice weather outside and I walk and I tell people I'm running five minutes late. I'm so sorry, but I don't have a car. So please can you wait for me? And that's how it's working for me right now.

Stephen Matini - And it's bizarre because when you get back to your country, you are in a place that in the meantime has changed. You have changed. So it's like almost to move to a foreign country in many ways.

Maria Giovanna Vianello - Yes, it is. And and it's all about having the right expectations. Again, it's not about perfection because if I would have expected that everything was perfectly falling in place, moving back, I would be right now, extremely disappointed.

Stephen Matini - You were mentioning earlier on that experiences that you went through when you were young. Also some health concerns might have contributed to your natural resilience. So, I know quite a bit of you because of our friendship, because of our our professional doings. But for our listeners, I would like to ask you where you grew up and how those experiences have shaped also your your professional choices, the professional direction that you took.

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I grew up in a, in a family of doctors, physicians where be perfectly in tune with your body and taking care of yourself was crucial. And and I mean it was normal, right? The other part of my family, they were teachers. And so again, that was about perfection, getting things right, learning and and and being a very proficient student at school, that that was also part of, you know, of my family context. And so when I was diagnosed, I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with diabetes type one, which is an incurable disease. You have to leave for the rest of your life out of the blue because it was an immune reaction to, to an infection, something like that. So my body overreacted to an infection.

My family was extremely concerned because they were not used to deal with unhealthy people in the family. We were very lucky, you know, and and I was the first one with a real disease that require injections 4,5, 6 times per day. And uh, and how do you allow yourself as a parent to, to help your daughter to develop the capacity to inject herself with medication when she is nine years old. I mean it's it's it's just unbelievable.

I think my parents did an amazing job to keep me accountable and it wasn't a walk in the park, but I had to step up and be responsible for myself and the price to pay for not being responsible because when you're very young and you are, you know, just a kid, what is responsibility really I want to play and it foods that other kids eat, but I couldn’t, that was very dangerous for me. I mean, not impossible but dangerous.

Uh, and so when you have to take care of yourself to, to the degree of uh being aware that if you eat a certain amount of, of something, you will trigger some reaction in your body that will be very negative. And so that is extremely challenging for a young kid, I had to develop the capacity to to take care of myself despite the odds. Despite this extreme situation, despite my family being extremely concerned, I had to build trust to make sure that they can trust me. I had to build trust with them.

So I had to show up is a very responsible person who can get things done from end to end can take care of herself. And uh and I have to be reliable but to be reliable. I have to learn from mistakes because unfortunately everybody is unique. Everybody reacts differently to medications and so you have to learn by mistakes basically that took me a lot of energy, a lot of devotion for my, you know, for taking care of my disease, A lot of positive thinking because being upset that was just being in trouble.

Stephen Matini - Your family taught you or you figured it out?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - We were learning together. There was no way to learn. There was, you know, at that time. I mean that was more than 30 years ago. There was no Internet or not reliable sources on Internet or anything like that. There were no books. Um, not so many people. I mean there is a small percentage with people with diabetes, type I.

There are many people that have diabetes type II, but type I is, it's very limited. So unless you really have met in your life, somebody who has that specific disease, even doctors sometimes struggle to give you specific indications that they can give you a approximate instruction.

But you have to try and so you have to go back to the doctor every 4 to 5 weeks and check again over and over and over again 4 to 5 weeks if you are doing good if you are not, it's almost a daily trip to the doctor to check your blood sugar level and especially when you are young and and almost on going up and down your blood sugar level is going up and down.

And that can be very dangerous, especially during the night, you can fall asleep and you don't wake up and that's um, that's extremely dangerous because there's no oxygen to your brain to do all the things we have to learn together. We have to be very patient with each other. I think my family sometimes was very scared, but because I realized that if I would show up in those moments where it was very difficult to make a decision about, you know, dosage of medications uh if I show up with the attitude of trust me, we can try and see and I will take care of myself for the next 10, 12 hours, don't worry, everything is gonna be fine with that mindset. They were giving me the chance to try and so be resilient, allow me to grow up and to practice and and learn by mistakes.

And today, after 32 years of this very impactful disease, I must say I am healthy, I do sports and I have a meaningful life which challenges of course like everyone, but I wouldn't say that I have more challenging situations to deal with compared to someone who is not diabetic. So um I have a normal life and that that's because I'm resilient I think, but I learned resilience when I was very young.

Stephen Matini - How this impacted your professional choices?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - That’s a marvelous question, because that had a huge impact on my professional choices. My passion for supporting people, transformation, uh leadership development, coaching, which is you know, the core component of my job and what gives me energy every day. Um that is all connected with the idea that I was so lucky in my life to meet people that from very early stages helped me to develop, to grow to make decisions, people that were not telling me what to do, but they were rather holding the space for me helping me to think about different perspectives, see reality from different angles they were holding the mirror and giving me the chance to face, you know what I was experiencing.

And that helped me a lot. And so I decided what if I can do that for other people, I am supposed to be quite experience, I'm not saying that I'm good at that, but I'm definitely quite experienced because I learned from practicing and I had to and I will never stop because my disease will stay with me for the rest of my life. So because of that, why why don't I use that just to help other people, why why not leveraging something that was an issue for me to help other people to unleash their potential to generate more positive energy in their life, not necessarily to get a better version of themselves.

I believe we are already the most beautiful version of ourselves, but just sometimes we miss the awareness of that with the work I do, how I can help people to understand that they are amazing and beautiful and powerful and there is no limit to what they can achieve because of my experience because of all the pain I went through and uh and because I am definitely an example that there are no boundaries, there are no limits, you can always overcome challenges, maybe sometimes what you are missing, it's only another angle on the problem that you're not seeing. But as a coach, as a leadership development practitioner, I can help you to see that and with that you can go to the next level of your life, your existence and and do amazing things.

Stephen Matini - How old were you when you decided to get into human resources?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I think I started with the idea that I was very good at solving problems, that was my first step and I was around 17 years old, 17, maybe 16, something like that young, you know, before starting a real job, I could say, oh my God, I was at school, I mean doing some, you know some, some school projects and I could just see myself very passionate about solving problems.

And then I took another intermediate step when I realized okay I can be quite efficient in the problem solving thing, but it will be way more efficient if I can help other people to solve their own problems and I don't you know I don't get myself tired of solving other people's problems so I have them, I don't tell them what to do, but there are ways to help them and then the next step after that was okay.

What if I do not only help people to solve their problems? What if I help people to transform to evolve to mature? And this is where you know I think 10 years ago I decided that coaching a leadership development where my my sandbox, so to say a place where I can bring my experience into the game and without pretending that I know creating a safe space to have conversations about each other challenges and grow together.

Stephen Matini - So based on your experience, why resilience is necessary as a leader?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I think because when you are a leader, formal or not, I mean it doesn't matter if you really have a proper job title Leader of something. We are all leaders in our life. That's something I strongly believe when you are a human being, you should role model, that challenges can be overcome can be dealt with. That there is hope that there are possibilities and possibilities are literally endless and it's up to you.

But the way you show up the resilience, you you spread around the world with your family, with your friends, with your colleagues, that is, you know, something that would make the difference in the life of other people. And again, it's incremental, it's tiny, tiny, tiny, it's it's not about delivery worship on resilience, but it's literally every day, how can I show to other people that life is full of possibilities despite we're all facing so many challenges over and over and over every day.

Stephen Matini - I think there's a misconception. There's a misconception about leadership as something ... some sort of power you have to influence people whichever way. And from a leadership development standpoint. Also based on what you're saying, the biggest chunk is actually taking care of yourself into becoming mindful as a leader. So you can set the example. I always love to say that people look up for consistency and you cannot lead people, you cannot influence people if people don't see the very specific behavior you want them to acquire, in you, if you don’t walk the talk.

Maria Giovanna Vianello - If you show up to your team tired not caring about yourself, how do you pretend that people will then be able to continue to do their task, their job despite all the complexity they are facing. If you are not showing up the way you want them to show up. The power of a leader is the capacity to influence other through their own actions, not through the words because words are beautiful and I mean people can say a lot of amazing things, don't get me wrong, but then it's action that makes the difference.

And if your action is not consistent with the word, this is where leadership, it's not sustainable and it's not what makes the difference and it's just confusing and and you don't have credibility. So yes, I think leadership is about power but it's not the power you are giving yourself. It's the power other people assign you. Because of the role model you represent.

Stephen Matini - It seems to me that you believe that resilience can be taught, resilience can be developed. When resilience is low, and you are a leader, what to do? Where would you start based on what you have learned, not just on yourself but also helping others, you know, developing their resilience.

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I think it's about taking time short amount of time. Again we are talking about small, tiny incremental steps in the right direction, taking time to reflect in a challenging situation, maybe a few minutes per day when you wake up or when you go to bed, how many times during the day was I resilient enough in front of my family, with my friends, with my colleagues, how resilient do I feel well that's do I need?

Which kind of support help do I need to increase my resilience, my capacity to stay strong despite the challenges I'm facing, taking care of myself, how can I do that, What do I need because I think there is no perfect recipe and every time the way you develop resilience in different situations can be completely different. My way to recharge is making sure that I have some outdoor time, maybe even half an hour every day. That's my resilience building resilience time, right?

So if we can all find a small amount of time every day, 10 5 minutes, our resilient time dedicated to resilience, I think that will be sufficient to turn that tiny little muscle that we all have into something stronger and stronger and stronger.

But it's a matter of not doing that overnight because we can attend worship on resilience to learn techniques and there are plenty, we can read books on resilience, we can spend times with resilience guru that's all possible and extremely, extremely useful. But if at the end of the day we do not take the time to practice consistently. It is irrelevant.

Stephen Matini - One of the most frequent misconception that I see is underestimating the organizational context, there's a lot of focus on what's happening outside, you know, as a leader, you're supposed to be strategic, you're supposed to read it very well the external environment but there's not quite full awareness of the organizational climate.

And so often times in the past that had leaders, they want to initiate programs, even leadership development program without preparing the organizational context, without doing the work on themselves to set the example and as a result the leadership program could have been really great but then those people that went through that training that coaching inevitably were faced with a lot of barriers. So one of the misconceptions that I've seen is an excessive focus on the outside more than the inside.

Before you said that when you were talking about the definition of resilience, you said it is I believe you said it's the ability to bend so for you, the perfect metaphor for resilience. What would it be like? Like a bamboo for some people is like you know it's water, it's a rubber band. What would it be? The metaphor for you?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I think it's a bamboo in the wind, very strong wind. Think about Japan, you know one of my favorite countries, whether it's that strong strong wind in winter, you can literally see bamboo bending in ways that you say, how is that thing not breaking right, how come? But the bamboo, it's very flexible, it is strong but it's also extremely flexible. Almost never break.

Stephen Matini - The reason why this podcast is called Pity Party Over is an expression that I used to say all right I am sick and tired of this situation, I had it enough and now I'm going to move forward. And so when ... you are resilient, for sure, I've seen you through literally thick and thin and I'm always surprised to see how resilient you are ... When you have a moment of pity party, you know I feel really bad about the situation or myself, is there any specific way, favorite way to pity party, you feel, you know, self indulgently sorry for yourself?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - Sometimes when I do mistakes that are public, when I do something and people really notice that I did something there's no doubt and I screwed up and in the open, right literally under the spotlight and it's no way I did it and sometimes it's I did it again because sometimes I can be pretty repetitive in some of my mistakes. That is usually those moments where I get very upset with myself. I learned to spend less time about complaining about myself and my mistakes done in public because usually I do mistakes in public. But yes that's my time where I am just again. No.

Stephen Matini - Well when that happens, what do you do? Do you spend time alone and do you sob do you what do you do?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - I developed a very fruitful relationship with food. Food influences my my mood right a lot. And so if I really have a bad day, I try to prevent myself a proper dinner, nutritious food, not junk food. Absolutely. But I really take care of something I can control take is done. Everybody knows about it. It's going to take a couple of days to fix it. Reputation has been impacted. I can be pretty harsh with myself as you can hear because maybe if you talk to my colleagues, they will say oh no, come on. What are you talking about? But I, I can be, you know, pretty strong. I have a pretty strong opinion about myself. So that’s, that's what I'm talking about. And in that case I really give myself time and space to relax and, and with food.

Stephen Matini - So food is one of the way that you overcome a difficult moment. Like you're taking care of yourself through food, which you said before, be mindful of how you treat yourself eating well. Is there any other things that you would like to share with the listeners on how you overcome that bump?

Maria Giovanna Vianello - Again, that's something very personal and maybe it’s, it's something silly, but I buy myself flowers, nothing super fancy. But I buy myself flowers and usually put the flowers on my desk close to my laptop where I work and every time during the day where I feel, oh my God, now I have to deal with this challenge and it's going to be a challenge. I will be facing for a few weeks a month or so. I look at the flowers and I feel better. I don't know why, but maybe they are called and fragrant and, and I, I don't know, but it's just beautiful. They have a very positive impact on me.

Stephen Matini - So let's say someone wants to develop as a leader. They want to work on their resilience. Where they can find you online if they want to get in touch with you.

Maria Giovanna Vianello - Um my LinkedIn profile Maria Giovanna Vianello on LinkedIn, that will be the place to reach out and have conversations about life challenges and resilience.

I think it was lovely to spend time on something that I take for granted so often because I know I develop resilience since I was young and I and I take that capacity for granted in challenging moment has been extremely crucial. So today talking about it was awesome, almost like a celebration and I want to thank you for that because you are offering me this amazing safe space to talk about such a crucial, important topic of my life and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Matini - It is my absolute pleasure as always, thank you.

Stephen Matini - Thank you for listening to this episode of Pity Party Over. I invite you to connect with Maria Giovanna Vianello on LinkedIn for any suggestions on how to leverage resilience and mindful leadership.

Maria has been dealing with type one diabetes since she was a kid. Her story shows how our biggest struggles might reveal our life mission. In her case, helping leaders reach their highest potential.

Becoming resilient for Maria meant making her body a priority, something we so often neglect when we get busy with millions of things to do. For Maria becoming resilient implies being proactive, taking incremental steps in avoiding perfectionism, which depletes adaptation resources.

Leaders should role model not just ask people to change. You cannot influence people if you're not mindful of your own development and send an example for others to follow.

People have to see in you the behaviors you want them to develop. As Maria said it so beautifully, “Leadership is not the power you're giving yourself but the power people give you because of the role model you represent.”

If you have any questions pertaining how to develop residence, let's talk. You can find my contact information in this episode's notes. If you enjoy this content, you may subscribe to my podcast or blog Pity Party Over, and we can also connect on Twitter and LinkedIn.

I invite you to visit our website, ALYGN is spelled A L Y G where you can find many routes for managerial and leadership development.

Be happy be well and until we connect again, thank you for listening.

18 episodes