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Authentic Leadership Dialogue: Anna Dianova

Anna Dianova, Senior HR Director, PepsiCo is a leader who identifies herself as an individual with high achievement orientation and it became evident in our dialogue that she balances this with a deep commitment to her values. It is this commitment to both achievement and values that drives Anna’s leadership intention to create the space for people to be the best of who they are. What follows is a dialogue with Anna that is authentic, engaging and deeply meaningful, in which we explore how she makes that happen every day.

Afsheen Ismail : To kick off our dialogue Anna, can you share your leadership journey so far?

Anna Dianova : My leadership journey started long before I got my first job. One of my core beliefs is that we are all leaders of our own lives. Now I am very conscious of this, but unconsciously I was living this belief from very early in my life. So in school and university - that's when the journey began.

Throughout my formative years in education and early in career, I had a very high achievement orientation. I think that this is the overarching characteristic of my leadership from those early years. My first real job in a multinational company was a management trainee. Those first two years were about exceeding expectations, trying to prove myself and delivering things through personal excellence and own capabilities.

Then, as my life and career evolved, so did my leadership philosophy and style. At some point I noticed that I was spending a lot of my time helping other people show up more effectively as a leader, bring the right mindset to every interaction, and ultimately be successful in their own unique way. My definition of success also evolved – from achieving more and better, and being recognised for it, to living in line with my values and beliefs. And some of my prominent values in the leadership space are generosity, sharing, and believing in the other person’s potential.

Anna Dianova, Senior HR Director, PepsiCo

AI – What I'm hearing is that there is a sense of self-actualization, that in your leadership journey you've been achieving. And so in the early stages of the career, it is more about proving self. And as you evolve and mature as a leader it becomes more about growing others.

AD – Yes, that's right. It is about growing others. It has always been about making an impact, and having a sense that I really matter. However, the definition of impact has evolved. Right now, it’s much less about me, it’s about what I can create for others, what I can unlock in another person, in a team and in a business. And that is what drives me right now.

AI - What do you feel, is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

AD - I think the biggest challenge is about continuously recreating the sense of meaning and purpose, both for self and for the team. The potential to touch people’s hearts and minds is much greater if they can identify themselves with a compelling purpose and are driven by meaning, not just by objectives. Even neuroscience confirms that.

So, it’s about connecting to something bigger than just you and helping others connect with that as well. That will be the challenge.

As I reflect on my own career, my transitions have always been somehow encouraged by this search for new meaning, by the urge to redefine myself and take the next step on the journey to who could become. So, I will say, the ability to take people on the journey to who they are capable of being is a fundamental leadership task.

AI - I love your answer, because it is really about self, about staying connected to your purpose and also about creating the access to help others see their purpose as well. So, which one do you think is harder?

AD - I guess, if I had pick one, being in touch with self will be probably the place to start because we as leaders take others with us while continuing to evolve, to struggle, to doubt, to experiment. I think I spend significant thinking time reflecting on purpose and meaning for myself and for my team. And I need to give the team something concrete that they can hold on to. So, keeping oneself and others grounded in a way is an important task.


AI - I'm trying to assimilate what you’ve just shared regarding each individual being in touch with what’s meaningful for them. And it's really important to you to help each individual reach their full potential. So then how do you bring it all together to a place where the individuals in the team are driving in a common direction towards the organization’s vision?

AD - Of course, we do align with the organizational vision, that’s how our plans are built. To me, it’s about contributing to the vision by making an impact in your own unique way – by being more of who you truly are. If I look at some amazing leaders I've been fortunate to know in my career, I very rarely remember them for what they achieved or accomplished in terms of tasks, projects or numbers. What comes to mind a lot more is their ways of being,how they made people feel, what kind of experience they were able to create for themselves and others.

So how it all comes together is that people bring their vision, their energy and their gifts to co-create the future of the business. One of my key beliefs is that we all have some unique value to offer – we just have to figure out in which circumstances and environment we can make it come to life. And it’s my role as a leader to create space for people to be who they are and fully engage their talents in pursuit of our common organizational goals.

AI - What's beginning to emerge for me as you are speaking, is that there is a significant role that inspirational leaders play in bringing all these distinct individuals together, all these distinct capabilities together, all these unique gifts, as you say.

AD – That’s so true. The leader’s mission is really to unlock the true potential of business and people. And I keep on asking myself these questions. What future is this organization capable of? What can I create or enable, to help this business and people in it achieve their full potential? And this is how I work with my team members, I ask them what kind of impact they want to make, what their own vision for the future of the business (function or team) is, what kind of mark they want to leave. I believe that this enables by far superior results versus the leader just giving objectives to execute.

AI - So you mentioned leader’s role in creating the space for individuals to be who they are, be authentic. So the most important role you are playing within your team is to invite and also embrace your team members unique individuality.

AD - Creating the space for others to become who they are capable of becoming is a fundamental leadership role. I also think what you say about inviting is spot on. This concept of invitational leadership is very meaningful to me. I ask myself often – what kind of invitation am I extending to others? And I try to redefine it, as the business context evolves and as I evolve. Some other key questions I ask myself as a leader are: Am I empowering? Am I facilitating greater autonomy? Am I removing the barriers? Am I creating the context for the person to succeed? To me, leadership is a privilege. It's not an entitlement.

AI – Anna, what do you wish you had known about leadership 5 years ago?

AD – In a way I think leadership is a very organic thing, and your own leadership philosophy and style also depends on where you are in your life journey. That’s why having known 5-10 years ago what you have by now discovered about leadership might not necessarily be helpful in embracing and embodying these concepts, beliefs or practices. It is a discovery process, a lifelong journey. That said, if I had to give a piece of advice to leaders of the future, I would say that leadership models are very transient. You need to be prepared to let go of the models of success that served you well in the past and rather rapidly unlearn some of those behaviors and learn some new ways. In a sense, you have to continually reinvent yourself as a leader. Don’t let yourself get trapped by your ego, by your present identity. Know that your leadership identity not only will change but has to change for you to stay relevant as a leader.This, I think, has been a big learning for me in the leadership space.

AI – How did you come to this knowing?

AD - My coaching journey has transformed me in a lot of ways. Of course, I was drawn to coaching in my earlier career and that is why I went into it in the first place. I think that I was able to really walk a few more steps towards letting go of what I thought was defining me - transcending own ego in a way - than I would have otherwise done in a normal corporate life. I developed a lot more awareness of the filters through which I viewed myself and the world. And I have met a few people who were able to reinvent themselves quite remarkably. So this also had an impact on me.

AI - It's interesting, because as I speak with you, you make it sound like leadership in itself is almost a spiritual experience. And it involves things like transcending your ego, and knowing your purpose. What do you say to that?

AD – To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I have unlocked spirituality yet. I’ve met with some people who really embraced that, but I am not there yet, so this may be another discovery in the years to come. The way I would frame it for now is that leadership is about how you show up– in life, in work, in all interactions, in all situations.

Again, as I reflect on my coaching journey, one of the IPEC’s foundational principles that resonated strongly with me was this: Each moment describes who you are, and gives you an opportunity to decide if that is who you want to be. That to me is super powerful. That means that you are the leader of your life, in each moment. And how you show up is your choice.

This concept of choice, there is something in it because you can always make a different choice. And this facilitates a totally different attitude because you let go of striving for perfection, you embrace every moment as if you chose it as an experience. You accept what is and leverage the now as your basis to create the future.

Just imagine what would open up for us if we didn’t label our experiences as winning or losing? We ourselves give meaning to our life experiences, and it’s again our choice what kind of meaning we choose to ascribe.

So leadership to me is about how you show up, how you choose to view yourself and the world around you, and how you leverage ‘what is’ to create the future.

AI - Anna in every question I've asked so far, what I've heard is your response coming from a place of choice and ownership. And I think that that is something that is very much reflective of your own personal leadership style.

AD - Yes absolutely, I'm surprised that I didn't mention this word before, so I’d add that it’s about mindset, which links well to choices and ownership. As someone said, mindset is a quiet ongoing story we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us. I think that mindset so profoundly shapes the experiences that we have in our lives. And what we attract terms of events, relationships and results.

I’d love to master embracing every moment as if I chose it.It is difficult and I fail often at that. The beauty of this mindset is that this fundamentally changes the way you respond. Imagine that you chose to be wherever you are right now, no matter which predicament you're in. It will make a lot of difference to how you show up, how you build on that and where you go from there, right?

AI – Anna, what you shared just now, it really resonates with me because it creates a place of access from where aspiring and existing leaders can continue to grow from. Thank you for that! Do you have any final thoughts on leadership for this dialogue?

AD – To sum up, we are all leaders, by default or by choice. Developing as a leader is a lifelong journey. It’s never perfect, nor it ever needs to be - I am convinced that each one of us can be an impactful leader in our own unique way. The more conscious we are of our values, beliefs, strengths, limitations, the more willing we are to see people around us as unique beings with value to offer, the better and richer experience we will ultimately create for those we lead.

Thank you for a great conversation, and I wish you lots of amazing discoveries in further dialogues.

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