Leadership Stories: Sylvana Caloni - inveterate connector and champion of resilience

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Sylvana Caloni, a member of the IWF UK Board, shares her thoughts from the perspective of a former senior executive in finance as well as a leadership coach. She speaks about the importance of developing networks and has a shining story about the power of resilience.

What does being a leader mean to you? How has your leadership style changed over time?

Being a leader is more than a title, hierarchy or authority. It is about having a vision and inspiring others to collaborate to turn that vision into reality. It’s essential that leaders recognise that they can’t do it alone, can’t control everything and they have to move beyond treating their vision as if it is their ‘baby’. Otherwise they constrain what they are aiming to achieve to the limits of their own competency, experience and capacity. Great leaders accept that it is impossible to know it all. They listen deeply to others and communicate engagingly to bring together a group whose perspectives, skills and ideas can be leveraged.

As a leadership coach I also make a distinction between management and leadership. Managers tend to do more of the doing. Leaders create and facilitate the space for others to do the bulk of the doing.

I used to think that I had to be seen as strong and able to do it all. I now appreciate that judiciously sharing my vulnerability is actually a real sign of strength. I can't do it all and I need help from others. Furthermore, not only is asking for help OK. It is a sign of respect for the abilities and insights of my team members.

Also, being a ‘recovering perfectionist’, I've had to learn to let go and devolve responsibility. I’m more accepting that my standards aren’t the only way of delivering a successful outcome. I’m better able to recognize the strengths in my team members and not micro-manage them. I now see my role as opening doors, nudging and getting rid of obstacles so that my team members feel they have a voice, are listened to and can make a contribution.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges I've faced is being bullied. In the most severe case I stepped in to defend one of my direct reports, who had complained to me. The bully then turned the intimidating behaviour towards me. It was manipulative, relentless and destabilising. I became very stressed and fatigued and started to question my own judgement as a leader. I sought assistance from my mentor and another very senior leader.

I was surprised to learn that they too had been bullied in their workplaces, notwithstanding how accomplished and formidable they were. I also engaged an executive coach to partner with me to rebuild my self-confidence, to become stronger in setting boundaries and making declarations. He helped me to see that leaders need to be able to flex across a range of responses which are appropriate for the situation. Being nurturing and supportive is essential and there are also times when it is essential to be resolute and firm.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

In my experience, challenge and success are two sides of the same coin. Some of my successes resulted from my leadership, resilience and entrepreneurialism in response to life changing challenges. When I was an Executive Vice President with a global investment bank I was transferred from Sydney to London to set up the Equity Division. Two days after I arrived I was shocked when my role was made redundant due to the sale of the Australian company. Outside the office I only knew two people here. It felt like the rug was pulled from under me. Fortunately I managed to turn it around into a ‘magic carpet’. My redundancy package allowed me time to consider what I would do next.

The first thing I set out to do was create a network. I had only been to London previously when I was wheeled out as the senior executive accompanying junior colleagues who had the relationships with the brokers and companies. So my idea was to host monthly soirées. I would invite women I had encountered from all walks of life to dinner at my home. I also volunteered at Oxfam. I remember inviting the store manager to join us. She asked if she could bring someone from Djibouti. My response was ‘Of course I’d be delighted and tell me where it is and how do I spell it?’

I'm both Italian and Australian and love food and conviviality. We would come together over a home-cooked meal with no particular agenda apart from getting to know each other and learn from each other’s experiences. This opened my eyes to the value of networking. It was also the catalyst for me to create other support groups and lead large national networks.

I was the founding Chair of Advance in the UK for Australian professionals. I set up a group called EXPECT for ex-City professionals endorsing coaching and training. I put together a Financial Markets Think Tank to explore issues in financial markets post the 2008 crisis and I became President of Women in Banking and Finance (WIBF) in 2011.

I really enjoy making connections and exploring how we can support, endorse, nudge and open doors for each other. It has also led to my facilitation of the weekly IWF drop-ins since the start of the lockdown.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

  • Take more risks and let your managers know that you are up for greater responsibilities.
  • Don’t expect your career progression to be a straight upward line. Sometimes you need to go sideways or take a step back to gain broader skills, perspectives and experience.
  • Participate fully in networks across business, arts and culture to expand your ways of seeing the world.
  • Make connections for others and don’t be afraid to ask them to open doors for you.
  • Choose your life partner well so that he or she supports your ambitions, is not threatened by your success, and shares household and parenting responsibilities.

I really enjoy making connections and exploring how we can support, endorse, nudge and open doors for each other.

Sylvana Caloni
Sylvana Caloni

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