Name: Dr. Mandy Zimmermann
Title: Executive and Leadership Coach
Oranisation: Dr. Mandy Zimmermann & Associates
From bustling factories to vast deserts, my journey into leadership was sparked by the fascinating dance of personalities and cultures. It's the magic of turning those differences into synergy that ignites my passion. I've been lucky to traverse the globe, from Germany to Chile, to the UAE, and a few desert stops in between – in fact, I've lived in three of them and aim to tick off all the world's deserts from my list! When I'm not diving deep into diverse corporate worlds, especially with Japanese and Saudi Arabian corporates up to the CEO level, you'll find me soaking in the serenity of nature or exploring a new corner of the world, with a special fondness for the mystique of the desert.
But life isn't all sandy dunes and corporate boardrooms. There was a moment, amidst the labyrinth of corporate hierarchies, where the weight of toxic environments grew too heavy. That pivotal period led me to the path I'm on now – transforming leaders, one coaching session at a time. If there's one philosophy I swear by, it's this: 'If we'd turn judgment into curiosity, threats become opportunities'. It's with this mindset that I hope to shine a light on the crucial role of interpersonal skills in leadership through this interview.
A chemist, a process engineer, an executive coach, and an endless traveler – that's a slice of me.
Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!
I hope Mandy's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?
One of the most complex challenges I've faced as a leader has been navigating the 'sandwich' position between top-level management and my teams. This unique placement required me to provide unwavering support and service to both ends, often concurrently. The complexity was intensified as I reported to a headquarters on a completely different continent. Coupled with that, leading, building, and nurturing interdisciplinary teams across four continents presented its own set of challenges – from managing diverse cultures and personalities to grappling with time differences and geographical distances.
Despite the passion and enthusiasm I had for my role, balancing these professional challenges with personal life was not always a straightforward task. However, having my own leadership coach played a pivotal role in my journey, helping me navigate the intricacies and providing invaluable insights. One of the most profound lessons I've learned from these experiences is the importance of humility in leadership. Leading is not just about authority; it's about recognizing the immense responsibility one carries for the well-being and growth of teams and individuals.
2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
My journey to leadership wasn't a linear one. After earning my diploma in chemistry, I delved into the role of a product chemist and developer, embracing the complex details of the manufacturing field. Yet, my hunger for broader horizons led me to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering—a domain that intrigued me due to its expansive scope and alignment with my inclination for the bigger picture.
During the rigorous journey of my Ph.D., a significant realization dawned upon me. Beyond the technicalities and theorems, I discovered a latent strength in forging connections and orchestrating collaborations. My graduation with summa cum laude wasn't solely the fruit of academic brilliance; it was more so the testament to my innate empathy and ability to tap into collective strengths, thereby creating meaningful synergies.
Post-graduation, I took on the role of standardizing laboratories across four continents for our organization—a challenge that stretched beyond the confines of scientific methodology. Leading teams rooted in analytical thinking, I had to embrace the complexities of strategy and finance, often balancing technical imperatives with the pressing realities of the business world. A notable milestone was my close collaboration with Japanese clients, which entailed understanding their needs and directing the necessary alignments. Simultaneously, I was connecting the dots between our research team in Germany, production units in Chile and China, and the headquarters in the USA. Navigating these multifaceted challenges and managing diverse expectations honed my leadership acumen, making me the leader I am today.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
My days don't follow a strict routine, mainly because I cater to clients from various parts of the world, which means juggling multiple time zones. Corporate sessions and larger group interactions are usually prioritized since rescheduling one-on-one sessions is a tad more flexible. Above all, coaching or training sessions always take precedence over routine meetings.
If I have the luxury of a free morning, it's either yoga to stretch and center myself or a brisk walk before Dubai's heat sets in. Post that, I usually reserve my mornings for deep focus and tasks that demand creativity. By afternoon, as the creative juices slow down, I transition to meetings, administrative chores, and diving into numbers and tables. To ensure I'm wholly present for each session, I have a practice of grounding myself with some focused breathing exercises before and after meetings. Tougher meetings might find me taking a longer breather, perhaps with a walk or a refreshing cup of coffee.
An essential ritual for me is morning journaling and task planning. It's my way of starting the day with clarity and intention. And when unforeseen work demands spring up? I either re-adjust my schedule if the matter is urgent or strategically switch off notifications to ensure no distractions. As an engineer at heart, I lean on my planner for daily tasks and a dedicated project management tool for the long haul, ensuring everything is organized and on track. Evenings, if work allows, are my time – maybe another walk or catching up with friends and colleagues.
4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?
A recent leadership lesson that I've been reminded of is the beautiful imperfection of being human. While I'm constantly engaged in guiding leaders globally to be their best versions, it doesn't shield me from facing the same pitfalls. Just like everyone, I too grapple with judgmental thoughts and overwhelming emotions, despite my best intentions to stay impartial. For instance, as much as I advocate for non-judgment, there are moments when emotions cloud my judgment. It's in these moments I'm reminded of our shared human frailty.
One of the most transformative practices for me is engaging with my own coach. Having someone who approaches situations with minimal judgment, challenges my thought patterns, and promotes introspection keeps me grounded. This process of self-reflection helps me recalibrate and navigate challenges more effectively.
Moreover, I've found immense value in sharing my personal experiences with my clients. By relaying my own stories of imperfection and the lessons they've taught me, it not only offers them actionable insights but also reassures them. It's heartening to see them take comfort in the fact that even as a coach, I'm continually learning and evolving, and it's okay not to be perfect all the time.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
Simon Sinek's 'Start with Why' resonated with me the moment I delved into its pages. Often, as leaders or agents of change, we're faced with the response, 'we've always done it this way,' or decisions that seem devoid of clear purpose. The 'why' is a powerful tool that nurtures curiosity, which in turn sparks creativity, innovation, and growth, both on a personal and organizational level.
For me, revisiting my 'why' serves as a compass, especially in challenging times, steering me towards my true purpose. As a leader, when you help your team understand the 'why' behind a task or decision, it not only gives them clarity but empowers them to align it with their motivations. This leads to a higher quality of work, and as a leader, I can delegate with trust, knowing they understand the bigger picture.
In my coaching role, delving into the 'why' often reshapes the goals of leaders I work with. It's enlightening to see how understanding their core motivations can redefine their objectives and align them more closely with what truly matters. This principle also extends to team dynamics. With diverse cross-functional and cross-cultural teams, understanding each member's 'why' can be a powerful catalyst in fostering collaboration.
For instance, while leading the global quality assurance department in a manufacturing firm, I grappled with aligning the production standards of our plants in Chile and China with the requirements of our Japanese clients. The 'why' became crucial in bridging the gap between customer requirements and production capabilities, ensuring we met the needs of all parties without compromising too much.
In essence, 'Start with Why' is more than just a book to me—it's a principle I live by in my professional journey. It serves as a beacon, guiding me to lead with empathy, clarity, and purpose.
6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?
Embrace your leadership journey with humility and recognize that understanding people is paramount. Every individual is complex, and it's essential to remember that there's no 'one-size-fits-all' approach. While you'll face challenges and may not always be everyone's favorite, remain true to your core values. Avoid the trap of sticking to just one leadership style; instead, adapt and diversify based on the needs of your team. Prioritize emotional intelligence—it's a cornerstone of effective leadership. Even in the most technical environments, emotions play a critical role, and understanding them can lead to stronger team dynamics. Always be open to self-reflection and consider seeking guidance from mentors or leadership coaches. Remember, understanding yourself is the first step to understanding and leading others effectively.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?
One of the most impactful moments in my leadership journey was during a challenging phase of corporate politics, especially after an acquisition. Despite facing personal pressures and even threats, my priority was to shield my team from these external tensions. I believe that a leader's role, in part, is to protect their team from unnecessary distractions and discomfort. And while I may not have been successful at every turn, the unwavering loyalty and feedback from my team attested to my efforts. This loyalty not only solidified our bond but also enabled me to evolve into a better leader.
In fact, there were instances of self-doubt, a sentiment that I believe every leader grapples with at some point. To navigate through this, I learned to rationalize these feelings, recognize their root causes, and give myself the grace to take breaks and reconnect with my purpose. My collaboration with a leadership coach was instrumental in this phase, helping me to confront and overcome these doubts.
One particular team remains close to my heart. Their trust in my leadership was unparalleled, and it was this very trust that empowered me to excel as a leader. My approach was simple but profound: I focused on the individual strengths and needs of each member and strived to cultivate a cohesive unit that was committed to the company's vision while also giving me the autonomy to strategize and look at the bigger picture.
In reflection, beyond all the technicalities and strategies, what stands out to me is this: to be the best leader, one must first be the best version of themselves as a human. No amount of knowledge or skill can compensate for a lack of emotional intelligence. Being a leader is about authenticity, empathy, and a genuine commitment to those you're privileged to lead.