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7 Questions on Leadership with Martin Pazzani

Name: Martin Pazzani

Title: CO-CEO/Founder

Organisation: Unbound Spirits Brands

Martin Pazzani is a business decathlete, a Swiss Army Knife of broad skills and experiences across many categories, and a serial entrepreneur. A former corporate Chairman / CEO / chief marketing officer / management consultant, he’s the author of the international best seller "Secrets of Aging Well: GET OUTSIDE," and “PUT YOUR BRAIN FIRST: Radically Improve The Way You Age.”

He’s a TED Speaker, founder of an innovative brain fitness startup, a tequila company, a bourbon company, a wellness venture for ages 60+, and a mountaineer who has hiked and climbed 100,000,000 uphill steps across 7 continents over 50 years. His business background is in big company marketing and strategy (Heublein/Diageo, Bally Total Fitness, Crunch Fitness), Madison Avenue advertising agencies (Foote, Cone and Belding Worldwide and DDB Worldwide), and the commercial music business (Elias Music). Now as a serial entrepreneur, when he’s not managing his bourbon and tequila brands, he’s focused on longevity and anti-aging techniques, and he’s on a mission to radically change the trajectory of aging.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Martin's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

I’ve held leadership roles in various industries since the mid-1980s, so with all that mileage and experience, I see the biggest challenges to be finding the right people, and putting them in the right roles. I used to boast that one of my favorite leadership skills was ‘central casting’: getting the right people in the right roles. I’ve been pretty good at this over the years. When you have a team of people with a shared vision, goals, and values, everyone reading from the same script, it makes the business challenges of collaborating, planning, dreaming, strategy, ideation, innovation, insights, design, and execution…it makes them more effective and productive. The right people make leadership initiatives more effective. All your energy goes into the right place.

But it’s lately been a challenge. I’ve made a few mistakes recently, one that cost me an entire startup company. Swayed by impatience, and by other voices, I went against my instincts and overlooked important shortcomings, and the fact that some people just don’t want to be led. This was a wake-up call that I needed, and have heeded well since then. But when you get the right people in the right roles, it’s a pleasure, and much easier, to lead a cohesive team. It’s something like driving a well-tuned performance car versus an old jalopy with used parts that don’t fit.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I believe I have the advantage of being an oldest child in a large family and to some extent that is, I believe, the foundation for me. First-born children often assume leadership roles within the family and tend to be responsible, organized, and reliable, and these traits can be valuable in a career, particularly in management or leadership positions. First-borns often have a strong desire to achieve and excel, which can be a driving force in their career ambitions, and that was certainly a factor for me.

Once in the corporate world though, you have to earn a leadership role…and I did it the old fashioned way: no politics, no schmoozing, I just out-hustled and out-performed my peer group and earned frequent promotions for innovative work. Ten promotions in thirteen years, from entry-level marketing analyst to the top marketing role in a Fortune 500 firm. My career path was marketing management, but I was ambitious and on the fast track, so in addition to becoming expert in all the marketing skills and tools, I invested a lot of energy in leadership skills: finance, operations, public speaking, writing skills, and especially understanding how to get results through and with other people, which is the key to it all.

I also made sure I looked the part. As shallow as that may sound, if you do not look like a leader, people will not follow you. Grooming, clothing, shoes, energetic, fit, and well-spoken: these things matter because no company wants to be represented or led by slovenly, sloppy, low-energy leaders.

But now, for the first time in my forty-year career, I will publicly mention what I always felt was my secret leadership weapon: I was always very comfortable working with women and they were always comfortable and appreciative that my teams, divisions, and companies were women-friendly and safe places to work, ideate, and collaborate, which was not at all common when I began my career in 1979. I believe that women are innately better at marketing than most men, and I felt strongly that their contributions were essential and the key to outstanding team results. This, I am certain, is because of my full-time, career-oriented mother and aunt, pioneers in their own way.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I’m not an overly structured person; I like to leave room for serendipity, ever-changing circumstances, and fire drills, which are fairly common in fast-paced, competitive businesses. That said, roughly, I try to follow this structure:


-Protein: I eat eggs for breakfast, almost always—Nature’s perfect energy food.

-Input information first thing in the AM. One of my mottos is ‘antennae up’: you have to know what is going on in the world, your industry, and your company if you want to have the proper context for your business decisions and leadership.

-Maybe a little light stretching or exercise: waking up your body also wakes up your brain.

-Review the day’s schedule

-Write in the morning. In addition to my business roles, I am an author with two published books and many articles. I have two books in process, and I find I write better in the morning when I’m fresh.

-Connecting with people as needed (return email and calls, meetings, zoom, calls)


Quick, light lunch. No alcohol.

Walk, run, or short hike, preferably outside. Not always possible if you work in an urban area, but seeing the sky and trees is not only a great pressure valve for stress but it refreshes your brain and gives you added energy.


Meetings, zoom, outreach, and administrative work in the afternoon.

Or, the exact opposite if I can: close the door, turn off the phone, and ideate, create, plan, and think, sometimes with others sometimes alone.

Prepare for the next day/week. Cross off today’s items and add tomorrow's to-do’s and meetings.


Light dinner no later than 6 p.m. Harder if you have a big household and need to spend time with family (which is so critical and cannot be neglected)

7pm-9pm Gym: I have always been a gym rat, and have worked in the fitness sector, so this is important to me, at least three or four night per week. Staying fit for my hiking and mountaineering adventures not only gives energy but keeps your brain sharp.

Read and Relax, and maybe a movie.

Maybe some pushups or crunches if I’ve not been to the gym.

Sleep is midnight to 6am; which seems enough unless I’m physically tired from workouts or have brain fatigue, in which case a catch up/zone-out day is useful.

Note: I’ve stopped replying to emails and texts after 7pm. I found that being always on and connected 24/7 is the sure way to distraction and fatigue.I once had a role where I had staff on six continents and across all time zones. I could log on at 2am and be in real-time with team members in Hong Kong or Tokyo. Too much of that will eventually wear you down because the only way to recover from your efforts is sleep, and you cannot cheat on that for long. Now, only a very few people, family, and friends have my private number in the event of emergencies, but mostly work communications can wait until morning.

Be adaptable and flexible though. The perfect day is not always something you can control. This perfectly planned day rarely happens and it doesn’t account for air travel days, traffic jams on the freeway, supply chain problems, snow days, family crises, etc. but when it does happen, it helps to have a plan for the day.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

Throughout my career and leadership journey, I’ve been a mountaineer and an explorer, with adventures on all seven continents. I have often used lessons learned and analogies from mountaineering world in my planning, meetings, writing, talks, and speeches. Topics such as goal setting, planning, persistence, resilience, risk, preparation, and more have clear implications in both worlds.

The one that I use frequently, which has come up several times in this past year, is the concept of a false summit. A false summit is an illusion that occurs because we are small and the mountains are large and often obstruct what is behind them. A false summit is when you are approaching what you believe to be the highest point, but just as you arrive, you see one or more higher points that had been hidden by what you believed was the high point. Realizing that what you believed to be the summit, your goal, was only an intermediary point on your climb, seeing how far off the true summit really is, can be a demoralizing and daunting experience that can crush the spirit to continue.

This happened to me just recently: my current startup company was cruising along with rapid and wild success in year one when suddenly we hit a few regulatory and scaling hurdles that took us aback and slowed our momentum. This was a shock and really threw me at first. Some of our team were crushed by this and are in the process of gearing up again for a higher level of intensity to get us past this obstacle and on to the next high point along our journey.

The only real solution to a false summit like this is to marshall your resources, unite the team, demonstrate the confidence and reliance you need to overcome challenges and find the energy to persist against these new challenges. Sometimes when you have it too easy, the world gives you a reality check to remind you that life and businesses are full of challenges and obstacles and that if business success were easy, anyone could do it.

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?

I was a strong proponent of Steve Covey and “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and thus became a fan of his book “Principal Centered Leadership”. His main tenets are that leaders need to be continually learning, service-oriented, radiate positive energy, believe in their people (again, the importance of having the right people in the right roles), lead balanced lives, value exercise for self-renewal (keeps you positive, energetic, and sharp), and see life as an adventure. The last is my favorite of these…look at your life and work as if you were a courageous explorer heading out on an expedition into uncharted territory, with no certainty about the outcome but eager to find out, learn from it all, and contribute). This is my nature and why I evolved from the big corporate world into an entrepreneur. I’ve tried to keep these ideals central to how I work with people.

That said, there are a ton of leadership books from leadership experts, and some of the worst leaders I know have read them all. You don’t learn to be a leader by reading, you learn it by doing it, by feedback from a mentor/coach, by the feedback from and results of your teams, and by experience.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Business and careers are in some ways harder than when I began forty years ago. Things are leaner, meaner, faster, less disciplined, and less secure. Companies spend less time on developing people, training, and career paths are less straightforward, and in some cases, there are few company sages left to advise the new generation. For this reason, I would advise a young leader to join a peer group of leaders from other companies and meet with them regularly to learn and share ideas about challenges and best practices from others.

This is also a way to get important objective feedback, test out your thinking, and get support and guidance from multiple perspectives. There are a number of these peer group companies — like Vistage, Young Presidents Organization, and The Alternative Board — often guided by highly experienced former CEOs who are there to impart leadership and a ‘hive brain’ experience to a new generation.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

I have often been called on for turnarounds: resurrect a tired brand, inject new life into a division, and later in my career, fix a broken company, so there are many meaningful stories. These situations are usually high risk, and board and investors alike are interested in solutions and results, quickly. When you move into a role like that, your team is looking for confident and decisive leadership. Unfortunately, turnaround situations are to some extent an indication that there is something amiss with the team that goes deeper than poor leadership, so my first action is to review, evaluate, and usually shake up the team. Identify the saboteurs and the politicians, the people who will slow or obstruct solutions and resist change (they do exist) and move them out; identify the producers and contributors who have been ignored or held back (often the quick solutions are there, waiting for the right leader to support them), and bring in a few new key players to elevate the skills set and chemistry of the team. If you do this quickly and accurately, you can step on the gas, point the team in the right direction, and be confident you will get results.

When I was a Divisional Marketing VP, I went through a five-year period where I was tasked with revitalizing three separate divisions and their major brands in three consecutive 18-month assignments. I followed the above plan on each occasion, added a few motivational programs for good measure, and revved up the morale. On the third of these assignments, the stakes were very high and I needed to emphasize that change was about to happen, so I had the escalators that led to our floor reversed for a week: up was now down, down was up, and everyone was reminded that things would be different. It got the point across. I was three-for-three with these assignments, and each one gave me the confidence and experience to take on bigger roles with bigger challenges that eventually led to a reputation as a ‘fix-it’ guy, a turnaround specialist, and eventually a CEO role.

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