Interview with Magali Simon
I had a vision to transform the leadership culture by bringing the coaching mind-set and skills into the corporate world
JY: Jonathan Yukawa
MS: Magali Simon
Oxford Leadership Fellow Magali Simon has made a major shift in her life. Last year she decided to cross an unknown sea, leaving her corporate role and returning to Europe. In this interview with Jonathan, she shares her personal journey in search of a deeper meaning and some of the lessons she has learnt as a leader. She is a nature lover and resources herself with long walks at sea or sailing with her husband. She has always been passionate about human relations and what they can create. She now works with leaders, who care and want to develop their teams and their businesses to be a force for Good – a path that finally also took her to Oxford Leadership.
JY: So Magali, let’s start by talking about who you are. What’s your story? How did you end up sitting here today?
MS: Let me start with who I was when my journey started:
I had created myself to be a successful leader with high performance standards, but deep down, I no longer knew if this was worth it and if this was what I truly wanted for myself.
I was in my early 30s. My professional career had taken shape rapidly and I soon found myself in a leadership position with a very diverse team, managing complexity and operating over multiple countries in Asia Pacific. From the outside it appeared successful…Yet, I could not envision the future. I realised I was facing a blank wall, I felt disconnected, searching for a deeper sense of meaning to guide me.
At first, I was afraid to share my thoughts, until I realised I was wasting energy and life at this periphery, and so made a choice to ask for help. This is what guided me to learn coaching. It completely changed my life – professionally and personally.
I was still in the same job and at the same company, yet I felt alive and much more confident in my leadership – and what a magical impact it had on the team!
Building from my own experience, I expressed my dream to bring coaching into the company. I had a vision to transform the leadership culture by bringing the coaching mind-set and skills into the corporate world. What happened next was that I joined HR as an internal coach, starting a very fulfilling chapter of my career.
JY: Thank you for sharing. You have been working in different regions and in different leadership positions. What has been your biggest lesson?
MS: The joy of learning and performing as a team is one of the most powerful experiences. It is a source of inspiration, joy and achievement. Yet at times, it was confusing, challenging and complex…which created the terrain for some of my biggest lessons.
One of them is to truly embrace diversity. Being a leader in Asia Pacific gave ample opportunities to practice, to fail and to try again. What helped me the most was my curiosity and trying to understand the various mind-sets, cultures, ways of working and communicating I chose to give everyone an “A” and to let go of control. Whatever was present, it was always a great source of learning for me and the team.
JY: Can you tell me about how a previous failure has set you up for future success? Do you have any favourite failures?
MS: One of my “favourite” failures is a moment of great change when I was in a leadership position in Asia Pacific.
I had learnt that a structural organizational change would impact my leadership position and my team. The announcement came suddenly (as they do…) and I remember my harsh and painful reaction. In a nutshell, I took it personally.
The consequences, and what I see now as a failure, is that I made all kinds of negative assumptions, I failed to be curious and open about the following steps and what was needed. I was very reactive until I realized it does not serve me, nor does it serve the team. That experience helped me learn to look at change differently.
JY: Would you like to share two books or movies that inspired or influenced your life?
MS: “Crossing the unknown sea” from David Whyte is a book that resonated with me a lot and I read it twice the last 5 years. The book is a mix of poetry and stories from the workplace. It was a helpful, reflective guide before I took the decision to leave my corporate job early last year.
The latest book from Meg Wheatley, “Who do we choose to be?” I love Margaret Wheatley’s invitation to “reclaim leadership as a noble profession, a profession that creates possibilities and humaneness in this time of chaos and turbulences.” She is calling us, leaders and coaches, to make a conscious choice to serve and contribute. I am truly inspired by her insights.
JY: Read an article that you can increase your productivity and mental performance by 60% just by exercising and moving. Do you have any physical or mental routine to boost your focus and performance?
MS: Call it my morning ritual. I normally start my day with a 30 minutes meditation, connecting with my deepest intention. After that I’ll either stretch or do yoga and I finish with reflective writing.
JY: When was the last time you did something that scared you or took you out of your comfort zone and as a result helped you grow as a person?
MS: I crossed the English Channel in a sailing boat with my husband in July. I easily get seasick on a boat, especially when there is no land on the horizon. This is what happened for 12 hours and I was not in good shape.
How did it help me grow? I realised how certain conditions can affect our mind, body and spirit very intensely. Yet after the boat was anchored, all these feelings faded away. I think it is a powerful metaphor: we all have these moments in our life, where we feel in the middle of turbulences and things are not in our control. Finding an anchor is exactly what is needed to bring back clarity and stillness.
JY: How come you decided to join Oxford Leadership of all places you could choose from?
MS: I was inspired by your people and by your programme from the day I joined. I think it was the first time I joined a programme where I had to stop and reflect on my personal journey. Re-discovering my story was a powerful experience and I still remember vividly the symbol that I saw for my vision.
JY: Thank you for sharing that. So, you said earlier your biggest lesson as a leader ‘is giving everyone an A’. Can we go a bit deeper—what does that mean?
MS: It means to trust that the person in front of you is resourceful and creative. It is about believing in people and making the most generous assumptions. “Giving everyone an A” comes from “The art of possibility” from Rosamund Stone & Benjamin Zander. I love their insights in a very practical book.
My own experience leading teams also gives me confidence that there is more to us than we see being expressed. And I believe this is the leaders’ responsibility to create the conditions for people to express their ideas, their thoughts and encourage them to grow.
JY: Thank you. If we look back in time, how do you think leadership has changed or evolved over the last, lets say, 15-20 years to today? And if we look forward, what do you think the future of leadership will look like?
MS: First, the conditions in which leaders operate have changed and are still changing rapidly. And I believe we need a new type of leader – leaders, who are using their influence and power on behalf of people, leaders who are curious about the world, and conscious of the impact they have in it. We see things moving. It is quite common now for corporates to introduce Mindfulness programmes for their employee. We would not have seen this 15 years ago.
Last weekend the FT published an article about capitalism and reminded us of the origin of the word “Company”. It comes from the French “compagnie”, in English “companion”; which referred to “society, friendship and intimacy”. I think this is also the role of future leaders to include and connect society and people, to build relationships and to start having real conversations.
Our work as coaches and facilitators is to create the conditions for leaders to remember what they are capable of: generosity, kindness and compassion; that their journey as leader start when they embrace being fully human.
JY: If there was just one leadership advice that you could give, what would that be?
MS: Your heart is more important than your words. This is feedback I received when I was learning how to coach and it always stayed with me. I think it is very powerful advice for leaders. Leadership is not about you; it’s about people. As Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
JY: We touched this subject a minute ago, you mentioned there’s a lot of things happening in the world right now, both good and bad, but in the midst of all of this change and challenges, what keeps you most hopeful about the world today?
MS: I think one-on-one conversation like the one we are having today. Just witnessing people’s transformation, when I speak to leaders and see their eyes sparkling, I know something has shifted in them. That really is so powerful, it inspires me to continue and makes me optimistic about the future.
JY: Now I have some quick questions. Don’t worry, they’re not too difficult.
So, what are your weekend plans?
MS: This weekend? I will be in Paris actually, assisting a course on relationship coaching.
JY: Favourite drink?
MS: Actually, water!
JY: Favourite food?
MS: Just because you’re in front of me and you talk about Japan, of course, I love sushi.
JY: What annoys you?
MS: What annoys me? Right now, the noise next to me. Yeah, actually, disturbing noises.
JY: Favourite vacation destination? And why?
MS: Well, recently I was in Andalusia in the South of Spain. I loved it because of the warmth of the people, the colours, and all the Arabic influences. I love European culture with Arabic influences, it’s stunning.
JY: So, if you’re having a bad day, what do you do to make yourself feel better?
MS: Go for a walk by the sea. I get a different perspective.
JY: If you could have a coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would that be?
MS: My best friend. We love chatting. I’m so grateful to have really amazing friendships in my life.
JY: So, that was it!
MS: Well, thank you very, very much!