‘Don’t ignore your intuition…’ In conversation with Leonor Diaz Alcantara

‘Don’t ignore your intuition…’ In conversation with Leonor Diaz Alcantara

The chief executive of Montessori Group has navigated an eclectic career. In this interview with Anisha Pithwa from Protiviti’s iGROWW network, she reveals how ambition, variety, and gut instinct have been her guide – and why, sometimes, it best to ignore other people’s advice.

‘Don’t ignore your intuition…’ In conversation with Leonor Diaz Alcantara

Can you tell us your professional story and how you started your career?

My career is one of two halves: first, in the private sector and, secondly, in the not-for-profit sector. At the age of 18, I volunteered for a human rights charity and helped to set up a working group for imprisoned and/or tortured children. But, in those days, I felt it wasn’t the place for young and ambitious people to forge a career, so I decided to look elsewhere.

In my first job, there was an opportunity to take on extra work and effectively run the department – this gave me a taste for managing. I went on to work in a range of sectors, from antiques and art, to music, academic publishing and banking; I also ran a consultancy helping companies with growth.

But in the early 1990s, after volunteering in Croatia during the war, I decided to try and find work in the not-for-profit sector. In my first role, as a receptionist, the chief executive said to me: “Why do you want this job, you’re so over qualified?” I told her I wanted to work in the sector, and for an organisation going through change, because I had experience in that area.

In my spare time, I wrote a strategy, because I could see she was struggling. I suggested that if certain milestones were achieved – for no extra pay – we could have a conversation about my future role. That set off my second career and I have been a chief executive for the past 21 years, most recently in the Montessori Group.

During your very varied career, how have you managed work-life balance?

A lot of people worry about work-life balance and feel they should split life and work. It helps if you do a job you love, of course, because it doesn’t feel like work. But I think it’s about flexibility. I’ve always introduced flexible working because people are employed to do a job and they should be trusted to do it.

If someone wants to take a walk during the day, run an errand, even watch TV, for example, I don’t mind – as long as they can produce quality work when it’s needed. There are days I feel super productive, and work until the early hours of the morning, but there are also days I’m just not getting it. If I don’t have meetings, I might take some time out, and give myself time to solve a problem, for example.

What’s the biggest adversity you’ve faced?

I started my second chief executive role just before the financial crisis. I walked into an organisation that needed turning around and didn’t have a lot of cash; I had to make some very difficult decisions. There were days when I would walk into the building, knowing that everyone hated me, because I was making unpopular changes. But they ultimately made the difference.

I think it’s important to develop emotional resilience because things will get tough. It’s fine to show vulnerability, but understand that leaders are role models, accountable for everybody’s wellbeing and the health of the organisation.

Looking back is there anything you would have done differently?

Every single time I’ve made a mistake, I went against my intuition. Intuition comes from our unconscious minds, where we’ve stored up information, experience, and lessons learned in life. It helps us make decisions. Don’t ignore it.

Secondly, everything passes. Sometimes a situation can feel impossible, and we have no control over it – everyone can walk away from a job if they really want to. But those moments pass. Everyone goes through times when they are unhappy and finding things stressful.

Have you seen any improvements to the gender gap?

I’m passionate about mentoring young women. When I started my career, there were very few senior female role models, but that’s changed, which is great. That doesn’t mean to say we have solved the problem; there has been some backlash against women’s rights, and we still need to change the way women are portrayed in the media.

When people write to me, they sometimes assume I’m a man, because I’m a chief executive. Social media algorithms think I’m a man because the adverts are aimed at men of a certain age. I sometimes walk into meetings and people assume I’m not the most senior person. The more we can talk about it, the more we can change perceptions.

What’s the best work-related advice you’ve ever received?

I once received some advice about leadership, but ignored it. A former colleague, who was a very successful leader, was explaining how to deal with different situations. But it didn’t resonate for me because I wanted to be authentic, I wanted to do it my way. It doesn’t matter if someone is in a position of leadership, life is much easier if you are authentic and true to yourself. Some advice is best ignored.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of women?

Have the courage to go for it; it’s so important the next generation women have confidence in themselves. Find networks, find people, there’s nothing like supporting each other. There are many women willing to support those starting their careers.

Finally, don’t be afraid to invest in personal development. I did some coaching early on in my career, and it was expensive. But I saw it as an investment in myself and it has absolutely paid dividends. It will help young women think differently about their career and self-worth.

iGROWW is Protiviti’s internal women’s network group and stands for ‘Initiative for Growth and Retention of Women at Work’. It has a strong voluntary membership that tackles women’s professional issues through forums, and facilitates networking events and community service activities. For more information, please contact Rhianne Williams [email protected].