Mariana Santos started Chicas Poderosas in 2013 while she was an ICFJ Knight Fellow. Her goal was to share her accomplishments as an innovator in digital media with other Latin American women, to help others succeed as new media leaders. Her vision has been responsible for inspiring thousands of women in Latin America and throughout the world.
Tell me how you define a successful leader.
For me a successful leader is someone who can inspire the team and who can create trust and confidence – downwards, upwards and sidewards. I think a leader is someone who you want to be close to, is someone who wants you to grow, someone who is able to make everybody in the team shine and is not worried. Someone who is not worried about their own ‘brightness’, but instead focuses on bringing the best out of their team members. I think that’s agreed.
When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?
As soon as I saw these girls around Latin America that want to promote Chicas Poderosas events for the sake of their own communities, I felt that I was making an impact. I was not only leading these women into becoming leaders themselves, but I was also inspiring them and making them believe in themselves – by having this support, they actually became leaders themselves. I can see the impact in their communities. They are very keen and very interested in learning more. They have become catalysts for a “social impact generation” – this is the best things about Chicas.
Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience.
We had started Chicas Poderosas in Colombia a long time ago – about 4-5 years back – with a big event in Bogota. In August 2017, Chicas Poderosas ambassadors in Colombia staged their own event called Poder de Elegir – The Power to Choose, the event was aimed at empowering local communities with a possibility of doing their own fact checking in their own country and political campaigns there. Not only will they keep the government accountable and people informed, they will give power to the people to be able to be a part of this fact checking process. So now we have a group of leaders not only in Colombia’s capital Bogota, but from all over the country – and it is very important, to include new voices into a global conversation, to empower local journalism. Now this event will be replicated in Brasil, and then Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador as well.
Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time?
I had a very big challenge a couple of years ago. One of our ambassadors – and just so you know in Chicas Poderosas we have a very flat hierarchical scheme, so everyone can practice leadership. Ambassadors are a group of women across Latin America – and they organise events in their own communities. So in one of the countries we had one of the ambassadors who wanted to become a sole leader in the country. Across many months I’ve had many talks with her explaining that the setup is different, that we are not a dictatorship. We are supposed to involve and are interested in involving everybody’s opinion so the girls can share and practice their leadership skills. After having asked her to be more inclusive over and over, I had to tell her to leave because she was blocking others, and it’s not something I want from our projects in the countries.
It was hard because she was with us from the beginning, and she has been a big motivator of all of the things we were creating, yet all of a sudden she’s started on her own agenda, not respecting Chicas’ overall agenda, methodology and process, so I invited her to leave. And guess what – she started her own company which is called something very similar to ours, using the same typography, and then she went on to a bank asking for funding. They have asked her what the difference was between Chicas Poderosas and that company, and she said it was all the same network, but different name and now she was the leader.
We lost the funding in that country. So that was a big lesson. I believe that all organisations should evolve organically, but I learned about boundaries, that teams need to be organised, structured.
Otherwise the teams wont know what is expected of them, what their responsibilities are. It was a big mistake which I learned from and moved on from. Now Chicas Poderosas in that country are re-organising themselves, rebuilding the community and letting everybody in the community know very clearly about what has happened because as you can imagine the community got a little bit confused with the situation.
Who have been your greatest mentors? Were they a colleague or did you hire a professional coach? What about this person or the experience had the biggest impact on your growth?
I have had many great mentors in my life and I believe this is why Chicas Poderosas and I reached to where we are now.
I can start by Alistair Dant, who was my manager at The Guardian newspaper in London, for the three years we worked together he was very focused and dedicated in mentoring me, to make me the best designer I could be. And this has made me want to do the same around the world, because he really had an impact on me.
Other people who I had as mentors are people who I work with – nowadays it is Vicki Hammarstedt, a director of Advanced Media Institute at UC Berkeley and she’s also the co-director of Chicas Poderosas with me as well. Ever since she joined me as a volunteer, she has developed Chicas Poderosas strategy – and she has brought the leadership, business acumen and innovation in terms of running a non for profit organisation. She has professionalised Chicas – so she’s not only my colleague, but my mentor too.
Another person that has also been a mentor to me is Jane Mcdonnell, she’s the former executive director of ONA (Online News Association), and now she’s the president of the board of Chicas Poderosas. She is a great inspiration, she taught me everything on how to run companies, she’s always been available for me and it’s great to have such a person.
Last but not least Elisa Tinsley has been a great mentor to me. She used to be President of ICFJ fellowships and she was my director when I first got a place in International Centre for Journalists. She mentored me and helped me to start Chicas from scratch, and she’s still with us as part of the leadership team.
Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice person?
I think you do not need to be ruthless. I think we can not be naive. I am one of the most naive people I know and I never expect people to have bad intentions. But this made me vulnerable, people tried to step over me or smash me. I did not realise it until people tried to take over or destroy things I am trying to do. You don’t need to be ruthless, but you need to be awake, aware, sharp, with your eyes open and you need to know rules very well. If you are leading the company, you are setting the rules. You need to be solid and strong.
Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips?
I feel my weakest points are to do with managing up – we often have to follow someone else’s ideas, ambitions and goals that are not necessarily ours. It can make me feel quite emotional because I always strive for the best and do not like to be blocked from fulfilling my true potential. I ask for lots of advice from my cohort and mentors in order to deal with situations like this – sometimes I take a deep breath, sometimes I sleep on a tough decision, not rushing it. Another thing I’ve learned – if you are in toxic environment, get out of there. I want to use my life, my power and my ideas in order to have an impact on people’s lives. I do a lot of yoga and swimming – it clears my head and helps to understand if I am right or wrong.
Communication is key too – and although we work in communications, communication skills is something we all often lack.
At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?
I hit a low point very recently – I became depressed. Normally my team – Chicas Poderosas network – has such a supportive system, they are always there for me. So I have to carry on because I see the effect it is having on so many people, female lives that are changing. They motivate me a lot. I really believe I am doing my best to pursue the goal and mission of Chicas, which is to bring more women into technology, leadership and innovation in journalism. When I am down, I remember that I have that power to bring the best out of other people. Whenever I am sad, I do sport, try to better myself.
If I am not good with myself, it will be hard to be good with others. Once I work on myself, I am back with full energy.
You look at what you’ve done, what is still there to do with this amazing group of people across Latin America, and that’s enough motivation even in times when you don’t have any resources – time, money or people. We have an amazing community and it gives me enormous honour and pleasure to be working with them.
What are your top three book titles that were most impactful for your leadership development?
Community Canvas – it is about collaborative spirit and on about how to build communities. It is about shared leadership, a concept I aspire to be really good at.
Another one has nothing to do with leadership, but it’s given me a lot, because knowledge is power. It’s the most recent book I’ve read and called Prisoners of Geography. It gives you an understanding of why countries act and interact the way they do, and it has to do with their geography. Knowing just a bit about history could be a very powerful tool for leadership.
The last one is a bit of a cliche, but I love it – Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. It’s a long time since I read it, but it was very impactful. Most of women that I know are the first ones to doubt ourselves, to think that leadership has to be something coming from men or that in order to be strong women we need to give up our femininity. I really do not believe in that. After reading Lean In you are like – you really have more power than you think, you just need to go there and do it. I don’t only believe it that – I am seeing it happening too.
Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do you create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?
I have worked in the past for organisations that were absolutely not people oriented. Every time I am doing something, I am trying my absolute best and this normally attracts people to join your team, this has been my approach ever since.
Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. Have you found a way of dealing with this?
When I used to work in the corporate world, although I am not doing it at present, it used to be very hard to give pay rises to people who do amazing work. So in order to compensate for it, I used to give them some kind of other opportunities and experiences. For example, when I worked at Fusion, all of us together went to a design conference in LA that we all cared about and we spend the whole week together, we had lots of ideas to develop afterwards. It was not a pay rise, yet we experienced new things at this curated event as a team. This was extremely beneficial. As a team leader I tried to do everything I could, all opportunities I has to increase the quality of my team by giving them training, opportunities or experiences that would make them grow as professionals and people in general.
Companies often refer to themselves as “family”, yet only a few supports their employees like a family supports its members – unconditionally. Aside from professional training, what support do you offer your employees?
The last time I worked in a corporate world, all my employees were my friends, my family. We all moved to Miami to work, were available to each other 24/7 as friends. Sometimes it has actually given me some hard times because working together professionally and being friends with your collaborators sometimes can be tricky as sometimes you need to be a boss and sometimes a best friend – having drinks together, going to the beach together, dynamics can be confusing, paths can cross each other.
In my current company Chicas Poderosas we are really a family. We can support our members by training, money, funds, but we also share each others’ passion for helping other women to become more powerful in digital world. We are always there for each other – this is exactly the type of support we ask at Chicas and receive too. Everybody helps, it’s quite a beautiful thing. Nobody gets paid, but we hope to change this detail in future.
Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t believe in strict hierarchy, I do really believe in collaboration. We are more successful in times when a more diverse group of people are contributing to a project. Different points of view will serve our audiences, that also consists of many different points of view, better. “Let’s do it this way because its a cultural norm” – I don’t really believe in this statement.
Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom.
Well, I’ve been learning a lot how to delegate, especially when you do not have the physical time to do things yourself. So I started delegating and giving responsibility to people I work with so they can have ownership and make decisions on their own. I also believe in ‘fail fast, succeed soon’ statement. The more my team is informed and the more they can trust themselves to decisions, the better it is. I delegate a lot and I delegate to those who are up to speed with how things work. Sometimes though we do not have fixed processes for that, it’s more like ‘can you do this?’ or ‘can you do that?’ conversation. Right now we are organising events in Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Venezuela and El Salvador – seven countries – if I did not delegate to the women that run those countries, I would not be able to do anything. I delegate to them, I train them and then they reach out to each other and we work like that.
Team building has become a buzz word in the corporate world, yet many still do not see the value in applying it to their group or organisation. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building?
The work I have been doing with Chicas Poderosas is all about team building. It is very important that the entire team of ambassadors can feel a part of the team and that their contribution is extremely important. None of them is paid, it’s totally voluntary work. People need to be on the same page with you and your goal and mission. We are focused on physical events, where people come together physically, not digitally. During those events you can bond with people in a very deep way, and not once, not twice it has been told that at Chicas’ events magic happens – we create a comfortable space that say that everyone is welcome, regardless of who you are or where you come from, what gender you are – you are welcome. We are inclusive and participatory – Chicas is a very dynamic team that can deal with anything.
When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo?
As I am now leading 10 teams, I have a weekly briefing with all of them.
How do you decide to be available to your team (i.e. text/Email/voice call/video call)? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?
This is a very good point – I am still working on my processes. For example, my professional collaborators are not expecting anything from me on Saturdays and Sundays. I don’t reply to business emails on weekends. I am sending voice messaging a lot – it’s easier and thoughts flow a bit better too, and it’s much faster for me to talk than type. I send lots of audio and video messages to my friends and colleagues. During working hours it’s different – I am disconnected from WhatsApp, for example. I would check it in the morning and the evening, as lots of business is happening through this platform, it’s easy and free and you can reach people around the world. I place all my calls in my diary – if it’s not, then it’s not happening. You need to be very organised as you don’t want to keep people waiting.
How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?
I value transparency extremely highly, except obviously when the topic is sensitive. In my team we talk openly about our struggles and successes, about the problems we are having as a team. You can address problems only by communicating.
How do you best separate work life from personal life – for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this? How does this impact you personally?
Honestly, I have been very bad at separating these areas of life. What I am doing, it can penetrate my personal life a lot. I just turned 35 today, I am not married, I don’t have kids – unlike many of my friends of similar age.
Sometimes I think about these things – am I dedicating too much time to work? Am I being obsessed? Or am I running away from the expectations of society?
I am living my life on focusing on every day, with ambitions for the future but really enjoying every day right now. I have not found the man of my life, I have not start building a family and I am very passionate about Chicas Poderosas – the work I am doing is exactly what I love doing, working with people I really admire. I save two hours a day for sports, religiously, I would not spend a single day of my life without doing sport. I am sports obsessed. Sport plays a very important meditative role in my life – be it swimming, or yoga. I am following healthy diets, I am vegetarian, I prepare my meals to take to work, I am very conscious of what I put in my body. If I am not healthy, I won’t be able to work very well. And although I do care about my health a lot, I spend most of my time working. I am working with my friends and we are busy with innovative, crazy, challenging projects that keep me awake, so at the moment the balance is not very balanced. There are three rules to keep me going: sleep for 8 hours a day regardless of what I do, spending two hours a day doing sports and not working on weekends. I actively try to disconnect during the weekends.
Explain how you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing. What works for you and how do you handle the interviewing process for vetting candidates?
At Chicas Poderosas we always want to have at least three pair of eyes looking at the candidates, with different backgrounds – a man, a woman, different cultures, different age, as diverse as we can make it, so there is no bias towards any given group.
How to you respond to colleagues or employees who have been diagnosed with mental disorders?
I had both depression and anxiety, and Chicas helped me a lot. Honestly, many Chicas have had depression in the past and the cohort responded very openly, by talking about it to each other. Sometimes we have women joining from the other side of the world, but we do provide safe space to talk about these topics. So it is still work environment, but it spills over into our personal lives too. There is a lot of depression among women in journalism – with bullying, lack of human rights, so we try to support each other and be there for each other, especially seeing that most of us have had personal experiences.
Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it?
Early on I told you about that case in Argentina, I tried to make it work several times, and despite my best efforts, I just had to ask her to leave. Sometimes it is just not working – you need two to tango. If you partner is not dancing very well, and if there is something I can do to change it, I will try. However, if it’s something to do with an employee not being on the same page as the company, I’ll have a conversation, ask questions, and you come to a mutual conclusion that may be we need to go apart. It’s hard, but sometimes it’s the think you need to do. We need to be able to take hard decisions. I did some, it’s always very emotional, but ultimately it’s for the best of the overall mission and goal of the company and the direction we want to go.