COO Marina Bellini on leading IT talent for growth

COO Marina Bellini on leading IT talent for growth

The Banco Itaú executive breaks down the guiding philosophies she uses to build cohesive cultures and help people grow with confidence beyond their comfort zones, one saying at a time.

Marina Bellini’s career journey has shaped her unique perspective and leadership playbook. She started out in Big 4 consulting and then spent several decades working across three global, big-brand CPG companies. Most recently, she made the shift from CI&DO to COO at Latin America’s largest bank, Banco Itaú, where she is leading a major operating model transformation. 

In a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Bellini opened up her leadership playbook to share what she’s learned about leading organizational transformation, successfully transitioning into different industries, and measuring your impact as a digital leader. Afterwards, we spent some time focused on a few more of the guiding philosophies she uses to communicate and galvanize people around a vision, build cohesive cultures, and help people stretch and grow with confidence as they expand beyond their comfort zones. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: One of the leadership expressions you frequently use is ‘I don’t want to be right.’ That can be a surprising thing to hear an executive say. What do you mean by it?

Marina Bellini: What happens quite often — it happened probably three or four times yesterday — is, I’ll say something, and at first people are not going to agree with me or not going to understand what I’m saying. And then eventually they say, ‘Oh, you’re right.’ And I say, ‘I don’t want to be right!’ I want my idea, your idea, and then from that, a better idea.

I have no love for my own ideas. Sometimes people think, ‘I’m going to say that she was right, and she’s going to be happy.’ I’m never happy by people telling me that I was right, or I’m right. I’m happy by building better ideas, when people exchange differences in opinions. So I say, ‘I don’t want to be right,’ because I really don’t want people to take what I say and just do it. I want them to take what I say, think what they think, talk about it, and we’re going to get to a better place.

How long does it take for a new organization and new colleagues to understand that you mean that — that you genuinely want the dialogue? You talk about how you want to create the force multiplier. How long does it take people to really buy into that?

It all depends on the people. I think there’s no time for an organization, but it does take time for different people inside the organization. People that are very used to a command-and-control type of leadership take forever because they don’t believe you when you say, ‘I don’t want to be right.’ People that are really looking for this approach of, let’s partner to make it better, they get it. You don’t even need to explain it. It all depends on the frame of mind and experiences people have had before.

So I don’t like to judge that for an organization, because in the end, this is a person-by-person reaction to, let’s have more conversations, you know — it’s not the boss that’s always right and that’s okay. She says it and she means it.

So many of your expressions are based on your humility, and that one’s a great example, because a lot of leaders want to be right and be told they’re right. In a similar vein, another saying of yours is ‘I don’t have a crystal ball.’ Can you unpack that for us?

Some people like to think that they have a crystal ball. It makes them feel good. But I’d get worried, because if I would think that I have a crystal ball, then I would be so damn sure of things that I should not be sure about. So I don’t have a crystal ball. Because again, it is about experimenting, it’s about learning, it’s about, yes, trying to draw patterns, as you said on the podcast, but not because you’re guessing something. It’s about collecting knowledge, and everybody can do that.

I also want people to be happy for not having a crystal ball, where they tend to be scared when they don’t know the answers. You cannot predict, but sometimes you get it right because you have experience, because you’re reading the data, because you are experimenting with the consumer. But it’s not because you have a crystal ball. I really want people to feel that this is something good, because there is sometimes this belief that you’re going to grow more experience, you’re going to go higher in the organization, and you’re finally going to have a crystal ball. Never, ever.

You’re all about the learning journey and providing people with the North Star. As part of that, you’ll say things like, ‘You don’t know less; you know different.’ What does that mean and how is that part of the learning journey?

People tend to think, I know less because I am less senior, because I don’t have the experience that you have. Because you have been here for 20 years and I’ve been here for 20 days, I know less. One is from sales and the other is from a support function, and the support function knows less.

No, you don’t know less, you know different. Let’s talk about the different perspectives you have. You can have amazing ideas from anyone in the organization, right? So when people put themselves in positions of ‘I know less,’ I always say, ‘No, you just know different, and this is great. Be happy with that.’

I think it’s a way of motivating people and helping find their talents, their strengths. In big transformations, people tend to lack that self-confidence. And high-level of self-confidence is what, in the end, will move the organization. It’s not arrogance; it’s learning. And feeling smaller doesn’t help anyone. So I think we, as leaders, have the obligation to tell people, ‘You don’t know less; you know different. Let’s join forces here.’

This next one might sound contrary to what you just shared. What are some situations where you might say, ‘Don’t be an over-learner’?

Let’s say you move to a different department. You used to be in the architecture team and now you’re on the business-facing team. You’re on this new team and you think that you don’t know anything. And then you move countries, and you think, I don’t know anything about this country. And then you move from IT to operations, and you don’t know anything about operations.

You don’t need to learn everything. I got this advice when I joined Itaú. A very senior leader from the finance industry said to me, ‘Don’t think that you don’t know enough. You have your experience.’ When we get new challenges, there’s this pendulum — either people think they know it all, or they think they don’t know anything. Don’t be an over-learner. And remember what you know. You have to learn, but you’re going to make parallels, you’re going to find patterns, you’re going to reuse that.

I’ve been practicing that, trying to at least, now joining a new industry, joining in a new type of role, in a new country for me, in a sense — I’ve been away for 20 years. Not everything is different or has changed. I had this great advice a few months in when there was this feeling that I don’t know anything. Like, what do you mean, right? So I love this expression. Don’t be an over-learner either. Life is about balance.

You also have a great philosophy around multitasking: ‘I can multitask in a day, but not in a minute.’

That means when I’m doing something, I’m focused on that. If I am with my kids, I’m not meeting, I’m not on my emails, I’m not on my phone. If you need to talk to me, don’t text me, don’t message me, give me a call. My phone is somewhere close to the door, volume on. I’ll pick it up.

I do believe in focus. That doesn’t mean I don’t multitask, because when I look back, an hour, a day, a week, a month, how many different things I get to work on — people think that I multitask when they see the outcome, and they say, ‘Oh, how do you multitask so much?’ I say, ‘I don’t multitask in a minute; I multitask in a day.’ I believe in focus in the moment. And this is valid for your professional life, personal life, for life.

Another expression you have that might surprise people is ‘I don’t love technology.’ But then you’ll continue the thought after a pause. Tell us about that one.

I say it a lot: ‘I don’t love technology.’ And then I stop and stay quiet. And then I say, ‘I love what we can do with technology.’ You have to say that over and over again, not just to your IT team, but sometimes to your executive team colleagues that read in the newspaper about this new technology that they heard the competition is using and we are not. Who cares? Of course we care. But it’s not about the technology. It’s about what you can do with that technology. And sometimes, you’re not going to use that technology. And that’s okay. Because that’s not what’s addressing the opportunity you are trying to capture or the gap you’re trying to close.

I usually take a long time between saying, ‘I don’t love technology,’ and saying, ‘I love what we can do with technology,’ because I want people to try to reflect and think about it. You can get in endless conversations and fall in love with technology and I don’t think that helps anyone.

For more lessons from Marina Bellini’s leadership playbook, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.


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