Discover the Four STEM Leadership Superpowers you can develop
Comic heroines aren’t the only ones with superpowers. But humans often don’t spot their superpowers because they’re second nature to them, and they perform them effortlessly. Take Annalisa Gigante. Today she’s the Chief Innovation & Technology Officer at Bekaert, a Belgium-based global company whose primary business is steel wire transformation and coatings. One of the reasons she’s there is because she can quickly spot a four-leaf clover in a patch of green leaves.
Considering there are approximately 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every “lucky” four-leaf clover, that’s a remarkable feat. Although it was a quirky party trick she performed for her friends as a girl when they were out for walks, when she was older, Annalisa thought more deeply about what this meant about her brain.
“I find four-leaf clovers because my brain works a little bit like AI,” explains Annalisa. “I spot patterns very easily. If I’m walking outside, something that doesn’t fit in jumps out at me. I never took it seriously. I thought that’s how my brain ticks. Later, I wondered, ‘How can I apply this way of thinking to the work I do? Over time, I’ve been so lucky to use that skill as a management consultant working on innovation in different industries to understand what some industries are brilliant at and maybe hasn’t been used in another and translating it so that you can bring the next industry up to those standards.”
In our recent TARATALK with Gotara’s founder and CEO, D. Sangeeta, Annalisa shares her four top leadership superpowers that we can all develop or may already have, and we don’t even know it.
Four STEM Leadership Superpowers you can develop
1. SPOT your team members’ superpowers and embrace the differences!
“I believe everyone has a superpower,“ says Annalisa. “They may not have identified it yet, but it’s there. When you lead a team, you need people that are great at completely different things. Find out what they excel at, “even if they don’t take it seriously because it’s second nature to them.” For example, someone might say they’re great at planning trips with all their friends, which means they can coordinate multiple schedules, juggle different requests, and calmly negotiate competing interests—all the while maintaining her friendships. Phew! They’d be great at project management.
2. EMBRACE your unique STEM-driven approach to problem-solving.
Annalisa, who trained as a biologist at Cambridge, says she relies on the scientific method and innovation techniques to make decisions as a leader. When she’s confronted with situation x y z, she reviews what she knows and doesn’t know about each situation and then decides if the data is there to support making a decision and moving forward.
Having an innovative mindset means she pushes herself to experiment if the answers aren’t apparent. “It’s more about iterations and creating minimum viable products than finding the perfect solution before you make a decision,” she explains. It’s that kind of science-inspired approach to finding solutions that makes STEM leaders unique. “We know that things are never perfect, but we can always see where the opportunities are and what we can improve and implement. All the while, we’re questioning what’s is real and what’s an impression—which might be interesting—but it shouldn’t influence the decisions we make.”
3. FORGET the status quo. Always ask questions and look for opportunities to innovate as a leader.
Years ago, when Annalisa was running innovation and R&D at Holcim, the biggest cement company globally, she had lunch with some university professors who found it amusing that one could “innovate” in the cement industry with a product that’s more than 2,000 years old. She recalls they ignored her until dessert when she shared why innovation in cement manufacturing matters.
“I told them that it’s the second most used material in the world after water, and there are some pretty critical things that we need to change. For example, eight percent of the world’s CO2 emissions come from producing clinker, which is part of cement. Secondly, it’s used in buildings that produce about 35-40 percent of annual CO2 emissions.” She explained the project she and her team did with IBM Watson using machine learning analysis on the energy usage in cement manufacturing plants. They discovered that adjusting the temperature could save one or two percent of your annual energy usage, which was significant as these plants operate at 1,400 degrees C 24-7.
“A couple of years later, I was at DeepMind, and I met a project manager who said he was working on decreasing energy usage on the Google server farms using machine learning. I said, ‘Oh, I know something about that. We did something similar. ‘And he goes, ‘Were you at Holcim? We learned from you!’ That made my day.”
4. DO your research. Fill in the knowledge gaps.
You may have gone into STEM because you’re interested in how things work, or you love testing out theoretical applications. But there’s a critical skill that you need and may underestimate, and that’s understanding the human psychology behind change management. It’s not a nice-to-have soft skill. “It’s critical if you want to be able to make a difference in an organization,’ notes Annalisa, adding she had to do a deep dive into researching the skills she needed to understand the people side of the equation. One of the key things she had to understand was that the researchers she worked with cared deeply about their inventions, and it was her job to get them to learn to distance themselves emotionally from their creation to question what function or purpose these inventions served.
She also understood the importance of demonstrating as a leader that she was able to adjust and keep pushing for innovation when things go wrong because they always do when you’re creating something new. “When you’re a leader, you must understand where people are coming from because things get lost in translation,” said Annalisa. ‘You must peel back the layers and piece the puzzle together. What’s driving the other person? Should you compromise, or is there no need? Sometimes people are wrong, and you have to tell them that in the nicest possible way.”
Chief Innovation & Technology Officer | Board Member
ANNALISA’S STEM STORY
Although she was a fan of astronomy as a kid, Annalisa Gigante says her interest in science was likely inspired by a childhood spent moving to different countries with her family from Italy to the UK and Belgium. “I was always curious to understand why things worked and why things worked differently in different places. I was always asking questions. But what attracted me to study science was because people said it was hard. I always wanted to prove that if somebody else could do it, I could do it too.”
After graduating with an applied biology degree from Cambridge, Annalisa went on to work with industrial designers to innovate around the shapes of perfume bottles for Hermes to develop soft grips on toothbrushes. Away from the science bench, you’ll find Annalisa at the piano—something she also considers less of an art than you might think.
“I think it’s an assumption to say that playing the piano is art,” she explains. “When I look at the score from Bach, for me, it is perfectly mathematical. And then you put your interpretation on top, you know, then there’s a skill part, and then there’s an interpretive part on top. But at the base, I find it has that magical structure that mathematicians talk about.”
That sounds like another one of Annalisa’s magical superpowers.