Gabriella Vacca is a senior leader in a male dominated industry - Tech.
She's an Executive Vice President, and Chief Technology Officer for Sky Italia, and a Group Director of Sky Group Enterprise Tech Solutions. In 2020 Sky Group had a workforce of more than 40,000 employees.
She is strategic, smart and well respected. In anyone’s book, she's a big deal.
She's also a wife and a mother. She's warm and generous and she's a great example of a Powerful Feminine Leader in the 2020s.
Tune in to hear her thoughts on how things are changing for both men and women, her personal advice for working mothers, plus her generous insights and anecdotes that can help us all become more effective as leaders and in life.
Sue Begent 0:00
Welcome To the Powerful Feminine Leader podcast. Every other week, I'm speaking with remarkable women leaders and entrepreneurs who are pushing the boundaries and rewriting the narrative around what it means to be successful, powerful, and feminine.
Sue Begent 0:19
My name is Sue Begent. I'm a business turned confidence and presence coach for ambitious professional women who want to say goodbye to self doubt and overwhelm and experience the assurance and success they deserve.
Sue Begent 0:33
Join my mailing list Sue@Suebegentcoaching.com to receive podcast reminders and free resources to step into all that you are capable of. Thank you for tuning in and get ready to feel inspired and motivated.
Sue Begent 0:49
This week, it's my pleasure to welcome my guest Gabriella Vacca. Gabriella is an Executive Vice President and the Chief Technology Officer for Sky Italia. She worked and studied in Italy and the US, and for many years, was a senior executive at Comcast in Philadelphia, where she is also a board member of Citizens Diplomacy International. Known as the "Technology Humanist", she is strategic, values driven and well respected. She's also a wife and a mother. Warm and generous, she cares about people and she's a great example of a powerful feminine leader in the 2020s. I can't think of anyone better to talk with on the subject of powerful feminine leadership. Gabriella, welcome to the podcast.
Gabriella Vacca 1:39
Thank you so much
Sue Begent 1:40
I am so excited to talk about this topic with you, because you cannot achieve the type of level that you have achieved without thinking through, and coming across some major challenges - and figuring out how to make it work to become a powerful feminine leader. When we think of the terms powerful, feminine, and leadership. What is it that you think of ?
Gabriella Vacca 2:05
I think that the definition of powerful and feminine are both changing. I mean, powerful - the stereotype was, you can imagine, you know, a strong person, ready to take charge and today we interpret - many people I know interpret powerful as impactful. And, and the world is so complex that you need to be really, really smart and clever and socially smart to understand which method works for that specific situation. So impactfulness to me, replaces powerful. Now feminine...You know, I have to tell you that I grew up with this concept of the princess of you know, of Disney movies, like many of us, and it was so terrible, right? It changed the perspective - you put this princesses - they were all beautiful, perfect and shy, and waiting, just waiting and waiting for Prince Charming, right? So I was conditioned a little bit by that concept and the concept of feminine right now is changing tremendously to me and others. It means well rounded, it means that you're solid, it means someone who can take care of things. And in order to take care of things and others you need to take care of yourself first. And you need to have the competence right. So I found myself telling my son - I have two kids 20 and 23 (Almost 23), that when they needed to select a doctor, I was telling them - go to a woman, go to a woman, go to a female doctor, because I know that - it's of course I'm showing my own bias, right? It shows that the trust and the 360 degrees of the feminine - the definition of feminine changing completely, which is a good thing for the world, not just for women. Absolutely. It's a good idea because women are 360 leaders I call them, they tend to look at many different aspects of the person, the project, the technology, both in terms of how do you get the job done, as well as what is the impact to people? I mean, at least for me, that's what drove me.
Gabriella Vacca 4:31
In all the different technology projects. I felt that the component of the people - both the team that was getting the project done, as well as I always imagined a smile on the face of the users when they first use this application that you have developed - that was to me was a driver and something that helped me through the the ups and downs of projects.
Sue Begent 4:57
So you imagined the actual pleasure of the end user interfacing with what you were building.
Gabriella Vacca 5:04
Yes and actually, just adding a little something that may be interesting, is that when I hire people, I tell people, sometimes I even write it - I write it down in the job description - that I want someone who can feel the joy and the pain of customers using that specific technology. The pain is, of course when something goes wrong, right? So it gives you the urge to change and motivate others that this is really important for the customers and so on.
Gabriella Vacca 5:36
But also the joy when something works and you know that you've done it. So that's to me is is how you can hear so much customer centricity.
Gabriella Vacca 5:45
What does it mean? To me its that structure, the emotional drive that people have and doctors have it for their patient. Basically putting your best self at work
Sue Begent 6:01
Yes. Saying it today. It sounds so obvious, doesn't it? I mean, it sounds like - why on earth wouldn't we not do this, you know? I'd love to hear you talk about Where we have come from? How did it used to be?
Gabriella Vacca 6:14
So where we used to be was a world of, I call it silo competencies, right? There could be for example, in technology, which is my field that you have the core engineer, you have the people who are doing the specifications. You have people doing testing and so on. So everybody has their role - they were siloed in their role. So people worked together but they assumed that the process was basically enabling the flow of information, data and so on, from the beginning of the project to the very end, right? And even many, many, years ago in healthcare it was the same thing, right? They tend to cure whatever situation you had without looking at the big picture. Similar to the changes in healthcare, even in technology or in other practices, there is much more awareness of the entire "supply chain", as well as the fact that people need to collaborate. It needs to be driven by a specific purpose.
Gabriella Vacca 7:26
So we are moving from this world that was much more siloed, like the pieces of the puzzle that didn't apply each other. Everybody is aware of the whole and then the whole requires, sometimes, people to create what I call that "healthy overlap" in how to get jobs done. I do think that today, for example, technology is enabling business.
Gabriella Vacca 7:54
What does it mean? It acknowledges the need to understand a good foundation of business drivers, but also the need for business to understand technology so there is a healthy convergence between the two creates value, speed, and agility, which is what companies need today.
Sue Begent 8:12
Absolutely. When I listen to you Gabriella because you are at the forefront - you are a leader, I find it inspiring that you are thinking this way today because to be really honest, I and of course I'm not talking technology here but for instance, I'm thinking about the healthcare example because that's something I know a lot more about. That's aspirational. And I'm so glad that there are leaders like you who are leading us towards that because it is absolutely ideal. It's good to know that we're going that direction, but there's a long way to go.
Gabriella Vacca 8:46
Sue Begent 8:48
I have a question about mentoring leaders, and about the differences that you see - you mentor both men and women leaders. What are the differences that you see between the men who coming up and the women,
Gabriella Vacca 9:03
So years ago, mentoring was much more polarized. I want to say. So mentoring men was helping sometimes them to reconnect with themself because at the end of the day, they - like everybody else - they were humans at work. And in order to work with a diverse team, they needed to show some emotional intelligence, embrace their vulnerabilities and so on.
Gabriella Vacca 9:33
And then the woman was about "you can do it". She was basically wasn’t believing in herself. But now it's, it's fascinating that it's changing. I'm mentoring two or three men. These people already have gentle soul. They are kind, they have more in the traditional sense of feminine type of qualities. They're struggling a little bit between the need to look more powerful and assertive, and so on. So they're finding a leadership style that's much more, I would say balanced, between their external - how others may see themselves - as well as their self. I also coach some women who felt way too much that they needed to "prove it" all the time. Right?
Gabriella Vacca 10:39
They feel as though they have to prove themselves over and over...
Gabriella Vacca 10:42
Yes - and therefore, you know, people almost couldn't stand them! Because we all like working with humans! Men and women. There was this wonderful friend I had back in Chicago - if she listens to this she will recognize herself, but I'm so proud of her. She was extremely competent, very tight. She cared so much about people and the project. She just didn't show it, so the coaching for her was "you've got to smile five times a day". And she did! and she's now a Chief Information Officer (CIO), and successful. She changed many jobs. She's learned how to do networking, and just basically to look at herself and say, "look at this person in a meeting like the way you look at your kids". And that helped.
Gabriella Vacca 11:36
So I'm just sharing this example because things are becoming less polarized. Now, I have to say, though, that the majority of women still have a lot of uncertainties, especially if they have a double role - they are a mom or a caretaker, and you know how much time they can be at work. They feel that they steal away time from their family. It's important that women need to find a balance and that they are supported. And they live their specific situation in a way that I call powerful. This time I'm really using that word.
Sue Begent 11:36
Tell me what you mean when you say "powerful" in this context
Gabriella Vacca 12:39
Powerful means that you live it, not that you have to hide it.
Sue Begent 12:43
You don't have to hide that you're a mother
Gabriella Vacca 12:28
Yes don’t be shy about it or say "I'm so sorry, but I'm a mother". There's nothing to be sorry for. To be a mother -It's the company that needs to adapt to you. So when you say - when I say live it in a way that is powerful, say "I'm a mother", my goodness. Own it. I will give you this other example - again, she will recognize herself if she listens to the podcast.
Gabriella Vacca 12:58
I was talking with a class at a leadership school in Milan. And, I asked a question and this woman, an African American first line and very, very alert, attentive - she asked me a question ... we're talking about diversity and so on. And she said, in a way that was quiet, but how, you know "which advice would you give to a mom?" And I said what do you mean? I said "I'm a mom". She was young compared to me, and in line with the rest of the class but she was a mom. And so I gave her a couple of pieces of advice "you OWN it" Oh, my goodness. Of all these people, you are the one who asked a question that was obviously very difficult. You are the leader of tomorrow. If I had to pick one, you are the one because you, you asked a difficult question in order to learn. People need, companies, society needs strong leaders, people who have a strong beliefs, who can learn. And they are not shy of making a point about their specific situation.
Sue Begent 13:29
I was recently speaking at a women's conference and this was one of the things that came up in discussion with the audience. "Although both my husband and I have demanding careers, I'm still the one who's making most of the health appointments. for instance. I'm the one who's taking time out to take them and bring them back. My husband looks like the steady employee and I look like the person for whom they have to be very flexible. I see you nodding your head. So if you have a woman boss, who's also mother, it's a lot easier to own being a mom,
Sue Begent 14:19
Do you have any advice for women who perhaps are in more challenging work situations? Because I know that you are married, you have kids, you've had to navigate and negotiate all of these things.
Gabriella Vacca 15:11
So first of all, it's a situation - I mean, balance with your spouse or with your family. It's something that you need to negotiate and work through, and train the entire system. -Right? That you are not the only one who can do 1, 2, 3, 4.
Gabriella Vacca 15:28
So number one, especially to the women who are young, who are listening to this podcast. Put yourself in the situation of "not to be taken for granted for nothing". Meaning, even when you're dating, make sure that you make clear that anything has to be properly balanced, which doesn't mean that we are going to do a P & L and 50% of the time...Life goes in phases, right? You do need to work the structure so you achieve your best potential.
Sue Begent 15:40
I think what I am hearing you say is "take responsibility for creating that".
Gabriella Vacca 16:26
Yes, do. Do take responsibility for creating that that system. Don't think that you are the only one who can do the laundry better than anybody else. Because then it's gonna you're going to be associated with that role and it's easy for a system, an ecosystem like a family, to delegate that to mom.
Gabriella Vacca 16:45
Also. Understand perfection is really a bad thing to aspire to have, you cannot be the perfect mom, you're going to figure it out. And as long as you're a good balance, you are okay - and someone to help you, you are okay.
Gabriella Vacca 17:02
And then it gets into the job situation. In the job situation. I mean, I think that we all need to learn that "Oh, you know what, I do need to leave early today because I need to do this". Or "I'm really tired and I'm gonna take a day off, because I not only have to go to the doctor, but then I really need two to three hours by myself". That's good. That's good. Because it means that you are managing your own energy. That was a big key learning I had in the in the years as I grew older. I did not know that my energy is not infinite. Because when I was by myself, and I was young, I had energy for everybody. But then think of a family of job age, you know different situations, personal situation that you may have. Finding a way to manage your own energy, understanding what what gives you energy, what is, or what is detracting energy from you, it's important. And in asking for help, or simply saying at work, you know what, I don't mind working after dinner, to catch up on email, but from five to seven is my time - with the family. So just call me for anything that is super super urgent. It's okay. It's actually it's actually empowering people, especially women, when they can say, you know, this is my time. This is my energy. I'm managing in a way that is mature and long term, because I want to live long and have a healthy, productive life. And so I'm managing my energy accordingly. So 5 to 7 is my kids. Okay. And then and then I'll catch up later.
Sue Begent 19:01
Nice, clear boundaries.
Sue Begent 19:03
As much as possible. Yes, absolutely. To conclude I would love for you to share a story that you actually shared with me when we chatted a few weeks ago. I mean, there are so many topics to unpack to help women become powerful and confident or even more powerful and confident than they are, and I think being curious and remaining curious is a key skill, particularly when feeling a little under pressure, or a little triggered. And you shared with me an amazing example. Because even the recent McKinsey Report from 2021 confirms that yes, women are still struggling with some of the age old things, so I think you know the story that I'm talking about. So if you would tell that story.
Gabriella Vacca 19:59
Yeah, is that is the story about not be taken for granted, right?
Gabriella Vacca 20:03
So typically, in meetings many years ago, and also not so many years ago, actually, I have to say, I was working with a team of male colleagues. And I didn't realize that I was the one always opening the conference call. It was at that time, right? It could be the video call now. Whatever. Until one day I was late. And I realized that all those 12 or 13 people - men - were actually waiting for me to open the conference call. And so I realized that "Oh, my goodness, they're waiting for me". So they're taking me for granted and this is not right. And I was perfectly conscious of the fact that I did train them to allow that to happen. And so I decided to be brave, and I always joke a lot but then I'm serious. People understand that when I'm joking I'm saying something. And they say "Tada guys, now you gotta you gotta look, you gotta watch this one, because this is the last show". And so they all looked at me - what the heck is she saying? This is is going to be the last time I'm going to open the conference call, because I'm realizing that you're waiting for me. And I'm always doing it. And so, they looked at me and just as if "Oh my goodness, she's serious. Is there an issue and I gotta call HR?" and so forth.
Gabriella Vacca 21:29
And so I smile, of course, and then I say "now enjoy the show". And then I did it (opened the TC) for the last time and it was good because I didn't realize it. They didn't realize it either. And there was nothing malicious in that situation from them or me. The week after I walked in and a couple of people joked, they say "Gabriella, we've already opened it now". So nobody took it in a negative way. But it was a call out for everyone because they didn't realize it, and honestly I didn't realize it either
Sue Begent 22:07
It's such a good example of what you were talking about. You train people around you
Gabriella Vacca 22:13
Train those around you and not in a way that is serious, intense. I mean, always do it with a good heart, good laugh, so you defuse the stress that you may create in that specific situation. Yeah, that was that was fun. I still remember their faces.
Sue Begent 22:30
Now the other story I would like you to tell, which is almost a counterintuitive story, in which you were the only female leader in a group of senior men. And you had a suggestion, which you shared with the group and everybody ignored.
Gabriella Vacca 22:46
Yeah, that's another another good one. Moment of bravery. Right? That was actually cool. Because, you know, typical situation. You're around a table, you make a point, which is a clever point. You know that right? Not all points are clever, but let's assume that you made a clever point. So I was in a meeting and I made a point and the person after me, repeated what I said.
Sue Begent 23:18
And he was a man
Gabriella Vacca 23:21
And then the third person who happened to a man said yeah, you know what, as Andrew said, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and repeated exactly what I had said.
Gabriella Vacca 23:33
And so at that point, I had two choices, right? One I could react and say "what the heck?" independent of the fact that you said it, you're disappointed, but at that time again, it's a moment for bravery.
Gabriella Vacca 23:48
And I said, "Hold on one second". And so everybody stopped, and I was saying, "you know, I'd like to understand why you acknowledged Andrew’s and not my point?". And so the person was a little bit "did something wrong?" and I said. "You know, honestly, I just would like to understand why you think that Andrews point, that was the same as the one I made, why was it more interesting?", and he said something incredibly important. Because Gabriella, when you explained it, you explained a concept. Andrew gave an example. "Ha". So I realized a key lesson, right? I needed to not just say the clever thing, but also to give an example, I needed to make it more practical for them. Right, more concrete, and I said "thank you so much. Now I get it. Thank you". And so we continued the conversation. It was good. I thanked the person afterwards as well. So you know, really, it was really good input.
Sue Begent 24:50
I think what is so powerful for me about that story is the easiest thing in the world is to think, there we go again, because I'm a woman, they ignored me. And then, when a man said the same thing, they listened to him. Staying curious, allowed you to actually gain an amazing insight, build a relationship, instead of going away feeling as though the relationship was damaged. And get an insight that I'm sure has served you ever since.
Gabriella Vacca 25:24
Actually, one, just one more. One little piece of advice is whenever you are in those situations, - talking with all the women who are listening - wherever you are in a specific situation, when you get a little bit of a negative gut feel, negative feeling -try to seize that feeling and translate it. Put it out, ask a question in a way that is not challenging. Just to seek to understand why the negative emotion is on you. Leverage it. Discuss it with with the people around you, because very likely they they are not aware. They are just not aware.
Sue Begent 26:07
Yes. Yes. Gabriella, thank you so much for spending time with me today especially with your incredibly busy schedule. I really, really appreciate it. And thank you for so much for the wisdom that you shared. The women who listen to this podcast are going to be very excited to hear all of it.
Gabriella Vacca 26:25
Thank you so much.
Sue Begent 26:28
Wow, what an amazing interview. So much to think about. Thank you Gabriella for your insight and generosity.
Sue Begent 26:37
If you're ready to step into more in your business or career, more presence, more courage. More confidence, and you're interested in tools, strategies and support. Email me at Sue@suebegentcoaching.com.
Sue Begent 26:53
Don't forget to tune in next time when my guest will be Dr. Pamela Pruitt, Executive Director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Rider University in New Jersey.
Sue Begent 27:05
I look forward to seeing you then.