Park Fellows alumni spotlight: Alessandra Zielinski, MBA ’11

By: Emily Hampton
Alessandra Zielinski, MBA '11, facilitates a working session during a leadership development workshop.

Alessandra Zielinski, MBA '11, facilitates a working session during a leadership development workshop.

We caught up with Roy H. Park Leadership Fellow alumna Alessandra Zielinski, MBA ’11, to learn more about her journey and impact since graduating from Johnson. Alessandra is an executive coach and consultant dedicated to capacity building for mission-driven organizations. She supports organizations on topics including leadership development, community engagement, strategic planning, operational efficiency, and board governance. Earlier in her career, she worked as a strategy and operations consultant at Deloitte and managed Deloitte Consulting’s $11M portfolio of pro bono projects for nonprofit clients across the country. She left Deloitte to launch a cross-sector education and workforce initiative bringing together business, government, and philanthropy in the Seattle region. Alessandra brings an intercultural perspective to her professional endeavors, having lived and worked in 7 countries in Europe, North America, and South America, in addition to serving remote clients in Asia and Africa. She teaches a graduate course on intercultural communications at American University. In addition to her Cornell MBA, she holds a Masters in International Relations from Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar and a BA from the University of Notre Dame.

Q: The Park program focuses on increasing our capability as leaders to make a broader impact. With your incredible journey after Johnson, how you are seeking to drive impact?

Alessandra Zielinski Headshot

A: There are various levels of impact we can have as leaders. Impact can take place on an individual, organizational, or system-level. I focus on the individual level, connecting one-on-one with people as a coach and advisor. I work with clients on how they lead their teams and organizations, supporting them in changing the world for the better. Most of my work is with leaders of nonprofit organizations, philanthropic institutions, and social enterprises, which aligns with my personal desire to positively impact the world (and ties directly to Johnson’s SGE program). I always knew I wanted to work behind the scenes to help social impact leaders be more effective. My desire to build the capacity of social impact organizations is what led me to pursue an MBA at Cornell.

Q: What experiences do you recollect from the Park program that played a role in your effectiveness and ability as a leader?

A: Two specific experiences come to mind: the leadership wheel and the beehive.

Early on in the Park program, we took an assessment that identified our personal leadership style. My assessment result was “nurturer,” and I was disappointed and annoyed by that label. I knew the result was absolutely fair and correct, but here I was, immersed in this intense MBA environment and I kept thinking, “no one is going to take me seriously.” At the time, I thought of a leader as the stereotypical assertive “business guy,” directing large teams of people by exercising authority. I learned through the course of the Johnson MBA that my leadership style is valid. After finishing my first year at Johnson, I saw how my approach fostered strong teams by creating inclusive environments. People felt valued and able to contribute their specific talents to the project at hand.

The nurturer is defined as “leader as a coach.” Today, I am an executive coach, so that assessment over 10 years ago was prescient. I know my specific strengths as a leader and am in a position now where I get to use those skills every day. I get energy out of supporting the development and success of others.

The second experience I revisit often is the beehive: an off-site activity where my Park cohort gave each other feedback on a question we posed to the group. I don’t remember what question I asked, but I do remember getting the feedback from others and that it was awkward and emotional. However, the discomfort faded quickly. I worked with my partner to process the advice from my classmates and determine what to do about it. The Park program engrained the habit of proactively seeking feedback, enabling me to see past the fear and embrace the opportunity for growth.

Now, in my coaching practice, I focus on encouraging leaders to ask for feedback. When clients have a specific growth goal, I challenge them to involve others in the process of achieving their goal by routinely asking for feedback. Inviting your team and other stakeholders into your growth journey illuminates areas of weakness you may have been unaware of, models a culture of feedback from the top, and makes others more cognizant of how you are improving as a leader.

Q: To expand influence and impact, what advice would you share with other Park Fellows based on your evolution as a leader.

A: The need for leaders to practice self-care has been on my mind throughout the pandemic. It’s important for us to shift our mindset from idealizing servant leadership and move towards sustainable leadership. Servant leadership focuses on giving to others and putting others first. This leadership ideal is common in the social impact sector. It is one of the reasons for high levels of burnout in mission-driven organizations where people derive purpose and meaning from their work.

As I work with clients to explore what a more sustainable approach to leadership might look like, I often talk about “putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others”. If you are in an emergency and obsess about taking care of everyone else and getting their oxygen masks on before securing your own, you will pass out and then you’re just another person in need of aid.

I’ve been on my own self-care discovery and sustainable leadership journey the past 5 years. It started with landing my “dream job”, spearheading the launch of a new collective impact initiative. I had this sense of responsibility – “everyone is relying on me” – that lead me to push forward with the work despite not being set up for success. I didn’t take time to care for myself and I burned out in 18 months. In retrospect, I realize there were so many things outside of my control: unclear expectations and an unrealistic timeline, too much work for a tiny team, a lack of resources, and challenging board dynamics. But it was negative self-talk that made the situation unbearable. I allowed my core value of independence to get twisted into a sense that I had to do it all on my own, which meant I wasn’t asking for the support I needed. I wasn’t setting reasonable boundaries.

Sustainable leadership is about giving ourselves grace and letting go of the idea that our level of busyness is directly correlated to our value as a leader. Self-care isn’t about spending money to pamper ourselves, it’s a mindset in which we make space for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. As leaders, we are our most important resource. We need to take care of ourselves so we can keep going and show up for our teams as empathetic and strategic.

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