Maria Katsarou, founder of Our World Group and The Leadership Psychology Institute, is a professional in the field of Organizational Development, leadership coaching and team effectiveness.
Maria Katsarou, founder of Our World Group and The Leadership Psychology Institute, is a professional in the field of Organizational Development, leadership coaching and team effectiveness. She tells Touch Base about her days at DEREE as both a student and professor, what it takes to be a leader and part of an effective team, and discusses a host of other hot issues.
Can you tell us your fondest memories of DEREE as a student, and as a professor later on?
My experience at DEREE has been one of the most memorable periods in my life that played a great role in how I view the world today. I have many memories that I couldn’t possibly start selecting one, from Dr Burke’s Public Speaking class, to extracurricular activities…. the list is endless! Returning to the College as a professor later on, was another valuable experience for me where I was given the opportunity to contribute to the College’s mission. I just loved every single moment of it, connecting with the students and learning from them!
What skills did you gain at DEREE that have helped you in your career, founding Our World Group eight years ago, and then The Leadership Psychology Institute?
I have learned many skills, like working with teams through the course project work or even the various extracurricular activities, the ability to discipline myself and focus on goals, networking, public speaking and presenting, just to mention a few.
What are the aims of Our World Group?
Our World Group is a boutique-by-design company that provides executive training and development services in the areas of leadership, management, coaching, change management, group dynamics, etc. We work with Middle-level managers and leaders up to the Board and CEO level in various countries.
You also then pursued your interest in psychology, earning your Master’s while also founding The Leadership Psychology Institute. What prompted the transition?
Yes, I earned my second Master’s degree while still being in the corporate world, before even setting up my own company (Our World Group). I had already decided to do a complete turn in my career and I went into the field of psychology as an adult, for a very selfish reason: I was trying to “figure out” my own head and understand myself. A new world opened before my eyes, which offered me the opportunity to enter the field of Organizational Development and Business Psychology. I am now very close to completing my Doctorate in Leadership Psychology at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology in Boston. I founded the Leadership Psychology Institute to bridge the gap between the science of Psychology and the commercial world. Its headquarters are purposely decided to be in the UK so that we are able to serve the global market from a central hub.
Can you tell us the aims of the Leadership Psychology Institute?
The aim of the Leadership Psychology Institute is two-fold: First, it is the bridge that will connect the art and science of Leadership Psychology with the real, commercial world in order to contribute to results-driven, sustainable organizations. Secondly, we aim to further advance the art and science of Leadership Psychology through research in the corporate world that will eventually come up with pragmatic, practical approaches and methodologies to support the businesses, but also contribute to the existing body of knowledge.
How has the crisis affected your field over the years in Greece?
I have a real aversion for using the term “crisis.” I feel we have been abusing the term. First of all, a crisis, to me, is defined as something that happens for a specific moment in time. It’s intense. of course, and difficult and it’s a turning point. But it’s a very definitive moment that has a beginning and an end. Circumstances that last for almost over seven years now, to me do not constitute a “crisis,” but instead, they constitute different conditions that one needs to adjust and adapt to.
So, through this lens, if we look at the field of business psychology in the last years in Greece, but also elsewhere around the world, there has been an increase in need. If we look at the training and development field, what has changed is that organizations do not opt for the – what I call – “supermarket approach” anymore in their training initiatives, which is a great change. They actually now are more involved in what they want as outcomes of the specific training as well as being really demanding from their suppliers for pragmatic, value-adding interventions. That to me is a great positive change.
What would you advise those who want to break into your field? What kind of mindset and skills should they be equipped with?
There are two levels that need to be addressed here: first, the entrepreneurial mindset if one wants to set up their own business and second, the field per se. For the first, what I have discovered is that one needs to be truly self-motivated with a great drive to achieve what one believes in. Because I have done both, i.e. working in the corporate world as an executive and setting up my own business, and these are completely different mindsets and ways of working, as well as complete opposites. When you are an entrepreneur, there are no schedules. I am working much more than ever before, the level of uncertainty and ambiguity is greater. However, the rewards are greater too, because you enjoy the ability to truly create something from nothing. It’s a lonely journey, so you really need to be able to have perseverance, resilience, and discipline, and just keep going.
For the second, if one wants to enter the field of psychology and people development, one needs to first of all, do a lot of work with themselves, because at the end of the day the tool is you. It’s a journey of self-awareness that never ends. You are growing and continuously learning and developing and the biggest trap is to believe that you have learned it all.
What are the three most important skills that any young graduate should have, build on, before entering the work force?
The first would be grit or the courage or strength of character, which is a type of perseverance that I find absolutely necessary for anyone today. Secondly, and I know it sounds a cliché, a necessary skill or trait is adaptability. You need to constantly reinvent yourself; whatever doesn’t work, needs to be discarded and substituted with another trait, or attitude or mindset. Thirdly, I would choose vision -the ability to see and project one’s original objectives into the future.
What makes an effective leader in an organization?
This is a huge discussion, and it’s the million-dollar question! Seriously, first of all it depends on what we define as “leader.” In the corporate world, we tend to use the words “manager” and “leader” interchangeably, and to complicate things further, we tend to want managers who exhibit leadership skills. You will find as many definitions as there are leadership authors! “Effective leadership” should be a verb, not a simple act, and it’s a function of 1) the Leader, 2) the Follower(s) and 3) the Context. Effective leadership is ‘adaptive leadership,’ the ability to deal with the adaptive pressures and challenges of the 21st century.
What are the key ingredients in a successful, high-functioning team?
In organizations, we tend to use the word ‘team’ loosely and we believe that just because a group of people happens to work together in, for example, the same department and share the same working space, that automatically makes them a ‘team.’ This is not the case. A high-performance team is characterized by many key ingredients, some of which include trust, the ability to deal with conflict effectively, commitment to a common purpose, and, of course, achievement of results.
You have been involved in a number of successful initiatives. Which one are you most proud of?
The most recent one couldn’t be other than the foundation of the Leadership Psychology Institute, since this is a truly global effort. I want to see it growing in the next coming years and making a difference in the business world. Co-authoring my first book Under Pressure is, of course, another one, especially when I was informed that the book will be translated into Chinese and Portuguese.
You are a “global citizen,” traveling a lot and working for numerous multicultural global companies. Despite your global reach, you are based in Greece and you have the youth of this country in your heart. How has the brain drain phenomenon played out through the crisis?
I grew up in Nigeria, that’s where I spent the first 13 years of my life. So, at the moment I am feeling awkward that the two countries I come from are cited number one in the news across the world. I went to a German school and also studied and worked abroad, and I am still working outside Greece in various countries. I am not going to idealize the situation. My experience is that Greece, unfortunately, does not offer the infrastructure to support growth and the entrepreneurial spirit. In order to be accepted and recognized in Greece you have to export yourself abroad and then import yourself back which really saddens me. I hear some people say that the Anglo-Saxon model is tough and harsh, but to me it still values meritocracy. If you work hard in the USA or the UK or Germany – as well as in other countries – there is no way you are not going to be recognized. And this has nothing to do with the ‘crisis;’ the crisis is just another excuse.
Do you come across a lot of ACG Alumni in your work, and have you gained from networking with them?
Yes! We are everywhere! I used to come across them when I was working in Human Resources in the various organizations, and I still come across many of them as delegates in our programs. I have to admit that there is an almost sacred bond amongst us, an invisible thread that binds us all together, and we unconsciously ‘recognize’ each other and “speak” the same language.