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Brains and machines


Elisabetta Osta, Managing Director for Information, Insights and Innovation at Barclays and a Visiting Fellow in Marketing at Cambridge Judge, talks about motivation, mentoring and consumer behaviour.

Brains and machines - doll with computer circuit overlay

Elizabetta Osta, Managing Director for Information, Insights and Innovation at Barclays and a Visiting Fellow in Marketing at Cambridge Judge
Elizabetta Osta

I’ve always been fascinated by how our brains work. My background is behavioural psychology and neuroscience. I’m also very interested in how computer language and tools develop, and how those technologies are deployed and interact within human ecosystems. This interest developed into a career centred around data and information, the natural place for humans and machines to meet. Lately I have been focusing on detection – another great meeting place of human psychology and technology.

I learned a lot by living and working in different countries. My first experience was the set-up of a new operation in Italy of a German company, so I learned a lot about entrepreneurship as well as the value chain associated with data. Living in Germany, I learned to appreciate the importance of thinking long-term rather than being driven by short-term considerations, as well as the virtues of grounded, hand-on management.

Leading a team means managing the emotional capital of that team. This often requires patience and care, but it also means trusting people and never giving up. There is a specific moment as a leader when you need to set out a new vision, and the time it takes for the team to embrace it can sometimes be disheartening – no matter how short that time is – because you may not know whether everyone is with you on the journey or whether you’ve lost some people behind.

Keeping people motivated at the workplace is actually pretty simple. People like to go to work and get things done, and satisfaction comes from accomplishing the work or task that was set out – so removing barriers to achievement and empowering teams is important. Active communication is also very important, so leaders should ensure that there is a place to discuss and improve.

I had truly inspirational managers in my early career. The role of early career managers is often underestimated, and I was fortunate to have amazing role models. I see those early experiences as a fundamental “imprinting” of the type of leader you will become. A mentor in my view needs to be a neutral outsider, challenge you out of your comfort zone, and make you stop and reflect on where you are going

My first advice to people just starting out in business is to follow your heart. Life is too short to do something you don’t like or you don’t feel naturally fitted to. You will be much better at doing what you are best at, and will have much higher life and job satisfaction. My second piece of advice is to always ask yourself: “What’s the best way to generate value” – and this is a complex question that may need constant recalibration as value is multifaceted.

Constant re-prioritisation is the key to balancing work and family. It’s important to accept that you won’t always get your priorities and focus right, so adjustments are needed. Quality time is very important as well: I try never to be interrupted by my phone when I am talking to my family or I am in a meeting. It’s about respecting the time of others.

Challenging authority in business should be directed at specific decisions rather than a person. The trick is bringing the conversation to a logic level, asking questions with the right heart, and being transparent about your own point of view. Managing emotional capital is important: if we elicit negative emotional responses rather than a sensible thought process, we may not achieve the outcome desired.