Marisa Santoro: Gutsy Leadership

Marisa is a leadership trainer and career coach. Women of Influence Honoree, Diversity and Inclusion Speaker and CEO of

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York as the youngest child of four, in a festive yet   emotionally charged Sicilian family. Although I love my family, I spent most of my time behind closed doors in my bedroom. I learned later as an adult that I had  hearing sensitivity to loud noises and credit the consistently loud camaraderie of native Italians for craving my much needed alone time. When you spend a lot of hours by yourself, you learn a lot about yourself. I credit that solitary time to becoming self-aware at a young age.

I’m a first generation Italian-American. My father emigrated from Italy in his early twenties and settled into New York where he met my mother at a dance held at a local church and never looked back.

Mama Mia! My father certainly epitomized the word ‘gutsy’! His stories of coming to America with no money in his pocket, unable to speak English yet building a rich life for himself had always inspired me. By simply observing him, I learned there is nothing you cannot achieve.  My mom was my rock growing up. One of my favorite memories is when she would often say “Marisa, shoot for the stars, but don’t worry if you reach the moon.” I learned early on to always stretch bigger on any vision you hold for yourself.  I also learned the dynamics between an American and foreigner. My parents were a very funny couple. They would speak to each other only in Italian when they were mad and argue over the most trivial things like whose Sunday pasta sauce was better. When they dragged my siblings and I into it, it became a bit challenging to take sides!  We may not eat dinner!

How did you start your career?

I grew up in the downtown Manhattan area where I graduated from with a Computer Science Master’s Degree. I defaulted into a technology career working on Wall Street from sheer proximity and doing what I loved – being a girl geek. There weren’t too many around at the time either in tech or on trading floors, so I suppose I was drawn to forging ahead as the minority at the time.

What steps did you take when you began the coaching programme?

I started with my low hanging fruit – what I knew really well, who I wanted to support and where I saw the biggest gaps were.  Once those were locked in, I mind mapped the content and worked backwards. It sounds over simplified but really that’s where my gut led me. The one thing I made a point NOT to do is subscribe to and try to emulate other coaches. I knew a lot of great coaches back then but didn’t want to unconsciously pick up anything that wasn’t my own content and approach. I think that’s hard because we have to start somewhere and maybe that’s not the best way to tackle something when you begin but that was a big one for me.  Plus I tend to do the hard things first. I’m still like that today! Perhaps EASY bores me, I’m not sure.

What 3 traits would you consider effective on coaching programmes?

Accountability is number one. You can learn all the information you need, but if it becomes shelf-help it’s meaningless. So having an accountability element to coaching is essential. Writing or journaling is also a non-negotiable. I don’t know how it occurs, but there is something magical when you write out the things that you want in your life even if it’s in the form of exercises or journaling. Our brains lock into our spirit and it really helps us find our path. Instruction is third. I think a lot of coaches just starting out, follow the straight path of helping someone discover on their own what to do next. I really struggled with the word coaching, because I never considered myself that kind of coach. I’m the kind of person who will tell you exactly what you should do, give you lots of options and let you synthesize to see which one feels right. I believe people want to be led even if they are being coached; yes they also want to have those A HA moments on their own but they are hiring you to learn something given your expertise. Give yourself permission to teach what you know and tell them what works.  In the end they are still making the decision, but lead them! Teaching is as much a part of our job as coaches.

Why is leadership important to you?

One word – freedom. Leadership allows us to self-reflect on who we are and how we relate to others so we can choose the next best path for us at any time. Without that introspection it’s impossible to lead others. It’s an inside out journey regardless of whether you are teaching, parenting, collaborating. It gives you the freedom to make yourself a little vulnerable because your core foundation has been established. You know who you are and therefore showing certain parts of you don’t feel uncomfortable, your roots are there. That includes voicing the less popular opinion in the room or having that difficult yet needed conversation. Leadership is liberation.


In your opinion what causes stagnation in career and business?

Hands down, becoming too comfortable. Not being in motion. Staying too long in a certain position because things have never changed and so what’s there to motivate you to change? Environment, negative people and circumstances contribute to suppression and holding you stagnant. People don’t often want to see that, those yellow alerts but they feel them. There’s no shame or blame, we’ve all been there, but that’s the number one factor I’ve seen keeping people stuck. I include myself in that mix when looking back at my flatlined periods. I was too comfortable, didn’t want to see what was staring me down. The beauty behind this is however, is that when we do embrace these yellow alerts, you find so much clarity. It feels right even though you’re getting your hands dirty. Most people don’t want to get their hands dirty. They’d rather do what feels comfortable. The word comfortable doesn’t really have a place in my life dictionary.

What is the one thing you look for in a client?

Mindfulness. I can tell immediately how much someone can feel into a conversation before we begin working together. It just comes through energetically and when I take that initial call with someone whom I don’t feel aligned with, I look back and say “yep, I wasn’t feeling it, but went ahead anyway.” It’s a waste of both of our time. In that circumstance, I will now usually end with something along the lines of: “Thanks for reaching out, but I’m probably not the best coach for you.” It’s a high road to take especially in the beginning when you want and need clients. Energetically however, you are pushing away good things from you. Be aware of who makes you feel good and vice versa. I’m very “tuned” in to how I feel, all part of that intuitive gut gene we walk around with.

What inspires you with work?

Being of service, watching my clients reach that a ha moment early on where I can feel them exhale, giving themselves permission to love and accept themselves. My role is simply to hold up a mirror to what is already there inside of someone, it’s probably the most grateful process I love about what I do.  I often see myself in them and recognize later that’s why we were connected. We are all in this beautiful interdependent universe.

What are your top 3 qualities of an exceptional leader?

Listening, molding to any personality, having a radar for seeing someone’s strengths and how you see them holding themselves back.

How does Marisa unwind?

I easily let go and allow by being near any body of water. Water has a strong vibration and really helps you clear your mind and connect with spirit. I live not far from the beach here on the East coast, so that helps and certainly something I’m grateful for. Listening to piano music and writing are the other ways I find myself in unwind mode.

Of all the countries you visited which one is your absolute favorite?

Without too much pause, I have to say Italy. I am so in love with all things Italian. We held our first retreat in Tuscany in June.  It’s also where my father was from and so I suppose I am somewhat predisposed to embracing La Dolce Vita.

What is a must-have when you are travelling? The one thing you don’t compromise on.

The first thing that comes to mind is seafood, especially shell fish! I remember one trip I was on in Australia where I couldn’t get clams or mussels. It was still a great adventure but admittedly somewhat disappointing, as Australians are known for their great chefs. Shamelessly I will admit seafood is a must.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently completing a manuscript for a book introducing Gutsy Leadership for women, which speaks to how we as women can BE in order to show up powerfully in our careers.  Although plenty of expert advice today teaches on what to DO to be successful, there’s still not much focus on what we can create by asking intuitively for the things that we want, following those impulses of thoughts, shifting our mindset about our true potential. Mindset accounts for 99% of our results and yet we tend to focus on the obvious, things only in front of us – that nominal remaining 1%.

What’s next for you?

More programs, more curriculums, more speaking and more partnerships with forward-moving organizations like who are making that dent in the universe by helping others find their voice.

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