“I really enjoy seeing people with a lot of energy succeed. The great thing about the United States and the West Coast is that it’s a meritocracy. Anyone who is bright and works hard can do really well. I believe in giving everyone a chance to stretch and grow.”

Fast Facts

Location: San Francisco, CA
Time in current role: 8 months
Previous experience: Chairman, President & CEO, Mellon Capital (2011–2017) Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, Mellon Capital (2007–2011) Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, B2SB (2000–2001)
Number of employees: 51–200
Number of years in current role: ~1 year
Previous experiences: Chairman, President and CEO of Mellon Capital Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of B2SB Technologies (formerly Smartage.com) Tax Attorney at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP
Education: Bachelor of Business Administration and Master of Professional Accounting, both with high honors from University of Texas at Austin – Red McCombs School of Business (1986–1991) Doctor of Law, JD with Distinction from Stanford Law School (1991–1994)
Awards: #3 Most Powerful Latina in Corporate America (Fortune and ALPFA, 2017) Most Influential Women (San Francisco Business Times, 2016)

Weighing the risk: When it’s time to take a bold step out of your comfort zone

How does one of Forbes’ “50 Most Powerful Latinas in Corporate America” leverage her strong background to take risks in a dynamic industry? She does so by believing in her natural leadership style and the capabilities of her team.

Gabriela Franco Parcella began her professional journey in the quiet West Texas town of El Paso. Raised in a city known for its diverse community of immigrants and proximity to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, it was through her own family’s Mexican heritage and her experiences in El Paso that Parcella would form the core components of her leadership style: taking risks, leading with values, and staying intellectually curious.

Upon graduating from Stanford Law School, Parcella began her career as a tax attorney at Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe in San Francisco. Soon after, she made the move to Mellon Capital, where she was part of the in-house counsel team. There, Parcella began to observe a community that was familiar to her: a collaborative group of people strengthened because of their diverse and international perspectives. Mellon Capital proved to be a natural home, where, like her, her colleagues had multicultural backgrounds and experiences. Parcella would spend 20 years at Mellon Capital, rising through the ranks as general counsel, chief operating officer, and eventually chairman, president, and chief executive officer.

Today Parcella is executive managing director at Merlone Geier Partners and an independent director at Terreno Realty Corporation (NYSE:TRNO). She leverages her strong values, risk-taking ambition and intellectual curiosity to make crucial leadership decisions every day. Most importantly, while working in an ever-changing industry, she’s committed to being a constant resource to her team.

Taking risks & letting go

Throughout her career, Parcella that knew success wouldn’t simply appear; she had to be strategic with the opportunities that came her way.

“Be willing to take risks, even if you don’t really know how or if they’re going to turn out,” she advises.

Parcella knew she had a strong foundation on the legal front, but she would have to prove her capabilities as a strategic business leader who could oversee core components of a company—first as COO and then as CEO.

Describing the biggest change in assuming the CEO title, Parcella says, “My role became much more external, working with clients and our bank owner, as compared to when I was COO and worked primarily with the internal team.”

And this proved to be her greatest challenge: letting go to lead the company. As she readily admits, “If you’re not careful, you can intimidate the people that backfill your prior roles by not giving them enough bandwidth to really grow and become the expert that you need them to be.” She explains, “Letting go is essential to being a leader.”

Leading in your natural style

Stepping into her role of CEO was more complex than a mere change in responsibilities. The challenge was both replacing a beloved former CEO and being able to envision herself, a Mexican-American woman, in those shoes.

“There aren’t that many Hispanic or female leaders. This means typically you are stepping into a role that was previously held by men.” Instead of looking to others and how they fulfilled the role, Parcella looked internally. She had big shoes to fill, and though the easy thing to do might have been to imitate those who came before her, she knew she would triumph if she did things her own way.

“You just have to be comfortable with the fact that your style might be different than the prior leader’s style and that your style doesn’t need to mimic theirs in order for you to succeed.”

Leading through your values

Similar to understanding her natural leadership style, Parcella’s third key to leading authentically is to stay grounded in her values. “If you can lead with integrity and honesty, it goes a long way,” she says. “In the end, what you’ll remember more than any particular job you had is whether you did the best you could for the business and your team.”

As a leader who recognizes the importance of each of her team members’ individual contributions to the organization, Parcella came up against one of her greatest challenges during the financial crisis, as Mellon Capital faced downsizing and many tough calls.

“To sit across the table from someone and tell them that their job is being eliminated is the hardest thing that you have to do. But I also think it’s one of the most important, because it shows respect for the person to be there, to have that discussion, and not to delegate it to somebody else.”

For Parcella, being in those conversations allowed her to both authentically lead with her values and stabilize her team during a problematic time.

This team-building based on collaboration, mutual respect and trust is something she deeply values and fosters wherever she leads.

“Most people like to focus on external communication, but you have to spend a lot of time communicating internally, especially as a company grows,” she says.

For a company to be truly successful, Parcella believes two main functions must occur: first, the employees need to be connected with the company’s mission; second, the company needs to understand what motivates its employees to show up every day.

“It’s about reminding all the team members what the investment mission is and how their role helps to fulfill it.” And the key to this is “connecting how what they are doing is supporting the overall mission of the company and how it fits into a larger strategy.”

Staying intellectually curious

If you ask Parcella, those who strive to make connections between “what, why and how” are the ones to watch in an organization. “Intellectual curiosity is what really makes people stand out in an organization—those who want to understand not only what the answer is, but why it is the answer and how things work.”

It was this intellectual curiosity that spurred Parcella’s move from general counsel to her first operations role and what she uses to identify “the people that are going to end up rising to the top and becoming the next leaders because they want to understand the bigger picture.”

In the end, much of Parcella’s success comes from the relationships she builds with those around her. And no matter if they are investors, stakeholders, partners, employees or team members, she recognizes that all have a key role to play.

“I really enjoy seeing people with a lot of energy succeed. The great thing about the United States and the West Coast is that it’s a meritocracy. Anyone who is bright and works hard can do really well. I believe in giving everyone a chance to stretch and grow.” Through her experience at Mellon Capital and now at Merlone Geier, Parcella has built an effective leadership style grounded in a foundation of risk-taking, authentic leadership, values and intellectual curiosity. It’s a style that continues to serve her, her team and her clients very well.

Interviewed by Laurencia Duran and Em Skow.