Mary Zalla is constantly challenging her own perspective.

That willingness to surprise clients quickly delivered Zalla to the CEO suite at Landor, a San Francisco-based brand consulting and design firm with 24 offices in 18 countries.

She manages the corporate culture, blogs for employees and keeps tabs on client services "” all from an office in downtown Cincinnati.

Zalla grew the Seventh and Race location into Landor's largest as its managing director. She also built a home there for some of the firm's biggest clients, which include Procter & Gamble and Kraft.

Zalla is mom to three young and active children. It's in her nature to try new things (motorbikes), and she shows no signs of slowing down.

"Our heritage demands that we do more," she says. "True design is about understanding and insight and strategy and inspiring. Ultimately my goal is to make sure we are actualizing our best work."

Client Centric

Confident. Smart. Poised. Zalla is a business leader with a strong personal brand, says Jerry Kathman, CEO of design and branding agency LPK.

"She understands the concept of servant leadership and does a good job of enrolling others into her vision," he says. "She is the personification of what we in the brand-building world do "” create a great brand promise and deliver it over time."

Zalla gained some of that perspective from her days at Northlich, where she worked under Pete Buscani, now a marketing executive at LaRosa's.

Buscani taught Zalla that being client-centric is absolute. Her takeaways included "understanding client challenges and delivering with excellence every step of the way."

Cincinnati Museum Center CEO Doug McDonald says working with Zalla and Landor on building the nonprofit's brand "was one of the most major, organically impactful processes we have gone through as an institution."

Zalla, who sits on the Museum Center board, personally worked on the campaign. McDonald says he learned not only about branding, but how to manage and inspire teams by watching Zalla in action.

"Keeping creative, energized people engaged to get their best work and deliver improved business results is an interesting challenge," McDonald says.

Believes in Collaboration

Zalla uses a collaborative approach to decision-making and leadership. She gathers as much information as she can and makes a point to listen to those with alternate points of view.

"They often bring up points you are not likely to think about," Zalla says. Paying attention to other perspectives can inform and clarify a decision.

Decisiveness also is required.

"You need to stick with the ramifications of a decision even when it gets difficult," Zalla says. "You have to revisit to make sure you are moving in the right direction, but trust in your decision enough that you continue to do the things that support it."

Communication is part of leadership, Zalla says. She never underestimates how much she needs to do it and says she learns every day about how to do it better.

"You have to keep saying things in different ways to reach different audiences," she says.

To communicate her vision to Landor employees across the globe, Zalla writes an internal blog to discuss strategy, vision and challenges. She personally answers employee comments.

"It is very individual and personal to me, and a lot of our employees really like it," Zalla says. "It is transparent and interactive."

Strategic Thinking

When she became CEO in January 2012, Zalla made diversifying company offerings part of her platform.

"I thought we were taking too narrow a view of the business we are in," she says.

Her travels illustrated the challenges clients were facing, whether how to attract consumers struggling with less money, competing in emerging markets or dealing with the fragile world economy.

To find the rationale for her strategic intent, Zalla dove into Landor's archives in San Francisco, where Walter Landor founded the firm. She came across a brochure for the Klamath, a San Francisco ferryboat that served as Landor's headquarters for 20 years, starting in 1964. Walter Landor took a novel approach to office space and services. Offerings included a 3D prototyping lab, film animation, a store lab and a real estate consulting group.

"Walter thought very expansively about our business and there is no reason we shouldn't be doing the same thing," Zalla says. "Our heritage is our future."

Landor's expert offerings vary by staff expertise, global region and client needs. "It's about what makes sense for you and your clients to have daily relevance," Zalla says.

In Cincinnati, a new media group covers everything from digital design to animation and editing. A brand environments group brings consumer insights to life.

The San Francisco office focuses on data visualization and how to make sense of complex studies and bits of information. The London and Sydney locations are doing more on advertising, communications and planning.

New Eyes

Zalla lives and acts creatively. She spends time thinking about how to nurture ingenuity.

As managing director in Cincinnati, Zalla created the Renaissance program, now used across Landor. Launched in 2008, the goal was to study and understand creativity and elevate its importance, Zalla says. She wanted to know, "How do you inspire people to think creatively each and every day?"

Top of mind was the Marcel Proust quote, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

Landor enjoys long relationships with clients and has worked on specific brands for years at a time.

"Can we bring a new perspective? Can you think with real novel insight about something? That is where the client wins," Zalla says.

The now locally famous Landor window displays along the Race Street side of its downtown building are a product of this focus. Each quarter features a different installation, all with the goal of helping the public understand what design is all about, Zalla says.

In the past the windows featured perfect final products. These days they might illustrate the process it took to get the finished result.

"It's part of Landor coming out of the shadows," Zalla says. "It's something people notice."

Think Like a Kid

When Zalla talks about creativity and design, her joy is almost palpable.

She credits her upbringing on a Northern Kentucky farm with nurturing her artistic and creative side.

"Farming and growing and planting "” there is a creative aspect to that," Zalla says.

She has always loved writing. As a child Zalla penned poetry, short stories and plays. She engaged in pretend play and liked crafts, "but I am not an artist."

Living on a small farm in Edgewood and working on the family farm in Walton taught Zalla about determination. There were high expectations from her parents and lots of work to be done.

"What I say about my dad is he made me do everything, and as a consequence he made me believe I could do anything," Zalla says.

Marty Zalla demanded competence. Mary Zalla sees those high expectations as a great gift and does the same with her children.

She also remembers to think like a kid. In a recent article about the principles of creativity, Zalla writes that "creativity is childlike."

She says children are not self-conscious. They don't think about barriers when they think about ideas, they just forge ahead and jump into the possibilities of a situation.

"To me it is getting yourself out of the way and valuing imagination over image," Zalla says.

To that end, Zalla gleans what she can by observing her own children, sometimes even using their insights to inform her work. She recently outfitted the kids with headcams for a trip to the grocery store to get a look at their perspective for a talk she was asked to give on brand claims.

She signed up for motorcycle class when oldest son Elliot kept asking for a dirt bike. "It was the hardest thing I'd ever done and I was surrounded by people who were all better than me," Zalla says.

(Read about Zalla's adventures with Elliot, Lucas, and Aziza on her blog at landor.com.)

Now, thanks to Zalla's new perspective, the whole family has caught the dirt biking bug.

"I'm constantly amazed by how much they teach me," Zalla says. "Kids make everything fun."