Understand To Lead

Understand To Lead

Spoiler Alert: David Bruel (DB) talks to a new way to lead, based on understanding, before anything else. This affects the way we ‘live’ a company culture. I agree, and also see the understanding of a company culture and its people as relevant as the understanding of the vision of a company, if there is one (Frank Pagano – FP.)

DB – The New Leadership

We often hear how ‘new leadership’ styles based on authenticity, empathy and inclusiveness are effective, and extremely successful. Donn Sorensen, author of ‘Big-Hearted Leadership,’ says that empathy is what makes one organization outperform another. Sorensen writes ‘Instead of being the kind of leader who makes him or herself unapproachable or unassailable, you should be the first person to say when you’ve screwed up. In other words, give them your weaknesses, not just your strength.’ So far, so good. If the new leadership styles are so effective, why are they still missing from most corporate leaders? The poignant article ‘10 Shocking Workplace Stats You Need To Know’ (https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidsturt/2018/03/08/10-shocking-workplace-stats-you-need-to-know/#5ba522c5f3af) shows us the incredibly negative reality of contemporary workplaces. Lack of trust, disengagement, high stress, and lack of recognition are just some of the most common complaints from today’s offices. A Harvard Business Review survey reveals that 58% of people trust strangers more than their own boss.

In almost 20 years of corporate life, I have seen a wide variety of leadership styles, in different countries and companies. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to find one clear leadership style, which works across the board and gets executed in a consistent way. Leadership is, in the end, very subjective, and we cannot expect everyone to behave according to a set leadership style that is far from their nature. So, how can we create a company culture that rewards new leadership styles?

Think Like an Elephant

As usual, nature provides us with an enlightening example. When approaching an elephant, you should be aware of their three zones: the fright, the flight, and the fight zone. Think of invisible ‘comfort zones’ around them, namely three concentric areas, each with a smaller radius, and each one more and more dangerous. If you violate them, you increase your risk. Entering the last one will unlock a deadly fight reaction.

It is exactly the same thing when it comes to ‘culture.’ Culture is the bundle of ideas, rules and social behaviors of a particular group or society. There are three different manifestations of culture, just like the three invisible circles of an elephant.

The first, and largest one, is the culture of a country, which inevitably impacts the way any company is being run. For those who have had an international assignment, this is a fairly common experience. After being born, raised and educated in Italy, my first work experience abroad was in Sweden, and it was a full revelation. In my first meeting, I could right away notice that if you talked over someone else, the person would immediately stop and show visible signs of being puzzled. Culture in Sweden is based on consensus and respect. Everyone has to be onboard, and has the right to express their opinion. Put someone with an aggressive demeanor in that same situation and the meeting will be blown away in a few seconds. On the other hand, those coming from a different country might find the meeting as extremely slow and unproductive. There is no right or wrong, as it is all a function of different behaviors and social rules. More on this topic can be found in a book called ‘When cultures collide’ – and it’s very interesting to read about your own country, and how it is perceived from outsiders.

The second, smaller circle is the culture of a company. Oh yes, companies have their own cultures, above and beyond country cultures. Corporations are led by people, and people instinctively shape companies with their ideas, their values and their behaviors. For example, if inclusiveness is a feature that you highly value, there are companies out there that deliberately want that as an essential part of their DNA, and act to make their workplace more diverse (for a ranking, see https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en/press-releases/2018/september/thomson-reuters-di-index-ranks-the-2018-top-100-most-diverse-and-inclusive-organizations-globally.html). Even though the perfect company might not exist, we should not underestimate the power of initiatives that many companies are undertaking to shift and define their values, in order to help current and future employees unlock their true selves and their true potential. Company culture matters and defines its people.

The third circle is the smallest and most critical one. Even within a given country and company, there will be huge differences in how corporate culture is expressed, as it heavily depends on your team, colleagues, and ultimately your boss. This is exactly where most employees struggle the most, as they see evident inconsistencies between what their company promotes as its core values and the actual behaviors of its managers. Moreover, this phenomenon is far more complex than what we would like to think. Your experience of the company is the experience of your direct leader. Do you want to lead? Then, understand, first and foremost. Understand what? How your people think and naturally behave. Always find a common ground. As a people manager myself, one of the first things that I always did was a Team profiling, to assess everyone’s style. For example, a very useful tool for me has been the so-called ‘insight profiling’ (https://www.insights.com/products/insights-discovery/,) which uses colors to define behaviors and attitudes, and may serve as a guide in calibrating communication and interaction with everyone’s style and needs.

Which brings me to the last, and most important, point of this piece: understanding differences is often the first step towards a culture of empathy, authenticity and inclusiveness. A constant effort in listening and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is fundamental if you want to lead others. New leadership requires a shift from ourselves to a holistic understanding of the culture and people around us.

Remember the three zones, and think like an elephant!

FP – Who are you, really?

David Bruel argues that we shall understand country, company and especially Team cultures, in order to succeed as ‘New Leaders.’ Leaders’ styles are the most direct and, actually, only experience that people ‘live’ of their own companies. Leading is taking in, and adapting to people’s needs and values, in order to unlock their full potential. This is what great Leaders do. True, success comes from fully empowered and inspired people. Understand them!

I would say ‘yes, and…’ – What I am interested in, in this small final commentary, is how corporations define their values, if they have some. Is this relevant? I think so. Aren’t company values a function of the vision of the world that the company itself tries to achieve? In my opinion, the real gold for a company’s future is for sure people, but it also, always and before anything else, its meaning, namely how badly it tries to achieve its vision of the world. Dear blue chips, start-ups, sustainable enterprises, managers of the world, do you want to make your business successful and relevant to people? Make it meaningful, and cool. This is what I have learned from four years in Fashion. Yes, I know, Fashion is dull, fast and frivolous. But Fashion, like the arts, touches people’s inner ‘zone,’ to use DB’s language. People follow their heart, their guts. People make the most important decisions of their lives thanks not to their rationality, but to the beauty of a dream. Dear companies, design what your ideal human being of the future will look like. We all sell dreams. We sell a vision, first of all. We should steal with pride from Coco Chanel, or Alexander McQueen, to make two Fashion examples. We should always instill a vision into what we create. Are you running the house like Coco Chanel? Are you redesigning not only a dress, but the very role of women in society, giving the finger to all obstacles, prejudices, rules and burdens of your times? Until you haven’t done that, you have no chance to mean anything to anybody, let alone be successful. Most companies fail, and disappoint their employees, because their story telling is not bold enough, because their ambition is not big enough. Tools and technology are nothing, without the dogmatic belief to change the world. Fashion does this beautifully. So, understand your people, and create a culture of diversity, but don’t forget to inspire people’s heart with an unreasonably bold ambition. Understand people to lead, but before that, make sure you know and they know that we are all going into an unreasonably beautiful journey to a new world. There are always rules in every culture or sub-culture. Good, now break them all, if you have a vision.

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David BruelDavid Bruel, Innovation Director EAME at Givaudan, is a passionate business developer, with a twenty-year career in innovation, new product development and business turnarounds, across FMCG & B2B. He is an expert in Marketing strategy, NPD, and international business. He is French, Italian, a bit Swedish, with his heart now in Switzerland.


Franceso PaganoFrancesco Pagano, Vice President, EMEA Head of Portfolio of Licenses Brands at Fossil Group Europe, is passionate about craft brands, innovation, brand management, brand communication and international business. He is always up for irresistible product concepts, ultimate communication via integrated campaigns and great Italian food.

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Francesco Pagano

Experienced Marketing & Business Leader. Global profile, passionate about innovation, brand management, brand communication and international business. Always up for irresistible product concepts, ultimate communication integrated campaigns & great Italian food.




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1 Comment

  1. Francesco Pagano on April 27, 2019 at 9:16 am

    Well done, David Bruel!

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