From 1992 to 1998, Franco Bernabe' was the CEO of Eni, Italy's large, energy-focused industrial group. During that time he transformed the organization from a debt-ridden, government-owned and politically controlled entity into a competitive and profitable publicly traded corporation focused on energy production. Along the way, he divested more than 200 businesses, asked for the resignation of hundreds of managers, and implemented completely new systems and procedures.
His story, narrated in an in-depth interview by Harvard Business Review [requires purchase. See an extract here] highlights the many qualities a leader draws upon, especially in times of crisis. Among them clarity of purpose, transparency of communications of his vision, and rigor in pursuing goals. Before becoming CEO, Barnabe' had the advantage of spending time at Eni at the edges -- not doing, but listening, observing, and learning. At the same time he truly believed the organization could become a global network.
He had the knowledge, the expertise and the credibility to lead. Embracing risk while providing strategic and moral direction through exhaustive planning, he was prepared to move swiftly and firmly when necessary. While he sought consultation from others, he also understood the necessity of making all important decisions alone as not to be swayed by the needs, emotions, or agendas of others. Barnabe's inner compass stayed the course of humanity and justice.
Barnabe' reminded me of a level 5 leader, as Jim Collins characterizes them. He never thought of himself as CEO material, yet he felt a deep sense of connectedness to the organization he was called to run. One of his first actions was asking for the resignation of every senior manager in all of Eni's operating companies -- he wanted the freedom to remotivate and reorganize a company used to the patronage system based on political appointments into a commercial business founded on professionalism, merit, experience, and results.
It started with who -- Having spent time in the trenches, he knew there was a lot of talent, albeit sometimes untested, within the organization. Experience and performance were givens; Barnabe' was interested in finding people who would guarantee integrity and show signs of independence. So he begun his process of rewriting a completely new set of rules with who.
The stop doing list - Many times we are so focused on what we want to do that we forget to work on what we should stop doing. Barnabe' communicated a directive that served as a prehemptive strike: he was in charge. He believed everyone wanted the change, but he also knew about the lengthy consultations and the compromises people were used to as part of the process. He realized there was no one he could ask, too much was at stake and legally he was the leader. He had to set the tone. That meant defining what the organization would stop doing.
The inner compass - Amidst the confusion and emotional upheavel of all that change, Barnabe' learned he could never let emotions drive the situation. He used his inner compass, his conscience to guide him through. Dennis Haley, CEO of Academy Leadership, in his book Leader's Compass shows leaders how to create this compass by delineating and communicating their personal leadership philosophy.
The conversation - While other people around him had political or power objectives, Barnabe' had a vision and a firm strategic direction. The very detailed planning and the determination helped win people over. One of the critical factors that kept them with him was communication. He has to reach everyone within the organization directly. What were the ingredients for getting the message across? Emotional content -- to be effective, he says, you have to tap into people's sentiments, feelings and emotions. The message had to be simple -- that was the only way to combat the noise in the transmission. In going to everyone directly, Barnabe' in fact opened up the conversation.
Leadership is a conversation where there's ultimately no one for the leader to ask the most difficult question of vision and direction and everyone is watching. No one ever sees the value of change while it's happening, change is hard to go through. We all resist change. An effective leader is one who can shape direction and understands what's good for the organization and for the people who work there, and can create a space where both come together. In Barnabe's words, it takes patience and time.