Growing in Leadership by Facing Reality

  • The Way Ahead Series

By Maria Grazia Davino

In our ‘Way Ahead’ series of articles, MU’s CEO Richard Moore, offers practical advice on important topics leaders face, through and beyond Covid-19. The series addresses essential questions Boards and CEOs face now; setting the best strategy for new conditions, improving organisational effectiveness through uncertainty and securing leaders that will succeed. Read them here. 

Each article encouraged readers and leaders to contribute their advice - from all sectors and around the world, into six dominant themes: Customers and Clients, Leadership, Communication, Change Management, Organisational Set-Up, Culture and Teamwork 

Who added their insight? 

DAX 30, Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 leaders in Automotive, Pharmaceutical and Digital. HR Directors International Public Sectors. CEOs and MDS in small and mid-sized International firms in production, energy, technology, legal and distribution. Senior Consultants and Board Directors in Finance and Consulting. Sales Director and Finance Directors in Construction and Engineering. Head of Transformation and Change management in diverse public health and commercial organisationsAnd a range of executives and specialists across multiple sectors in APAC, US and Europe.  

All in all, more than 30 leaders gave their advice, over just a few weeks, thank you for helping. 

profile image of Maria Grazia DavinoWe are very honoured to have one of them, Maria Grazia Davino, CEO Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Germanysharing practical advice and thoughts on leadership through and beyond Covid-19. 




Growing in Leadership by Facing Reality

Enhancing leadership and growing as a leader is an issue that is often linked to the career you intend to have, and the stimuli you receive from your bosses.

"You have to come out with your leadership", "you have to be a better leader", "you have to explore your leadership". This is the input we receive.

Often they are general pointers and you don't always know what to do with them.

I want to try to share, based on my little experience, what it means to grow as a leader. My contribution has no scientific pretensions but is based on practical experience and observations.

I will try to summarise it in 7 points so that it is easier to memorise, but it has a common thread: REALITY.

  • Being aware of having a role as a leader and its implications
  • Opening up and understanding reality
  • Dialoguing with real messages
  • Talking to your team members with clear messages
  • Acting on inclusiveness, not just talking about it
  • Building a vision, represented with a coherent narrative
  • Having a Team that is not afraid and wants to win

And then we will come back to the concept of Reality at the end, after having found it in various places in various forms.

Being aware of having a role as a leader and its implications

  • The title of manager is all-pervasive, everyone wants to access positions of leadership, conventionally first level, or second level, with growth prospects. I like to say in a provocative way that I would really like to fight the misuse of this concept, which in Italian is the title of "Responsabile", in German that would be "Fühungskraft". Why?
  • Having a role as a leader means to govern responsibly and govern with responsibility what happens in your area, the areas surrounding it and the higher you go, ultimately be responsible for the company, its performance and its results.
  • You call yourself a Director? Are you also a Leader? I have to expect you to have the strength (Die Kraft, in German) to deal with what happens in an effective and decisive manner.
  • Tip: take stock of your ability to deal with your role with strength. Ask yourself repeatedly, once a quarter: am I on the right track? A periodic review of leadership. Do I govern? Do I have enough strength and energy? Do I understand what I am responsible for? Am I the captain and am I still the captain? Do it. And if the answer is not clear to you, try to compare notes, try to compare notes with the people you refer to.

Opening up and understanding reality

  • Reality, it is said, often exceeds imagination. Sometimes we are faced with unexpected things or things that are much tougher than we had ever imagined.
  • The "actual" reality, what happens, puts pressure on leaders, a lot of pressure. And you have three possibilities: ostrich, peacock or hawk. The ostrich puts its head in the sand. The peacock embellishes reality, changes it to take a temporary or circumstantial advantage from it. The hawk attacks it. The bird metaphor, which my sister will hate, doesn't work completely. Reality has to be looked in the face, and it has to be understood.
  • By talking to your peers, inside and outside the organisation; talking to your distributors, customers or suppliers; listening to your subordinates; reading the newspaper, learning to observe the dynamics of other industries, in order to grasp their insights. I found one radio campaign by eBay Germany very interesting; it was seemingly unnecessary but representative, it said that eBay supports all small traders who are facing an unprecedented crisis in dealing with COVID19. Does the message serve EBay? Does it serve the traders? Maybe it serves both. But it's cross-fertilisation and unconventional.
  • It is in order to grow that a leader has to look reality in the face, all the time. Especially if it’s a cause of stress. To try to have a greater understanding of it than the people that he leads, or at least be convinced of it with a good reason. This is important for one of the following points.

Dialoguing with real messages

  • How often do we find ourselves in meetings where nothing is said? A leader who grows tries hard not to even find himself there, and certainly not to call them. He gets to the point of things.
    In a few sentences, without frills, a leader that I admired a lot and who made me bleed like a kid goat (rightly or wrongly, we're not judging), goes straight to the point. Whether it hurts or not, it's the way things are.
  • It must be the ambition of a leader who grows not to beat around the bush. That they get straight to the point, with kindness but also assertiveness.
  • One is more efficient and, above all, 'closer to reality'. It´s not always polite, but I really want to say, in moments of crisis especially, "that's enough bullshit".
  • The moments of brainstorming or open dialogue must be called exactly thus and the right time must be devoted to them. Unfortunately, people don't do it often, but you should, or else you stifle creativity, and running other risks. 
  • One cannot speak endlessly about efficiency and effectiveness and then not put them into practice. It won´t be easy, but it´s the exercise we have to undergo all the time.

Talking to your team members with clear messages

  • We have said many times that reality is not always nice. However, in our role, we have the right to tell our team, in the right way and with productive strategies (certainly not dysfunctional or demotivating ones), how things really are.
  • When we give feedback, we are clear and direct and provide examples. Never judgment and never rudeness, because we're not paid for that. We know what influence we can have on people in our position, so we have to be careful, but that does not mean we have to "embellish things", not tell them why we are annoyed or think we mustn't, etc.
  • When we say what's what, we're clear. If you don't know something, well - you don't know. This reinforces two things: the courage and leadership of our team members, but also the roots of our own leadership.
  • This practice brings great surprises and makes us better: I was afraid of having to tell my salespeople that their Q2 bonus was being cut due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, everyone felt they were contributing to the cause.

Acting on inclusiveness, not just talking about it

  • A leader loves his people. It may sound romantic, but I immediately put it out there pragmatically. A leader has a profound, deep-rooted interest in their growth. Even to the point, where appropriate, of making them leave.
  • Nobody is excluded. If it is true, as it is true, that neither age nor gender is prejudicial to intellectual contributions, one must make the effort of a spider to go around the whole web. Every point is important, and everyone must know that they have a role. Today and today for tomorrow. An intern can be a product manager tomorrow. A product manager may want to become a marketing director. A leader is interested in the careers of his staff.
  • I will say it again, nobody is excluded. A supplier treated cursorily, a dealer abandoned at the time of need, cannot contribute - if not completely randomly - to the success of any kind of project. And this is of interest to a leader, not out of goodness. Inclusiveness does not mean to be good and kind.
  • Only as necessary, yet with lively interest and supervision, a leader must know his own people, both those directly connected and those who are indirectly connected. It requires enormous effort, but you must be aware of their problems. Be attentive. You have to really act, not talk about inclusiveness because it is fashionable (like resilience, but that's another story…).
  • Real inclusiveness is a source of trust, trust is a source of collective effort and, therefore, of more likely success. It is certainly a source of something sensible, that is, something that will be remembered with a logical sense.
  • The other night I stayed real late with my team. There were so many of us, each with his own input. No one could complete the picture on their own. But at the end of this effort everyone understood the vision, the direction. Will it lead to success? Who knows? But there is a sense, there is the vision of what the collective mosaic represents.

Building a vision, represented with a coherent narrative

  • Exercising leadership is a great task of directing. We're like film directors. (Of course, some directors are more talented than others). We need to understand, represent, complete the unclear parts, and build a coherent, understandable, interactive and verifiable narrative. As someone I often hear says: anticipate, trace out and share a vision.  
  • Our story must work in all its parts and improving where it "doesn't work" is a constant finishing off task. This means reviewing and revising them again and again. 
  • Your story has to be convincing, and it doesn't have to convince just you. As in the scientific field, it must be submitted to third parties, that is, credible leaders, to verify it several times. 
  • It requires looking over and a lot of attention: this is why the complementary element to delegation required after an accurate briefing is checking. Because the narrative has to work and combine all the above points:
    • Do I have the strength to govern more than everyone else? (do I have the strength of a captain?)
    • Do I understand what's happening? Is my/our reading close to the reality?
    • Am I dialoguing by always getting straight to the point? With real solutions, or not?
    •  Have my team members understood and can they continue to understand the aftermath of what's going on?
    • Are they all on board and do they all know where they're going as individuals and as a team? Do they trust you?
    • And you must be the first to live consistently with the narrative

Having a Team that is not afraid and wants to win

  • Our team is the one we have chosen, and the strategy and tactics, as in football, must be flexible and suited to the matches.
  • One's own people must be given strength, but not yours, that of your leadership, rather their own strength. The strength of leadership that they can express and which you give trust in.
  • Only in this way can you take away all fear and unleash an infinite desire to win within the individual. Marchionne used to say that the success of a team is down to the sum of individuals who want to win. And he wasn't wrong if the direction is consistent. The opposite runs the risk of infighting and that's all.

I learned early on that the correct formulation of a problem is the fundamental prerequisite for its solution. And that´s what I have tried to talk about. A top professor, Prof. Guelfo Tozzi, told me: "reality is what happens", and a few days ago he repeated to me "a leader is the one who brings together the collective narrative of his community and gives it back to it as a common heritage".

He inspired this reflection, together with P. Watzlawic from the Palo Alto school, to whom I owe a lot.

In the case of companies, we talk about assets, wealth of knowledge, people, results, periods, moments, projects. But the sense does not change, and you cannot escape from reality. Anyone who runs from the burden of reality is not a good leader. Because they waste time and waste their company’s time and the time of the entire value chain.

Let´s be clear: a leader is not a magician. But he is devoted to his cause and must love his work and everything that is involved in it.  

Two more tips:

  • A good leader chooses a mentor. In fact, not one, but more than one, depending on the subject areas, sensitivities and themes.
  • Cultivate your personal culture. A Leader is stronger if he has an eclectic spirit and a greater stock. He doesn't have to show it off, but it's important to have it. Because it takes a lot of resources to lead.

Maria Grazia Davino | CEO Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) Germany

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