Executives must not react through a crisis

Mr. E, a top executive, says he did not react during the crisis and always thought things through. He very carefully went through all the problems He had, analyzing them from every angle. E walked to work every day. He says it gives him an extra half hour to think.

Strategic thinking is one of the most critical skills a leader must have. You must view every problem from 360 degrees. You must know your strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of your organization, your antagonists, and your supporters. Of course, in the midst of a crisis, you often do not have supporters. No one wants to sign up with you until they know you are the winner. So you are alone with the problems, which are for the best. A man deeply respected, the Israeli Leader Shimon Peres, once told E a story. He said that a person knows he is a leader when he realizes there is no one who can answer his questions. He has to answer them himself – alone.

E experienced this sense of being on his own many times during the crisis. He knew he had to answer the questions him self. Therefore he had to reflect on them all patiently and deliberately. You cannot run a large organization superficially. And a leader cannot take the weighted average of other people’s opinions and make them his own. You have to organize the information you receive, analyze it, make your decision, and then move on to the next problem. And by doing that, they guided the organization Eni through the crisis.

Let’s talk about your story from the beginning. You grew up in Vipiteno, a small northern Italian town, where your father was a railway worker.

“Yes, we had a very modest life. My first major experience outside Vipiteno was a trip to the United States as a teenager, when I spent a year there through the American Field Service. It was 1965. I arrived in New York and took a bus across the country to Portland, Oregon. I spoke Italian, German, and French, but knew no English. That trip helped me because I had to resolve problems on my own very different problems from those I have now, of course but very important ones for my life. It was good practice.

When I got home, I attended the University of Turin, where I studied political science and economic policy. It was there that I met Franco Reviglio was renowned economists and one of my professors. Later, when Reviglio went to Eni, I followed him”.

For several years E studied economic theory. Then in 1976 he left for France, where E became a senior economist with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Looking back, E see how critical that experience was for my work at Eni. At the OECD, E learned to analyze problems, to get into the details and to rationalize complex problems by putting them into a clear framework.

But after three years he was restless and was worried because he thought he was becoming a high level bureaucrat. He did not have anything more to learn in Paris. So when the chief economist job at Fiat opened up in 1978, he took it. Here was an opportunity to apply all that he had learned in his studies and at the OECD, because Fiat at the time was trying to change from a very old fashion company into a modern one.

E can look back now and see how important his training at Fiat was. His time there was during a very difficult period in Italy. He recalled that they had terrorism; they had social upheaval. In the factories there was terrible conflict. There was almost one casualty every two or three days – people getting shot or injured and strikes almost every day. Along with many other managers, E was the target of threats. Being at Fiat and watching during this time helped him learn to deal effectively with conflict and with complex social, political and labor problems. And E realized that leaders could make a difference. They could transform situations that seemed impossible like that at the time people thought chaos would overcome business in Italy.