How a Conglomerate CEO Uses SWAT Teams to Stay Nimble

Adriana Cisneros confronts disruption with an approach conceived by her grandfather and prefers a trouble-shooting method used by IBM in the 1970s.
Adriana Cisneros with Gustavo Cisneros in Miami

SWAT—or special weapons and tactics—teams may conjure images of commandos scaling buildings to catch crooks. But they also can be useful in a business sense, minus the guns and ammo.

Adriana Cisneros, CEO of Venezuela’s Cisneros Group, swears by a SWAT-team approach conceived by her grandfather and perfected by her father, claiming it has helped the sprawling conglomerate thrive for almost nine decades.

Conglomerates aren’t usually associated with nimble growth and often can disintegrate as they become too complex and cumbersome. Take GE, for example, which has spent the past few years shedding financial services assets, among others, to concentrate on its engineering capabilities.



Family-run Cisneros still has its fingers in many pies: it is Facebook’s ad reseller partner in Latin America and a key bottler in the region for Pepsi. The company, now headquartered in Florida, has interests in television, property, tourism and other consumer goods assets.

According to Cisneros, it has survived constant market disruptions by creating a special crack squad to zero in on business trends.

“We have a core team of generalists—my SWAT team,” she told the Yale School of Management recently. “It’s eight to 10 people who focus on trends, analyzing business opportunities, closing deals and ramping up new ventures.”

Once things get going—potentially weeks, months or years later—the business is turned over to specialist teams that run it for the long-term.

If things get bumpy, Cisneros urges CEOs to consider using a trouble-shooting method employed by IBM dating back to the 1970s. When the company fears it’s losing a competitive edge, it will “really mix things up”, she said, by pulling together a multidisciplinary team from different business units.

“I’ll grab an engineer from Venezuela, a lawyer from our Miami office, and one of our script writers and have them work on a content issue that one of our pan-regional cable channels is facing,” she said. “We’ve found it really instills a lot of innovation.”

And when teams are sizing up new verticals, she warns they also must be prepared to be patient. Cisneros, for instance, has just started dipping its toes in the renewable energy sector, having waited for 20 or 30 years for relevant wind data to become available. “So 15 years ago, it was an interesting idea, but extremely risky. Now there’s a lot of data out there and some people did make those early bets,” she said.

Apart from good information, she said Cisneros has found that it always needed a partner or specialist with skin in the game.

Finally, the company assesses which governments are serious about investing in the space. When all those things align, Cisneros is ready to pull the trigger.


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