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Slump In Sales? Take Your Leaders to Italy

Canal in Venice, Italy
When one CEO faced a budgetary challenge to a leadership event, he chose to focus on long-term gains—and reaped the benefits.

CEO’s make many tough decisions all day long. Driven to produce both short-term profit and long-term business value, they regularly face a series of tough choices and trade-offs that are ultimately responses to one critical question: Do we invest for the future or reap EBIDA today?

I pen this on a trans-Atlantic flight, returning from a very successful multi-day leadership development program for a client that my company has been working with for more than five years. The program we designed and delivered for this $6 billion global corporation culminated in a graduation event for about 50 leaders from across the US, Europe, South America and Australia. We launched this program just over a year ago. Our main objective was to develop the leadership skills of a cohort of managers and directors, so they’d be prepared to take on new roles with increased responsibility in the fast-growing business. In addition, we were charged with encouraging these leaders to be highly engaged in the organization, contributing to a healthy corporate culture. 

We gathered the participants near the U.S. corporate office when we kicked off the program. Over three jam-packed days of learning, networking, self-reflection and practice, these leaders were oriented to the variety of impactful virtual and in-person learning experiences they would experience over the next several months. The culminating event was scheduled to take place in Europe the following year.

As the year progressed, the company’s sales softened. Global economic and industry-related changes caused them to miss sales and profitability targets for three quarters.

Faced with this scenario, many CEOs would immediately begin to slash expenses. You’ve seen the drill. Global edicts are delivered from above—no travel for any reason, no raises, a hiring freeze, project delayed or scaled back.

Some might say this is short-term thinking, but the reality is that shareholders expect and deserve a return on their investment. This is when a CEO truly reveals their value as they decide where to cut and where to stay the course.

This CEO gets it. He put his employees, his talent first. He understands that the business has been successful and will return to hitting their numbers. They will be able to course correct during this downturn with the guidance of their highest potential staff. These leaders are the golden ticket to the future.

So, we went to Italy. All 50 of us. It was a bold use of budget dollars, and one the CEO said he could justify to anyone that asked. As I observed the daytime learning and evening networking activities, I saw high value being created in these four areas:

Learning Permeates the Organization. Learning new skills to perform better as a manager or leader is the meat and potatoes of a high potential development program. Short-sighted CEOs think that the learning only benefits individual leaders in the program for future career-development, and therefore, it can wait until times are good again. In the hills of northern Italy, I saw something much more valuable than that cynical view. As each leader shared their leadership manifesto, they clearly and emotionally articulated not only what this program has provided them in terms of personal insights and their ability to respond to daily stress and other self-focused benefits. They also shared what it means to be a leader of others in the organization. They described their vigilant focus on building teams, raising up other employees and participating on projects in new and valuable ways. If only 10 percent of these claims actually come true, they will have shown an immediate return on this investment.

Harnessing Collective Energy. An important and intentional component of the program is having participants spend time with C-Suite leaders. Throughout the event, the business challenges they face were front and center. As they dived into their personality assessment to help them more effectively navigate conflict or participated in the courageous leadership training, business challenges, previously on the shoulders of the CEO, became shared by this collective group of future leaders. They formed a tight-knit cohort, shared meaningful experiences, and opened up to a realization of their importance and worth as a leader in the organization. As many elite athletes report, this tapped into the extra gear needed to climb the mountain, score the goal or accomplish something astonishing. These leaders are headed back to the office to take on business challenges with a newfound determination and relentless focus.

Super Networking. Another intentional part of this program is accelerating interaction between participants. Through group activities, evening events, role-plays and assignments for sharing both business and personal information, these leaders from around the globe became fast friends. The by product was not only connection, but business problem-solving.  As we toured the balsamic vinegar farm as an evening activity, a leader from Brazil shared his excitement about the new product they launched made from components sourced from plants led by two other cohort colleague—one in the U.S. and one in Germany. This specialty product unique to the Brazilian market is the first of its kind to include components from both the U.S. and Europe. Forecast to generate $100,000 in revenue in the next 12 months, this one activity alone paid for a larger part of this leadership development program.

Recharging Batteries. Taking a week away from the office for these sales, technical, administration and production leaders is a big request. Again, some CEOs would quickly justify cancelling the program, or having a watered down zoom event, by declaring that the business focus required from each of them to get the business back on track. But that is an excuse that can be used again and again—there is always some fire to put out; there is never a good time to step away from the business. Those same elite athletes that accomplish seemingly superhuman events have rest and recharge days. They will tell you that if you train at full force every day, you will damage your body. The same holds true for work. Traveling to a new environment, with engaging colleagues, brings creativity and perspective to work smarter, not harder. One pivot in the way a leader leads could bring a million dollars in value.

In the final event of this year long program, the CEO shared an emotional thank you moment with the 50 leaders. Several of those participants quoted the CEO in their final presentations, affirming the value of his very visible and supportive leadership. It was a priceless bonding moment that will align and strengthen this management team for whatever comes next. In the grand scheme of things, the cost of this event is relatively small. However, many CEOs would have cut the program at the first sign of softening sales. Great companies, well, they go to Italy.


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