Learning about Leadership in Italy

There was a little bit of Italy in Minnesota this weekend as the Italian Cultural Center hosted its Italian Film Festival. Watching the office scenes in one of the films made me reflect on my own time in Milan, where I spent almost four years working for a major multi-national company.

Those four years were some of the most challenging and most rewarding of my career. I learned many lessons about leadership during my time in Italy. Here are just a few I’ve carried with me:

1) Understand that you don’t know what you don’t know.

A few months after I moved to Italy, I had an “aha” moment. And not a good “aha”, either. I realized every time I stepped in an elevator, I was being rude in at least three different ways (e.g., not greeting people upon entering, giving my back to others without excusing myself, not realizing I had to exit before the men could exit, not saying goodbye when leaving, etc.). Despite my hard work and careful preparation to launch a new program, it seemed I was chipping away at my own credibility every time I rode the lift!

When I moved to Italy, I had a list of things I needed to learn–the language, history, the relationship between labor unions and politics, to name a few. “Elevator Etiquette” was never even considered for the list. Realizing my mistakes in the Italian elevators, however, showed me I had much more to learn—and not just about elevators. A recurring dose of humility remains my most important leadership tool.

2) Investments in building good relationships are good investments.

In Italy, relationships are the foundation for any kind of business—from buying your daily newspaper at the corner kiosk to the mergers of multi-nationals. I learned time invested up front in establishing credibility, trust, and goodwill pays off with loyalty, better joint problem-solving capabilities and increased productivity in the long run.

3) Be open to new opportunities created by your unique position.

While I had some disadvantages as a foreigner working in Italy, I also had some advantages– including my fluency in English and strong connections in other countries. These advantages led to new job opportunities, an interview in a national magazine, and the opportunity to meet many amazing people. We all come into new positions with a unique set of professional and personal experiences. It’s important to figure out what opportunities our unique combination of experiences may create—and then seize them.

4) Be curious.

Invest time in discovery. Don’t pre-determine which discoveries are relevant for your work. Lunch table conversations about families, food, and football gave me unexpected insights into intra-departmental conflicts and negotiating employee performance issues. By asking questions and then listening well, you can learn a lot about people and your environment. By showing interest and genuinely listening, you’ll also create a foundation for solid relationships.

5) Be able to adapt (on the fly!) to the strengths of the system.

When I first arrived in Italy, one of my key activities was organizing a month-long training session for new engineers. My previous experiences taught me these sessions succeeded or failed based on great planning and focused facilitation. After just three days, my colleague and I were exhausted—we couldn’t keep the group on schedule, the discussions went too long and there was a lot of joking around. Stepping back, we realized these “misbehaviors” showed that the group was actually very invested in what we were doing and that the humor meant they were having fun. We let go of our rigid scheduling, and instead built on the flow of the spirited discussions. The group’s creative output in the subsequent modules exceeded our expectations—and having fun helped them forge connections that went well beyond the course, bringing tangible benefits to the business in the months and years that followed.

6) Be appreciative.

When you’re new to an organization, many people make accommodations for you. If you’re new to the language and culture, it happens on a daily basis. It’s important to acknowledge the extra-efforts people make—whether it’s conducting a meeting in English, inviting you for a coffee after lunch, or helping you decipher a mysterious letter from the local government. Showing your appreciation is not only polite, it helps to build trust. It feels good, too.

~ Susan Campion is a guest contributor.