BBS Leadership Lectures | The good and the bad of Co-Leadership (mostly good) | Luca Lisandroni and Riccardo Stefanelli

31 March 2023

What if leadership was shared? What scenarios, challenges, and complexities are faced by those who become co-leaders in the company? 

This question was answered by Brunello Cucinelli’s two Co-CEOs, Luca Lisandroni and Riccardo Stefanelli, who spoke at Villa Gustavillani for the Leadership Lecture entitled “The good and the bad of Co-Leadership (mostly good)” presented by Bologna Business School Dean Max Bergami

Luca Lisandroni, also Executive Board Member at Brunello Cucinelli, has worked as General Manager at Luxottica and Product Manager at L’Oreal Italia. Riccardo Stefanelli was Chief Commercial Officer and Board Member at Brunello Cucinelli from 2006 to 2016 before becoming Co-CEO in 2016.

Brunello Cucinelli is a world-renowned Italian company of excellence in the clothing industry. The company places ethics at the heart of its production, with a vision focused on humanity in every production process and a commitment that enhances its ethical approach: improving the well-being of its employees by amplifying their talent within the company. A promise rooted in the territory, transforming into an internationally recognized value, making the company something unique. The two Co-CEOs recounted, “The entire company organization revolves around principles and values that not only represent the founding story of the entrepreneur who created it, but are also the current and future guidelines of our work.” What the company sells, the product, paradoxically, comes later. “Brunello Cucinelli is a company deeply rooted in the territory in which it was born and in which it works,” they explained, “So much so that someone says that half of the value it is recognized on the stock market comes from the territory: if the company was located in an anonymous industrial area, we would not be recognized for the value we have.” And this value guide is also at the basis of the co-leadership relationship that binds the two managers and governs their relations with employees based on a keyword that is never forgotten: consistency. Being consistent at Brunello Cucinelli is fundamental and all the more difficult considering the numbers of a company that aims in 2023 to exceed one billion in sales with 2,300 employees between production and sales worldwide.

Riccardo Stefanelli is the longer-standing manager among the two Co-CEOs because he joined the company and the family in 2006. His relationship with Luca Lisandroni began a few years later, coinciding with the company’s IPO, at a crucial stage for the Solomeo-based company, which was opening its 25th store and starting to make a name for itself in the world as a luxury brand. “Luca surpassed my experience by at least ten times, with a more international vision than mine and, behind him, in his most recent future, the management of a company with a turnover of 250 million, with thousands of employees,” Stefanelli recounted, “I was worried. I was afraid that it might upset the balance that I had built over time within the company in terms of authority and presence. Yet I quickly realized that the fact that he had approached our company, which was unique and not very visible at that time, gave me comfort: I knew that we had the same idea about what path to take.” A feeling that later turned out to be accurate and that Stefanelli still calls “the main reason and still the reason behind the goodness of our relationship,” because the first co-leadership lesson the two managers shared with the audience at Villa Guastavillani was precisely that the basis of everything must be “a good personal relationship and the sharing of the final destination of the path.” A position that brings back to the consistency mentioned as a corporate pillar becoming an expression of the humanistic capitalism for which Cucinelli has become a spokesman. And where there is consistency, humanity and sustainability, it is also easy to find spaces to express one’s leadership, and consequently one’s talent, independently: “We do not share all the activities. We have well-defined boundaries,” Stefanelli explained, “I am in Solomeo, where I deal with product and production; Luca is in Milan, where he follows all the markets parts. We both have decision-making autonomy, although there is a part of co-management that we try to deal with according to criteria of transparency, sharing and putting the validity of ideas and initiatives above the person who had them”.

“A shared vision,” according to Luca Lisandroni, who went straight to the point in his speech, “What is shared leadership and why does it work? The first evidence for me is that when I look back and see the beautiful things we have accomplished in these two years, I realize that I certainly wouldn’t have preferred to have done them alone, but I am thrilled to have done them with Riccardo and with the rest of our company. Firstly because we had a lot more fun, and secondly because in my previous experience, I had experienced the weight of loneliness in leadership.”

A loneliness that arose from the responsibility of taking on a complex company situation. On the other hand, and Lisandroni’s experience confirms this, becoming a leader is not easy. It is not a predetermined path for which there are fixed rules and standard solutions: “I have never thought of myself as a leader,” he confessed, “But at some point, I had the opportunity and the courage to measure myself”. An opportunity that immediately put him to the test, catapulting him into a Luxottica branch, the Brazilian one, considered of great value but also of great operational complexity and undergoing significant changes: “I was alone to manage them, in a context of which I knew neither the people nor the language, but gradually I learned Portuguese, to love Brazil and to find the courage needed to go to Milan and propose a completely new path for that branch. A successful path, which saw my responsibility grow over time. After a few years, an epiphany: “Brunello Cucinelli had just opened a store in the most important mall in São Paulo, and behind the cash register was this beautiful photo,” Lisandroni recounted. “I knew Brunello, but I didn’t know what he did. Even today, we confront this aspect of the company: Brunello’s notoriety is sometimes stronger than the brand’s. In any case, in that photo, I saw everything I was looking for at that moment: I missed my country, I missed conviviality, I was fascinated by the smiles of those people”. And precisely that smile told Lisandroni about Cucinelli’s uniqueness in a world like that of fashion, where rigour and seriousness are the norms. “Back in Italy, I had the opportunity to meet Brunello in person,” Lisandroni continued, “But I never thought we would be able to work together, which came after an informal meeting with Riccardo” A meeting desired by the Solomeo entrepreneur, which brings us to another valuable lesson in leadership: no co-direction dropped by the other, no imposition, a meeting to probe every reaction, even and especially spontaneous ones, including nonverbal communication. “I was immediately struck by Riccardo’s calm manners and the clarity with which he was able to describe complex feelings,” he recounted, “He immediately conveyed to me a sense of serenity, and today that we have been working together for seven years, I can say that I have never needed to appeal to the rules, albeit clear ones that demarcate each other’s boundaries to understand each other and move forward together.” Mutual respect also implies the ability to find common ground on the values and fundamentals of the company while leaving each person free to define their own leadership style. 

What about the future? For the two Co-CEOs of Brunello Cucinelli, it is traced by the entrepreneurial vision of the company, outlined by its founder and rich in value from every point of view, from the human to the productive, to be followed “like the stars” to continue charting a successful course. 

Read other articles on BBS Leadership Lecture: Lihi Zelnik-Manor, Mauricio Macri, Stefano Venier, George Lee


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