It Takes an Athlete's Body to Be a Top Executive

It Takes an Athlete's Body to Be a Top Executive


He elaborates thoughts with uncanny speed to produce clear, direct, and lucid answers. He believes in the value of intelligent debate and in the thirst for curiosity, but above all he has the physical and mental discipline worthy of an Olympian. We are talking about Bocconi Alumnus of the Year 2003 Vittorio Colao, one of best-known Italians around the world for having run Vodafone, one of the world’s leading telecommunications companies with a turnover of €47.6 billion, for a decade.

What’s the difference between being the CEO of a tech company and managing companies operating in other industries?

Those in charge of digital innovation must have a great ability to understand the future, great personal involvement in the project, and little patience for external relations. It’s rare to meet tech CEOs at conferences because, when you are so closely involved in experimentation and innovation, you have time for little else.

Start-ups seem like the craft shops of the past, while tech companies bring to mind the Italian companies of the early 1960s, where everything revolved around the entrepreneur. Is that too risky of a parallelism?

It would seem to be just like that. Today we are witnessing the rediscovery and updating of the entrepreneurial model of the company: an entrepreneur is a person who knows best the products s/he makes and is the first one to see its pros and cons.

Is this approach applicable to other sectors?

Digitization is making this method indispensable in every industry. Today a mistake gets magnified in a very short time, and success can be underminded with great speed, and that is why the corporate leadership must be completely invested in what the company is doing, in its products or services.

And what role do Big Data have in managerial choices?

Significant. Market research becomes less and less reliable because consumers are becoming more and more experimentation and their desires can only be intercepted through the digital profile that individuals provide of themselves: this is how Big Data comes into play. No market study had predicted the success of YouTube or Instagram, yet it happened.

Is the pyramid model still valid in company management?

Companies must maintain clarity in decision making, but companies need also to choose which decisions need to be moved up to the top and which ones can be delegated below. The corporate hierarchy continues to exist, but it works in a different way: companies are increasingly clusters of smaller units that decide autonomously and with greater agility, which in turn are coordinated from above.

How will generational change occur in the management of companies?

I studied Greek and Latin at Liceo Classico and I still think that the disciple-teacher model is the main key for the transmission of knowledge and the exploration of new areas of thought. The work of older generations is to succeed in the transfer of business experience and analytical perspectives in approaching problems, which can give solidity to the enthusiasm and innovation capabilities of young people. At Vodafone, we have implemented a program that connects digitally agile young people with senior positions: the mechanism is precisely that of connecting generations.

What is the profile of the future CEO?

He or she must have an athlete's body because working life will be very intense, with little time to rest. Only by counting on a good dose of energy can decisions be made with clarity. The rules are simple: always go to bed at the same time, do not drink alcohol when you travel; on the contrary, you should drink at least one liter of water every day, exercise in the morning and disconnect in the evening, doing other things other than work. Even in this case, nothing is new; as the Romans said: Mens sana in corpore sano.

And from an intellectual and relational point of view?

You have to be curious and read everything, because the important things happen outside companies, you need to know how to identify at an early stage the issues that may be relevant to the business you are leading in the near future. For example, when blockchain started being discussed, I immediately wondered what advantages it could bring to Vodafone, and the same for augmented reality. Last but not least, the advice is to have quality contacts: people you know who understand what really goes on in the world.
What kind of training is necessary?

The best managerial education is always a mix of three elements: historical and political knowledge to have keys to understand the world, some technical expertise in your field of choice – engineering, software, biology, etc. – to understand how things really work in detail, and solid training in management and economics to be able to lead a company.

Vittorio Colao
A Bocconi Class of 1986 Graduate in Business Administration and Alumnus of the Year 2003, of his student years, Vittorio Colao remembers the many hours spent in the Bocconi Library studying textbooks and journal articles that were the state of the art in finance, marketing, economics:
"We could access texts written by international authors and researchers, often in their original language, and this was indicative of the fact that Bocconi was offering you the best from a theoretical point of view. You were given many incentives to look outside of Italy, and I was one of the first ones to go abroad for my studies; at the time, the Erasmus program did not exist yet. On that occasion, I found myself living with young people from all over the world, many of whom were doing their MBAs. That experience also changed my approach to life."

by Ilaria De Bartolomeis

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