Success in Management Includes Learning to Deal with Failure

Success in Management Includes Learning to Deal with Failure


Converse All Stars is an iconic brand. Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers have remained unchanged for over a century, and represent one of the few cases where the product is stronger than the brand, i.e. Converse. Davide Grasso is currently managing the brand, which has been owned by Nike since 2003. SDA Bocconi Class of 1992, this manager entered the world of sports shoes by first working at Nike, being in charge of marketing strategy. The Oregon-based corporate giant originally gave him the mission of dominating the market for soccer shoes and apparel. Since he managed to meet  the company’s targets, in 2016 he was rewarded with the position of President and CEO of Converse.

What motivated you to pursue an MBA at Bocconi?
Bocconi was a carefully thought out choice. After graduation and some experience in fashion and advertising, I wanted to do an MBA to expand my range of skills and SDA Bocconi was the only school of management that allowed me to combine experience in the field, while also working on projects proposed by fellow grad students. For example, I presented the case of a Brescia-based clothing company going through a transformation period and needed industrial restructuring.

What did you expect from SDA Bocconi School of Management?
A lot, but the faculty team had very strong names, people like Mario Monti, Enrico Valdani, Claudio Demattè, and this was already a good starting point. SDA also offered a complete business education in strategy, a decidedly pragmatic approach to issues combined with a profound ethical and social orientation. Basically I expected to be  given a set of tools, skills, and values that I would continue to use in my professional future. And that’s the way it went.

Was there any particular event during the MBA that somehow marked your life?
Yes, I would like to share one in particular. At a certain point, Professor Valdani gave us an analysis of competitive intelligence. He divided the class into two groups and I was chosen as speaker of my team: in that role, for the first time I found myself speaking in public about a complex issue, for which we had had to study everything in a short time in order to arrive at a solution. In that moment I realized I had a gift for it, which later became one of my personal strengths.

So what is your advice to young people who want to pursue a career like yours?
First of all, you must be curious: today’s business context is global, the inputs are multiple, business dynamics continually change and societies continue to evolve. Then you have to put yourself up to the challenge, get out of your comfort zone, explore new areas. Finally, you must be willing to question your own ideas without losing confidence in yourself. To lead a company, you need to be disciplined and learn how to overcome defeats in a constructive way, a bit like in sports: setbacks are common in life, even in professional careers.

Today there is a lot of talk about soft skills, understood as an asset that can make the difference in one’s career. Do you agree?
Definitely. During the MBA we were told this several times: to be accepted you must be equal, to be successful you must be different. The predisposition for listening, for example, is one of the fundamental qualities because it implies the desire to keep learning: this means turning each arrival into a new starting point.

But challenges are full of doubt and uncertainty. How do you deal with your being a decision maker?
To answer, I will quote the founder of Nike repeating Winston Chruchill’s famous phrase: "Success is not definitive, failure is not fatal: what matters is the courage to move forward.” Then, experience can come to the rescue, as well as constant exchange with your team: the relationship between a leader and his/her team must be dialectical.

So it is true that managers no longer impose their ideas from above?
Since the days I joined Nike, my style has never been autocratic. You must not be in a hurry to impose your own ideas, but you need to be intellectually honest towards everyone. This is the way to win the acceptance of your team and make the right decisions.

You have a propensity for dynamic leadership: on one occasion you have argued that digital disruption is an opportunity. In what sense?
Today people want to be free to choose, for this reason brands cannot hold consumers hostage with loyalty marketing, but must know how to satisfy their changing needs and desires. Digital enables us to get to know our customers so well that we can offer them what they want the moment they want it, in order to improve their lives. Digital technology also enables transparency, accessibility and spontaneity, but you need self-control in order not to send out superficial messages. If used well, digital tools can boost the market success of a company.

Is there a recipe to make a good manager?
There is no standardized solution, because every company is different. Your need to balance your managerial vision with company values, striving for authenticity, which for consumers translates as truth.

Is there a business book that has inspired you recently?
I'm an omnivorous reader, but there are some management books that influenced my thinking: “Judgment” by Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis, which explains how to make the right calls if you are a leader; “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”,  where Louis V. Gerstner Jr explains how he managed to turn around IBM; “Winning the Brain Game” by Matthew E. May on the logic of cognition and how it can help you avoid flaws in your thinking, and “Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow” by Marsha Sinetar. The latter prompted me to go to Holland and start working for Nike.

by Ilaria De Bartolomeis

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