"SEP is an immersive experience and worthwhile, it’s an investment in yourself."
Managing Director, Knauf Italy
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Managing Director, Knauf Italy
2020 was an auspicious year for London Business School’s flagship Senior Executive Programme (SEP) as the programme celebrated its 50th anniversary. When it launched, it was a pioneer in Europe, where the value of business education was just beginning to be recognised. SEP 100-102 participant Andrea Bucci, Managing Director at building materials and construction systems firm Knauf Italy reflects on the surreal but fortuitous coincidence of participating in a seminal leadership course at a moment in time when world leaders would be called upon to take unprecedented decisions with high-stakes consequences.
By the time I enrolled on the LBS SEP, I’d been Managing Director of Knauf Italy for five years. I felt locked into the business dynamics of my world. I was starting to wonder whether I could be responding differently or more effectively to day-to-day situations and events.
I was ready to take a step back from operations and my role and really immerse myself in a thinking environment. I wanted to challenge my perceptions and get new ideas on how to handle big business problems, challenging strategy decisions and tactical situations. I wanted to be in learning mode – not leading mode.
I wanted to hear the answers from someone else for a change and see if the answers I gave impressed and inspired other senior leaders from different countries and business sectors. The international aspect of the SEP and London Business School was very appealing. The unique opportunity to mix and learn with high-performing, ambitious professionals from around the world who were also looking to take a step outside their comfort zone and push their thinking against the backdrop of the academic rigour delivered by some of the top names in business education, I knew that the SEP would be a game changing experience. It turns out for multiple reasons.
The course started on the 8 March 2020. The pandemic was already a crisis in Milan and Italy’s surrounding northern Lombardy region. Wuhan was in lockdown. But for the rest of the world, it seemed that COVID-19 was a regional problem. My daughters, who live in London, were excited that I was coming to the city and we were making plans to do fun London activities together. Meanwhile, cases were rising in Italy. It was like hearing two sides of an old vinyl record at once. The one side – bleak and doom-laden; the other, cheery and positive and blissfully unaware. When I arrived in the UK, there was an eerie sense of normality. The course began in the first week of March; when I wore a mask on public transport, I got some strange looks.
I guess you could have described me as a “mosca bianca” – a misnomer or misfit. I’d come from a country in the eye of the crisis and all my energy was spent ensuring my construction business weathered the storm. I started the SEP while trying to keep in touch with Knauf, my team and Italian Government messaging. As a result, I missed out on a lot of the socialising and out-of-the-classroom networking with peers but taking the SEP during a pandemic was clearly a unique situation. Under normal circumstances, I would have made sure the business had a caretaker so I could immerse myself in the full SEP experience. I would certainly recommend that for other senior executives participating in the SEP in the future – it’s an immersive experience and really worth being able to focus on it without worrying about your commitments back in the office.
A week into the SEP, as infections and deaths spiked around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Commercial flights from the UK were suspended, and London Business School – with a heavy heart – had to temporarily suspend the programme and close the campus. Their first concern was for the health and safety of the students and the pastoral care was heartfelt. I was repatriated back to Pisa on a government-sanctioned flight; I had to quarantine for 14 days and run the business from home. The cohort had set up a WhatsApp group at the start of the course and it was very active during the pause. While it was more social than business conversation, it was a great way to stay in contact with the other SEP participants and feel connected to London Business School at the height of the pandemic crisis and a very difficult time.
For Knauf, the consequences of the Italian national lockdown were serious – essentially, we had to shut down all operations. This meant safely turning off industrial machines, like rotary killers and dryers and industrial heating machines, which we’d never had to do before in this way. We were forced to take unprecedented action; managing shareholder and client expectations and employee safety, while working out what our business might look like once we were allowed to operate again. With hindsight, the prescience of undertaking a programme that teaches about leadership at the very moment of a global crisis is not lost on me – and the course, team and one- to-one coaching, helped to translate in real-time the personal development into practice.
London Business School showed exceptional leadership during this period, pivoting at pace to a hybrid learning model, which was ready to go by September. So, this is how the SEP 100-102 got started again; with ‘roomies’- those who could safely join on campus while adhering to the government guidelines – and ‘Zoomies’, those who had to return to their home countries and couldn’t get back. I was a ‘roomie’, choosing to complete the course in three consecutive weeks. But there were a multiple of different options for participants to choose and the flexibility was greatly appreciated. Delivering this hybrid approach was quite an operation, and thanks must go to the LBS team who made it so smooth as well as the faculty. It’s a big challenge to get right, but between the faculty and the LBS staff, they really hit the mark. One participant was from Melbourne; he worked during the day and logged on every evening for the full three weeks.
I can’t speak highly enough of the faculty who deliver the SEP. There is something exceptional about their insights and the succinct way in which they can make sometimes very complex theoretical material engaging and relevant. Nigel Nicholson, Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour, made us look at leadership in a unique way; he showed us that being a successful leader isn’t about trying to fit a template. It isn’t objective. Rather the opposite – it’s subjective. You must leverage your inner skills and qualities and insights to become the best version of yourself and be authentic. Meanwhile, Henri Servaes, Professor of Corporate Governance and Professor of Finance, was brilliant at breaking down financial concepts for non-financial executives . Dr Ioannou’s classes on strategic sustainability were also memorable.
SEP refreshed my thinking and re-energised my ambition and commitment to my role; it’s given me so much to think about in terms of Knauf’s strategic direction when the time is right. It has renewed my sense of purpose. I feel better equipped to filter out the noise of the day-to-day and delegate operational tasks that I don’t need to get involved in. I feel better able to focus on what is really important. How not to get sucked in again will be the challenge, but the SEP is an investment in yourself, and having completed it, I feel I owe it to myself not to lose the learnings. I now have the confidence to feel like I can have an impact on strategy, impact, innovation, economics, and the behavior of the organisation I’m leading. It won’t be easy; nothing worthwhile is. But I can see more and more those big-picture opportunities and create an exciting vision of the future for my business.
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