Before joining WJNY as president and CEO, I worked as an executive at The Estee Lauder Companies. While there, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work for and learn from one of the leading CEOs in the world, Fabrizio Freda. Fabrizio is ranked by Forbes as one of the top 10 “World’s Most Reputable CEOs.” Fabrizio has led the company through tremendous growth and change over the 10 plus years since joining, but also through the pandemic.
Fabrizio is an acute brand builder, results driven business strategist and marketer, but above all, inspirational and courageous leader, and a kind, caring compassionate coach. I am fortunate to have worked under his leadership and to hear him speak especially at the onset of his new journey leading The Estee Lauder Companies. I count him as one the greatest mentors and leaders I’ve learned from in my lifetime, and in business, through having played at some of the highest levels in sport.
One of the first leadership lessons I learned from Fabrizio was the essence of business strategy. Writing a strategy is goal setting and to get to your goal, you reverse engineer the path. When teaching this concept, he often drew associations from sailing.
All leaders, even the best, despite their years in business, education and experience, need to course correct along the way, but if you are off by one degree in the beginning, you will inevitably end up lost.
While watching CBS Sunday Morning this past weekend, this lesson came back to me while watching Chef Jose Andres speak about the actions his World Central Kitchen Charity (founded in 2010) took over the last year. It’s a story of how a savvy businessman and highly talented chef “course corrected” and set out to stop the hemorrhage for his business, the industry, his employees and do good for his community and nation.
With nearly 13 million Americans out of work, 17% of restaurants permanently closed across the United States, he explained: “It’s been hard times for than more than one year. What better to have the restaurants of America feeding people in need. In the process, keep the economy going, nobody getting rich, but at least make sure the restaurants and employees were safe, working, actively feeding, making some money, paying employees, paying rent, keeping the business afloat, and in the process, covering the needs of the hungry.”
In other words, the pandemic left them stranded on a desert island like all restaurateurs during the perfect storm and they needed to recalibrate to find their way. While the original mission was put on pause, the team moved into survival mode and summoned the courage to keep doing what they do best, while they course corrected. With a steady hand and great resiliency, Chef Andres demonstrated courageous leadership, his ability to “find the wind,” and navigate in-the-midst of a perils storm. That new path would help sustain his business, contribute to a wounded nation, and keep his employees employed, rent paid, businesses afloat and suppliers supplying goods.
This story is appropriate and relevant for all business leaders today whether you work in plumbing, beauty, food or any other industry. With economists suggesting the economy will be fundamentally altered, our survival demands that we summon the discipline and unity, and adapt from our traditional ways of approaching business that just feel comfortable. The best crisis leaders will understand this disruption in a new way; while many see COVID as a deviation from “normal’ and working to get back to the past status quo, true leaders are trying on brand new lenses — first determining their destination, and then calibrating their compass.
Remember these two simple facts that we explored in my first column: Real leaders are made, not born. They are built brick by brick, cultivated by working hard on themselves and continuously learning. Success is not built on success; it’s built on a lifetime of collective experiences not only in day-to-day life, but in the face of enormous obstacles, setbacks and frustrating failures and catastrophes, often in-the-midst of personal crisis. It is these specific lessons learned through the response (or lack thereof) to these experiences that make courageous leaders. The journey never ends and no leader is ever perfect, but what makes a leader is them choosing to make something better of who they are, even amid crises.