Executive Coaching to Support a Culture of Learning

Barilla, a family-owned Italian food company, was established in 1877 in Parma, Italy, and is now an international corporation doing business in more than 100 countries. The fourth generation of the Barilla family is as committed to producing high quality and innovative food products today as their great-great grandfather was over 140 years ago.

Over the past few years, Jean-Pierre Comte, president of Barilla Americas, has battled what he calls “the perfect storm” of corporate challenges. A concentration on three things, operating by their corporate values, being attentive to customers and employees, and partnering with executive coaches from The Ken Blanchard Companies has enabled Barilla to not only survive these difficult times, but to flourish.

Setting the Stage

Barilla began offering products in the U.S. in 1996. After maintaining steady growth for many years, things began to change. “Several things happened around the same time,” Comte explains. “We were grappling with the fact that Americans were beginning to embrace a low carbohydrate diet. They thought eating pasta and bread was unhealthy, which had a negative impact on sales. At the same time, we were managing challenging corporate projects: moving our Chicago headquarters into a new state-of-the-art facility, reorganizing the staff, streamlining our product offerings so we could focus on the most important brands, and changing brokers.”

Any of these activities alone would have increased the tension in the work environment, but dealing with them all at once multiplied the stress level for leaders and employees at Barilla. The projects had to be managed in the short-term to protect the long-term future of the company.

“Then came an event that triggered a crisis situation,” says Comte. “Our chairman made some negative statements on television about the LGBT community. This led to boycotts that had a negative impact on sales. There was also friction between corporate and local staff and communication was breaking down. I needed to build some kind of bridge to get them working together again.”

Building Collaboration

Barilla’s leadership model, used globally, was based on three competencies: growth, execution, and authenticity. Many companies establish standards around growth and execution, but adding authenticity as a competency was a bold objective. “We realized that developing authentic leaders would be both a game changer and a win-win situation. If a person is not authentic, it means they may be taking time to cover up things about themselves: their religion, sexual orientation, even their accent. All the time they spend hiding parts of their true selves is time they don’t spend running the business. If people hide their authentic selves, we can’t leverage the beauty of diversity and learn from the different points of view, background and experience.”

When Comte first moved to the Chicago office, he heard a lot of frustration from team members about the separation between senior executives and the rest of the staff. It was no surprise that a lack of collaboration in the Chicago office diminished the collaboration between the Chicago and Parma offices. Comte immediately took action to break down silos creating collaboration among everyone in the organization. His first step was to share information about himself with his team. He talked about work experiences, both successes and failures, and personal details regarding his family and hobbies. “When I shared my work experiences and talked about my wife and children, my passion for travel, African art, street art, and antiques, people got to know me, not just my position in the company. I also explained that I might have part of a solution to an issue, but I depended on others to have part of the solution, too. This really helped open up communication with my team.”

Comte decided to take this initiative a step further by working with The Ken Blanchard Companies to roll out a coaching program. He asked his team to participate in a 360° feedback exercise, however, instead of listening to the feedback privately, he listened along with his direct reports. Using this courageous method for receiving feedback, Comte modeled the behavior he wanted the senior leaders to use and leveraged the feedback to launch an executive coaching plan. “When my coach first suggested this method for sharing feedback, I have to admit I didn’t think it was the best idea in the world. But I knew my team was mature, constructive, and responsible enough to handle this opportunity in a positive way. Plus, they knew just how seriously I was taking this, so we spent two hours in our quarterly meeting listening to the feedback together. It was a powerful experience.”

Comte’s feedback indicated that he needed to work on three areas of leadership with his coach and the coaching plan was developed with his team present.

“I encouraged each leader on my team to use this same process with their teams. As you can imagine, some loved the idea and others were challenged. Many are seasoned professionals who had never worked with a coach. We had to help them understand and manage the relationship between coach and leader. It was uncomfortable for some at the beginning, but now they all say the experience was an incredible opportunity for personal growth. They were able to unveil aspects of their personalities and beliefs that helped them become better communicators and better leaders.”

Each person on the executive team at Barilla has been working with a coach from Blanchard not only to understand how they are perceived in the organization, but also to set personal learning objectives related to leveraging their strengths and development in key strategic areas. The results from their 360° feedback were used as a guide for six to twelve coaching sessions. “One member of the team experimented with the coaching and decided to use two different coaches to address two very different objectives. He was able to achieve his desired results simultaneously,” Comte explained. The willingness of top executives to participate in this coaching program with such commitment is a great example of the strong learning culture at Barilla.

The Payoff

Barilla has seen huge results from focusing on values, training senior and mid-level managers in Situational Leadership® II, and working with executive coaches to sharpen specific leadership skills. Their market share has increased from 30.4 percent to 32 percent and turnover has reduced from 12.19 percent to 7.5 percent. “Although I’m very happy with these results, I’m most proud of the 100 percent score we received on the Corporate Equality Index for four years in a row. This is a ranking measured by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation around policies in place to protect the LGBT community. Our attention to these issues and the hard work we have done to transform our operation are paying off.”

Because of their diligence in changing the way they do business, Barilla has experienced steady improvement. According to Comte, some people might think the job is finished. But he knows better. Training and coaching aren’t something to do once and check off the list, the learning and behavior change must be sustained and become part of the corporate culture.

“When someone asks me ‘What if we invest all this time and money into our people and they leave?’ I ask, ‘What if we don’t and they stay?’ That is my call to action.”

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