Claude Cicchiello (ILF2014)


Institution: Harvard Business School (USA)
Course: Owner President Management Program

My name is Claude Cicchiello I am the Managing Director of La Casa Del Formaggio.

La Casa Del Formaggio are manufacturers of a range of Italian style fresh cheeses. Our specialties are Bocconcini, Fresh Mozzarella, Ricotta, Mascarpone and some cream based products. We supply retail markets across the country through the likes of Coles Woolworths Foodland and IGA as well as a number of specialty gourmet outlets…we supply foodservice customers nationally as well as other manufacturers who use our products in theirs. We operate from a purpose-built facility at Glynde. Today we employ almost 140 people.

The business was started by my mother and father during the late 80’s and I joined the business 30 years ago as a 16-year-old straight out of school.

From a work/career point of view…the family business is all I’ve ever known. It’s the only job I’ve ever had. Every few years I’d give myself a promotion and eventually ended up as Managing Director.

Leaving school at age 16 and working in the family business, I never thought I would get an opportunity to study in one of the world’s best business schools…and the reality is I probably wouldn’t have if I didn’t get the support of the ILF.

I used my grant to attend The Owner President Manager course at Harvard Business School in Boston.

The course required me to attend Harvard on 3 different occasions, living on campus for 3 weeks each time.

It started in May of 2015, I returned to a very cold Boston winter in Feb 2016 and finished in March 2017.

I undertook the course with 150 other students (Business owners) from all over the world.

With no exaggeration the course was life changing.

On day 1 and 2 I honestly thought they had made an enrolment mistake and that pretty soon everyone would realize I shouldn’t be there, and they would be sending me home. By the end of the 1st week you start to realize some of the company you are in…you also quickly realize that everyone is feeling as uncomfortable as you.

You also learn that at Harvard nothing happens by accident…they are one of the best business schools in the world for a reason…they are good at what they do.

There are moments I walked around campus in a bit of a daze…not believing I was actually at Harvard and there are other moments of having discussions either in a living group or the wider group and feeling like you are making a contribution. Your peers are learning from you as you are from them.

Some of the students in my class employ as many as 20,000 people in their business. So La Casa was one of the smaller companies, but the great thing is, it simply didn’t matter. When we are on campus we are all the same…and apart from that 1st couple of days, I felt like I belonged.

What I can tell you is, the experience has opened my mind to a whole range of opportunities that otherwise may never have materialized.

Not because the opportunities weren’t there, but more importantly because I wasn’t seeing them.

My head was so embedded in the day to day operating of the business that I simply didn’t have the time (or take the time) to look beyond the immediate issues. The noise as we now call it!

It’s not so much what you learn at Harvard that makes the difference. It’s the way they make you think that really counts. You truly walk out with a more global perspective…the blinkers in my case have been removed. There is a confidence to try new things. The confidence to try and fail….but keep on trying.

Our business has employed 40 new people in the last 2 years and I don’t see things slowing down anytime soon.

A few specifics about the program:

  • 9 week program offered in three 3 – week units over 3 academic years
  • Approximately 300 hours in class, 75 hours in small group discussions and over 500 hours of assigned case study preparation and preparation for in class exercises
  • Core Curriculum Modules include Strategy, Marketing, Leadership, Finance, Negotiation, Global Markets and Innovation.

I learned Strategy and what it truly means…I learned execution and how to motivate and inspire your team to execute…a good strategy with poor execution will always fall short of a poor strategy with good execution…leadership and what it truly means. Being a leader and being a manager are 2 different things…good managers don’t always make good leaders. One of the main differences between a good manager and a good leader is courage.

The terms above are not new terms…we throw the words around most days. The classroom gave me real insight though in what they really mean and how getting them right will most definitely lead to a successful business.

What does strategy really mean or what does leadership really mean.

Harvard created an environment that allowed people to ask what they really mean, and you didn’t feel silly asking. I was in the company of some very successful business leaders from around the world employing thousands of people, yet an environment of trust was developed early to give the confidence to ask any questions.

When you are vulnerable you connect with other people’s vulnerabilities.

The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor in leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s not true…the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.

Quote – Warren Bennis

I took this from the book…discovering your true north…written by Bill George. Bill was a guest lecturer at Harvard. Bill was the former CEO of Medtronic. A company which employed some 85 000 people…he has served on the boards of Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Novartis just to name a few and has written 4 books on leadership.

I was lucky enough to be taught by Bill over a few different classes and to hear first-hand from such a leader was an experience I doubt I’ll forget. He taught us about crucibles and that we all encounter them at some time in our life…they happen when you least expect but they can be a true test of character. In times of crisis your team looks to you to stand up….and this is where you need the courage most. This is when your leadership is truly put to the test.

Bill shared with us how the President of Goldman Sachs went missing during the 2008 financial crisis. He wouldn’t answer his phone…was nowhere to be found.

Leadership is changing.

Once leadership was:

  • Hierarchical – now its empowering
  • Bureaucratic – now independent units
  • Limited information – now transparent
  • Charisma/style – now Authentic and open
  • Self-interest – now Service to others and the greater cause.

Genuine charisma can still be authentic and open.

What’s driving the leadership change…

By 2020 80% of the workforce will be millennials. Millennials want to be empowered. Our workforce is also changing through diversity as we become a more multicultural society. Other factors driving the change are globalization and technology…they are all impacting leadership.

Another inspiring leader we met was John Chambers. John was the CEO of Cisco for 20 odd years. Cisco grew from a $1b revenue company to $20b in his 20 years as leader. Cisco was a technology company in a fast changing environment. As Cisco grew most of its competitors went under. John was as sharp a person as I have ever met. He told us how he had to transform himself as a leader every 5 years. The average life of a CEO in a fortune 500 company is 5 years. To transform yourself you need to have confidence but more importantly self-awareness…a real trait of good leaders. When quizzed on what he thought was the most important job of the leader he said…quote…CULTURE, CULTURE, CULTURE. The culture of a company becomes your competitive advantage. Anyone can build factories or buy machinery but what makes you different is your culture and of course your people. Identify the stars in your organizations and develop them. As leaders in our businesses 30% of what we do should be around culture and people development.

The Harvard way and the way I certainly view business now is that growth is not a choice. If you are in business, then you must grow. If you aren’t growing, then you are actually going backwards and will eventually not exist. Understanding where you are at in your growth cycle is just as important. There is time that as the leader of your organization you must also be a producer….there is a time that you must stop producing and focus most of your time on the vision, strategy, culture and people development and communications both internal and external.

You need to know what people you need around you dependent on where you are in you cycle. There is a time you need generalists…people that can wear many hats. This is usually in the earlier years or to put a revenue number to it $10m to $15m however as the business grows you need specialists. People that specialize is one area…ie marketing, sales or finance. If people in our companies (and often they can’t) move into the specialist role then we need to move them into a lower role or even out of the business as they can become road blocks. These are difficult times for us as the leaders in our businesses. The only insight I guess I can share on how to sleep at night is that you have the responsibility of the organization to put it first…often if people are in the wrong position they are drowning anyway and having the tough conversation can be a relief for them as well.

Where we all are in our businesses cycle is not unique…every company goes through the same issues at the same point in its life cycle. Whether you are supplying a service or making a product…the issues we all face are the same. The good news is that you can learn how to navigate through the issues. There were so many cases at Harvard that I would study and sit through in class and think they were actually talking about us.

We learned so much about people and culture…how getting it right transfers into a quality product or great customer service. There is not one thing more important that the other but what I was able to learn was how to get closer to getting them right.

Running a successful company doesn’t mean you have to work 100 hours a week…you need to lead from the front. You need to develop your people and empower them to make decisions…even though sometimes they’ll make the wrong decisions. The important thing is that they learn through their mistakes and you support them through their learning and development.

Harvard Business School was truly life changing for me and it wasn’t possible without the support from the ILF. I believe it has made me a better leader and removed the subconscious boundaries we place on ourselves.