Cavaggioni, the challenge of “offshore” leadership in the time of Covid

Meeting GEMBA and EMBA participants


It is a matter of style, not geography. That is how one could sum up Alberto Cavaggioni’s resume. Cavaggioni is the Vice President for North America at Palfinger, the Austrian-based multinational leader in industrial lifting solutions. Geography has been the background of his international career, that has developed in various regions and industries. Thanks to his leadership style, he has managed to go beyond borders, leverage cultural differences, implement successful strategies at a global and local level, and now overcome the “physical” restrictions caused by the pandemic. His energy and determination were directly conveyed to the audience of SDA Bocconi GEMBA – Global Executive MBA – and EMBA participants. Cavaggioni talked about the major managerial challenges he has faced, especially in the most difficult times of Covid.

His is a far-reaching story, intertwining with some of the major automotive brands in the last decade. Automotive is “a passion of mine ever since,” Cavaggioni confesses. Prompted by the questions of GEMBA Director Ferdinando Pennarola, he went through the major steps in his own career, that started in the very same place. He graduated from Bocconi, had various experiences in other industries and an Executive Master in Marketing & Sales at SDA Bocconi, then joined FCA in 2012 as Iveco Marketing Director. Two years later, he became Brand Manager at Alfa Romeo and revitalized this historical car brand. In 2015, Cavaggioni moved to Maserati, to transition it from a niche boutique company to the broader luxury car market, with SUVs accounting for 50 per cent of it. That is how Levante, Maserati’s SUV, was born, with the goal of conquering China, the new frontier of luxury. This implied a cultural leap even in marketing strategies: “In March 2016, we started selling on Alibaba and sold 100 cars in 18 seconds!” Four years passed and, in 2019, he was back at Alfa Romeo, in charge of the EMEA region.

Finally, in 2020, Cavaggioni landed at Palfinger: “From one of the main car makers to a smaller organization, though very dynamic. The pros were mainly working in the United States and taking responsibility for a region that was strongly growing by acquisition.” But he could not possibly have known what was going to happen. “I signed before the pandemic, I had my flight booked when the lockdown began. My boss said he was sure I could do my job even from home. I had to create Palfinger North America, a new organization under one brand, and open its headquarters in Chicago. All that without having ever met anyone from my new company in person.”

That is how the new challenge began. “In the morning I would study, taking advantage of the time zone, then online with calls until 1 a.m. I started with staff meetings – my people came from different organizations and did not know each other – then I reviewed the other employees, 200 people from sales and service and 700 from two plants. I wanted to let them know I was interested in what they did, and I wanted to leverage what they did best.” But personal interaction remained key: “I needed to ‘smell’ the atmosphere, so I went to our HQ in Salzburg as soon as I could, and to our Italian office in Modena.”

Results started to come even during the annus horribilis of the pandemic: the company limited losses in 2020 (-12% against -30% in the industry overall), and double-digit growth is foreseen in 2021. “I have a rather demanding leadership style,” Cavaggioni admits, “I pedal to the metal. I ask for more or different things, I target ever faster performance. I see we still have unexploited potential we need to stimulate. Then, when you start outperforming forecasts, you create a positive domino effect.” For employees, Cavaggioni underlines, “it is vital to be visible and to understand they are important to corporate projects.”

This is maybe the single most outstanding leadership lesson of the pandemic (and not the pandemic only): “Never let your people down. They need to know they can trust you and count on you. And vice versa.” But this will not build overnight: “It takes time to let them understand your ‘recipe’. And the ‘human touch’ in personal interactions is always essential.” To Cavaggioni, finally landing on US soil remains a must.

Then, one increasingly needs to learn how to work in a condition of uncertainty. “In certain situations, you can only learn by doing. You have to take risks, but they need to be calculated risks, you have to know how much they would cost. Things we should have learned from 2008-09.” Balanced daring, one could call it. “I love what I do, and I love challenges,” Cavaggioni concludes in front of his GEMBA and EMBA audience, “I always search for new things. Curiosity is key.” To go beyond your limits every day, even in toughest times.

SDA Bocconi School of Management

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