Altavilla, ITA Airways – When the leader makes the difference

An EMBA-GEMBA joint meeting

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Executive MBA - EMBA and Global Executive MBA - GEMBA classes were brought together to meet ITA Airways’ Executive President Alfredo Altavilla, a guest at SDA Bocconi. The theme was strategic renewal and change management in businesses, an extraordinarily topical issue at the moment, when plenty of unexpected events, from the health crisis to the war in Ukraine, have forced everyone to adjust their plans for the future. Over the past twenty years, Alfredo Altavilla has held many positions of high responsibility in Italy and abroad, where he has always had to lead the transition to a new balance. These corporate changes have permanently marked the entire industry and/or the country where they took place.

Altavilla was in charge of the alliance between Fiat Auto and General Motors in 2002,  president of the joint venture with GM (Fiat Powertrain),  later CEO of Fiat Powertrain in 2006, and in 2010 he became President  and CEO of IVECO. He was FCA's Chief Operating Officer EMEA in 2012, President of Recordati in 2020, and has been President of ITA Airways since 2021. “His professional experiences all have a common ingredient,” GEMBA Director Ferdinando Pennarola pointed out while opening the event. “The management team always had to see complex organizations out of their comfort zone, persuade thousands of employees to let go of a glorious legacy of the past and accept renewal as the only strategy for salvation: a scenario which is notoriously full of obstacles and where success is by no means a given.”

There are no magic recipes to get through that. However, Altavilla drew attention to the following essential points: leaders need to have a team they can rely on completely. “Like in rugby, where it is well known that you can only pass the ball backwards: a forward  can only advance towards the goal if he has a team to pass the ball to that follows him in all his movements, according to an agreed-upon pattern”. This requires preparation, fellowship, trust. Secondly, a leader must be there in person,  close to the colleagues who are being asked to make the sacrifice of change: “Leaders must be able to walk around the departments, meet their people, be present at all times, and give their support especially when things get tough,” Altavilla added.

Finally, he stressed the importance of leaders being really convinced of what they are doing. In this regard, he recalled how, during the famous negotiation between the top management of Fiat Group and the Obama administration staff for the sale of Chrysler in 2009, he had to deal with a former merchant banker who had been called in by the President to serve the nation. Compensation for federal assignments of this kind was around 70,000 dollars a year, compared to the multimillion earnings  the banker had previously been used to. When asked  why he was doing this, he replied: “Because I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference.” Alfredo Altavilla accepted the assignment from Prime Minister Mario Draghi in 2021 in the same spirit, to steer ITA Airways from a project stage to an operational reality in the air transportation industry. 

Leadership for change does not come for free.  Rather, it is the culmination of a journey, built up over the years, where all the achievements occurred on the ground, were recognized and accepted by the people who had been asked to change, and appreciated by all the stakeholders.

SDA Bocconi School of Management

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