My next interview with, Mario Buzzolini, a telecommunications leader in Mexico, continues the tradition of learning for self and allowing others to listen and apply these stories to their own experiences.
I was again struck with how long it takes for people to understand about the pressure on people in their own family and how useful this kind of understanding is in a seeing how deeply our values are rooted.
What are the forces that encourage leaders to take risks and in which thoughtful actions are rooted?
In the book, Leadership Can be Taught, Sharon Daloz Parks takes readers into the classroom of Harvard leadership maven, Ronald Heifetz. Heifetz uses the students’ own experiences in solving problems people face in the workplace. He defines leadership as the capacity to mobilize people to respond to challenges and suggests that the bottom line for leaders is the capacity to foster collective.
Ronald Heifetz notes the key factor that makes or breaks leaders notes is, the quality of one’s capacity to be fully present, comprehend what is happening, hold steady in the field of action and make choices about when and how to intervene from within the social group.
The case study method is an inductive way of analyzing concepts that may apply across multiple contexts. John Dewey and other educators have argued that adults learn best from their experiences. I think this interview follow in this tradition.
Mario Buzzolini –
AMS- What made you decide to be an entrepreneur?
MB- I studied computer systems at the university then went to work for IBM for a year. I wanted to have my own business, like my father and my grandmother.
Both of them learned to stand alone to accomplish things.
It is amazing when you realize that 50% of the population of Mexico lives in poverty.
This is one of the main reasons I thought that the telecom business would be useful to the Mexican people because it would bring communication methods to the distant parts of Mexico. This is one way to alter the future for the poor people in Mexico.
AMS – And so first you went to work for a big company?
MB –Yes, I wanted to do it more like my father and grandmother had. But I knew I had to learn how the others had done it since I had no money, no contacts. So I started learning from others. At first I wondered how companies could be so efficient being so big. You had to ask the manager of your manager and so on before anything could be done. But it was here that I started making contacts and seeing what part of the industry I wanted to work in. I knew that a big company was not for me in the long run. I found my interest was in telecommunications and decided to start a small company to make the equipment.
AMS- You started a small company like a CISCO?
MB- Well, yes in away, my company is a telecom company. First, I wanted to create a different kind of company. I wanted to have the people who worked there be as passionate about what we did as I was. I tried to create a culture of loyalty and put the emphasis on making a big investment in the customer. I wanted the best people, people who wanted to be successful by doing a great job. We all have to have a passion for our work.
AMS – I think you are the first person to tell me that their grandmother influenced them.
Are there are two people in your family who are good examples of leaders who did something very unusual?
MB- My father and grandmother were each wonderful examples of a leader who could learn from others.
My grandparents were political refugees during the Italian civil war. My grandfather had poor health. There were 6 children to take care of, so my grandmother, who had come from Barcelona, was a housewife with no occupation, had to go to work. She decided to sell life insurance door to door. She and her sons built one of the largest insurance brokerage agencies in Mexico.
My grandmother was a very strong and unusual woman. She worked until she was very old. When her time was over she stopped working, went to the hospital and died.
AMS – I would like to be like that too.
AMS – I am not sure what you might know about how your grandfather influenced his wife? Often the husbands and wives teach each other about business. We see that in the Clintons’ run for the presidency in the United States now.
MB – I am not sure how but probably they did influence each other.
AMS- How many siblings did your grandparents have?
MB -. My mother was the 4th, and the first girl. There were three sons and three daughters.
AMS – Did you grow up close to your grandmother?
MB – Yes, I am the first grandson and so I was close to my grandmother.
AMS – You were the favorite but I imagine you got some pressure with the love.
MB – Yes, pressure to do well.
AMS – Tell me about your mom and your grandmother’s relationship.
MB – I could not tell who my grandmother’s favorite was. They all seem to love and have respect for each other.
AMS – Did the youngest have the best position?
MB – He now is running the biggest insurance brokerage business in Mexico.
AMS –That is interesting a reversal of what one might expect. Often the oldest would be a traditionalist and continue to work in the family business. But you, an oldest, branched out into a new business, while the youngest in the generation above you, stayed in the family business.
MB – To me the most important thing is that you love what you do.
AMS – Yes, and it was partially your family which had that values enabling choice.
Therefore that gave you the freedom to do what you wanted to do.
How do you think your father influenced you?
MB – My father was a builder, an architect. He had his own business. He started it before he finished the university. With the exception of 2 or 3 years, he didn’t work for anyone else. My father did try to get me to work for him, and I did for a brief period of time. I decided that this was not my real passion.
One of my brother’s is a designer and the other one is in the illustration business.
AMS – Your family seems to value diversity. That is another marker for a higher level of maturity.
MB – I am sure my father wished I would work for him but then he gave me a lot of support. Perhaps in the beginning it was hard for him.
AMS – This is another marker for a leader. One who is willing to take a risk, (break into new territory) and stand alone to go in his or her direction.
MB – In the beginning it was very hard. We started from nothing and once in a while I would think perhaps I should go back and work with my father.
AMS – How long did it take for you to know you were successful.
MB – By the end of the first year we had good contracts and things started to take off very fast. The telecom business is something new in Mexico. Just to start in the networks and telecommunication business we had a big, open market and not much competition. We were in the right place at the right time. Telecom is a very complicated business and things change very fast. You have to say on top of things.
AMS – Are you married now?
MB – No, I am still single.
AMS – Do you think you made a decision to postpone marriage because your business needed you?
MB – Possibly.
AMS – Bill Gates had that problem too. Eventually he found the right person and I am sure you will too. Do you have sisters?
MB – No, only brothers.
AMS – Do you find it easier to work with men rather than woman?
MB – No I like to work with woman. I focus on what they know.
AMS – My first husband had no sisters and found that woman were mysterious.
MB – In Mexico we are very paternalistic and many men do not like to work with woman.
AMS – Women working has created a tremendous upheaval in society. Today woman have far fewer children. This is a very different era from that of our grandparents.
Being a leader means you also have to adapt well to changes in society.
What do you consider to be the biggest problem facing Mexico today?
MB – The biggest problem in Mexico is the inequality in wealth. Over 50% of people in Mexico live in poverty. The richest man in the world lives and works in Mexico.
AMS – What would you say to Carlos Slim if you could have a conversation with him?
I wonder about this because I think that there are two main ways that people change.
One, is the influence one person has on another. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are good examples of how people influence one another.
The other is, you change the rules and that changes society in some unknown ways.
MB – I think you have to change the rules and that will change the people.
I know Carlos Slim and Bill Gates are very generous. They are very good business people but it’s not enough. We have to change the rules. They are not mercenaries but it’s not enough. Clearly, we have to change the rules.
AMS – One example happened in Ireland. They had high unemployment and low savings rates. So they decided to give people 20% on their money if they would keep it in the bank for five years. 60% of people decided to do it. This altered how the people behaved and now they have low unemployment and an increase in intellectual capital.
I have also wondered how come Mexico is not growing like China. The Chinese changed the rules.
MB – Yes, they have a capitalistic economy and a communist government.
AMS- What rules are you going to change?
MB – I don’t know how to promote the redistribution of wealth. It is very complicated but you have to alter the whole system, its rules and how it’s organized in order to make it possible for people to do better.
It will take more time to know what the best solution will be. But I do think we can sell new ideas and make new rules. People have to know what to do in their own space. People have to think global and act global.
AMS- How has your family experience enabled you to think this way?
MB –My grandfather came from Italy to look for a fortune and he thought he was coming to America/Mexico. He may have been confused about which country he was coming to but he made a success. My grandmother came from Barcelona. They all had to leave and find a new way after the war.
AMS – So you do not want to wait for a dictator to force changes in society? Sometimes people have to wait for the society to collapse before change can occur. But you do not seem to want to wait for a new Mussolini to arise.
Do you know much about your great grandparents?
MB –No, because of the war many records were lost. After the war I didn’t know about my family in Italy and Spain.
AMS – Do you think because some of your family and their stories were lost, you have
a greater desire to make better family stories for the future?
MB – Yes, I have a great interest in understanding my family.
AMS – You also seem to have a great interest in problem solving.
I was also wondering about your thinking about being strategic in building your business. How do you deal with people in your company and your customers? Do you think about how to deal with people, or do you just do it at a gut level.
MD- We have a joke in our office. It is more important to know who than to know how.
Relationships are basic in your business. Your contacts are with humans and you have to have good relationships with other humans you are working with.
AMS – I will throw you a trick question. What do you do about people who are tricky and may be seeking power and money and are trying to fool people?
MB- I do not like those people.
AMS – I have heard that nice guys do not get ahead but you do not believe that?
MB- Our philosophy is to take care of people very well. Our strategy is to have good relationships with others. It is an important part of our business. Our plan is to cultivate trustworthy relationship with our customers. You can not do that without good people working in your business.
AMS – How do you tell if people are having a good relationship with others?
MB- We have rules inside the company to make sure people are doing well by their customers.
AMS – You are looking for people who understand your philosophy.
MB- We hire good people. The people who don’t believe in the importance of being in good relationships with other people leave.
AMS – Also you seem to set up an environment for leadership. You empower others to be leaders.
MB- I think you have to be a visionary, set up a philosophy and rules and work as a team. Then success will follow.
AMS – Did you play sports? And do you think sports helps people to learn how a team functions?
MB- Yes, I played soccer for 5 or 6 years and now I do extreme sports. I have a go cart and I like sky diving.
AMS – I am interested in what else, besides your family, may have influenced your leadership style? What books do you read?
AMS – If only George Bush had read this book. As I recall it he said “only invade a country if you want to live there.”
MB- I also like books on Mexican history. I just read one on the civil war in Spain. It helped me understand my grandfather. I began to understand more of what he had been through. Before that I thought he was neurotic.
AMS – That’s a great example of one way to compensate when your family has lost its stories of the past. Some people would just write off the family members who are difficult. It is not at all easy to take the time to understand the history that shaped the person who is hard to deal with.
MB- I had an opportunity to meet many of my cousins this week, and told them about the book. They bought the book and also say now they see he was not neurotic.
AMS – Even though the person has died, your relationship with them can change as you know more about them and the situation they were in. People are forced into difficult situations that then alters their life. It’s not just their personality.
I had a similar situation with my father being misunderstood in the family. It took me a long time to stand up for my Dad in my family. His brother, my uncle, was mad at my father who drank after the war and just focused on that as his legacy. I talked to my uncle about my father, and his mission in the war. He was an intelligence officer, flying a B29 over Japan and planning the fire bombing of the civilian population. This time in the service may have kept his children from becoming Japanese, but it cost him in terms of his personal life. I said to my uncle, my dad went to war for you. You had flat feet, so you could not go to war. My uncle saw me differently after that. I did not just go along with the way he saw my father and I used factual knowledge to alter the way the family saw him.
Knowledge can change families but it has to lived out in someone will take actions with others in the family.
MB- I am very curious about what you are doing. I can see how your family and your background influenced your situation today and tomorrow.
I never stopped to think about this and this is a very good opportunity.
I really like this exercise to understand your own situation at strategic times. You are you because of your circumstances.
AMS – I see our time is up. Thank you very much.
Now you are my brother.
MB- And you are my sister.
Mario Buzzolini Mindful Compass Points
(1) The ability to define a vision: Mario Buzzolini has found his passion in the telecom industry. His vision satisfied two deep needs. One is to help the people of Mexico. His business makes it possible for poor people to have access to modern technology. Two, he tell us he wants to do it more like my father and grandmother had done.
They were independent people.
His vision was to have his own business and he was willing to pay the price to learn from others successful people. Spending time being an apprentice seems to be a part of a formula for anyone who hopes to become an expert. One of his big questions that formed a backbone principle for him was to wonder: how could companies be so efficient being so big? You have to ask the manager of your manager and so on before anything can be done.
Another theme we have heard from others is that there is not much ego involvement here as he notes, I was in the right place at the right time.
As an oldest and the oldest grandson he had many opportunities to take care of his younger siblings but I did not have time to ask the question if these experiences were instrumental in his being focused on talking care of his customers and his employees.
As with other people I have interviewed there were serious challenges that had to be overcome. His grandparents were caught up in the Spanish Civil war and immigrated as they saw more hope in a new land. Often families who escape from difficult circumstances have strong reason to care for others. He has a business mind and found a business reason to care about others, the customer first.
In understanding how to motivate others and build a successful business, he puts himself as an important part of how his business will function. Dr. Bowen use to say it this way: “If I see a problem then I know I am somehow apart of it and a part of the solution.”
Although Mario Buzzolini has a vision of how his country could change he doesn’t know which rules to change. He believes that people at the local level might know more about what to do to improve their lives.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: The main story of resistance to change was the self doubt that he had about starting his business in the first year. At times he thought perhaps he should go back and work for his father. But he stood firm and found his original ideas were planted in firm ground. Now he has a substantial business.
The second example concerned his relationship with his grandfather. I am not sure if his grandfather was alive when Mario Buzzolini read a book that shed more light on who his grandfather was. Mario Buzzolini had thought of his grandfather as a neurotic man but after reading and understanding the social forces his grandfather was up against, he saw him in a new light. He was then able to tell others in the family, who also may have had a negative impression about their grandfather. Many were able to reorganize the relationship with their grandfather, even if it was only in their minds.
Altering relationships based on factual knowledge and standing up to old negative ways of thinking about others usually is difficult to do. Emotional systems can be very stuck in “blaming” others for all of the so called problems. His family seems to be able to move beyond the blaming dynamic and to see how systems operate.
By overcoming resistance Mario Buzzolini continues to be able to build his business and strengthen family and alliance within his work force.
(3)The ability to connect and use systems knowledge: At the end of the interview Mario Buzzolini remarks on how this interview has been a very good exercise. I am very curious about what you are doing. I can see how your family and your background influenced your situation today and tomorrow. I never stopped to think about this and this is a very good opportunity. I really like this exercise to understand your own situation at strategic times. You are you because of your circumstances.
It is not that easy for people to see how talking about family history and their values impacting on your life leads to system thinking, but he makes the leap easily.
Some of this may be due to his reading of history which often gives people a fundamental understanding of the many factors in social and economic change. It may also be that due to his large and complex family he can synthesize information well. But all of this is speculation as to why he has the ability to use and understand system ideas.
(4)The ability to be separate: If anyone is to start their own business it seems obvious that the individual will need to strengthen the ability to think for self. Mario Buzzolini had the central insight that a successful business would have to be people centered. His ability to pick good people and to enable them to understand his philosophy is evidence of how well he understands this process in his relationship with others. He also is interested in considering the deep emotional nature of problems for the people of Mexico.
All of this has to be work that one does in his or her head before attempting to communicate it to others.
Considering actions need to be taken now so that the future will be better, is the kind of work that is high risk and has no promise of reward. Perhaps this is one more reason to participate in extreme sports. They are a physical way to warm up for the mental challenges one encounters in the risk and rewards of thinking systems. Once again Mario is alone and making an effort to anticipate and prepare well for the future.
The Spanish Civil War was a major conflict in Spain that started after an attempted coup d’état committed by parts of the army against the government of the Second Spanish Republic. The Civil War devastated Spain from July 17, 1936 to April 1, 1939, ending with the victory of the rebels and the founding of a dictatorship led by the Nationalist General Francisco Franco. The supporters of the Republic, or Republicans (republicanos), gained the support of the Soviet Union and Mexico, while the followers of the Rebellion, nacionales (literally, “nationals” but rendered in the English bibliography as “nationalists”), received the support of the major European Axis powers of Italy and Germany and neighbouring Portugal.
Atrocities were committed on both sides during the war. The use of terrorism against civilians foreshadowed World War II. At least 50,000 people were executed during the civil war. In his recent, updated history of the Spanish Civil War, Antony Beevor “reckons Franco’s ensuing ‘white terror‘ claimed 200,000 lives. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Civil_War