Leadership and purpose: the human aspect returns to the centre of business

From awareness to sustainability. Why is it so important that managers leading companies put the human element at the centre? Arrigo Berni and Josip Kotlar explain, presenting the Executive Programme in Leading with Purpose

Facing the challenges of the present supported by a conscious intention, a reason that pushes us to pursue an objective. In a word, purpose. It’s the test that awaits the leaders of today and tomorrow, called on to deal with increasingly interconnected scenarios and challenges and with consumers who evaluate brands based on their contribution to society: «In the last decades, material living conditions have improved enormously at the global level. And human nature is such that from the satisfaction of a class of needs, in this case material ones, new ones are born, in this case immaterial, of meaning», explains Arrigo Berni, founding partner of The Mind at Work Italy and Adjunct Professor at MIP. But not only. The progressive worsening of environmental conditions imposes a rethinking of the reasons at the basis of economic activities: «Defining the purpose of an activity is essential to bringing the human aspect to the centre of business in a coherent fashion», explains Josip Kotlar, director of the Executive Programme in Leading with Purpose offered by MIP Politecnico di Milano with the collaboration of The Mind at Work. «Until now we have seen a sort of division between economic and corporate social responsibility activities. Our intention is to use purpose to promote a more integrated vision of these two aspects which are not separate but must go together to be sustainable».

Awareness, the key for complexity

A sea change, that requires enlightened leaders: «Intentional leadership», explains Berni, «is characterized by great self-awareness and by the ability to give a meaning to reality, rather than reacting to it. In addition to this, a purpose-driven leader has the ability to develop collaborative relationships with others and to correctly interpret the situation in which they operate».

An approach that can be read as an evolution of the methods by which people have always tried to come up with effective strategies.  As Kotlar explains, «it’s important that decisions are guided by what we can define as “conscientiousness”. Today, however, the traditional tools with which decisions are made are commodities available to every company. They no longer represent a competitive advantage. New approaches are needed that lead to conscientious decisions. Purpose is important because it provides a new set of tools with which to manage complexity, without restricting oneself to a technical, and therefore limited, vision of the world».

Sustainable change involves purpose

The advantages of leadership inspired by purpose are due above all to abandoning a vision superficially focused on “what” and “how”. «An approach », stresses Berni, «that sacrifices awareness of the intentions underlying a decision and that leads to results that not only are not very sustainable over time, but also fall short of their potential, because it doesn’t’ transmit energy to the entire organization». If you let yourself be guided by purpose, instead, «results are based on structural changes and therefore are sustainable over time, because they are children of a systemic vision of the company. Results are also better, because they are the fruit of more energy, both at an individual and collective level».

A course to develop your strengths

Motivated by the desire to encourage positive change in the world, MIP Politecnico di Milano decided to launch the Executive Programme in Leading with Purpose: «It is based on the innovative digital learning model FLEX», explains Kotlar. «It combines impact learning with maximum flexibility. The programme is composed of eight thematic modules, each consisting of a combination of brief clips, a live question-and-answer session and four interactive lessons. It concludes with project work that allows participants to put themselves to the test with real projects; it also offers a coaching session that supports participants in working on themselves, to discover and develop their inner strengths, to improve the ability to innovate, develop entrepreneurship and other characteristics of leadership. It’s a programme that allows for broad flexibility in one’s personal path».

«MIP’s HR vision is modern and contemporary»

Human resources management merges with marketing instruments and requires skills that are always new and up to date. The aim is to enhance the value of individuals, starting from their diversity. Chiara Lombardi, human resource manager of Emilio Pucci and MIP alumna, explains this to us

A renewed centrality of the value of people, combined with competent and qualified management. This is the future, and in some respects already the present, of human resources management within an organization. So says Chiara Lombardi, human resource manager at Emilio Pucci, an Italian fashion house that is part of the LVMH Group, and alumna of the executive Human Resource Business Leader programme at MIP Politecnico di Milano. «HR doesn’t allow improvisation. Even less so today, considering the increasingly close link with marketing tools, necessary for companies to implement talent attraction and retention strategies».

Learning based on discussion

Chiara’s vision matured after long years of experience in the sector, preceded by a degree in languages and perfected also thanks to the executive programme, in which she enrolled with the goal of consolidating her skills: «I have always had a great interest in human resources, and over time I understood that I wanted to transform myself into a more strategically-oriented HR manager. At the same time, I was lacking some of the hard skills needed to do this. For this reason, I enrolled in the programme offered by MIP». In the beginning, she expected frontal lessons with a decidedly academic approach, but she soon realized that, in reality, a fundamental element of the course was the active involvement of the students: «Alongside high-level teachers, there was the collaboration of companies, thanks to which we had a current and privileged point of view on the HR reality. But a lot of room was also given to the interaction between us students, which gave rise to open discussions, bearers of a great wealth of contents.  For this reason, I advise approaching this course opening your eyes and mind as much as possible. The range of contents, possibilities, solutions is so broad that it represents a unique learning opportunity».

The fruits of this period of learning are clear for Chiara: «I wouldn’t have been so effective in the job market without the awareness I gained in this programme. For me it was a real breath of fresh air, that gave me many learning opportunities and additional skills to use both in my company and in my work transition phase».

Between change and diversity

There’s another area, however, in which Lombardi’s needs were met in the MIP executive programme.  While it is true that hard skills are fundamental, human resources can’t be separated from people. «My goal is to make the issue of change central in the companies I work, and to do this with small and big actions. At MIP I was able to strengthen a modern and contemporary vision and deepen beliefs that are good for both resources and the company. I’m thinking, for example, of the issue of diversity, which by now is fundamental and unavoidable. The enhancement of human resources can’t be ignored. If a person is treated correctly, they will contribute more willingly, generating value and wealth both for the company and the people who work alongside them».

A theme that Lombardi particularly has at heart, seeing that since 2018 she has been a mentor and coach for Young Women Network, a non-profit whose aim is the empowerment of young women. «The issue of female leadership is extremely important, and I really appreciated how the issue of diversity was addressed at MIP (which also, through the Mip4Women initiative, makes a contribution of 1000 euros available to female candidates). Unfortunately, in many companies there is a lack of examples of female managers, given that boards of directors are still largely male. The situation can evolve, but we must all commit to being promoters of change».

Data and human resources management: the new frontiers of project management

Mauro Mancini, director of the Flex executive programme in Project Management, illustrates the reasons that project management has become increasingly important in companies and what skills are required.

Knowing how to analyse growing amounts of data, prioritizing human resources development, being up to speed with the use of artificial intelligence. They are only some of the qualities that must be possessed by a project manager, an increasingly important figure for companies and organizations. «It’s an evolution caused mainly by the digital transformation and by a global scenario whose development is increasingly rapid and unpredictable», explains Professor Mauro Mancini, director of the FLEX executive programme in Project Management at MIP Politecnico di Milano. «At the international level, a phenomenon is underway that the scientific community calls projectification. In other words, even ordinary and process activities must increasingly be managed with the typical tools of project management».

Hard, soft, contextual skills

What the project management approaches have in common is the idea of uniqueness: «Uniqueness of the final product, of the available human capital, of the social context, of the temporal contingency and of the partnership involved in the project itself», clarifies Mancini. But to enhance these elements, the project manager must possess a wide range of skills: «First of a technical nature, the so-called hard skills: I’m referring to the knowledge of methods, techniques and approaches developed for rapidly evolving scenarios like EVNS, Scrum, Real Option, data visualization. Regarding soft skills, leadership and the abilities of delegating, mentoring, training, team building, and team working are essential». But there’s a third order of skills that shouldn’t be underestimated, which Mancini describes as “of context”: «A good project manager must understand in real time the main elements of an organizational, social and cultural context, because not only structural elements but especially contingent ones are crucial for the success of an initiative. On these, if necessary, one must be able to remodel the project itself, adapting it quickly and with foresight with an approach many people call agile business. The balance of these three skill sets allow a project manager to be ready to face the challenges of the future».

Data and people: key elements

If we look at the evolution of project management in recent years, the factors that have redefined the borders of the discipline are essentially two: on one hand, the importance of information management, on the other human resources. «We live in an era in which we have an increasing amount of data available. The project manager must be able to make decisions not only based on available information, but also with a clear awareness of that which is missing. Helping them today in this process of data screening and schematizing are several tools developed thanks to the evolution of artificial intelligence, that allows for the rapid implementation of self-learning rules. But in a context where small or large unforeseen events are normal, the project manager will increasingly have to assert their own personal capabilities and experience», explains Mancini. «The final decision both concerning one’s own structure and the customer (which sometimes coincide) is the task of the project manager, and this is also true for team management. Among their primary objectives there must be the development of collaborators and their full involvement, to multiply the working group’s capacity for action. The project manager’s task is to guide this participation, protecting it from the pressures of stakeholders involved in the project».

Digital education expands networking

MIP’s FLEX executive programme in Project Management deals with these and other issues, with the aim of training and educating a well-rounded professional and, especially, one who is up to date: «The programme has a completely digital format, it favours the participation of managers and professional from a wide geographical area. This factor expands networking possibilities among participants. Teaching», explains Mancini, «will follow two tracks: synchronous and asynchronous. Asynchronous learning allows to gain skills independently, to then refine and fine-tune them in synchronous mode, that’s to say interacting directly with the teachers. Our goal is not only to provide useful tools from the start, but also to share with participants those skills necessary for self-learning and continuous education, crucial to face the changes that will characterise the decades to come».