Sow seeds, give, build bridges: networking our way to happiness

I receive many questions about “networking”.

How can we make good use of our network?

What’s the best way to connect?

What  makes connecting an experience that leaves us happy and satisfied?

One of the fundamental misconceptions about networking is on its very purpose. Many if not most of us think networking is about “asking”, “exploiting” our relationships. At times we think we want to network in order to receive a benefit, we want to ask favors from our network.


IMG_3847 This very purpose is flawed.

Networking is about giving.

We give and receive happiness through giving to people we like and trust.  Networking is always about what I can do for my network rather than about what my network can do for me.

How can I help people get better, happier, more satisfied?

Good networking is like sowing seeds. When we sow seeds, we don’t know whether nor do we know where they will turn into plants and fruits. Yet we know that the more openly we will be sowing seeds, the more openly we will reap rewards in return.

We won’t know where, nor when: the fruits of networking happens through “obliquity” and “black swans”.

Black Swans (…) are large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequence—unpredicted by a certain observer.

Nassim N. Taleb, “Antifragile, Things that Gain from Disorder, Prologue, 2012.

Black Swans can be negative as well as they can be positive. Limiting the exposure to negative Black Swans and increasing our exposure to positive Black Swans is the challenge, then.

John Kay describes obliquity as follows:

If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of ‘obliquity’: paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows us that oblique approaches are the most successful, especially in difficult terrain.

Obliquity implies that future opportunities can best be pursued indirectly. Black Swans imply that the only safe thing we know about our next occasion of happiness is that we don’t know what it is going to be.

Here are a few of the things I do when I want to make good use of my network:

  • write a letter to a friend or to someone in my network, just a note, a quick note, maybe a “thank you” note after a lunch together. Perhaps something else, yet something worth putting my handwriting on paper. This gives me an opportunity to reconsider that specific relationship, to enjoy the very fact that this person is part of my network;
  • consider something positive about someone I like in my network and call that person, write her an email, or maybe even just use Twitter or Facebook to show my positive feeling of appreciation about some achievement or some quality that the person has. This is another easy way for me to benefit from reconsidering and nurturing a relationship I have with someone. At the same time, this helps me connect with that person, help them realise how I appreciate some positive things about them;
  • build a bridge across two people I likeI might simply decide that I want to help two people in my network connect. This is one of the most fundamental things one can do the network. Bringing two people together, creating bridges across them is a great way of nurturing the network. But let’s be careful: this does not happen as a result of someone asking. This happens as a result of my desire to give. For them, for the two people I have helped connect, it equals to receiving, yet  not because they asked. Rather, just because they are part of a network where someone gives.

I have noticed this already: the wiser we are in connecting with people we like, the more will we be exposed to positive (and oblique) Black Swans. That person we like, whom we regularly talk to, seek advice and inspiration from, at a given, unexpected moment will come out with that fantastic thought, with that inspiring question, which will lead to our next opportunity, perhaps to our next job.

There’s no predictable limit to the power of relationship, the power of connecting wisely.

Tommaso Arenare

Only the brave (reloaded)

“But sometimes the market gets it all wrong, as is the case now.”

Hence, his argument continued, Italy’s debt was a much safer bet than others, such as the UK’s triple A. Italy would get things done and make it.

Erik gave me the occasion for my first tweet ever, on that very day:

Two and a half years and almost three thousand tweets later, I want to spend some time, again, to praise Erik’s ability to “see through the fog”. In his usual “Sunday Wrap”, released today, Erik could write, amongst other things:

“But here we are, just short of 2½ years later. Those of you who focused on fundamentals and had a bit of understanding of Europe, and who bought the 5-7 year sector in Italy in mid-October 2011, now sit on an annualized return of 12.5% (in euros), compared with 1.7% (in sterling – and well below inflation) if you had gone with the 5-7-year gilts.”

Italy and so called “peripheral Europe” have surprised many, but not all. I wish to finish with Erik’s own words, again in today’s “Sunday Wrap”:

For someone like me who has spent the last 2 ½ years arguing that the Italian sovereign should not pay higher yields than the UK, seeing the 5-year BTP trade through its equivalent UK gilt this past week came with some satisfaction.   Longer term, this is right.

Well-done, Erik. But also well-done to the many courageous people who’ve worked to ensure that this could happen.



Tommaso Arenare

Two or three things I think when people mention “Golden Skirts” to me

On a couple of recent occasions, I was  asked  about what is commonly defined as the “golden skirts” phenomenon, whether there’s a risk of some female non-executive directors taking on too many Board roles as a result of a law on #DiverseBoards (this is another one of many possible definitions).


I would warn to be skeptical. I would even go as far as to say that this is a clear instance of unconscious biases at play. We look at women in a different, more biased way than we would normally look at men.

The expression “Golden skirts” has the very same unconsciously negative overtones as expressions such as “pink” quotas and the like. Unconsciously, similarity bias makes us fear adding diverse members to the board.

There might be women taking on too many board positions, exactly as there might be many men who do the same. Nothing to do with gender nor with the law. Let’s note, though, that we do not seem we use a similar “gender” stereotype as that of a “golden skirt” when we describe such a phenomenon when it involves men.

Even if we assumed, for the sake of the argument, that there might be cases of women taking on an excessive number of non-executive board positions, under no circumstances would this imply scarcity of female talent or a peculiar behavior of women.


In addition, we need to be extremely careful. If you properly look for it, and manage to overcome unconscious biases, female talent is abundant so that there is no risk that women take on too many board positions as there is too little talent to meet demand.

In the country where I live, where a law on #DiverseBoards has been in place since 2012, we haven’t observed this phenomenon amongst women any differently than we would observe it amongst men. I would even go as far as to say that in my personal professional experience, I have encountered in women an extreme level of care about not taking on too many board seats, thereby running the risk of dedicating too little time to any single given board position they hold. Not for a reason of gender, we should note. Rather, as women have approached Board roles with more insight, as they have “raised the standards” in terms of preparing for a board seat. From now on, even men will have to do the same.

Reducing unconscious biases. Raising talent, merit, competencies, improving corporate governance. This is what #DiverseBoards is all about.

Tommaso Arenare

A couple of things we learn from a law on #diverseboards

I was recently asked what lessons we learn from the implementation of Italy’s law 120/2011 fostering gender Diversity on corporate Boards (so-called “Golfo Mosca” law).

In summary, this law provided an unexpected positive nudge to the country’s very perception on gender diversity, as well as to its corporate governance.


Let me comment on both aspects.

Improving the stance on Gender Diversity through reducing unconscious biases

Humanity is thought to have taken its modern form some 200,000 years ago. Back then, when we used to live in the Savannah, in small closely-knit family groups, most of our key decisions were about our “fight or flight” dilemma, when we would face dangerous animals or other dangerous human beings and we had to decide, in as little time as possible, if the best way to save our lives was to “fight” for survival or else “flight away”.

A “snap judgment“, as the word implies, is our unconscious habit to make a decision about people, or reacting to people, in a matter of very few seconds after we meet with that someone or we face the situation we consider as a challenge. A snap judgment is a very precious and important habit, which we have developed over millennia of evolution.

Separately, “similarity bias” happens when we select people that are more similar to us, as opposed to people who appear more different. Evolution has fostered this trait, as a key manner to survive ever since the difficult times when we would live in the Savannah, trying to escape from animals and all sorts of dangers.

The combination of snap judgments and similarity biases is the one reason why gender diversity (but also age diversity, geographic diversity and possibly many other aspects of diversity) is so difficult to happen without a little nudge (such as that of a proper law). The “Golfo-Mosca” law forced shareholders to select new members of the board from the “under-represented gender”, overcoming unconscious fears, to the advantage of merit, competencies and corporate governance.

Without the proper nudge of a similar law, countries that are rightly considered as a cradle for merit and competency-based choices, such as the UK or the US, have not been able to move the presence of women boards swiftly to anywhere above the 15 to 17% mark (end of 2013) as opposed to about 20% in Italy over the same period.

Improving Corporate Governance

Another great result of Italy’s “Golfo-Mosca” law was that overall corporate governance improved. Some leading Italian companies have rightly taken the law as a great opportunity to reduce the number of board members, so as to make better use of their boards. FIAT Chrysler for example, reduced the number of its board members from 16 to 9 in 2012, thereby making it more effective as well as smaller.

We have also seen the development of several training programs for candidates to the position of non-executive director (with Valore D’s “In the Boardroom” being particularly dear to me, as you will read in a separate section).
This actually sets a new benchmark not only for women but for men as well. If shareholders have to select new board members, all things remaining equal, they would inevitably prefer to select candidates that have gone through specific training.

The real next step is to bring gender diversity down from boards to executive levels. We need to foster mentoring as a way to ensure that when it comes to promoting talent, women are in a similar position as men. Similarity bias, as we have described above, impacts very much on the promotion of executives. We want to intervene to reduce the impact of similarity bias in favour of promotions based on talent and merit.

Tommaso Arenare

Three reasons Italy will surprise those writing it off too early

A recent article by @FrankBruni on the New York Times had Italy talk quite a lot about it.

Italy “breaks your heart“, is it’s heading. The fil rouge of its content is that Italians think about Italy as

a country that they love but have lost faith in

Bruni is adamant about

Italians’ theatrical pessimism, [and] their talent for complaint

Yet, in addition to that, “the arias have been different this time around”, he says. His elaborate conclusion is one of despair:

I was zipping past wonders, zooming through splendor. But I hadn’t a clue if I was actually getting anywhere

Let me share here a comment I posted on the New York Time website, as I believe this point deserves more than a passing word.

Indeed Italy “breaks your heart” and indeed when we look ahead we see uncertainty and challenges.

I want to spend a word of hope, though.

There are at least three reasons people better not write Italy off too early:

  1. We are a net beneficiary of a higher degree of discipline that the European Union might bring over time. The Governments led by Mario Monti and Enrico Letta have started working on some crucial structural reforms. The European Union is here to stay, in spite of what many people still think. Let me now remind what Benjamin Franklin replied, when someone stated to him, in 1776, “We need to hang out together”.”Yes, was his reply, we need to hang out together, otherwise we will hang out separately”. This wonderfully applies to the European Union;
  2. Our pension system, and INPS, the public body overseeing it, has been restructured and is in far better health than any of its equivalents in the Western world (strangely, one of Italy’s best kept secrets). This gives Italy a financial tranquillity that no other Western country has. All of them, but Italy, will have to come to grip with huge pension unbalances. This is way too often overlooked in discussions about Italy’s government debt to GDP ratio;
  3. What seems a chaotic disorder is, in many ways, a very solid sistem. Our decentralised republic, with all its drawbacks, has guaranteed growth and stability a lot more than it appears. I will just quote Nassim Taleb, who was recently in Italy and we could listen to him say “When you look at things that have improved with time, a lot of them come from Italy“. We are far more “anti-fragile” than we look. Great success stories continue to be in the making.

We need to keep working hard.

Yet, Italy will make it.

Tommaso Arenare


FT Innovative Lawyers 2013: Claudia Parzani

The FT Innovative Lawyers is a great award. I am so honoured that our “In the Boardroom” program was part of the reason for Claudia Parzani’s being acknowledged by the FT. In addition, I love to think that how women are changing Italy is only a beginning of how they will keep transforming the world for the better.

Live from Planet Paola

Claudia ParzaniOne of the ten winners in this year’s FT Innovative Lawyers survey, among over 600 participants, is Claudia Parzani of Linklaters, chair of corporate association Valore D and co-creator of In the Boardroom, an initiative she developed with GE Capital and Egon Zehnder to provide training and skills to prepare women for boardroom positions. Claudia also created the Breakfast@Linklaters network, featured in this year’s Client Service category.

Kudos to Claudia! I am proud to be participating in her boardroom program and honored to be in her circle.

Update & Correction (Oct. 17, 2013): post corrected to clarify that In The Boardroom was developed through collaboration among Linklaters, GE Capital and Egon Zehnder. The supporting member companies of Valore D can be found on this page.

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Three things a CEO need to consider for early integration and longer term success

A CEO’s integration in a new role is a crucial challenge, a key pre-requisite for longer-term success. Way too many CEOs have failed, with other CEOs succeeding only with far greater effort than they would have needed.

Most companies have huge room for improvement, in supporting the process and creating the conditions for a fertile integration. Yet, rather than focusing on what companies can do, I want to focus, briefly, on a few key things a CEO in a new role could do in order to maximise chances for a successful integration as well as increased personal fulfilment and satisfaction (most likely, also that of their shareholders over time).

Possibly even before accepting a new role, in any case very early on after accepting, a new CEO will want to do the following:

  • Identify key relevant stakeholders: so many times would CEOs succeed if they managed to identify key stakeholders in their new role. We need and want to map all relevant influencers that impact on the CEO’s chances for success significantly. Normally, this will range between ten and twenty people. Examples would include the Chair, most if not all board members, a few senior executives as well as some external constituents such as key shareholders. The CEO will need to map them carefully, in order to focus their efforts effectively and efficiently;
  • Connect with them, listen to their spoken and unspoken messages and prioritise them: connecting with relevant stakeholders helps the new CEO identify all key challenges of the new role. Listening to their spoken and unspoken messages will require shifting the focus from the usual, overwhelming attention to short-term, “harder” results to the longer-term, softer interpersonal skills, a crucial component of leadership. In addition, connecting wisely requires us to be able to listen to our counterpart, leaving proper room for them to express their needs and feeling. I have separately written about my view that our ability to listen can be practised and trained but it requires time, effort and willingness. Not least, we are exposed to the risk of making significant mistakes. If CEOs manage to listen carefully to key stakeholders, they will also lay the foundation for successful and rewarding mentoring, for peer & board support, as well as for effective networking & introductions of relevant people. Building a fruitful relationship with relevant stakeholders will be the crucial gate towards a successful integration;
  • Define their own success, agree on a roadmap involving them as necessary and follow up: the final, easier element, once the above steps are well under way will be for the CEO to build a fuller, more effective “definition of success” which will include how the CEO sees own success over time, also on the basis of how stakeholders have interacted with them. That definition of success will be the result of such questions as: “In order for you to consider me successful in 12 months, what would you like to happen?”. Once this is clearly stated and in place, the CEO will need to seek for regular feedback from the very same stakeholders overtime, minimising the risk of negative surprises happening.

By connecting with key stakeholders and receiving feedback early on, the new CEO is fully prepared to align to an effective definition of success and start shaping the company’s dynamics successfully.

We will easily find out that for a CEO to build their own success over time the key is effective use of interpersonal skills, as well as cultivating and building fruitful relationships with a combination of leveraging on existing trust, the ability to listen to others, and finally, but most importantly, the ability of listening to ourselves and to whom makes us happy.


Tommaso Arenare