The Courage to Break Out of the Comfort Zone - Featuring Sergio Azzolari
Manage episode 346700919 series 3339091
Living a successful personal and professional life requires a lot of things, including tremendous commitment, strategy, gut feeling, and courage.
This episode's guest is Sergio Azzolari, CEO of DSQUARED2, the high fashion brand launched by twin brothers Dean and Dan Caten.
Sergio embodies the cosmopolitan spirit, combining worldliness, wit, culture, and wisdom imbued with humanity and kindness.
Sergio's life experiences span from Benetton and Missoni to Luxottica and Hogan, speaking six foreign languages and living on five continents.
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Brought to you by ALYGN Organizational Consulting
Stephen Matini: So, how's your life in Ireland?
Sergio Azzolari: Well, life is in Ireland is good. I mean the weather is always a surprise. I mean, you have a wardrobe that is basically layers. Maybe it’s sunny like now, or maybe like dreadful like a few hours ago. And, you know, but that was good. And Dublin is really booming again. You know, it used to be one of the Celtic Tigers years ago, and then it developed incredibly. And then because of Brexit, a lot of tech companies are moving over here.
So there's a lot of hustle and bustle. This is good. Very young, very young city, very young town, very young people around, obviously being tech and all. So yeah, it's quite interesting. It's very interesting actually. A lot of things. And, and Dublin is Dublin and then you just go like minutes, minutes away and it's scattered side and beautiful cows, all that. Just kinda, kinda refreshing as well. Why not?
Stephen Matini: You lived in London before, right?
Sergio Azzolari: I lived in London. I lived in the US. I've lived in Hong Kong, I lived in Australia. I've lived in New Zealand, in Argentina ... yeah ...
Stephen Matini: How does this experience compare to the other places?
Sergio Azzolari: Well, you know, places are different, and you are different because you are, you are different. As you grow, as you grow up, obviously you have different sets of eyes. How do I compare? Well, if I compare with ... I mean it reminds me a lot of the US many years ago not now, now the US is not what it used to be. It's all woke. You can't say anything. You just have to be like, you know, super tame and be careful, not respectful before you were respectful. Now you have to be careful, which is a completely different set of mind.
Here reminds me of the Google Days in US. So kinda laid back with the sense of humor. Good to stay home, good to go out and see friends, not being afraid what you say, what you don't say. So it reminds me a lot of that.
It reminds me a bit of Australia as well in terms of mentality. You know, very laid back. I have, I had a meeting with our landlord because we are renovating offices and things, and he doesn't see me on Wednesdays because he has to go play golf. And it's so refreshing actually because, you know, being used to Milan, for example, where everybody's busy.
Or New York pretty much the same mentality, or London. Here it is, is a lot more refreshing in a way. So you, you wanna have amazing and say, oh, do we need to discuss, or do we need to sign things? Okay, do we need to sign things?
You come to the office, we don't need to sign things and we just have to have, have a chat. Okay, let's meet at fiver thirty at the pub, order a couple of pints or more. And then, you know, you have a conversation. And that's, there's a lot of human side of things here, which again reminds me of places like Australia or the US many years ago.
And it's quite nice actually. And if I compare it to Milan, I go to Milan quite often cuz we have one of the offices in the showrooms and all is in Milan. So I get to see the difference almost weekly. And in Milan, we are stressed. The atmosphere is always a little bit, I wouldn't say gloomy cuz it's not the right word. But it's always like, there's always an underlying tension. Underlying current, it is not really good vibes, and it's self-generated.
And it is not someone telling you that you should be stressed, you should be underprivileged because you live. It's a self-inflicted pain. Yeah, absolutely. So there's, there's a certain degree of masochism in Italy that I don't understand really. Cause you know, the work life balance is possible. I mean, I work here in, in Dublin, my days are very full. I have calls, I have meetings, I have things, and I have to prepare budgets. So I have the same degree of stress that I would say that I have in Milan without the stress stressful part. So I get to do a lot more in a shorter time here. Versus what I do in in in Italy.
But that's, that's also, I think it’s a bit of the difference between let's say the Anglo-Saxon world and the Mediterranean world. Where you have to talk and convince and meet in the Mediterranean world, whereas here it’s a lot more simple in a way. It's a lot more, I wouldn't say directional, but it's like, yeah, we need to do this. Okay, let's agree or let's agree to disagree, and then you just, yeah, do things.
Stephen Matini: Maybe pragmatic?
Sergio Azzolari: It’s, it's a lot more pragmatic. That's true.
Stephen Matini: When people ask me the question, where's home, I never know how to answer.
Sergio Azzolari: Yeah, we’re in the same club. Okay, well people say home is where your roots are. And that's not a question. Cause I was born in Italy just because of my mom's choice. So my parents at that time were were based in Trinidad, part of Spain, Trinidad, and Tobago. So knowing my mom, she must have gone to the local clinic, browsed around and said ... not here.
So I was born in Como, which is kind of cool, but I never lived there. So, because when I was like a few weeks old, I was already on a plane back to Trinidad. So is home Como? Not really. Is it Trinidad then? I was conceived there but most likely no, because I've never returned after I left when I was two years old. So it's very, it's very difficult to really say where you're from.
I elected to be from somewhere a few years ago. I never owned any house. My family never owned anything. Like, you know, whatever we owned was like long gone. And so we always rented. I mean, even my parents lived in Milan for a number of years and they rented. So years ago I decided to buy myself a property, a small cottage in the hills, not far from Milan.
And that's what I call home now, it became sort of my hobby in a way. So I started building and doing things and, you know, designing. I designed the complete house, and designing complete furniture, designed the entire thing, even though I'm not a designer. So working with local artisans and all, and it's, it's like never ending, never ending projects. And that's what I call home.
Am I from there? No. Do I speak the local dialect? No, I understand it, but I don't speak it. But as home and that's, you know, so people like us, I think at the end of the day we sort of elect where we are from. Cause if we just look backwards and say, okay, where my roots are, okay, they just go everywhere. And then you say, yeah, where were you born? Okay, that's inconsequential.
Where are your friends? Pretty much all over the world. So it's, it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly where it's home. You know, when you see other people that, you know, they have their childhood friends and you know, they have the family, they have, you know, all the certainties around them, and you don't, in a way you be jealous. But then again, you're not ... say, okay, yeah, well I'm free for Christmas. Put it this way.
Stephen Matini: In hindsight, were there any sign back then when you were a kid of the person you would become?
Sergio Azzolari: Signs? I don't know. I mean, probably like ... Look, I always traveled, but I always wanted to travel. I always wanted to accomplish something. Everything that I did was always with a certain degree of commitment. Otherwise I wouldn't do it. So I wouldn't do something. I would not try everything if it's not my cup of tea, but just give up the same day.
So I cannot play guitar. Biggest regret I cannot play music. And I said, okay, that's fine. I mean, I'm not good at it. I won't be good at it because, I mean, it's probably not in my DNA set to be a musician or anything. So just, but everything that I did was with a, with a full on commitment.
So I played rugby for 32 seasons, and I played rugby internationally, I played rugby at the highest standards even before the professional year, or at the beginning of the professional year. And it became one of the first professionals. I started, and I graduated early because I wanted to get my PhD out of the way. And actually I started working even before getting my PhD.
I wanted to be one of the first foreigners in China who could speak the language. And actually that kind of helped and that's what I did. So everything that I did was with a certain degree of commitment. Did it, did I, did I have the big picture in mind? No, not really.
Like for instance, I'll just give you this example. Well, I, I studied economics and I studied Chinese. And I went to Beijing actually in 1989, it was Tiananmen when I was there. And so I was set up to be like probably an economist or working in that kind of environment. And actually I did my thesis on joint ventures in China, because back in the eighties, that was early nineties, that was the only way to do business in China. Joint ventures were local enterprises actually, or govern-owned enterprises.
I started working for a legal firm you know, making contracts, or like studying them, the ways to do contracts for joint ventures. The idea that I would end up in fashion? Never. Right? But, so it happened that I was working for the Chinese Malaysian counterpart of what the joint base with Benetton would have been.
And I was sitting on the other side of the table cuz I was with the Chinese side. And the Italian was just saying, Yeah, but you are Italian. I said, yeah. Why are you sitting there? Cause I work for them. And they said no, that's not acceptable. You can’t, you have to come and work for us.
And a few weeks later I was folding jumpers in Taiwan and that's, that's how I ended up in fashion. So it's like, it's bizarre because you don't plan these things, so you have to sort of go with the flow. God knows if I refused, or maybe I would've done something completely different. I dunno. But did I set my life goal to be like a you know, a manager, or director, or a CEO in the fashion business? Not really. Did I like that? Yes, absolutely. That's why I commit myself. If I didn't like it, if it was some, a field that I wasn't particularly inspired by, I would've said, yeah thank you, but no thank you. But so it struck some chords, so to speak. And that's how, that's how I ended up in working for fashion.
And then it was 30 years ago or thereabout. And I worked in fashion since, fashion and luxury since. So do I mean that's also what I say to my to my kids. One is 20, he’s studying oenology in Italy. He wants to work with wine, and it's a great opportunity because there's very few people who do that. And the other one is is here in Dublin with me and is, is studying in an international school. But I also chose a school that gives full a full vision of what he can do, right?
And that’s what I'm telling them. Like, don't, don't put limits. Don't, don't think that what you do now is what you gonna do in ten years. If you do, you get, you're gonna get distracted, or you're gonna get absolutely, you know, disengaged.
Like for instance, I wanted to be an archeologist when I was a kid. And still I'm a history buff, I always went to all sort of excavation areas around the world with my mom, or on my own when I was older. I slept in the great pyramid when I was 15 years old. So I've done a number of things that were like, you know, that's what I want to do.
I studied classical in high school then. Then you know, reality settles down. Well, if you want to be an archeologist, either you are either very rich, or you have a lot of sponsors, or you gonna be like begging for food. I didn't want to beg for food.
I said, ok, being big and everything. So I said, Well, maybe not. That's not a career that I could pursue. So I, again, at the end of the day, am I still interested in archeology? Big time. Am I still in history? Totally. Am I doing what I was setting my goals when I was 12, 13 years old? No, absolutely not. So it's, it's not mandatory that you have to follow your heart. Just follow your heart but always mix it with mind. Otherwise you end up doing something that you just regret.
Stephen Matini: Were there any people who influenced your path?
Sergio Azzolari: Yeah, I think, I think you know, my advantage has always been that it could relate to people and it could speak their language. I mean, it takes me like a few weeks and I speak the local language, right? So I speak six languages quite fluently. But, you know, I can, I can converse in other languages as well. So by doing that, obviously you, I mean if you break the language barrier, sometimes it helps and you start having conversations with which are a lot more meaningful.
So obviously my parents were very influential because they gave, I mean. I was the only child, but they gave me complete freedom. So they said, you know, we have your back, but do whatever you like. My father was an engineer, he would've loved me to be an engineer, but hey, you do your your thing. I'll just criticize whatever choice you do you make. But, that was his prerogative.
And my mom always had my back and she, she was more the humanist in the family. So she told me like, you know, to appreciate arts and, you know, study classics and all sort of things. So they were influential, but not influential you gotta do this, you gotta do that.
So, and you know, and talking to different people, in different geographies, that also kind of helped. Because all of a sudden you realize like, why did I choose Chinese? I went to China for the second time, actually, the first time, I was only six years old. Second time was eighteen. And I, because of my far acquaintances and all, I had a special visa, all access kinda visa, and I traveled all around China for two months without speaking a single word of Chinese.
And back then, talking about 1987, not many people would speak English, actually very few people. So it was kind of difficult. And then you realize, and you, you start adding one plus one and say, hey, if I understand economics, if I understand the business, I see this potential because it's a largely untapped market, and you get to speak the language, maybe it's an advantage.
So by talking to people in China, around China, off China around the time, that gave me the influence at least to open up the China chapter of my life. See if I have to, to really list all the people that were influential in my life, I would put, you know, the number in the millions probably because every single person you talk to has a certain influence.
So, that's again, that's where you have to have an open mind. So some people need mentors and tutors. I had great mentors. I, I had great tutors, and bad tutors, and bad mentor, or people that were my bosses. And, and there was more fear than respect in a way, but it was more their fear of me rather than the vice versa.
Because a lot of people, especially in Italy, at the beginning of my career, not at the beginning of my career, my second job when I moved, when I, my third job when I moved to Italy, I was almost 30 and it was made a director in a company I was actually 29. My, I was the youngest director in the company by far. The second youngest was 12 years older than me, and he was called a kid. So you can imagine.
And my immediate boss was, was not afraid of me, but it was kind of jealous of me because I could speak languages. I was talking to the President, the owner every day. Cause he wanted to pick my brain about things, and so on and so forth. So it was bypassing it by definition. It was like, it was, it was kind of jealous of my proximity to the sun, right?
And that influenced me as well. So you might say, well that's that's, that's a bad chapter. No, quite contrary. I mean, it was very influential because I understood what it means to be, you know, what it means to try at least to be a good boss, that you have to nurture your people, and you have to raise their bar, because if you raise their bar, then your bar raises too.
So rather than trying to keep them low, and that’s influenced a lot of my career because you know, you put that kind of spirit in everyday life. And if you have good people working with you or under you, I always say “with me”, never under, cause you have always colleagues, you never have subordinates. But when you have good colleagues and, you can be their mentor, you can be the one that shines the diamond, you know? And it's actually rewarding.
So if you have someone who is really good, and you help them with their career, and you don't care about them being grateful, cause ultimately you don't have to care about that, but just, you know, it's more of a self-rewarding exercise than I just held them because they'll be grateful, and then they'll do something in return, right?
That's the most wrong thing you could possibly think of. But you do that and it actually helps because them, and their career flourishes. They do great things, and you are proud, and you know, and that adds to your, and that influences other people. And at the end of the day, that's the great thing. So I try to influence people, as much as other people influence me.
Stephen Matini: Based on what you say, you're really good at building good relationships.
Sergio Azzolari: Well, I always tried, cause that's also ... probably a bad side of me is that ... there are two people. There's two kind of people in business. People who always to be confrontational, and people who always want to find a sort of win-win situation. I'm very much in the win-win situation area.
Sometimes I, I know I should be more confrontational, but probably style, breed, whatever, you know, I always despise people who will talk over you, or speak loud, and, I don't, I mean shouting, shouting matches are not my style. So I prefer to go, and look for win-win situations, it helps on the other side, obviously some people think, or some people, some superiors, or whoever, want you to be more aggressive. I mean, it happened a number of times in my life in my professional life. They wanna be more aggressive. But aggressiveness is a different thing.
Cause I played rugby, I can be very aggressive, but for a purpose, cuz you have to conquer the ball. And in business you cannot just go grab business out of someone else’s hands. So you have to work different kind of aggression in a way. More subtle, more ... sometimes more political, but more win-win. Cuz otherwise, you know, it doesn't work, really.
So that’s always been one of my characteristics in a way. So I try not to be confrontational. I try to find a good way out. So I'm more of a negotiator than a director and say meaning like, I direct you to do things. But I think the outcome is, I mean, so far it's been quite good, so I can't complain, really.
Stephen Matini: I work with a lot of organizations, a lot of people. What you just said, very often, is probably the hardest thing for people, which is organizational politics. One thing that I hear a lot is I'm just a number. I have a point of view, I have the experience, and the know-how. I know how to provide a solution, but they would not listen to me. And often times people experience this fear, what is it gonna happen if I really say what I want to say? And then if I don't say it, I end up feeling completely frustrated.
Sergio Azzolari: Yeah, absolutely.
Stephen Matini: So what would you say to people?
Sergio Azzolari: I'm laughing because it sums up my first big step in my career. I was with Benetton. And that it was really early in my career as I said. Well, I was a newbie in the fashion world, only like four months before I was, you know, like a legal / economics sort of guru. When it came to contracts, I didn't know, I mean, I didn't know much about the business per se, but it was, you know, my logic was more on the, if you do this, that happens, and so on and so forth. So, it was more like a cause effect kind of thing, not really thinking business implications and all. And I was 23 years old, right? And it was the Chief Commercial Officer of Benetton visiting China, and my boss was there.
I was sent to to meet, and another candidate for a joint venture. And I returned to the hotel late at night and I found a little note, back then it was like, no mobile phones or anything. So I just found a little note returning to hotel by the Chief Commercial Officer saying, “Call me up when when you return.” So I like, okay, fine. So I called them and they said, “Would you think? I said, “Well, these are really good, and they would be much better than those ...”
So I give my, you know, like my SWOT analysis in ten minutes. So this what you should do. So like an advisor, I put down the phone, had a shower, and so on and so forth. Half an hour later, my boss, my immediate boss calls me, say I need to fire you because how dare you to speak.
Without having your conversation bettered you should have around things past me. I said, Oh, okay, what did they do? So, apologies, but hey, I found the note. I was like very adamant. Following morning, I was like, okay, I, I got fired. Fine. At breakfast, these two gentlemen are already sitting. I arrived there just like out polite, sit together with them and the CCO says to my boss, “Okay, this guy is really a gem. I want you to double his salary and make him a director today.”
So in other words, you are never a number. I mean you are a number as long as you want to be a number. Cause if you're always afraid and you never want to, you know, pull your head outta the sand, and and just think that things are granted, and because you work there, you should be considered because you're there every day.
You should be considered because you are in the org chart, you should be considered. And all of a sudden, you know, new hires are put on top of you and so on and so forth, and you complain. And I see that the company like, but have you ever spoken up?
If you don't agree on something, can you say, hey, yeah, okay, I'll do that because I'm paid to doing that, but I would do this instead. And that's what they tell people, you know? Yeah, you, you don't have to agree. You have to also agree to disagree sometimes. And it's fine, you know, and then fine. And, but that's, that's the direction. It's too late to take another decision. Find point taken. We've taken that into consideration. And then second time around, maybe we'll consult people, that person and that, but that self pity is is another big thing in corporate business.
Oh, they never consider me, I never, I always buy, I'm always bypassed for promotion. Bullshit. Have you done something about it? Have you spoken to someone? No, just go and back home or to HR and complaining and you just wanting to pay your rise. And that's, that's another thing I probably am wrong because I never got reached. But still, I never worked for money, ever. Not one day in my life. I thought by my salary and all the pay rises that I got during the years were never asked for, in a way.
People say, well, probably because you're you, you were well off when you started. Not really. No, quite a contrary. I mean, my parents had to work for a living and my father provided, and they gave me an education that they paid for and everything else. It's not something that it was everything given for free. There's no, there's never free lunch anyway. So, but again, I never worked for money.
Yeah, there's always someone better and someone who pays more, and you can't be a mercenary, which is completely fine. I mean, it's your cup of tea, fine. Or you are always envious, you are always jealous. You always, you know, say, ah, I should make more. Look at the amount of hours I'm putting in. I'm only getting that much.
And you just compare yourself to others and say, yeah, he's working less than I do, and he has my same salary, so my cost per hour is lower. That's wrong. You know, so you just work, just do your thing.
And you know, I've been fortunate enough that rewards came and that's another piece of advice that I give to to my children, especially my son, you know, he is starting obviously his career, and I said, look, before you make a decision, you have to experience everything there is to know about wine. You go and be a waiter, you go and be a sommelier. You go and, and work without a salary. You go and don't even think to be paid.
Whatever they give you, it is gas money, and it's fine. So don't think about how much you're gonna get today, but if you have a big experience, and you are respected, and you have the right relationships that you built naturally, not forcefully, then the rewards will come naturally. But again, if you work, oh, no, I have to make that much money now, you’re bound be there forever. Especially in Italy, you know, if you start at a certain level, the odds that you're staying at that level for like 20 years. And that's, that's another big thing, I think.
Stephen Matini: Everything you say, If I had to summarize it with one word, it keeps coming to my mind, would be “courage”.
Sergio Azzolari: Yeah. It takes courage and it takes, yeah, it takes ... I mean, everything you do takes courage. I mean, if you always want to be in the comfort zone and, you know, stay home, but even home, it's full of threats. I mean, these are the soap and in the bathtub you can, you know, can slip on it and bang your head. So there is, it takes courage to have a, you know the only non courageous thing to do is stay idle.
Everything you do, and again, it's a matter of commitment. So you always have to think, if I do something and I'm committed, things will do, will go the proper way. Or not. Unpredictable, but at least you get out of your comfort zone and actually experience something new all the time. Obviously it's uncomfortable the moment any one of us does something that is not accustomed to do.
There's always a degree of, I know I wouldn't say fear, but apprehension. Oh shit, what am I doing? Am I out of my death? Am I actually, it's funny because it takes courage, but you have to kind of, it's sort of a stage fright. You know, the first time I had, I had a speech in public, I didn't know I had to give a speech in public. I was invited to do this thing to talk about China. And I was, again, 20, must have been 25 or something.
And so they invited me and, Oh yeah, sure, I’ll come, blah, blah, blah. And I get there and there are 3000 people attending. I didn't know, I, I thought it was just a one-on-one or like a small board run conversation. And at that time I said, well, it takes courage to go in front of people without any preparation or anything, but you take the bull by the horns and just do it. What can go wrong?
I mean, do they crucify you, or do they, do they burn you at the stake? Probably, but you don't know yet, right? Everything you do in, in many circumstances, yeah, it takes a bit of courage. But if you, if you don't take, if you don't have that little bit of courage, even, you know, the courage of asking her out, or the courage of breaking up some, I mean, it's a lot more courageous. How many people do you know that are very unhappy with their lives, very unhappy with their wife, and the procrastinate the inevitable, and they never divorce? Because it takes courage.
Stephen Matini: You have no idea how long I thought before asking you to be part of the podcast. What is he gonna think, you know? I'm so glad I did, but I thought it for a long time. Oh, no, he is never gonna agree to do this.
Sergio Azzolari: Whenever I can, I know I I like to have conversations. I like to and I don't mean to say, or I don't even mean to be someone to look up to or someone, I'm just a guy who's had, who's having, still having a very interesting life, which is Confucian-Chinese, ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, that's a curse.
So I'm cursed in that. If you do things and life is interesting, it's a threat. I'm blessed that I'm cursed, you can find time for everything. That's another life lesson that I've learned. It's very hard that I say I don't have time. I don't have time, maybe today, tomorrow, the after the month in a year. But I will always carve out some time to do something meaningful, anything that is maybe not a long time.
So if you ask me, can you spare an entire day I’d say ... shit. Okay, look, let me look at the calendar, probably in two years. Can you spare an hour? Yeah. This will mean that I'll need to work longer hours today. Yeah, it's fine. But what's the deal? You just organize yourself differently and then you get an hour later because of things that happened before. Again, that’s another thing. You know, pity party, pity party over, I don't have time. No, no, you make time. You decide. It's, it's only up to you.
Stephen Matini: When you're going through a rough spot. How do you summon the courage to move on?
Sergio Azzolari: I always reflect on the outcomes of things, right? So probably one of the things that I've learned especially my first experiences, was always to weigh consequences. So the what if scenarios, right? And that's where some courage is. Well, okay, there's a risk-benefit ratio in everything. And if the risk is worth taking, then courage comes naturally.
I wouldn't stand on the top of a building and roll on the ball of my feet because I know the risks and there are no rewards basically. So, I mean, the reward is not to fall off. So that's stupid. That's not courage. That's, you know, that's a different thing. But in a, in everything that you do, just think, you know, just sit down, think past. Cause if you think too long, that other other things come in, into, into place and come into the picture. So don't think too long.
First thing is think, but don't think too long. Think about the risks things, think about the benefits. Think about if, if it that doesn't work, what happens? It's more than a risk. It's actually what happens in broader terms to yourself, through your business, through your immediate people.
And so, so of course, so think of the chain of consequences that you set in motion, if this works or if this doesn't work, but be fast in thinking. And that's what I do. Like, I, I think fast. I try to think fast and I regret later. So there's always time for regretting anyway.
In a way, you have to sort of combine your gut and your brain, and with a bit of heart, and then you take decisions, and that's where sum the courage, really. So it's always a calculated courage in a way. It’s always with a pinch of salt in.
Stephen Matini: And my wish for you is to be cursed for eternity.
Sergio Azzolari: Thank you. In a way it means that there's never rest. I actually, you know, my wife always teases me because when I'm resting, when I'm doing something, I cannot just stay idle and watch TV. I have to do another three or four things at the same time. Can you just stay quiet? No, it’s a curse ...
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