Stefano Pessina Speaks About Leadership and Entrepreneurship

Stefano Pessina
Stefano Pessina

On Oct. 26, 2020, Stefano Pessina spoke at the Kukin Entrepreneurial Leadership Honors Course at the Sy Syms School of Business about leadership, entrepreneurship and the skills and attitudes necessary for success in today’s corporate marketplace.

Pessina is the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), described as the first global pharmacy-led, health and well-being enterprise, with a presence in more than 25 countries and employing more than 440,000 people (as of 2019).

Born in Italy, Pessina graduated in nuclear engineering from Politecnico di Milano. In the 1970s, he joined his family’s local pharmaceutical wholesale business, where he delivered successful organic growth as well as innovative expansions through mergers and acquisitions.

WBA operates more than 18,750 stores in 11 countries with over 400 distribution centers delivering to more than 240,000 pharmacies, doctors, health centers and hospitals each year in 20 countries. It is also one of the world’s largest purchasers of prescription drugs and many other health and well-being products.

After an introduction by Laizer Kornwasser, who praised him for “his business acumen and leadership skills,” Pessina spoke at length about what led him to pursue the career he did and the lessons he learned about leadership and entrepreneurship along the way.

For Pessina, “true leaders show the way for others to follow and have the concentration to meet or exceed objectives.” Their passion for their work inspires trust and loyalty, and through their actions they exhibit courage and integrity, the latter almost trumping all other factors in importance because “without absolute integrity, leaders lose any credibility.” Overall, “true leaders bring together capabilities to build and maintain a systemic and strategic vision.”

On a more operational level, Pessina cites the following attributes as essential to effective leadership: harmonizing short-term constraints with long-term objectives; combining vision and performance to breed success; and managing the conflicting agendas of stakeholders to transform them into a positive energy to fuel growth.

But really effective leaders not only have to juggle all the attributes listed above, they must also bring to bear in their management “a mindset that allows people to express their talents and unlock their potential”: in other words, they must promote “a strong entrepreneurial spirit within their respective organizations.”

Some may think, he noted, that leadership and entrepreneurship are the same thing, but “while they are similar, they are not identical.” Entrepreneurship is about a “creativity and passion for designing and driving innovative solutions, always seeking to bring something new to the market, about thinking outside the box and stepping back from the crowd.” On the other hand, leadership “is about delivery. Where entrepreneurship is about figuring things out, leadership is about how to take those conclusions and grow them.”

For Pessina, having people in one’s organization that exhibit both qualities gives that organization “a winning formula,” a formula he has applied to all his enterprises because, for him, “building a company that is both leading and entrepreneurial has always been a key objective for me.” He is quite aware of how a company’s success can lead to complacency, to resting on its laurels, so he is always asking himself how WBA can reap the benefits of its vast organization without losing the flexibility and agility to make important decisions demanded by the market and social conditions.

“Global companies remain entrepreneurial,” he explained, “in four ways: by remaining customer obsessed while managing the expectations of stakeholders; adopting two-way internal communication, both top down and bottom up; resisting centralization through delegation and team empowerment; and developing flexible and accessible reward schemes because motivated and inspired teams are more likely to fuel the business with their entrepreneurial efforts.”

He concluded his remarks by saying that “even at my age, as a leader and entrepreneur, I continue to live in the future and think of the next challenge. Even in these difficult times, we can find inspiration by the many examples history provides of leaders facing new challenges, and I encourage you to do the same. Make sure you cultivate your leadership and entrepreneurship to keep your minds open to see the world in new and different ways.”

Pessina then took questions from the students, who asked about the organizational challenges of acquiring companies and merging them into the WBA corporate structure, maintaining effective leadership as the company grew, and the future of globalization and anti-globalization, to name a few.

His final words to the students were full of encouragement and hope: “Remember, be open. Be open. Be open minded and look at the world around the around you and don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Sometimes you will not be successful, but you have to try again.”