Silvana Bonello: “Knowing which questions to ask is more powerful than knowing everything.”


4 min read

Silvana Bonello is Chief Operating Officer at Superdry. Silvana has previously worked at Vans and Nike — the latter for 18 years. Here, she shares her advice for operations teams leading transformations and how the board can support them, as well as the benefits of a culture of empowerment.

From Nike to Superdry, you’ve worked across operations for major consumer brands. Are there any defining moments that led you to where you are today?

Two spring to mind:

  1. Realising early on in my career that being task-oriented and getting things done was pointless if we were doing the wrong things. That no matter where you are in the organisation chart, if you see a problem, it’s your responsibility to share it.
  2. Understanding that knowing which questions to ask is ultimately more powerful than knowing everything. This happened when I moved from a role in the global function with a team of three direct reports to leading operations in a challenging territory with a team of 65 across different locations. I didn’t have anything close to all the answers, so I had to figure out how best to work with the team, understand their day-to-day, and link that back to the strategic direction we were going in by asking the right questions.

“Knowing which questions to ask is ultimately more powerful than knowing everything.”

Organisational transformation projects are often led by HR teams or operations teams. Do you have a view on which is best?

Transformation isn’t just about driving forward policies and processes; it’s also about the people and tech infrastructure changes that are going to underpin these evolutions. Therefore, it cannot squarely fall onto one team: operations, tech, and HR must undertake these projects together.

How much each of these functions will be involved, however, depends on the company’s level of maturity and will evolve over time. For example, with a less inexperienced leadership team, a large part of the transformation will be developing the leaders and managers, and so a heavy involvement of HR would be a bonus.

More generally, I’d be sceptical of any organisations that claims that HR owns culture, transformation, or talent. It might be a comfortable thought, but it’s wrong, and it is incumbent on all leaders to realise that it’s their organisation and that they’re accountable for embedding these things in its ways of working.

What are the key success factors for a successful transformation? And what can the board do to help?

Focus and alignment that enable a quick response. In other words, agility.

On the surface, this sounds like an operational matter best left to management. But the board has a key role to play as an enforcer— questioning the organisation’s strategic objectives and priorities, the targets and KPIs set against them, and giving honest feedback on both.

“The board has a key role to play as an enforcer.”

The same logic applies to the initiatives that will underpin these strategic objectives. Whilst it will be up to the executive team to chart a course forward, the board should be reviewing the results achieved through a high-level lens, assessing whether they’re moving the strategic dial or just taking focus away from what truly matter.

How can that “focus on focus” trickle down to the rest of the organisation?

By fostering a culture of empowerment that enables people to work with both autonomy and a sense of purpose.

The end goal should be for the organisation to be “activated” by distributed leadership, empowering all teams and individuals to lead in their area and make day-to-day decisions with clear intent.

Cornerstone to that culture of empowerment is mutual trust and respect. We should all feel emotionally safe and know that, if we make the wrong decision, we won’t be awfully treated.

Leadership should also give a very clear framework around expectations. For example, I always tell my teams that I don’t have any problem with issues being raised; however, I do have a problem with issues that become recurring without any solution surfacing. It’s my job to help them in identifying whatever the roadblock is and to support them in addressing it.

Is there a female leader you’ve worked with who has inspired you, and if so, why?

Patty Ross who was a VP at Nike when I worked there. She managed with courage, but in an approachable way. She showed me that there was a place at the table for me as a woman, and that I didn’t have to change my womanhood in order to justify my place there. And a lady I’ve worked with more recently — Jennifer Mohammed at North Face. Similarly, she stands in her power and is unapologetic and approachable at the same time.

Someone once told me that the critical mass you need for any diversity to show a difference is three. In any group or team you need at least three of whichever aspect of diversity you’re trying to bring in. And I’ve seen that happen myself; two isn’t enough, you need a third voice to amplify the change. (And then keep going — don’t stop at three!).

We now have 40% women on our board at Superdry and I find every one to be incredibly inspiring. Each of them has found a way to bring their feminine mindsets, outlooks, and qualities to the boardroom table, rather than away from it.

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