“Sometimes, intentionally or not, targets are set without considering each function, leading to internal competition. I disagree with this approach because it doesn't benefit anyone. When commercial operations succeed, business development may lose, and vice versa. The key is establishing a common understanding, shared basis, and mutual targets." Simona Orsingher
Simona Orsingher is an Italian executive who has developed a successful career in both Operations and Business Development, two functions that can sometimes clash within organizations. While Operations emphasizes efficiency, cost control, and stability, Business Development focuses on growth, innovation, and revenue generation. Finding common ground between these two functions entails developing shared goals and effective cross-functional communication, especially when dealing with short-term versus medium-term strategies.
Stephen Matini: Simona, where did you grow up?
Simona Orsingher: Until the age of 18, I lived with my parents on Lake Como. On the other side of the lake was the one that inspired Alessandro Manzoni. Afterward, I moved to Ireland for a couple of years, residing in Dublin and later in Dun Laoghaire, where I essentially learned to speak English.
I come from the province, but I quickly felt the need to explore the world, meet new people, try new things, and immerse myself in different cultures. The size of the lake felt a bit constricting for me. Even though I still have some connections there, I consider myself a citizen of the world rather than solely a citizen of the lake.
Stephen Matini: When did you discover your professional aspirations? Did this realization evolve over time?
Simona Orsingher: Well, it all began during my initial work experience in Milan. I spent several months working for an international company. It was during this time that I realized what I wanted to pursue professionally.
I found a passion for working with foreigners, communicating in English, delving into corporate intricacies, and gaining a deeper understanding of how corporate environments operate in general. From that point on, I acknowledged and realized that this was the path I wanted to take.
Subsequently, I consistently stayed within corporate and international environments. My focus shifted towards roles in EMEA or international capacities, rather than confining myself to working solely within Italy.
Stephen Matini: How did you come to pursue both business development and operations in your professional background?
Simona Orsingher: The transition from operations to business development was a gradual shift for me. I've consistently worked in roles that bridged the gap between the two functions.
Beginning as a commercial operations specialist, I progressed to the role of a commercial operation manager and eventually landed in a full-fledged global business development role. This transition was possible because I found myself in environments that fostered collaboration between these functions. While the interplay between supply and demand processes is now common in corporate settings, it wasn't as prevalent when I started.
As you mentioned, both functions can be defensive. Business development tends to rush, emphasizing invoices, while operations often plays the role of the cautious "Mr. No-No." However, working together reveals their interdependence, and finding common ground becomes essential.
My journey from operations to business development spanned around 15 years, not an abrupt shift. During my time in commercial operations, I discovered my own commercial acumen. Even in a formal operations role, I found myself capable of negotiating and discussing business with customers.
In my previous position, it became evident that this wasn't just my perception but also that of my manager and customers. They specifically sought my input in negotiations and business discussions. I appreciated having a commercial operations background when engaging with customers, as it allowed me to manage expectations and avoid over-promising.
Stephen Matini: What initial approach might someone take when working in a company facing challenges in harmonizing these two functions?
Simona Orsingher: To communicate effectively, organize meetings, and align on figures and targets are crucial steps. Sometimes, intentionally or not, targets are set without considering each function, leading to internal competition. I disagree with this approach because it doesn't benefit anyone. When commercial operations succeed, business development may lose, and vice versa. The key is establishing a common understanding, shared basis, and mutual targets.
The targets for commercial operations should complement those of business development, and vice versa. This, to me, is the initial step. Coming together for discussions on the direction we need to take collectively, rather than separately, is essential.
A form of servant leadership is necessary from both commercial operations and business development. While salespeople bring in revenue, the actual profit comes from the work of commercial operations. The costs incurred to run the operation are deducted from the revenue generated by business development. Hence, a unified path needs to be followed for sustainable success.
Stephen Matini: How can leadership create a more cross-functional synergy in organizations heavily focused on sales?
Simona Orsingher: Nowadays, quality, diversity, and inclusion are emblematic for every company. The initial crucial step towards equality and inclusion is acknowledging this. It's unreasonable to expect harmony in a company where salespeople are hailed as stars, leaving other white-collar workers feeling undervalued. The key is treating everyone equally.
Long-term and short-term incentives should not significantly differ between business development, commercial operations, or any other function. Discrepancies, such as exclusive retreats for business development or salespeople, while neglecting other employees, are unfair.
The starting point is ensuring equal treatment in communication, explaining processes, sharing targets, strategies, and visions. Everyone must feel included, and this understanding needs to begin with the leadership team. Senior VPs should treat salespeople the same way they treat other employees, creating a lead-by-example culture. Without this, non-sales employees may feel overlooked and discontented.
Stephen Matini: The gap widens when leadership adopts a very short-term strategy that prioritizes immediate results over long-term sustainability, where careful planning is essential.
Simona Orsingher: Yes, looking a bit further ahead, I'd say a medium-term strategy is preferable, not an extremely short one. A rushed approach is inevitable with an overly short-term strategy, and the focus becomes solely on immediate numerical outcomes.
Stephen Matini: You mentioned that a crucial competency for your job is building relationships. You embody the ideal balance of strong organizational and numerical skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence.
Simona Orsingher: A valuable step, in my opinion, is stepping back from my professional role and putting myself in the shoes of the people I'm speaking to—that's empathy. Ultimately, I'm engaging with a human being.
Whether you're a colleague, manager, or peer, you're a human being. I don't know what you went through an hour before our conversation—maybe you received bad news or you're not in good shape today. I approach people delicately, even if I'm decisive and transparent. Transparency, in my view, is crucial in business.
Yet, I never underestimate the human aspect. We have emotions, and in professional relationships, finding the right balance between emotion and rationality is essential. Emotions are present, so you don't have to completely suppress them.
Stephen Matini: How do you handle employees showing resistance to change, hostility, or an unwillingness to move forward?
Simona Orsingher: Well, the first thing for me would be to have a conversation with these individuals and understand their reasons. If they are willing to share why, we can collaboratively determine an alternative path—a way to turn the situation in their favor.
In some cases, there's a mutual willingness to instigate change. Other times, individuals may resist change due to fatigue or a lack of desire to invest more time and energy. In such situations, if possible, it's advisable to transition these individuals to different roles.
However, in the majority of cases, this may not be feasible. In such instances, albeit not the ideal terminology, you utilize their strengths for what they excel at. I am pragmatic; I give my best effort, but if it doesn't yield the desired outcome, I focus on extracting the best from the situation—that's my strategy.
We are colleagues, both adults with the freedom to make choices. If someone is dissatisfied with the situation, they are free to explore other opportunities.
Stephen Matini: Why do you think so many people seem to believe they do not have a choice?
Simona Orsingher: It's a comfort zone. They recognize they have choices but resist making decisions. Opting to move from something, even if it's not ideal, is daunting because it's the known. Choosing to shift to the unknown can be unbearable for some.
I don't blame these individuals; everyone approaches life differently. However, if you opt not to choose, you must accept that you are here under someone else's conditions and refrain from complaining, or else you can leave.
Things are often simpler than they appear. You have the opportunity to go; you are free. We live in a country and a part of the world where freedom exists, and you can genuinely choose your path.
Stephen Matini: You faced numerous professional challenges in the past. Have you ever felt that you didn't have a choice?
Simona Orsingher: I never felt that way. I always sensed I had choices, although I didn't necessarily like the options because I aspired for more. However, I never felt without a choice. At certain points, I could have decided, for instance, to begin a freelance career. That was a choice I didn't want to make at the time, but I never felt devoid of choices.
Stephen Matini: For anyone interested in a career like yours that combines operations and business development, what advice would you give them?
Simona Orsingher: Be curious and ask questions. Request meetings, introduce yourself, visit customers, and talk to colleagues in manufacturing. Obtain a 360-degree view of how things work.
You need to have a grasp of various aspects because, as a representative of your company in front of a customer, you can't afford to say, "I don't know." You should be informed. If you genuinely don't know, be professional, admit it, and say, "Let me check this out; I want to provide you with accurate information." That's the right approach.
Always let your voice be heard; speak up if something makes you uncomfortable—share it with your manager. If you don't speak up, no one will seek your opinion. You need to advocate for yourself because there won't be anyone to assist you. Count on yourself. That's what I've learned.
Stephen Matini: Have you observed gender playing a role in this dynamic?
Simona Orsingher: Yes, it's crucial to be aware that speaking up may have consequences. Transparency, as I practice it, can sometimes lead to saying things that others may not like. If the person is higher in the organizational hierarchy, it might come at a cost, as it did for me. I'm fine with that because I prioritize staying true to myself.
Addressing your question, there is a difference. When a male colleague enters a meeting, speaks up, or raises their voice, it's often accepted as expected behavior, a display of power and confidence. On the other hand, when a woman does the same, from what I've observed, it's sometimes perceived as a crisis or nervousness—like it's not her day. Even if it wasn't the right day for the male colleague, it often goes unnoticed.
It's not just about raising the tone; it's about altering the way I speak. If I'm nervous or upset, you'll notice it because I'm not speaking in my usual manner. It's the same for a male colleague. However, this difference persists, definitely.
Stephen Matini: Despite this, many women, when they reach this stage, feel compelled to imitate their male counterparts to be heard. What is the “right voice" for a woman?
Simona Orsingher: The right voice for a woman is to remain calm and articulate her thoughts supported by facts and data. Even if others may not always listen, that's the approach. It's essential not to mimic male colleagues because I don't aspire to be like them. I am not them; I am unique with my own personality.
I don't believe in raising my voice to make my opinion heard. I prefer to stay calm, and typically, that's how women should conduct themselves. If you imitate a male colleague, you'll end up being remembered as a mere copy rather than bringing something new to the table.
Stephen Matini: We covered various topics. If you had to highlight one aspect from our conversation that you believe our listeners should focus on, what would it be?
Simona Orsingher: Being true to yourself, always. You are valuable just the way you are. It's not your problem if everything around you doesn't meet your expectations. Despite facing challenges, difficulties, job changes, promotions, or anything else, remember it's just you.
Recently on LinkedIn, I came across a post from the Female Quotient, an organization supporting women globally. It featured Simone Biles, the U.S. gymnast, who accomplished an extraordinary feat last week, performing a jump typically done by men.
When asked if she was the first Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, she responded, "No, I'm the first Simone Biles doing this." This struck me because it perfectly aligns with what I've mentioned—it's you, just be yourself.
Stephen Matini: Thank you for sharing these valuable insights. Much appreciated.
Simona Orsingher: Thanks to you, Stephen.
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