Born in 1986, Gianluca Borgna calls himself a “new generation, marketing-oriented General Manager”. After graduating in Labour and Organizational Psychology, Human Resources, and Marketing and Digital Communications, Gianluca entered the hospitality sector in Italy and at 32 he was already leading the Marketing activities for Italy of international luxury hotels group Falkensteiner. In 2020 he became Director General of Talassio collection, which includes the historical Grand Hotel Alassio on the Ligurian Riviera. Gianluca is the founder of Lusso Gentile, an initiative that combines leadership and KINDNESS and which attracted our attention. So we went and interviewed him!
Thank you Gianluca for speaking to KINDNESSforBusiness. You work in the hospitality sector, which has been particularly impacted by the pandemic. What was the experience like in your company?
The pandemic hit right as I started as General Manager of the Talassio Group. I had left my previous position as marketing director in an international group at the end of 2019. I signed with Talassio and went to India for a month to "start from scratch". Upon my return the pandemic had broken out. At first it was daunting. I had 60 families on my shoulders and felt a huge responsibility for them. Luckily, my fast reflexes helped me. I introduced smart working in our organization before the lockdown. I decided to go "all in". I started to manage staff in an innovative way and set up an online management training course for everyone: "Talassio4Training". People felt involved, I felt I had them all on my side, and they did their best to get to the reopening in the best way possible.
You took some risks, but in the end they paid off …
They did. It could have been much worse. But, actually, it went well. I believe that the companies that reacted in a positive spirit are the ones that came out of this crisis with the least amount of broken bones. During the pandemic we launched a marketing campaign called "We are still us". I wanted to communicate to our customers that even wearing a mask and with distancing we were still the same. Our staff wore masks that read "You can't see me, but I'm smiling". This positive approach was fundamental. Hospitality companies approached COVID with a focus on hygiene, on safety protocols, as if they were running hospitals. But that was not the sole point, above all people needed to restart. We tried to express this feeling of a new start in all our activities.
So the pandemic was also positive?
Without a doubt. This crisis brought out organisations’ true values. We had all been in a comfort zone for many years. The pandemic made us realise that we are vulnerable, that everything can change in a flash. Our generation did not have this awareness. But think of our grandparents who lived through war. One of the benefits for Talassio has been the transition from an analogue to a fully digital company. In one year we re-positioned all our brands. We went through a kind of transformation that normally takes 10 years. With everyone's work and professional development, we achieved an exciting result.
Going through this, what have you learnt about your leadership?
We young leaders can make the mistake of going too fast, of not looking behind us enough. We risk leaving pieces behind. The ability to continually check that the people around you can keep up with your pace and adapt your stride to them is extremely important. Leaders have to adapt to the others, not the other way round. At the same time, I believe that the system should encourage young business leaders. In Italy, young people struggle to reach top positions. But what is even more worrying is that Italy lacks the mindset to have young people at the top. The moment you get there you are harassed by those who have not made it and by those you have to manage. The young person who makes it is seen as someone who has gone too fast, with little merit, or who was put there despite lacking experience, so it is a mistake by those who put them there.
How did you make it to the top at such young age?
I did it all on my own, without connections or nudges. As a child I dreamed of being a footballer. I treasure many values from football. When a football team wins, like the Italian team just did at the European championship, it is a great example of a well-functioning company. When I was 20, I started one of the first travel blogs in Venezuela. I returned to Italy because of my father's health. I took two degrees and, in the meantime, I experienced something that forged my character the most: rejection. Like at Sant'Anna University in Pisa, where the nephew of someone famous was ahead of me in the rankings. To pay for my education, I trained goalkeepers and worked as a PR man in night clubs. I've always enjoyed marketing, and I started by organizing the Christmas event in Montecatini Terme. The owner of the most important hotel there, the Grand Hotel La Pace, noticed me, I was hired as social media manager and then marketing manager at the hotel. Then Andrea Prevosti, who later became one of my mentors, asked me to take over the entertainment manager job at one of the hotels of the Falkersteiner group, a job for which I was clearly overqualified. But I accepted. After a few months I became marketing manager and then I moved to Vienna to manage the marketing activities of all their Italian properties. Putting yourself on the line, taking risks, pursuing your dreams with determination. These are the elements that helped me I think.
You co-founded Lusso Gentile ('Gentle Luxury'), what can you tell us about it?
Lusso Gentile is the demonstration that the most difficult times can give rise to very positive things. During the pandemic, I felt the need to share my good fortune and philosophy with others. Through introspection, I realised that kindness has always been part of my way of being. For instance, I was told about my father's illness in a horrendous way. I remember thinking that there was a need to understand the value of words and behaviour, both towards ourselves and towards others. Another example is when, three years ago, my boss asking me to prepare the activity plan for the whole of the following year and made me present it. After that, he told me that I was no longer welcome in his team, even though I had done a great job. I asked myself, what is it that leads someone to behave like that? Lusso Gentile is born out of the people from whom I have learned the most beautiful things, but especially from those who showed me the worst examples. It comes from suffering, because it is in difficult situations that kindness must be shown. It is easy to be kind when people are kind to you. The expression ‘Lusso Gentile’ is deliberately an oxymoron. It is not kindness applied to luxury. It is the luxury of kindness. I deal in luxury, and I also like to talk about luxury. But kind luxury goes much further, it is about the quality of relationships, about sharing good fortune and giving back some of that good fortune to others.
Who is Lusso Gentile for?
My motivation is above all to inspire young people, and to get people who have something to say and who represent positive examples to speak. We started by organising meetings with the Hotel School of Montecatini. These meetings were with people of excellence in tourism, hospitality and leadership, who told a group of young people who want to make their way in this world about their experience. We need the energy of young people to get going again. In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Renzo Piano talked of the Ise temple in Japan, which is destroyed and rebuilt every twenty years. He said that eternity is not about building forever but building continuously. Young people come to the temple in their twenties, see how it's done, rebuild it in their forties, then stay on to explain it to the twenty-somethings. Learning, doing, teaching, that is what Lusso Gentile is all about.
What is the role of kindness in organisations? Beyond individual behaviour, is it possible to make kindness an organisational principle?
It’s not easy. When you work with young people who haven’t been influenced by past practices, it is easier to build a predisposition to kindness. While people who have already been working for many years often view kindness with suspicion, they ask "what’s the catch?". To bring kindness into a company, first and foremost the leader must be predisposed. One becomes kind, but one is also born kind. Selecting leaders on the basis of this predisposition is fundamental. Often leaders are misogynous, self-centred and believe that a certain amount of ‘meanness’ is essential. Kindness is contagious. But the reality is that contagion does not start from below, it cascades. The other important aspect is to take a holistic approach. Corporate culture has to take into account, not only the people working inside, but also suppliers, other connected groups, and even customers. In short, the whole system.
Does kindness increase a business’ competitiveness?
It does. In the end, a culture of kindness translates into the ability to give the customer a certain type of unique and unrepeatable experience. And so, kindness means making a business more competitive. We recently had the pleasure of hosting FIAT Group’s director of marketing. He was struck by two things he found in his room, a handwritten postcard welcoming him, and an electric cooker with a moka kettle. These are gestures that communicate to the customer that we care about them, more than the luxury itself. When kindness becomes part of the company culture, nice gestures come spontaneously. For example, the other day it was raining and there was a lady outside, a porter came out, getting soaked to bring her an umbrella. This gesture is not part of the hotel's standard practices, it was something the porter thought of spontaneously. Spontaneity also comes about as a result of people’s well-being at work. The greatest satisfaction is when I see that my employees are happy to work with me and to work in my group.
What do you wish for the future? What is the first thing companies should do to introduce kindness into their organisation?
COVID marked a huge turning point, we now need to understand what the best way to build the society of the future is. The pandemic made us understand the value of time, and therefore the right amount of time for work. In my world people say that it is normal to work 15 hours a day or not have a day off. But no, it is not normal. There is a need for total reorganization. Thinking that you can only dedicate yourself to work is wrong. Brunello Cucinelli, one of my sources of inspiration, talks about humanistic capitalism, recounting Saint Benedict who told his monks that there is a time for work and a time for the soul. The task for all who lead companies must be to give value back to time and assign the right time to work. This concerns time away from work as much as time spent at work. Working hours must become meaningful, we must give people the opportunity to express themselves, to learn, to try out their ideas during working hours. Working time cannot be “disconnected”, work cannot be opposed to 'life'. Work is life. We have a huge responsibility because we manage most of the time of the people who decide to work with us. We must work together to provide better working conditions to everyone.
Born in Pescia, Tuscany, Gianluca Borgna arrives in the world of luxury hospitality at 29 by chance, after completing his studies and working as a football coach and PR manager. Following three years as Director Marketing for the Falkensteiner group, he become the youngest Italian Director general of a hotel group, Talassio Collection. Two years later, he proudly joined Talassio’s board. Every year, he takes a trip to a new destination by himself, the last trip brought him to India, where he “improved the art of KINDNESS”. In 2020, during the lock-down, he founded Lusso Gentile together with a couple of friends, which has become a passion and a mission for him since.
“I have experienced many difficult moments, and it’s exactly from these moments that I brought out the best in me. With KINDNESS, of course” – Gianluca Borgna