“Making Money is One Thing, Building a Business is Another”

Abertis Chairman Salvador Alemany shares the inside track on leadership

23/11/2015 Barcelona

Salvador Alemany

“Leadership is about influencing people and empowering them to contribute.” Salvador Alemany, Abertis Chairman / Photo: Edu Ferrer

“Leadership is about influencing people and empowering them to contribute to achieving common goals,” says Abertis Chairman, Salvador Alemany.

This is the ethos underpinning the growth of Abertis, which began as a national toll road operator and has expanded globally over the last few years.

Alemany was addressing MBA and Executive MBA students on campus in Barcelona this month. Leadership, as he sees it, is something that needs to be “incentivized on an ongoing basis.” And it shouldn’t be strictly linked to financial remuneration.

Incentives should not ignore compensation, but under no circumstances should it be the most important factor.”

Rather, it’s the culture to be built and the “interplay of dignity and shared commitment between people” that Alemany sees as motivational for the “right type of leadership.”

Focus on the Positive

“To lead a project you need to feel it,” he says.

And this extends to leaders’ ability to understand people, determine whether or not they “possess vision,” and support them so that they can realize their vision –even if they make mistakes along the way. And they will, say Alemany.

“It’s essential for people make decisions without the fear of failure looming over them. They need to be thinking about how good success will feel and not about the possibility of failure.”

The way to do this, he says, is to focus on effort more than results. And accept occasional failure as par for the course.

“The emotional effort you exert in analyzing and learning from mistakes ultimately makes you stronger and wiser.”

This something that Alemany has experienced first-hand – not only as head of Abertis, but also over his 17 years as president of the FC Barcelona basketball team; a period where he savored “the bitter together with the sweet.”

Overcoming the fear of losing helps us win,” he says. A maxim that can be equally applied to companies as well as sports.

Building a Business

“Making money is one thing, building a business is another,” says Alemany.

The latter, he believes, is not just about “running operations that make money.” In practical terms, building a business means “developing your full potential, committing yourself to something that will make you better.”

“It’s about applying the know-how you acquire with each project and thinking about medium to long-term sustainability. Building a business means understanding what your company gives back to society.”

Your long-term sustainability depends on this, he says: “If you’re not clear about how you are useful to society, you’ll lose your market, your reason for being, and you’ll go under.”

To be viable, a business project needs a framework to determine direction, a solid roadmap, and a set of values that undergird its purpose.

Alemany quotes Seneca: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

Flexible to Change Tack

That said, business leaders also need to be flexible enough to change tack when the winds of change blow.

“The ability to react to the unforeseen is more important than planning.”

Alemany cites the example of Abertis.

“We started in Catalonia with a strip of highway, and today we’re the number one toll road operator in the world, with a presence in 12 countries. We’re growing exponentially across the entirety of our business.”

“This is something we could not have planned because we could never have imagined it”.