Four recipes to save Italy: “Meritocrazia” by Roger Abravanel

The Italian malaise, so widely chronicled in its various facets of gerontocracy, corruption, stagnation and economic insecurity, is one of those systemic issues that have become so entrenched that it seems nearly impossible to do anything about it. Yet, author and former management consultant Roger Abravanel believes that many Italians’ dissatisfaction with the status quo may have reached the threshold that triggers change.

A few words on why, far from being impartial, I am a member of the subterranean Roger Abravanel Fan Club. When I joined McKinsey, Roger was already a senior partner at the firm, having returned to Milan after his years in Tokyo, Mexico City and Paris. I had the privilege to work with Roger on several assignments throughout my years there, and I looked up to him as a leading role model; he was, I believe, the most sincere practitioner of the caring meritocracy that kept many of us going through those nights and weekends at work. After retiring in 2006, Roger spent his time as a board member at companies in both Italy and Israel, and started writing a book about meritocracy, published this month.

Meritocrazia argues, with Roger’s characteristic optimism, that four concrete solutions can inject a jolt of leadership and excellence into Italian economy and society, and jumpstart its turnaround. These are his four proposals:

  1. Establish a Delivery Unit for the public sector in Italy, modeled after the one launched by Tony Blair in 2001 to monitor progress on and strengthen the British government’s ability to deliver on its key priorities across education, health, crime and transport. Roger has extensively discussed that experience with Sir Michael Barber, the first head of the Delivery Unit, and argues that an Italian version of it could both improve quality and reduce waste in the public sector, and train a new generation of young leaders. The extraordinary civil service of Singapore and, though only in part, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in France provide more food for thought on how to turn around our dismal performance in government services.
  2. Create a standardized testing system for Italian schools, similar to the SAT Reasoning Test in the United States (“the secret weapon of American meritocracy”, in the words of Nicolas Lemann). No education reform and no amount of money showered onto schools and universitites can ever achieve any impact, if we can’t measure how schools and teachers are performing.
  3. Launch an Authority to deregulate and promote competition in private and public local services. From food retail to urban transport, from pharmacies to taxis, from water utilities to toll roads, from gas stations to local professions, local services are the bulk of the economy: and they have largely been untouched by liberalization, thanks to the extortionary power they exert on consumers’ daily lives (try driving through Rome during a taxi strike) and the political consensus that protects local monopolists and oligopolists. This Authority should lead an extraordinary effort to unlock competition in local services. “Devolution” is not the answer: on the contrary, getting results will require strong alignment from the center.
  4. Unlock the leadership talent of Italian women through affirmative action for women in corporate boards. The model here is the recent Norwegian law mandating that medium and large companies must have at least 40% of board members who are women, or face tough sanctions, including forced liquidation. Italian women themselves are not fond of the affirmative action idea, and some of them have, most insidiously, interiorized our culture’s worst stereotypes. But I believe Roger is right in saying that we’re not going to get anywhere without a shock therapy forcing the end of discrimination at the top of our economy and society. Women’s careers should also be supported through incentives for shorter maternity leaves and a better public and private child care network.

Roger’s book is well-documented, wide-ranging and convincingly argued; it has the crucial virtue of moving beyond diagnosis and adopting a “can-do” attitude to defeat the defeatism so prevailing in public discourse. It is also a direct appeal to our Prime Minister, whoever that would be (the book was going into print just around the time of the April elections), to adopt these proposals. Whether Roger is listened to or not will be, in my opinion, a crucial test for the openness of this government’s agenda to citizens’ needs.

Finally, an apology to some of my Twitter followers. Last Wednesday I inundated them with a live twittercast from the presentation of the book, in Italian – I understand it looked like a ton of spam to those who don’t speak it. But now you understand why I cared so much about what was going on!

Update, September 2008: Please visit to leave your comments and questions for Roger Abravanel!

What Women Want: a global BCG survey

Today I spent some time answering a thoughtful survey by BCG authors Michael Silverstein and Kate Sayre. I say “thoughtful” because, in spite of the odd question or two about your cooking skills, it moves beyond the traditional questions on respondents’ consumption preferences and patterns and tries to link women’s behaviors as consumers to their values, beliefs and priorities in life. If you want to spend some time thinking about your own (and you are, indeed, a woman), find the survey here:

The survey aims at reaching 25,000 women worldwide and its findings will form the basis for a book on the needs of women. Somewhat pompously, the authors “believe this original work will contribute to a better world and enable a new conversation around hope and happiness”. This may be a bit of a lofty goal. Silverstein has co-authored two well-respected books about emerging consumer patterns, Trading Up: The New American Luxury (2003) and Treasure Hunt: Inside the Mind of the New Consumer (2006).

Somehow I think that a better world does not necessarily have much to do with whether the products we buy are designed for our hope and happiness. For a truly better world, we need a different kind of societal change. More about that in my next post.

Women’s creativity

I admit it: I am a fan of the brief season when art looked like an avenue for women to reclaim their own bodies. But perhaps we expected too much of artistic expression, and we didn’t get feminism quite right either, seeing how fragile all our conquests have turned out to be.

Still, I celebrate when I come across whimsical crafts like these, reminding me of that season (photos courtesy of the Serpica Naro fashion collective in Milan, Italy).

Knitted vulva
Knitted vulva

I’m right and the world is wrong (Unicredit Group campaign)

Love the picture, hate the copy.

Maybe I\'m right and the world is wrong

What a lovely and whimsical image to shake off that stodgy bank feeling. And yet, what an arrogantly nonsensical statement they chose to go with it.

Eliminating the “Maybe” in “Maybe I’m right and the world is wrong” means no healthy skepticism. No awareness of what we don’t know. No willingness to learn more. If that’s what you aspire to, we’ve got a bank that’s ready to serve you. In fact, in its desire to foster certainty and eliminate ambiguity, this campaign stands as the polar opposite of the thought-provoking HSBC “Your Point of View” campaign, the one you’ve seen gracing several airport walkways over the last couple of years. In that campaign, who’s right and who’s wrong is about different points of view, and HSBC apparently maintains that celebrating differences is better than eradicating them. Feel free to call its cultural relativism naive and dangerous, but I find it a rather more appealing brand statement than UniCredit’s monolithic erasure of doubt.

More about the UniCredit campaign in the Advertising section of the bank’s site. The print ads show a campaign URL,, but that site doesn’t seem to be quite ready yet (as of today the URL merely redirects to the corporate site).

The Twitter language dilemma

When I started blogging, it was pretty clear to me that I’d have to have two blogs: one in Italian and one in English. Now that I’m taking Twitter for a test ride, that’s where I draw the line: I refuse to have two Twitter accounts, and I post my updates rather indiscrimately in whatever language I happen to have thought that particular though in. Still, I feel a bit guilty towards those of my readers who miss out on what I’m trying to say if it’s not in the language they speak.

If you use two or more languages, how have you solved the Twitter language dilemma?