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Ferragamo's Hidden Hero


Let's Talk, People Episode 9

EMILY: [00:00:00] Hi, I'm Emily Frieze-Kemeny, host of Let's Talk, People, where leaders come to bridge humanity and profitability. Informed by a couple decades of work as a head of talent and leadership development, I'm here to amplify leaders so they can exalt everyone and everything they touch.

Are you ready? Because it's about to get real. [00:00:28] Let's Talk, People.

[00:00:33] On today's episode of Let's Talk, People, it is such a pleasure to be joined by Amy Zuckerman. Amy was the Senior Vice President of Human Resources, reporting directly to the CEO and Chairperson of Ferragamo. Amy then went on to be the Chief People Officer of Godiva Chocolatier, and most recently, the Senior Vice-President of People and Culture for Hudson North America. [00:00:58] You see them when you travel.

While I adore Amy, who she is as a human, her incredible leadership and career, it also just makes me smile because the companies that Amy worked for represent my three guilty pleasures, which are chocolate, travel, and fashion. So there you have it. It was love at first sight when I met Amy.

[00:01:16] And for this episode, if you are anything like me, my soul is in real need of hearing stories about compassionate, talent-first leaders who drive impactful business results.  Which is why I asked Amy to share specifically the story of her time at Ferragamo, the leadership of Mrs. Ferragamo and her family, their culture, and the business success.

[00:01:45] Amy, thank you so much for making the time to storytell with me. I was really moved and inspired by hearing about your entire career journey, but specifically the time that you spent with Ferragamo, which was just under two decades. So maybe as a start, could you share a little bit about the journey of the family, and what you know from the time you've been there, about the kind of the creation and build of Ferragamo in terms of leadership, the brand identity?

AMY: [00:02:15] Absolutely. When I joined, it was the brand, as everyone knows it, called Salvatore Ferragamo, or now just Ferragamo.  But what people don't really understand is that Mrs. Ferragamo, or Wanda Ferragamo, is the true hidden hero of the company.  And she was really in her late thirties when Salvatore passed away.

[00:02:41] So the history of the brand is when you talk about women's empowerment, the brand, although developed by Salvatore Ferragamo and all of his beautiful designs, he really developed a women's shoe brand.

She created everything else.  At a young age, when he passed away, she had six young kids.  And when he passed away suddenly in Italy, she had never worked a day in her life, went to his office, sat at his desk, and [00:03:09] really took over the business.  And she would tell the story that the first phone call she got was from somebody who wanted to purchase the company. And she picked up the phone and said, without hesitation, I'm not interested in selling, but if there are other companies that you think I should purchase, please let me know. [00:03:27] And hung up the phone.

EMILY: Love it.

AMY: RightAnd she was brilliant because she really understood talent development and understanding people's unique talents. So with each of her six children, she understood how to develop them and their different expertise, and who was more operational, and who was more creative, and who could see more as a visionary and conceptually.

[00:03:57] And she made sure that they were all very humble. They worked in the factory. They understood every aspect of the business. And she really created a place for each one of them to work within the business that matched their unique talents and strengths. And, when you think about that, that concept of talent development, and working within your strengths, it's really incredible that she did that intuitively.

[00:04:24] And she would say that the business is not a parking lot for the family, and the next generation really had to earn their place in the business.  Because she wanted to make sure that the next generation, there were 78 of them, were really as passionate as her children. And she was to work in the [00:04:43] company.

So they had to have an advanced degree. They had to speak multiple languages. They had to work in an outside company first. There had to be a unanimous decision to allow them to work in the business. And they had to give over their career to their aunts and uncles and their grandmother, and allow them to select where they would work and in what department and in what country [00:05:06] as a rotation.

And it was really interesting to watch how she very quietly and very humbly carried out Salvatore's dream. He wrote a book right before he passed called Shoemaker of Dreams.  And he really was the shoemaker of the stars. And yet she was the one who made that dream a reality, and never took credit for it.

[00:05:31] And those core values of being humble and kind and respectful were something that carried through in everything that happened within the company and how we, as an organization, operated every day.

EMILY: I love that there are these hidden heroes in organizations and in life, and their impact from what I know from you, and what you've shared, is so significant and deeply felt and held.

[00:05:58] We don't know them because it wasn't about us knowing them. It was about their care for what they were creating in the world and for the people around them. The examples of that nuanced way she placed talent, and the hardest, you could say tight, because it's so personal, right? There's a lot of sensitivity there when it's your own family, you know, leadership intentionality.

[00:06:21] I also was really curious to understand how she went from not being involved in the business to running the business, and was able to grow it so significantly. Like what did she actually do? What were her superpowers?  What transpired during that period? And then I definitely want to hear how it codified in terms of the human experience at work.

AMY: [00:06:45] So my understanding was that she handed over that control to each of the children based on their talents. So Fiamma, for example, who was her eldest daughter, was the one to take over designing after Salvatore passed. So she was actually the one who designed the Vara bow the company is so famous for. [00:07:09] And so people assume that Salvatore created that, but it was actually Fiamma.

It is incredible to see that, you know, it was Fiamma who had learned under her father, was able to take over that design. It was her, not her eldest son. He was the one who took over from an operational perspective. So he was the one who was very financially driven and operations minded.

[00:07:36] And then her middle son, who was the one who saw things from a conceptual perspective, who brought in the idea of running hotels and men's business, and expanding the business from just a women's shoe business.

So each one of them had a different area of talent, and she would tap into that.

So Massimo, who was the person who [00:08:03] I knew best, who I worked for directly in the United States, came to the US to develop the business here. People also don't realize that the business actually started here because Salvatore came to the United States to start his shoe business, and really close tie and link yes, to Italy, but to the United States as well,  [00:08:27] and Hollywood.

And so the U. S. market was always so significant and so important to the family and to the business. And so having a family member here and running the U. S. market was extremely important. And while the business had been here and with somebody who was importing and working on wholesale distribution, bringing a family member here to run the operations was critically important.

EMILY: [00:08:57] It's fascinating. And as you said, it's the ability of a leader to know that it takes the strength of a team, in this case, a family team, to make something successful. I often say that leadership is a team sport.

And what I love about it is, it was her leadership that constructed that design to put people into the right positions. [00:09:23] And in all of those spots, it seems like pure magic happened.  But it was her humility and her insight that made those decisions effective in terms of the talent placement piece of it.

AMY: Absolutely. And then carried out with each one of them who embody those same core values of humility and kindness.  Because you know, Massimo then, as he was here in the U.S., [00:09:48] he had to go through a SAKS training program and work on the floor at SAKS, just as his nephew, James Farragamo, did.

So there are stories of --- Massimo would tell a story of working on the sales floor at SAKS.  And being so kind and humble, and working with a woman, and her saying to him, “There's something about you. [00:10:10] And I know you're just not a normal sales person”. And he said, “No, ma'am, I'm just to sell”.  And she said, “No, who are you?” And he said, “No, I'm here to help you. How can I help you? “Then you tell me your name.” And he said, “My name is Massimo. And she said, “What's your last name?” She was on to him. She totally, totally was.

[00:10:32] And she said, “I knew it, I knew it. I knew you had to be somebody.” He said, “Listen, I'm here to help you. I'm here to help and support.

You know, there would be times that we would be walking through the store. There was one time in particular, it was raining and the floor walking into the flagship store on Fifth Avenue was wet. [00:10:53] And he went to get a mop, literally to mop it up so nobody would fall.  And you know, 10 people come running, no, no, no, no, we'll do that. And he literally said, let me do it. You have an important job to do. Your job is to take care of the customers. I can do this. You take care of our customers. They are the most important. [00:11:13] And he meant every second of it, and every word of it.

EMILY: It's from the experience of a brand. When a leader behaves that way, you could see how that would show up in how everyone treats, not only each other as colleagues, but then treats the customer, like it, that all in mentality and not being too good for the small details that really matter. [00:11:36] And you can see the exquisiteness in the product, and so, of course, he's going to notice and care and be happy to, you know, clean up some water on the floor because it's all about care.

I mean, that's what just comes through so strongly as I listen to you, is when care is directed in the right way, it's so powerful, [00:11:56] both in terms of how people feel, but also the results.

AMY: And I have so many beautiful stories about how much care there was for the product and the people and the customers. And one of my favorite was meeting Mrs. Ferragamo at the flagship store when it was just renovated. And I happened to have been very pregnant at the time.

[00:12:20] It was late and Mrs. Ferragamo, if ever, if you've ever seen the pictures of her, she was this beautiful woman who always wore beautiful Ferragamo scarves. And she was sitting down. It was late for her. She was jet lagged. And as she stood up, her scarf fell to the floor. And out of respect, I went to try to pick it up.

[00:12:41] And if you know, when anybody knows when you're very pregnant, it's hard to bend down. So I just looked at the scarf. She looked at me. I looked at her, and she just put her finger up and said, dear girl, don't you dare. And it was just that moment.

And she bent down and picked up the scarf. And I said, I'm so sorry, Mrs. [00:13:01] Ferragamo. And she said, don't you apologize.  I really, I want to thank you for taking such good care of our team and our employees. And I hear that, you know, it's all of the programs and the projects and the things that you do, and how happy the employees are here. And that's most important.

And really it's so exciting to hear of the programs that are created and the recognition that the team is receiving, because without the people, we wouldn't be anywhere.

[00:13:35] And she really meant it. And you could see that and you could feel that. And in order to be able to have the opportunity to work for her and the family, and a leader that truly cares, it makes everything I do in HR and human resources so much easier because I'm just carrying out their vision. And that's such an incredible place to be, when you can [00:14:03] carry out that vision every day and have that support, and have it be authentic.

EMILY: There's two places I want to go. I think one is just to really pay attention to when a leader sees you and gives feedback, how incredibly touching and motivating that is.

Again, I think sometimes in the throes of our desire to improve and grow and, you know, look for the imperfections, which I know I do often as a leader[00:14:33] we sometimes forget that moment.  But how powerful that moment is to the people who are out there doing the work day in and day out, to be seen and acknowledged. I think that's already such an important little nugget of gold that we underestimated. That sticks with people for a lifetime, you know, those moments of really being appreciated.

[00:14:53] The other thing that I think would be really helpful to understand, Amy, is how did that type of leadership and care and quality --- how did you actually translate that into programs, practices, experiences? Like how did you do that? Because it feels --- it's a family, right? It feels so personal and so innate to her and her family, her family team, as we can call it. [00:15:21] How did you bring that to life for the whole team?

AMY: So the first part, recognition --- there's no underestimating the importance of recognition. And I think respect and recognition in any organization, and having it be authentic, and like you said, when it is, it is a moment and it lasts forever and there's nothing more powerful.

[00:15:46] So in every role, in every position, I think that it is critically important. It can't be overdone and it can't be things that don't matter. So it has to be what's important to each person. So, when giving recognition, you know, I deeply care about having a positive impact on people's lives, and the work that they're doing and the business.

[00:16:12] So when she recognized that it was having a positive --- the work that I was doing was having a positive impact, it was the perfect recognition for me because it meant so much, and that was part of why she was so incredible as a leader as well.

And for other people, recognition is important in a different way. [00:16:36] And so I truly believe that recognition has to be given in a way that's important to the person who's receiving it. And it can't just be, oh, thank you.  Thank you’s are great. But if it's just a thank you, then comes and comes and comes all the time, then it loses its significance.  And it has --- so it has to be personalized, individualized and done in a way that's important to the person who's on the receiving end of it.

[00:17:01] So that's the recognition piece for the leadership. 

From translating the leadership piece, there were several things that were done.  One of them was to create a few recognition programs and growth programs, because what we realized was that we wanted to recognize people who were embodying and showing the core values.

[00:17:27] So there was a recognition program designed around the core values, and it was a peer recognition program. So it was calling out positive behaviors, focusing on the positive rather than the negative, and allowing team members to say, look, this is somebody who has gone out of their way to provide amazing customer service or to work as a great team member.

[00:17:56] And those were shared.  They were celebrated, they were shared, there were rewards that were provided, and they didn't have to be expensive.  But it was that public recognition. And that program was really positively received.

And then there were the opportunities to be part of a set program that allowed the set top sales people to be part of that program that still exists today. [00:18:27] And it allowed those top sales people to be rewarded. You had to go through a variety of steps to be considered for the program. And they also, it … it wasn't just selling. It wasn't about just selling the most. It was about teamwork. It was about meeting those sales expectations, but not just selling the most.  It was about customer service as well. [00:18:53] So it was really built on those core values as well.

And then there was the opportunity to grow with the organization because that was important too. And in the core values of ability to continue to develop, there was a program that identified high potential team members and associates to continue to be developed so that when a position opened up [00:19:22] they were the first group of people to be looked at for new opportunities, rather than going outside.

And that's how, at the time we were able to have such high tenure.  And that was significantly higher than anywhere else in the industry. And so we were literally known as the nice fashion company to work for.

EMILY: [00:19:48] I love that. I think there's a couple of things where you all were ahead of your time. This idea of personalization seems to be everything, and it really has been the consumers who are driving that, like everybody wants things to be just right for them.  But you were already doing that, is the way that it feels. [00:20:09] And I have no doubt what that translated through, in terms of why the company was profitable.

But this idea that you're personalizing the acknowledgement of what somebody did, you know, not just thanking them, the specificity around that, and then that even in the types of incentives and rewards, they were given choices. [00:20:27] I think that that idea is so powerful and it's needed even more so today, like feeling like you matter, feeling like you have choice, that it's not generic. None of us like to be an average

And also the idea that what gets rewarded is more than just the results. So you want the result because that's tangible.  And of course, in certain types of roles like selling, that's really important because the numbers do speak for themselves.  But it is also the quality of which you treat people[00:20:57] that feels very in line with what authentically was the leadership and the culture that was being built.

AMY: Completely. And I think even with the types of opportunities for growth, a lot of times, I'll use the sales associate who's a great salesperson who automatically people believe should be the next manager ---  [00:21:21] that doesn't always work.  One, not what the person wants to do. And two, it's a completely different skillset.

So there were two paths for growth.  One, you could be the best of the best of salesperson, if that's what you wanted to do, or you could want to go into management.  Or actually there was a third, you might want to get into a corporate role.

[00:21:44] So there has to be that approach that one size, like you said, does not fit all. And I think that's important in every environment that I've ever worked in, which is to say one size does not fit all in any program that's being developed, whether it's reward, recognition, succession planning, you know, when you have key high potential people in your organization, coming up with the action plan to retain them is really important.

[00:22:13] And again, in an environment where specifically there --- it’s so much easier to create those programs when you have that executive leadership buy in.

EMILY: Absolutely. I think that this story can lead to thinking that everything was easy and joyful and smooth and happy and uplifting. What memory do you have that shows how they navigated [00:22:39] a really hard circumstance?  Because they're going to happen, right? It could be business results. It could be interpersonal dynamic. What's something really challenging, and how did they kind of use their values to navigate it?

AMY: So, I was there when 9-11 happened.  And that was incredibly challenging because it was a time where there was so much uncertainty.  And it was at the beginning of my tenure.  [00:23:04] We used that as an opportunity to revamp the compensation structure and program. I think taking things that happen that you can't control and turning them into a positive is really important because there is uncertainty, you know. 

And then with COVID, for example, another time in our lives where we didn't control it, but can control how you react to it. [00:23:32] So at that point, the specific example was that the sales associates were being paid commission only. So that was concerning because at that point in time, there was a lot of uncertainty.  And while people were still shopping, it wasn't happening as regularly right there.  Because people didn't know. 

We redefined the comp program still based on achieving results, but added that teamwork component. [00:24:01] And actually still left in, you want salespeople to sell. So there was still that individual commission piece and created a program that actually mirrored those core values. And it was really successful because at the end, what are you trying to do? You want to drive customer service, but you want to drive results at the same time.

[00:24:24] So when you look at what you're trying to achieve, and you look at the core values, that's how you need to develop a compensation program.  But really caring about the people, because what we also needed to understand was that people who are being paid commission only were concerned about how they were going to feed their families [00:24:44] if the customers weren't walking into the store on a regular basis. So you have to balance that with the needs of the company, right? And being able to understand the sales fluctuations.

So that was one really tough and challenging time, and I think it ended up creating, coming out with a program that worked very well.

EMILY: [00:25:05] It's so helpful because for those individuals, there was so much pressure to perform, but then there were variables they couldn't control. And in some organizations, I can imagine they would just increase the heat and the pressure on those individuals. But what I really appreciate about what you're sharing is that the company looked at it as the ecosystem that it was.  Like, what are all the dynamics that are at play? [00:25:27] How do we work together to solve it versus just, you know, trying to put more pressure on those salespeople who are working with what is?  What is the reality of that moment in time? And I think sometimes we forget that.  And then pressure can be good on a system, but only if it's going to get to the right results.

AMY: [00:25:44] Agreed. And I think, again, you have to look at what you can control and what you can't control. And then the human side of it is how do you motivate people, and what motivates them and making sure that they still feel like they are cared for, while understanding the needs of the business. And that's that balance that is so critically important.

EMILY: [00:26:10] What's a moment that you really felt that way, that you really felt that cared-for feeling, in light of everything else that was going on for the business?  Like what's one of the kind of core memories that you have of that feeling? 

AMY: I think I would have to say when the company went public, and there was this concern that even though the company was going public, that culture, that sense of kindness and care for the [00:26:39] people would still remain. And there was a conversation the night before that happened, that this was not something that could be forgotten, even though the company was going public. And I thought that was really interesting and sticks with me today that, you know, when companies go public, a lot of times the people are [00:27:01] left behind.

This was not the case at all. It was very much that the culture had to remain, and it was important that the teams not be forgotten and the core values continue. And I think that was a key moment.

EMILY: If you had to look at it through two lenses, what part of that phase in the organization's history [00:27:25] do you feel like you played a role in helping it shape? So like, what's the imprint that you're proud of that you feel you made? And what did they imprint on you as a people leader that has, you know, you carry forward into the roles that you've continued to play in organizations?

AMY: I was able to accomplish creating that balance between family and business, and creating enough structure to have people feel like they were always treated fairly and consistently, but feel like they were working in a really professional --- not that it wasn't a professional organization, but a professional organization with that care and concern.

[00:28:09] So finding that balance, again, I like to talk about balance.  And it was getting them the right benefits and comp structure and rewards and recognition, because it was all well-meaning and well-intended, and bringing that all together, but yet creating that sense of care at the same time. So there were no policies, so creating policies so that everybody could be treated fairly and consistently, but yet with that same heart.[00:28:42] And that was my legacy.

And I think what was imprinted on me was this: really the power of leadership and how powerful it is when there's one person or that leader, the CEO or who's running that business regardless, you know.  Even as the head of HR, the Chief People Officer, if you have that support of that CEO, the founder, that person, [00:29:10] it is so much easier to translate that vision and have that positive impact on the culture. And how important that alignment is when you move through the work that you're doing in human resources every day. And I think that makes everything you do that much easier.

And we didn't agree all the time, by no means. [00:29:32] There were times that I always tell people I would be the person to have to say all the things that everybody else didn't want to say or were maybe too afraid to say, or, you know, the unpleasant things. I was the messenger of not such great news lots of times. I was never afraid because there was that openness to hearing the truth.

[00:29:53] And so there has to be that openness to do open mind, to hear what the reality also, and how to fix it to make it better. And that relationship, that ability to partner, that's what's so critically important in order to have that impact and make those changes, and on people's lives. And in turn, that impacts productivity and the business and the ability to [00:30:22] succeed and achieve all of those goals, and retain all of those key people that are so important to the success of the business ultimately.

EMILY: What comes to mind as I listened to you is sometimes, that chemistry and that alignment is more there in certain relationships with the person who's running the organization. [00:30:41] In other cases, it needs to be built and cultivated. It's like such a positive environment and circumstance with Mrs. Ferragamo and her team, her family.  Was there some kind of cultivating of that that you had to do on your end though, to kind of create that level of connection alignment?

AMY: So I was blessed that with Mrs. [00:31:04] Farragamo and Massimo, who I reported directly to, it was immediate. I was blessed when, and with the two CEOs who, when the family stepped back with the company went public, I reported to, also very successful and easy to build as a leadership team, as an executive team, you have to build those relationships always.

[00:31:31] So there are lots of different personalities and people who work on those teams, and you always have to develop those relationships, and it doesn't always happen so naturally and so easily. And I think sometimes you need to go in and develop that trust, and develop that partnership and collaboration.  You know, when you meet somebody, you connect and it takes time to build that trust.[00:31:59] You know, sometimes it happens immediately and sometimes it takes a little bit of time to develop.

EMILY: Yeah, for sure. I've experienced that too. If you could take what you experienced at Ferragamo and what you helped to build, and translate that into other environments, what would that look like? Like, if you imagine, let's scale the magic of what was happening there, what would that look like? [00:32:23] What would that take? And what's the evidence that it works?

AMY: I think that it's really that partnership that is not just with the CEO or the founder. It's also with the entire leadership team. And it was very special. And so that translated to the entire leadership team, and building that partnership.

[00:32:44] And I remember one day looking around the table as we were having an executive meeting and thinking, I'm just so lucky. And it's building that strategy together, that everyone ---  you know, not everyone's always going to agree, but we had a saying it was first-team-first, and disagreement is having that psychological safety to disagree.  And then walk out of that room and continue as a united team [00:33:12] with what was decided.  And go forward and put forward that plan together.

And I think that that's where it's critically important to put aside any of those differences, and work together as a collaborative team. 

And the impact is incredible. It's having that trust in each other and really coming up with an agreed upon strategy, whether it's an HR strat plan that you agree on priorities, because you can't do everything all at once.  But that holds true for any function, and really supporting one another, even within the HR team, and never losing sight that when you make a decision, it impacts people's lives and the business.

EMILY: [00:34:02] So powerful and so true, and that they're connected like that. That's what I love about it. If I think about the theme of what came through and each of the stories that you've shared and the examples is that, that unification of the internal experience is driving the external experience of the brand. Like, they're completely linked in every example.  And look at the results that were achieved.

AMY: [00:34:25] And never losing sight of why we're there, right? We're there to sell the beautiful products and customer service. And it's a beautiful brand. You can't lose sight of the customer. At one point, we had a program where everybody in the corporate office had to go out to the retail stores to work on the sales floor. [00:34:45] So no one ever lost sight of why we were there. You can't lose sight of it.

EMILY: What's the one nugget of gold that you want to personally carry forward as a leader and as a people-leader, that you think maybe the world is most in need of right now?

AMY: I think when I first started working in Human Resources, it was really to make people's lives at work better. [00:35:09] And it's come full circle. And I think about that balance between people and the business work, and furthermore, was the family and business.  But it's really about kindness and making sure that by taking care of the people you take care of the business, regardless of what the business is, and it can't be one size fits all.

EMILY: [00:35:36] That's right. And that it can be both.

AMY: Yes.

EMILY: It has to be both --- is really the way it feels as I listen to the story and, you know, of my own lived experience.

AMY: Agree.

EMILY: Thank you so much, Amy, for taking us into that period of your journey, into that magical organization that still exists and thrives today.  But to really be able to see that pivotal moment in time and how the story that we don't know, about how Mrs. [00:36:01] Ferragamo and her family just took it to that whole another level to the brand that we know it to be today. Thank you.

AMY: Thank you.

EMILY:  [00:36:11] There are so many great insights and nuggets that we can take forward. And I want to just summarize a few for us.

So the first is the importance of matching people to the work. Thinking about what people are passionate about, their capabilities, and what you need to accomplish from a business perspective is what drives great results.

[00:36:31] Second, leadership actually becomes culture. When you intentionally build and design practices, policies, and programs, like the ones Amy shared, like recognition and career pathing.

Third, balancing human needs and motivation with the business needs is our job as leaders.

And last but not least, when the CEO of an organization and their Chief People Officer are aligned, they are able to drive great positive change together.

[00:37:02] Thanks for joining today's episode of Let's Talk, People. For more info and insight, visit and find me, Emily Frieze-Kemeny on LinkedIn and Instagram. If you're enjoying the show, please follow, share on social and leave a rating or review in your podcast app. It helps other listeners to discover us.

[00:37:22] Well, that's a wrap, friends. Until next time when we come together to talk people.

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