Creativity and Transformation: 10 keys to the Leadership of David Colomer and Ferran Adrià

“Taste the joy that springs from labor”. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For professional reasons, I have had the good fortune to closely observe the evolution of two entrepreneurial ventures: the media agency Arena Media and the restaurant El Bulli; and the two driving forces behind them: David Colomer and Ferran Adrià.

They seem like two very diverse initiatives and individuals. But surprisingly, I found many similarities in the way David and Ferran think and work, and in the management models of Arena Media and El Bulli.

What do these companies and their leaders have in common? What elements of their management models can serve as benchmarks for other companies? What makes these companies shine where others do not?

What advertising media agencies and gourmet restaurants have in common is a pressing need to attract and foster talent, an intimate connection with patrons, the right combination of “magic and logic” and the utmost creativity from their teams.

Don’t all businesses these days need to win similar battles? The economy, society and consumers are all going digital. Thus, companies must transform themselves by harnessing the full innovative and creative potential of their teams.

So, how do David and Ferran think and work? What do Arena Media and El Bulli have in common?

To boil it down, there are at least 10 similarities between these entrepreneurs and their companies that I think could be useful for most businesses:

  1. They question everything. “Creativity means not copying,” says Ferran. I’ve seen David many times asking his team: “And what if…?” Complacency is the first step toward decline. As such, it must be resisted by the leaders. Having a nonconformist attitude that asks: “How much better can we do what we do?” is key to innovation. These two leaders are always boldly questioning preconceived ideas and habits in their respective industries. Questioning the preconceived limits opens the door to incredible improvements.
  2. They have a distinct and intriguing view of professional life that reflects the personality of their brands. They both consider their work as a vocation in which technique and passion must go hand in hand and must be shared by the team. The result: the hallmark of their businesses that reflects authenticity, which is felt by customers, suppliers and employees as something unique and an incentive to establish a long-term relationship with all of them.
  3. They don’t sell out. They cannot be bought; they won’t do just anything for money. Ferran tells stories of how he has been offered astronomical sums to cook at the home of some wealthy person or reserve the entire restaurant for a special group. He says he cooks for sensitive people, not millionaires. I have seen David turn down well-paid jobs when he felt that the context in which he would have to operate did not match his values. I’ve also heard him say this many times: “No one here gets paid or takes money for a contract.”
  4. Their presence makes everyone else better. And that improvement endures even in their absence. Both have the gift of instilling extraordinary work habits in their teams. They do it by inspiring, building partnerships, exuding enthusiasm, teaching and achieving the discipline inherent in solid professionals. Essentially, it’s about creating a unique and magnetic culture. People follow those who make decisions with courage and good judgment. Ferran’s case is paradigmatic. More than half of the world’s best chefs have learned the trade with him. Thanks to David, Arena remains the industry leader—even in his absence, after being transferred to London.
  5. They motivate others to generate extreme creativity. And they do it by creating a demanding environment and providing tools. Ferran insisted on changing every item on the menu from one season to the next. Regardless of how successful those items may have been. He also literally bought time for creativity by closing the restaurant for half of the year to go travel and research. Or as he put it, “to look outward.” They both believe in the tremendous benefits of exploring the common frontiers of disciplines close to their profession.
  6. They create work environments that build commitment. Perhaps due to the personal magnetism of both individuals, or their knack for surrounding themselves with special people who are the best in their fields. I sense that it is also due to their joie de vivre and their keen understanding not only of human beings but also the importance of reciprocity and gratitude, all of which builds trust and value. They have the rare ability to align interests and put the company at the service of people.
  7. They attract the top young talent. They have each made their business an attractive magnet. They have complete faith in people and help them grow and develop their full potential. They hit it off with millennials, who know that their time together means an education in professionalism, a ticket to a good career and an understanding of a more noble, prosperous and intelligent life. They are both surrounded by the top professionals, in whom they have full confidence. Something they are both excellent at is building great teams. They realize that true success is achieved with a solid group of people who are committed to a shared vision and a relentless passion to carry it out.
  8. They lead with their daily example. Not only by being the first to arrive and the last to leave. Despite their success, they have not been stricken with the disease of power. On the contrary, they maintain an austere, simple life. They are generous and noticeably grateful for how much they have received in life, and live for fostering the talent around them and improving the “return on life.” They are immersed in the reality of their environment: listening, learning, questioning.
  9. They win the inner battles of leadership. Steve Jobs said he would trade all of his technology for an afternoon with Socrates. Indeed, Socrates cautioned that the real battles we fight in life are on the inside. They are both clearly comfortable in their own skin. They know what they want, and go through life with confidence in themselves and those near them, and live with intense positive emotions. Enthusiasm is especially contagious in challenging environments when demonstrating a great “capacity to love” and leadership that makes an impact.
  10. They create extraordinary products and services (with a vision for the future and the capability to execute in the present) that are prized in their industry. Ferran earned El Bulli incredible rankings in specialized magazines. Arena was recently honored once again (at the Teatro Real in Madrid, in front of more than 1,500 professionals) as the 2016 Agency of the Year in Spain by the Spanish Association of Advertisers (AEA)… for the third time in seven years.

Behind the success story of Arena Media and El Bulli are two extraordinary individuals, who know how to lead with an awareness of their potential and their human frailty, by creating a cohesive and passionate team. They have embraced the journey of life with a sublime balance of intelligence and kindness.

Their personality and work are both worthy of emulation. Because they both have the ability to give a heart and soul to their businesses and magic to those around them, and they realize it: that is their real secret.

Like Sir Richard Branson said: “I don’t think of work as work and play as play. It’s all living.”