Athora president: “A leader’s job is to defuse problems”

In MT’s latest Leadership Lessons podcast, Athora president Michele Bareggi discusses the art of risk management, his Lehman Brothers experience and why leaders are there to fix problems.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 03 Aug 2023
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Michele Bareggi was a senior executive at Lehman Brothers in London on 15 September 2008, the day the investment bank became the largest company to file for bankruptcy in US history, and the catalyst for the global financial crash.

He was at a wedding in Italy with his family when he heard the news. Like most of his colleagues, it was a shock and the subsequent days were, as he calls it, “a strong experience”.

“We were not prepared to deal with the consequences, both from an organisational perspective in how we took care of our clients, but also what happened to the group collectively,” he says. There was confusion in the office on Monday; even those who were involved in negotiations did not know the potential outcome.

He ended up moving with his team to Nomura Holdings, which bought many of the bank’s assets. (He felt it was his responsibility to help protect jobs - the deal relied on a certain number of senior executives moving across).

In the 15 years since then, he has continued to work in the banking sector, rising to MD and head of Morgan Stanley’s European insurance and pensions business and its reinsurance operations globally. Then in 2018, he became the founding CEO of Athora, Europe’s ‘fastest growing savings and retirement services businesses’. The business aims to plug a gap in the European market, providing guaranteed savings and investment returns for people in their retirement years.

In just over five years, he has grown the business rapidly, with around 1,700 employees in five countries, over 3 million customers and €94 billion in assets under management.

Bareggi’s career has been a journey through some of banking’s biggest names: Morgan Stanley, Nomura Holdings, Lehman Brothers, JPMorgan, Credit Suisse and First Boston.

What he appreciates now as a founder, is his ability to have a greater impact on the business. After a career spent advising others and giving them options to choose from, he says, “I realised I rather liked the choosing and doing myself.”

Managing risk

At the start of his career, Bareggi moved to London for an internship and ended up staying indefinitely. “You can prepare yourself for many things in life, but eventually, life takes you where it wants,” he says.

As someone who has spent a career in risk management, he believes it’s important to focus on structuring a business in the right way, to ensure it is not exposed to unnecessary risk, but leave room to adapt to changing circumstances.

To mitigate risk, it’s also critical to have diversity of thought in any group.“When you hire, you often hire people you like. That obviously feels nice, but it may not be what you need for the best risk management of the company,” he says.

A leader is a problem-fixer

He urges leaders to be disciplined about not taking the problems personally. “You need a way to decompress the negative elements that come to you. It’s incredibly important to be structured and diligent about it. Otherwise you will progressively deteriorate in energy and your balance is not there anymore,” he says.

“People end up in leadership holes and find themselves alone, not knowing what to do. It’s important to build bridges against that every day, otherwise you’ll drift.”

He believes leaders have more guilt about their work/life balance than more junior members of staff because, when your boss has the power, it’s not your fault if you are being made to work late. Whereas, “when you are the one making the choices, then you are guilty, because you are deciding how you spend your time,” he says.

Cracking the nut

His main current concern is how to retain the entrepreneurial and creative culture of Athora and maintain its “element of difference” as the business grows.

“The more we grow and the larger we become, the more we have a risk of drifting to the mean. So how do we maintain this push, this challenge, this insubordination?” he says.

Inevitably size requires more structure, particularly in a highly regulated sector, but when something becomes more organised, it is more predictable and often less creative. He wants Athora to be both organised and creative. “I really hope we can crack that nut, because then I think we’ll have something really special. We’ll have a sustainable culture and operating model that will potentially continue to go up to any size we reach. So for us, this moment is pretty crucial,” he says.

But however he solves the problem, he won’t do it alone. He believes a leader doesn’t have to have all the answers or act like a dictator. “Leadership is not telling people what to do. It’s bringing people together and being able to listen and understand. It’s very different from what people would think on the way in, which is, ‘I’m going to make something happen’. What matters is not your views, it’s the right view,” he says.

He adds: “People say leadership is a solitary job, that people are left alone to make decisions. But it all depends on whether you think of yourself as a leader on the pinnacle, or as someone on the frontline with a group of others who are making something happen.”. Bareggi knows where he’d rather be.