October 1, 2021
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we travelled to Brazil to share the Extra(ordinary) journey of Gustavo Rela Bruno, Former VP & GM of South America at Mattel. Gustavo's spiritual approach to all faucets of life has guided his decisions and the success story he shares with us today. A recent serious health issue which he recovered from and surpassed paved a new path for Gustavo in his journey toward both personal and professional growth; helping him measure success and define his purpose. Proud of his leadership legacy, Gustavo takes us through the decisions he made when time became limited, discussing the impact of courage and faith, and their associated effects on the things we unknowingly take for granted.
“I was born and raised in a small town called Jundiaí, which is 63 km away from São Paulo.” Gustavo begins sharing. “Because it was a small town, you are your name and your Family name. Everyone knows each other; even my teachers used to know my parents by name! There were only three schools in our town, so I studied with people from different social conditions. I received simple but solid values, and it helped me out of my comfort zone very early”.
Families from Jundiaí knew the importance of culture, and Gustavo learned to speak a second language and played several sports, which he credits to helping him develop his easygoing personality and his natural ability to connect with many different people. “Living in a small city helped me develop soft skills that I use in my interactions today. For example, the personal approach, the adaptability, the charisma...etc. And, history made me appreciate these characteristics. I had to make an extra effort to prove my value; to be accepted; and this flexibility afforded me strong friendships that I have carried since childhood”.
Gustavo is proud of his background. He details the qualities his family has raised him with, which he appreciates today. “I feel very lucky to say I have a well-structured family. My parents always worked hard to give us great examples. My sister and I had to look after each other growing up also, and I believe this helped in consolidating our relationship. We also grew up very religiously with a strong, spiritual education. This faith helped shape me and who I was meant to become me over the years.” Gustavo continues to share the impact of his parental role models, “My family consists of my father, a workaholic engineer, who taught me the true value of work. It is so much more than just earning a salary. Your work allows you to feed your family, but it also helps other people in relation to content and evolution. So, my father was a ‘self-made man’ who had a lot of social development. Through his success and prospering, he always treated everyone equally, in and out of his work and his role, from the front door to a very successful role into the corporate life - he ensured he also taught this value to us”.
Gustavo continues, “My mother was a professor and she worked in different schools, including helping children with special needs. It was a great experience to learn from her on how to communicate with people who struggled to communicate. I saw her struggle to connect parents and children who were mostly disconnected from the rest of the world. I also have one sibling, a sister who is three years elder to me; she is my biggest pride in life! She became a doctor in another town called Piracicaba. She is the exact opposite from me, but we complete each other. She is brilliant and introspective; and, because our parents worked, she used to take care of me and I used to be her connection with the world. Even today, when I have a problem or need advice, I seek her opinion first”.
Gustavo takes us through his schooling, and the decisions that led him to pursue the rewarding career that keeps him humble today. “My family was very traditional. This also meant that I could choose among three ‘good careers’: medicine, law or engineering. When I finished high school, I had two options, which was similar to most of my friends from Jundaí: stay in the city and partake in a family business; or, leave the city to study in order to build my own path. I wanted to explore new horizons and write my own history. So, I chose to attend a university far from home because I wanted to be a protagonist, and leave the temptation of my family’s influence. Living under a father’s shadow existed for many of my friends – it was the easiest way to honor the family name – but, it wasn’t my dream. At the age of 17, I wanted to become a dentist and was even accepted into a famous public university! But, my family didn’t recommend me to go. I chose engineering because of my father. He was a great example of success for me, and I wanted to be like him. However, in the third year of engineering, I realized I wasn’t sure about my decision. In fact, I was certain that I didn’t want to be an engineer and I was afraid I made an assumption that I could just do it - how could I assume I was wrong about this choice?”.
A turning point arrived for Gustavo, which opened a door for him to pursue a leadership role. “The first and most important decision I made was during university - once I realized I didn’t want to become an engineer, I decided to take a trainee opportunity. I took a chance and applied, where I was approved by eleven different companies! I chose Unilever because after three years, I could be promoted to a manager. Developing into a leadership role was my goal. So, this trainee program began with working in a factory; and just three months later I moved into the sales department. They appreciated my skill and my work so much that I stayed and started building my career there. It allowed me to learn different areas, which is where I decided to build and develop my skills”.
Gustavo reveals his talent for sales and marketing began at a young age. “It’s funny, but the ability to sell has been a part of me since I was a little boy. I used to watch my friends at school buy stickers, and I didn’t have money to buy them; so, I made my own stickers! I took them to school and even convinced other kids to buy them; which then allowed me the opportunity to buy the real stickers I wanted.” Gustavo smiles at the memory of his marketing strategy. “I also used to buy candy and pay for them in the following month, without my parent’s knowledge! My mother found out about it when she received the bill for R$200 from the vendor who used to sell popcorn in front of my school. I was only six years old at the time! This is when I had to learn to build and establish credibility: I learned the secret was honesty. Thereafter, when my mother arrived at school to pick me up, I would be standing next to the popcorn vendor and I would wave my hand to her. This was the way in which the vendor believed that my mother had allowed me to buy the popcorn that day”.
Gustavo continues detailing the growth of his sales skills, and the ease in which he developed this talent. “During my teen years, I used to sell clothes. During university, I organized parties to raise money for trips. I was always active in how to sell something or raise money somehow. As strong as my influential and sales skills became, I never regretted not pursuing the career of an engineer. My marketing career helped me develop the ability to deeply diagnosis situations and build critical thinking. In the corporate world, I decided to study different perspectives and points of view, so I attended Wharton School to learn finance and business management; thereafter, I attended Navarra University to learn people management and how to become a better leader. I left a much focused profession in order to learn how to be more of a generalist.” Gustavo is grounded when he takes us through the decisions contributing to his success, “I have always taken every opportunity the corporate world has brought to me, making sure that I faced any problems as opportunities to improve and step ahead. I watched my father prosper through the different steps he took in his career, so I never complained about operational work because I believe that you can improve something from repetition, and if it works for an athlete, it most certainly can work for any professional”.
Gustavo shares that he is not afraid of change, and has always believed that circumstances powered by change offer incredible personal and professional growth. “I believe that you cannot forget where you come from. I came from the countryside of Brazil. And my decisions to advance my career required changing locations, without forgetting my roots. For example, one important decision for me was leaving São Paulo and moving to the south of Brazil to work at Kraft. This was essential for my personal maturity, and also to consolidate my career at trade marketing at that moment. Then, leaving Mondelez to go to Ferrero made a great impact in who I am today. I was leaving the giant corporation to work at a smaller one, but because I recognized the potential, it made me double their business along the years twice – this is what projected me and helped my career speed toward success. At PepsiCo, I took a step back; I wasn’t the number one sales leader anymore, but I gained the opportunity to learn from a good mentor, a senior director. Looking at my career in perspective, this experience brought me important corporate and political knowledge, including corporate intelligence. Another big decision was to move to Mattel. I left the food industry to dive into the toys industry! It was risky, but it worked. And finally, today, I took a bold step again and started my new role at Campari”.
Gustavo carries with him a spiritual belief system that has guided the values that he determines are key contributors to his success today: simplicity, collaboration, pragmatism and becoming a protagonist. “To find the courage to do what I have to do, I pray. I have a strong spiritual life. I’m afraid at times, and I’m also weak at times, and I believe you overcome difficulties and find the courage to persevere when you recognize things aren’t always in your control. So, you ask for God’s help - He always answers who looks for Him. This is why I feel that being vulnerable is not a problem, and today everyone is vulnerable in some way. Being vulnerable is not a cultural point, it is more about being human. I read a sentence once which stated 'only the strong ones are weak' and I really believe that. If you want to lead someone, the person needs to recognize the human being in you – and this also means you have to reveal your weakness in order to show that everybody is fighting on the same side. Everybody joining the same cause and being vulnerable is a way to break the old, authoritative leader stereotype; or, the emperor boss. This type of leadership style needs to be kept in the past”.
“I measure success through my impact on other people. When someone who worked with me says that they miss working under my leadership, I realize that leaving those memories in someone’s life is something that stays forever… this means a lot to me. On the other hand, I have seen that I have been very well perceived in Brazil; and I am able to translate the complexity of a situation to action plans, simple words, and a few priorities. Sometimes, our society believes that harder work and effort will grow value, but this is rubbish. To really win, you need to be simple - turn complexity into smaller priorities that you can connect, engage, and explain”.
Gustavo shares a recent health issue that helped him define success and paved a new path for him in his journey toward personal and professional growth. “At Mattel, I was the general manager of all of South America and my area of responsibility was growing at the quickest speed. Financially, I was thriving. But, I was facing a lot of personal pushback. I was also working fifteen hours a day, and travelling through South America for many weeks in the month. But, I remained confident and thought that if problems came up, I could resolve them. But, my health took a turn. I had a kidney stone, and what was to be a very simple surgical procedure ended up being numerous surgeries, which nearly caused my death. I developed thrombosis throughout my body and spent nearly a month in Intensive Care . There was a moment during that time in Intensive Care, after I awoke, that I recall speaking with God, requesting energy to heal. I remember making Him a promise to deliver upon three things if I survived: First, I will solidify my relationship and propose to the woman who I am blessed to call my wife today. Second, I wouldn’t work for money and wealth, and instead would pursue a purpose. Finally, I would find the happiness I seek in my career. In three days, I recovered and my life changed. I left the hospital feeling like a miracle. My point here is that if I had a second chance to do things again, what would I do with my life? Today, I am the managing director of Brazil with Campari, and very happy with the openness and collaboration that my new team has been so dedicated to with my leadership. I am trying to give back, not only to my team, but also to my society - I am working at the Brazilian version of the American Chamber. I am also administrating some classes and offering an internship program”.
Gustavo is passionate and offers more than experience from insight due to his personal and professional development. He challenges his measure of success periodically, questioning the combination of ego, money, and personal involvedness. “If you are maximizing more than you should, you are going to lose. You will burn out. You will presume that you are a superhero, as I thought that I was. By the time that you realize this, you are already so fragile. You really understand at this moment that everything doesn’t mean anything”.
Gustavo is modest when sharing his achievements; specifically, the ones that left impact. His journey has been driven by his ambition to pursue the curiosity behind the ‘what if’…
…this is what ultimately helped him define his purpose.
“Leaving a mark in someone’s life is something that stays forever and means a lot to me. I believe that I’m a very simple person. Not only simple in terms of behaviour, but also simple in terms of line of thought. People sometimes think that the more sophisticated you are and the more formal you behave, the better you will be perceived. When in fact, anyone is able to generate results…but a legacy? This is when you really change the lives of people. We need to recognize that we didn’t arrive alone; we are assisted throughout our journey. This is the beauty of the statement: how can you help others? Otherwise, everything will be a flame that will be extinguished”.
Gustavo Rela Bruno
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar, Founder & CEO