Leading with Confidence at ESI

Stefano Concina is confident that his team at ESI understands the “what,” so he never needs to tell them the “how”

Some people are natural born leaders; others have leadership thrust upon them. For Stefano Concina, chief technical officer at Electro Scientific Industries (ESI), the latter holds true.

“I was a software engineer in a group and we were all equals, and like most engineers, that’s the way I liked it,” he says. “We were growing fast and were told someone needed to be coordinator for the group, and we all looked around with our eyes averted until I finally said I would do it for a week. Then that became a month, and another, and before I knew it, I became software manager.”

Stefano Concina, ESI
Stefano Concina, ESI, Chief Techincal Officer

Concina did such a great job that his boss at the time wanted him to venture out to other parts of the business, and he began to manage two mechanical engineers.

“For six months, I wasn’t much help, but I learned a lot,” he says. “After that, I was able to contribute. I have a generalist background, so I was able to understand what they were trying to do—I just didn’t know the tools they had. Pretty quickly I became in charge of the whole engineering department.”

Over the years, Concina’s leadership style has evolved, although he doesn’t feel he was ever a traditional supervisor, spelling things out for people or bossing them around in extreme detail about the way things needed to be done.

“I’m incapable of managing that way,” Concina says. “I respect people who can actually do this, but I prefer managing adults and people who are confident in their craft. I don’t tell people how, I tell them what I want them to do. This approach works well in an R&D type of environment because the maturity level of the group is high.”

Concina lets his managers set the detailed goals for their respective teams according to the needs of the company. Then he provides coaching and executive sponsorship to remove obstacles and ensure their success. “Sometimes I even get to provide technical solutions, but it is now a rare treat,” he says.

Concina joined ESI in December 2010 and is now responsible for central R&D and engineering, as well as the internal laser business. The twenty-five-year tech vet previously spent more than fifteen years at KLA-Tencor, a semiconductor capital equipment company, as general manager of its Electron-Beam metrology and inspection department and as a managing director of its investment arm, KT-Venture Group.

Now, in addition to his role as chief technical officer, Concina is general manager of a business under the ESI umbrella. This is a completely different interaction model with the staff—one that operates on a much shorter time scale.

“I’m a big believer in computer simulations as adjuncts to experimentation. We are working on laser-material interaction simulations, and these are long multiyear programs,” Concina says. “It’s comforting to look at the technology part, but on the business side you have to deal with a lot of different personalities where oftentimes emotions take precedence over logic—especially when dealing with customers, sales reps, sales people, etc.”

With a team of fifty-six under his purview, Concina has a relaxed attitude when it comes to being the man in charge. He considers himself part of the team and gives his managers a fairly long leash.

Stefano Concina’s Guiding Principles

Offer competitive differentiation. Concina always asks the same question: What is our difference? “There are other larger companies that can outcompete us on many fronts, especially on the easy stuff,” he says. “For us to win, we need to have something unique that comes from solving difficult problems. My staff knows that when they say something is hard, I say ‘Great—let’s go do it.’”

Embrace differences. Concina has a diverse staff. “We have a very international group in Portland, Oregon, a group of French Canadians in Montreal and a group in France,” he says. “More than half the people have advanced degrees with very different backgrounds and experiences. By being French in France and Quebecois in Canada, we are able to leverage collaborative R&D efforts in their respective countries.”

Just listen. Concina listens a lot. “Maybe in an obnoxious and very active way,” he says, “but I do hear what people say. I’m known for having heated discussions with people. I don’t have to agree with everything, but I want to make sure all the issues are put on the table so that we can make the best possible decision.”

Coach, don’t do. “I don’t want to do the work for the team, but I nudge them in the right direction,” Concina says. He ensures his team members work together, helping them discover the essence of the obstacles so they solve the problem themselves.

“I’ll hold a staff meeting once a week and will do a daily conference call with the general manager who runs the laser business in France,” he says. “The team is in various time zones—France, Canada, Portland, Oregon—which can be a challenge. The emphasis is always on how to solve the problems that we are facing.”

He’s found that workers in France and those in the United States have different styles that don’t necessarily mesh. For example, email battles often rage on for days, a result of discrepancies in time zones and approaches to business problems. Those in France, for instance, do a lot more talking—a solution Concina prefers.

“I don’t appreciate when people answer emails instead of solving the problem. There’s a lot of back and forth that could be solved by a single phone call,” he says. “People are rougher in email than they are in person or on the phone. I may let it go for a little but eventually, if I see it’s getting out of hand, I’ll step in and solve the problem with a call.”

Concina is used to navigating cross-cultural communication. Italian-born and French-educated, he first came to the United States in 1982 to finish his studies at Caltech and Stanford, and he’s traveled the world with stops in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Australia and France.

“This helped me be adaptable, make friends quickly, and figure out what’s important,” he says—all traits that have helped define his leadership style. “I try hard to put myself in the other person’s shoes, to understand what people’s motivations are, and to listen
to them.”