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Good morning Cristina, I’m really happy to be here with you today. When we met, I already told you, you really fascinated me as a person. That’s why I would like to investigate more about your outlook on life, your daily life, because somehow I think it also reflects on your professional life.
First question. What skills do you think are really important in professional life but also in life in general? And how do you try to improve them every day?
Look I think that in work there are some characteristics that can make a difference, for example, the ability to think strategically, so looking at problems in the round with a medium to long term perspective, but also the ability to make decisions, even decisions maybe difficult, complex, under pressure.And then especially at work you need the ability, in my opinion, to create compact teams, cohesive teams, where everybody has the desire to give their best. You know, it’s important to have a team that gets up in the morning motivated, happy to come to the office, happy to contribute. But then there are qualities that are the most important ones that not only apply at work but also apply to everyday life. I like people who are honest, I like people who have a strong moral compass, these are characteristics that are even more important to me than technical skills. I believe that all of us in our personal lives, as well as in our work lives, we want to surround ourselves with people we can trust because they are precisely transparent and generous. And because they have polar stars, such as honesty, that make a difference.
I also believe in these characteristics, on a personal level. Also hope for example, that is, giving hope, when you enter the workplace and show that there is a future, that there is a vision…this somehow gives stability to the people around you, in life and in work.
Absolutely, also because I have always thought that there is more to work than a salary. I come from a normal family of teachers, so in short, earning a salary has always been something important and useful for me. However, I always thought that work is more, work is fulfillment, satisfaction, self confidence, dignity. That’s it, I believe that with all of us when we work we feel more fulfilled, then when we have the opportunity to touch other people’s work as well, we have to make sure that everyone feels fulfilled and satisfied with how they commit so many hours in the day, because then in the end we all devote so much time to our professional lives.
Reading many of your interviews I noticed that you use different metaphors, both to describe professional life and life in general, for example, the metaphor of the marathon, the juggler of the tightrope walker, the helmsman of the ship. I’m curious: do you use these metaphors because they are somehow a transposition of how you see and feel, or did you start using them because it was a way of living the professional and personal life to which you aspired?
Look, they are metaphors that I started using to explain to my son many concepts that, for a child before, now a 14-year-old boy, are otherwise difficult to explain. For example, how can you explain to a child that mom has to combine private life and work life and has so many priorities? You can’t talk about worklife balance? No? Then you start saying, “Look Ricky, mommy has a very busy life,” and then you think of the juggler and then you explain, “look mommy has a ball named Ricky, which is the most important one. Then, however, there are so many others, work, being a friend, being a daughter, being a wife, being precisely a mom, being a CEO.” So that’s how the first metaphor came about, that of the juggler trying to hold all the balls up. And so in this way, you explain to him that you have many priorities, but that the attention you can give to the different priorities has to be different at different times, that is, the time when I dedicate myself to him, he knows that he is that ball that has all my attention. But he has to understand, though, that there are other priorities that maybe have less of my attention that I then have to give more attention to, otherwise those balls fall on the floor. So the first one was born and then all the others came because I found it to be a clearer, and also lighter, way of expressing concepts that are otherwise a bit more complex.
A very recurring theme in your interviews is that of luck. In some interviews you say that you are a lucky person, but in others you say that luck does not exist and that life is a blank canvas that you can paint. I’m curious. Do you believe in fate?
Cristina – So look, I believe that fate, or luck, impacts our lives. In the end, however, I am a person who was born healthy. Still now (touching iron) I am healthy, my son is healthy. There are these very important things in life, like health, yours and your loved ones’, that are unfortunately not up to us. You can put a lot of effort into it. Sure, you can do prevention, you can do checkups when you are not well, however, luck basically plays a role in these important things. Having said that, I mean having said that there are some fundamental things that happen to you regardless of your will, it’s also true that then you have to roll up your sleeves, you can’t just think, “eh whatever, if this is not meant to happen, then I’m not even going to put in the effort to make it happen,” so knowing that there are fundamental things that we can’t manage, there is so much of our life that, in my opinion, is manageable by us. I think each of us has to figure out what our dream is and then we have to say to ourselves, “okay it’s a dream, so maybe I’ll achieve it, maybe I won’t, but I have to try because basically we only have one life.” Then if I have a life and a dream I have to make an effort to try to achieve it and not let the starting point hinder me. I could have said to myself, “yes, my dream is to become a CEO, but I was born into a normal family of teachers in a small provincial town, and I am also a woman, which doesn’t help, because only 3 percent of CEOs are women” and then I could have sat down and said, “okay, it’s a pipe dream, it’s a utopia, I’ll never get there,” but instead I said to myself (speaking of metaphors) “okay, it’s a marathon, it’s hard and it’s long, I’m going to fall down, I’m going to struggle, I’m going to be out of breath, but I want to try. ” And then if you try so hard, if you can find the strength, when you fall you get back up, maybe with a little bit of luck because then eventually you need that too, maybe you can achieve your dream and maybe it’s even better because it comes at the end of a tiring marathon, but you made it in the end.
What are the personal challenges, though at the professional level, that you still have to fight every day? Referring to what you said, many times there are external factors that we cannot control. There are people who tell you what you should be and what you should do, and you can only control how you perceive that phrase and that situation.
I think your question also refers to the fact that I am a woman and we women anyway are still victims of stereotypes and prejudices. It happened to me many times in my career to be treated just like I was a UFO. I will always remember that. I had been appointed CEO of L’Oréal a few months ago, a major supplier arrived, so we were ready with the welcoming committee. There was me and there were key members of my leadership team. This supplier arrives, shakes everyone’s hand, then looks at me and after saying “Good morning doctor” to everyone else, he looks at me, hands me his coat and says, “Miss, can you put it on for me?” “Sure, I’ll put your coat on for you, but how do you do, I’m the CEO.” I have to say the look with which he looked at me between amazed and “oh my goodness, I’ve made a gaffe,” made me realize that I didn’t even have to add anything else, that maybe that was enough, and it wasn’t the only example. Several times I had people ask me for coffee, so now I’m going to throw it out with a laugh. If someone asks me for coffee now, at least I can offer them a good one as the CEO of illy caffè. However, it is true, being a woman means that from the start she is seen as less strong, less strategic, less rational. And there is this image that women on boards or in top roles bring gentleness, conciliation, listening, empathy, all the things I believe in, however, I am not just that, I am not the angel of the team and the angel of the board. Exactly like a man, I can be empathetic when I think it’s right to be empathetic and I can make decisions rationally, without hysteria and without nervousness when the situation requires a decision made in the right time, even under pressure, and against that, we however, I think for many more decades, we should fight. The important thing is not to let the stereotype tell you who you should be or who you should become, because otherwise they win, and it is not right to let stereotypes win. We have to know that the road for us is a little bit more uphill, okay, we are strong enough to roll up our sleeves and I believe that slowly the situation will improve. If you think back to a hundred years ago, what did women have to do? What did women have to do to win the vote? For example, what did they have to do to enter politics for the first time? What did they have to do to get into the control room for the first time? A hundred years have passed. The situation is much better. Perfect? No. Are we at a level playing field? No. But here it is, maybe in twenty, thirty, forty years we will get there. And so I see this situation as a relay race, someone who has run harder than me has passed the baton to me. Now I’m doing my part of the race, and I like to think that my children’s and grandchildren’s generations will be able to take this baton and run effortlessly.
Because really being taken seriously, I mean I don’t want to be controversial, I hardly do and I hardly complain. But then in my personal life, I suffer so much, so I say, I go on because then that pain passes, however when they don’t shake your hand, when they don’t look you in the eyes, it’s something that destabilizes me because I think about all that my mom has done to make me be able to study and then really it just comes down to that second that seems to mark your destiny.
That’s right, there’s no need to complain, as you rightly say, however, there is a need to turn this anger, this frustration, into an extra push, an extra kick in the professional life.
In work and in life, do you follow your heart or your mind?
I try to follow both. I am a very rational person, very left brain, I have always liked math and physics, so I am a person who by nature makes decisions more with my head than with my heart. But I also follow my instincts a lot, because the more important the decision is, the more you can’t just feel it in your head, you have to feel it in your heart and in your stomach, that is, you have to feel that something that makes you embrace the decision with all of yourself. In Procter & Gamble, I once did a beautiful test, which is called Myers – Briggs. This test that is very fashionable in American companies, teaches you that each one of us is born with preferences, and then in order to be able to achieve certain professional results in life, but not only professional, also personal, you have to complement these preferences of yours with skills that are not natural to you, but that you have to learn because otherwise you are not a complete person. And then they tell you, for example, some people are born introverted or extroverted and that’s absolutely fine, but if you are too introverted, depending on the job you want to do, you also have to learn to expose yourself, or if you are more of a thinker as opposed to someone who uses feelings, you have to be able to complement the two characteristics, and so I realized what my preferences are. I am an extroverted person, who uses my head more. I like to look more at the long term as opposed to the short term. I like to decide more and possibly change my mind later, rather than leave decisions hanging for a long time. However, over the years, precisely because I was aware of these preferences of mine, I tried to develop these skills because they are a wake-up call. For example, when you want to decide too quickly, maybe you don’t look enough at all the elements, then remembering that maybe deciding quickly may not be the right choice makes you turn on that light that says, “okay, now even though I would like to, I won’t close the decision. I’m going to take some more time,” and so that’s how I also learned to balance head, heart and stomach all together.
I believe that in life, as we learn about ourselves, we begin to perceive instincts, impulses, and intuitions that tell you exactly what direction to take. Do you believe that?
For me it was enlightening, in the sense that I took this test, Myers – Briggs, we were twenty people and it was very nice. First of all, I recognized myself very much in what this questionnaire was giving back to me and then not only that, the fact that we were so many people, it made me recognize the others as well, I mean when then the others were describing their profile, I said “gee, but then it’s true, because not only do I recognize myself in the results, but it’s true that this other person has these characteristics, another person is right that they have these other characteristics,” so for me it was an enlightenment, an epiphany. And then, of course if you start paying attention to it a little bit then it becomes natural to you. But I have to say that by now I know myself very well. I get along very well with myself, in the sense that over the years I’ve gotten to know my actions and so that also helps, because the more you know yourself, the more you can handle yourself in the easier moments, but especially in the tougher ones.
Since your adventure within Illy Caffè began, what has been one activity that you have been particularly passionate about?
There are many, many projects that I have become very fond of. I would like to tell you about a project that we are launching right now. And it’s a collaborative project with the IEO. I believe that companies are social bodies, they have a social responsibility. We cannot work just to make turnover and profit. I believe that every leader and every company must work to integrate economic value with other values. The economic and financial value must be there to create jobs. I have to ultimately create turnover and profit, so the economic value has to be there, but it has to be integrated with ethical, social, moral values. All those activities that allow me to combine value with values are the activities for which I have the greatest passion. These days, precisely, with coffee we decided to support the IEO, the European Institute of Oncology. Why? Because we, like many others, have coffee subscriptions, so you go, you buy 10 coffees, then the barista gives you the eleventh, and we said, okay, there is a twelfth that we give to the IEO, so to this European Institute of Oncology, and the IEO will do what with these funds? It will fund “Second Opinion”, which is a service that is available to all patients who have received an oncology diagnosis — so a diagnosis for a major disease — and who want to get a second opinion. “They advised me to have surgery, is that right? I was advised to have chemo. It should be done before or after surgery. Is that right?” In those moments I saw it precisely with my dad, when such a heavy diagnosis falls on you, you have fear, you have suffering of all kinds, physical and psychological, and you want help. Here, this service in my opinion gives a concrete hand to people to orient themselves, to live a little bit better in that moment, that for them and their family members is very difficult, and it is a service that not everybody can afford because it is a paid service. And we thought to fund it, so starting in early May we are going to fund this Second Opinion service and in our very small little one, if somebody can try this path of cancer treatment with a little bit more peace of mind, we would have made a difference and this is the most important thing.
I would like to ask you one last question, if you would allow me, maybe a little bit romantic, can you tell me about a memory related to a cup of coffee?
A moment related to a cup of coffee? The most beautiful recent moment related to a cup of coffee – I experienced it in Brazil, I had never gone to the plantations and a month ago I said “but you can’t be the CEO of illy caffe if you haven’t seen a plantation”, and so we went to see these plantations and at one point we were welcomed into a school and I have to say, it was really moving because there were forty little girls there, all little girls from four to fourteen years old, daughters of girls who are mothers of women who, with great courage, in a difficult situation like that of some Brazilian economic contexts, instead of abandoning these girls in orphanages, they decided to try to take care of them and this school helps these struggling mothers because it gives them two hot meals-lunch and dinner, lunch and snack-depending on the funds they can raise, and gives them after-school activities. They help these girls, also because it’s not like they have a lot of options. There, what they can get is quite little and they have to make do with it. And this school is made up of volunteers who help these girls grow from four to fourteen years old and then go on to further education and, in most cases, get a job. Here, I walked into this school with these little girls, with their dresses all colorful who did a dance to thank illy caffè for supporting this school for so many years. It was really beautiful and then they made me a special coffee with this special cup decorated by them and I must say, I still have that cup at home and I will always carry that moment in my heart. Because speaking of luck, here when we have hard times we have to remind ourselves that, in most cases, we were born in privileged situations anyway, because compared to those little girls who have a single mother, who really struggles to put lunch on the table, in most cases they never knew a father, in most cases they don’t even really have — this is something that struck me — many tell me that the most important thing that school gives them is a hot shower, because at home they don’t have hot water. Here then, when we talk about luck, yes, a little bit in life, luck exists. We are born in a part of the world that is more comfortable than others, and that we have to remember, precisely when there are hard times.
Thank you. Sometimes we really take for granted things that are basic to others.
It’s true, I have to say that cup of coffee taught me so much and I hope to always carry it in my heart, because I have to say, looking at the eyes of those little girls, there are certain lessons you can’t and shouldn’t forget.
I thank you because I’m sure that through your words, somehow each of us thought back to a turning point that particularly marked us, and I think it’s important to always remember that because it gives you a chance to do something, even if it’s small it makes a difference.
Absolutely, absolutely. I thank you for this wonderful talk and thank you all.
Thank you very much, thank you. I’ll give you a hug.
Here we go.
The full video interview: