Cristina Scocchia, CEO L’Oréal Italia, on believing in dreams, embracing where life takes you and rejecting the notion of «women against men» in search for gender equality.
Good morning, Cristina. Thank you for finding time for this conversation, it’s truly a pleasure.
Today’s talk is about gender equality, and given that you are one of the biggest trendsetters in the world of beauty I would like to ask you how did the concept of beauty shift in the light of media coverage and society both inclining towards a more gender equal world, and how do L’Oréal brands act in response to this shift?
I think that we were among the first companies to talk about beauty being on the women’s side. If you remember, we were the ones to launch the claim «Because I am worth it» in L’Oréal Paris that was launched in 1972 in the US. And this was a revolution, because for the first time we were portraying a woman who was not depending on men’s approval but who was worth it because of her own strength, because of self-empowerment. This was, of course, a big shift in our communication, a cultural revolution in the beauty world, and since then we started using this concept in all our countries. In 1997 we could finally adopt it in Italy – of course, it’s a pity that it took us so long, because, unfortunately, society in Italy was not ready yet. But what counts is that since the beginning L’Oréal portrayed beauty on women’s side.
About your career, according to my research, you didn’t begin your professional path in L’Oréal and for some 16 years you worked in Procter&Gamble. You’ve been to different positions, and that was particularly interesting to me, because in a world when people change companies every 2 to 5 years, a 16-year tenure is a long and, I imagine, an interesting journey. So when you changed to the CEO position at L’Oréal, how did the change feel for you?
Your research was absolutely right; I spent almost 16 years in Procter&Gamble, 13 of which abroad. And I think that my current job is a natural result of the opportunities that I’ve been presented with during my 16 years at Procter&Gamble. I was always loyal to P&G, but then I was offered this amazing opportunity in Italy, which is one of the strategic countries for L’Oréal, and, on top, when I arrived I was given the challenging objective of bringing the subsidiary back to growth after a difficult and complex period.
So it let you shine even more on your leadership skills and professional side in order to make this change happen.
Absolutely. I think this assignment gave me the opportunity to test and refine my managerial capabilities. I was lucky, because I found a great team of people, and together we brought to life a comprehensive change management program. We focused on several different strategies, and in 2015 we came back to a significant growth, 4 times the market. This was a great result which proved that our strategy was working well.
There is statistical data which tells us that success and likability are on average positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women. Did this gender equality issue apply to you when you developed your career, and do you remember a case of encountering any discrimination that restrained your growth?
I have to say that I was lucky because I’ve always worked for companies that nurture talent without any gender discrimination. And this is honestly very important, because I’ve always been evaluated on my talents, on my skills, on my areas of strength and never on the fact that I was a woman. But at the same time I live in the real world, I recognize that in Italy for example it’s very difficult for women to break the glass ceiling and I cannot deny there have been moments at times when I felt some sort of discrimination in the professional environment, although never within the companies I worked for. The fact that I am a woman, and relatively young for the job I have, may still surprise some people. Sometimes you hear them asking, you know, why is she there, is she really capable, the questions that maybe wouldn’t arise if I were a man. But I noticed that with time and after you bring successful results, prejudice and biases start falling.
So, from your experience, if a young woman, a young professional faces situations of negativity, and the feeling of being underestimated by others, what would you advise her to do?
I would suggest to concentrate on your passion, on your objective. I think that we as women, as human beings in general, we need to be resilient, determined, focused on what we want. Because results always speak for us, and therefore this is the advice I would like to give to the younger generation. Guys, focus on results. Results speak for you. It’s true that for a woman it still is and so it will be in the coming years more difficult than for men, but to reduce prejudices the only way is to focus on concrete results that cannot be argued, cannot be denied.
Now you’ve achieved a lot of amazing results, you coach and empower your own employees, but, I imagine, there were times when you yourself needed to be empowered. There has been an emerging trend recently – professional women are speaking about how other women uplift them. Do you have this kind of empowering female figure in your life without whom your career wouldn’t be the same?
I have to be honest, I don’t. I don’t, because since the beginning I’ve always tried not to put myself in the corner of women. I think that one powerful way not to feel discriminated is not to lock yourself in the definition «I am a woman». I’ve always valued the advice and the support of everyone, female, male alike, so if I think about my career I’ve had a lot of people helping me, a lot of people coaching and supporting me, but they were men and women in the same proportion. I know it’s a dream, but I would like women just to be valued for who they are – human beings with skills. So we need to do our part not to corner ourselves as females.
I agree with you; I also think that the genders should work together towards equality.
I always try to build teams that are diverse, because I believe diversity is important, diversity is richness. Diversity means gender diversity, national diversity, cultural diversity, religion diversity etc. etc. So, for me diversity is a plus, but in all its dimensions.
And from a personal life side, when a woman wants to self-realize outside of the family, which qualities would you advise to look for in a potential partner?
I have my own recipes, but it doesn’t mean that they apply to all. If I need to transparently answer your question, what I would say is, I never had a pre-defined set of criteria to be checked to find the perfect partner, I just fell in love my husband and that was it.
You can be a planner in life, but there are areas where you need to just follow your feelings. What I am going to say is a bit provocative, but I think that one of the issues we have as women is that we want to control too much. Yes, it is important to have plans and try to foresee a potential shortcoming, but there is a moment in which life takes over; you need to be flexible and know that the goal you set for yourself might be achieved in a different way than planned. And when it comes to personal relationships, respecting each other is everything. Can you imagine when on top of working you both want to have a career? It can honestly get really challenging. The point is: be realistic about it within the couple, and try to help each other, try to find compromises, always making sure that the shared values and respect within the couple are more important than anything else.
You have mentioned that sometimes life takes over, and this is very interesting. So, when this happens, just relax and go with the flow?
Not exactly. In that moment you need to be able to react, go with the flow and still look at your objectives, still go there, but maybe go there in a different way versus what you thought before. The point for me is the balance, this is what I’ve learned in my life.
I couldn’t agree more, balance is everything. And what is the one critical piece of wisdom to career success and to life success in general that you know now but wish you knew as a young female graduate? What would you tell to your mentees now?
When I was a young student I thought that career was a sprint, so I wanted to have it all, the sooner the better. And now what I have understood is that career is a marathon. So of course you need to be focused and determined, of course you need to try to achieve your objective as soon as possible, but you need to also acknowledge that sometimes your career takes you places where you didn’t want to go and by going there you realize that you learn things that you didn’t know you actually needed. And there is a saying, «you never know what you don’t know».
The other piece of learning that I try to give to my mentees is always believe in your dreams. I think that we as human beings, and again, it’s not men, it’s not women, it’s we, human beings, we need to have dreams. We have only one life, we need to have and to go for our dreams without the fear of failure. Sometimes we’ll succeed, sometimes we’ll fail, but it’s always good to try. We shouldn’t let stereotypes, prejudices, fear stop us. Because it is a pity when people are discouraged. You yourself need to be the first one to believe in your potential – no one is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. So you need to have this passion, this courage, this enthusiasm, that will help you go through the difficult times that any career will have.
Right, and about your first advice, about perceiving distractions as useful in your career, I was thinking life is not interesting without surprises, so why close ourselves to new experiences.
Look, I’ll give you an example from my career. I remember I was promoted to Associate Director at P&G and I was super glad about this promotion, because it came very early and I was proud of that result. Then they told me, ‘You need to go and take care of Shopper Marketing in an area which was called CEMEA, Central and Eastern Europe Middle East and Africa’ and I thought, ‘Oh, boy, that’s really bad’, because shopper marketing was not very advanced in CEMEA, it was advanced in the US only. So, of course I accepted it, because it was a promotion, but in my mind I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, I am gonna waste two years of my career.’ Then I landed in this job, and it proved to be one of the most important jobs that I’ve had, because I learned about true diversity, cultural diversity, I learned about different ways to motivate people, about influential leadership versus straight assertive leadership. I discovered things about consumers and shoppers that are different from those in the European market, and this completely changed my mind and my vision. This allowed me to be a more complete manager. I couldn’t really think about all of this before living it. So sometimes it’s also important to trust your boss, to trust your company. If they send you to some ‘distraction’, to some surprise, maybe there is a reason why they give you the surprise, maybe you are going to learn from the surprise, and, by the way, maybe you are going to enjoy these two years traveling around Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa. These were among the best years in my career, because they were true fun.
This is a truly amazing story. And lastly, coming back to saying that genders should work on gender equality together, what advice would you give to men and guys to support women at the workplace and to support gender equality?
What I have always said is that talent per se is equally distributed between men and women, I think none of us could argue about that. What is not equally distributed is opportunity. We won’t need anything special as women, we need just the opportunity to show our talent. So what I tell men is, please remember not to judge people based on gender. Don’t judge people based on stereotypes, judge people based on performance and reward it. Please remember you are not better, you are not worse. Focus on giving equal opportunities to both genders: and the only way to do that is by looking at performance and potential, nothing else.
On this positive note let me end our talk. Thank you so much again for finding time, and I think your input and your advice will be invaluable for Bocconi students and for me, and for all of the young professionals out there.
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