Bringing Gender Balance to Nestle Italy

More in my series on showing how the gender balancing program at Nestle, on which I have been working with them, has gone down well even in the more macho countries in which the company operates. This time I'm looking at Italy.

Silvio Berlusconi's Italy hardly seemed to take women seriously in the workplace. Many people feel that the country has been backsliding seriously on gender issues for the past decade. So when Nestle launched its gender balance initiative globally, Stefano Agostini, the head of Nestle Waters Italy, immediately saw that this could be a competitive advantage for his market.

"To be innovative, we need to be gender balanced," he says. "In 2008, we were not leveraging all the opportunities we had. We needed to understand our consumers better. And our traditional masculine approaches risked keeping us behaving in the same old way. In Italy, the classic leadership style is pushy and directive. We needed to open up to other styles that allowed more involvement of people. As long as you deliver, all styles should become allowed — and encouraged."

"The boy's club culture is strong in Italy, so our greatest challenge was to convince people that a structured, transparent way of leading and promoting was the way to go. We were very careful; if you make one mistake you can undo three years of efforts. We also put more discipline into meetings. Strong experienced men can affect smart young women's contribution."

The company was also trying to integrate the principles of lean manufacturing into its working styles, and Agostini found that changing the gender balance was a key lever in changing behaviors more generally. "Women have played a fantastic role in challenging the old style," he says. "They are less interested in traditional hierarchical power, they prefer evaluations and assessments."

The importance of family in Italy was one of the cultural realities that the company needed to embrace. "There was no problem recruiting great, ambitious young women," Agostini remembers, "but then they were scared to announce their pregnancy. We needed to make it clear that we would welcome these women back and support their ambitions. It's a simple statement, but it created a lot of confidence. A modern, competitive company has to be able to manage the simple, predictable reality of parenting."

Agostini proceeded to very publicly promote two women who were pregnant and just about to go on maternity leave. "I wanted to make it clear that these were talented, ambitious women, and we can wait a few months for them to return. It was a bit shocking, but it was very well perceived. And men learned that they don't have a competitive edge over mothers. You have to deliver and be a good leader, that's all."

The result was a completely different atmosphere, where people felt they could be honest and relaxed about their personal lives for the first time. "It makes us more modern, and makes the company much more attractive for men as well. It's an innovative internal culture in Italy."

Senior management in Italy has gone from 86/14% male/female ratio in 2006 to 70/30 today. Promotions in the past three years have been 80/20 female to male and today, the high-potential talent pool is balanced at 43/57 female to male.

The results of the company are excellent and growing. Market share has increased 10% per year. "We are more efficient and competitive, and the bottom-up energy in the company is fantastic," says Agostini. Italy is held up internally within Nestle as a model of 'bilingual' leadership. And Agostini finds himself on the speaking circuit presenting Nestle's approach and its impact on his company: "Where Nestle used to be seen as a conservative company, this issue touches people deeply and we have made a very positive impression in Italy. We have become more attractive, not only to women, but to a variety of stakeholders: politicians, consumers, young people and new recruits..."

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