04.02.134:45 AM ET

Daniela Riccardi: Leaning In for My Mother

The former Diesel and Procter & Gamble exec on how her mother’s sacrifices inspired her to follow her workplace dreams.

Sometimes in life there is a key moment that is destined to influence one’s future. For me that moment occurred when I was small and my mother told me about her childhood dreams, offering me a glimpse into how hard it is to give them up.

One day her father asked her, “Poppet, what is your dream?” He was a straightforward man but a dreamer, too, and he had struggled hard to carve out a position in the world for himself.

“I want to be an engineer and build steel bridges,” replied my mother.

Sadly, she never had the chance to become an engineer.  My grandfather died young, leaving a widow of 30 to reinvent herself and care for a small child whose wings had already been clipped by life.

My determination to attain my goals has its roots in the desire to redeem my mother’s experience. You have to follow your dreams: if you don’t, there will come a moment in life when you regret it. My mother worked, married, and dedicated herself to my sister and me. She couldn’t have been a better mother or wife, but to do so, she sacrificed her own dream to build steel bridges.

Her experience is typical of millions of women. As little girls, we imagine a future that is complete and full, living as women, mothers, wives, and accomplished professionals. But then real life comes along to challenge that image, forcing so many to make compromises and sacrifices.

The memory of my mother’s words gave me the courage to believe in myself and in my dreams.

When I entered the workplace in the mid-1980s, businesses were still firmly in the hands of men. There were women, but rarely did they find themselves in positions of responsibility.  Bucking heavy odds and refuting those who believed that the top management jobs in American multinationals were not for women, I had a marvelous 25-year career at Procter & Gamble (P&G). I was the first non-American woman to head up management of foreign countries for the company, occupying positions of responsibility in various international branches. And after 25 years I found the courage to leave it all and return to an old dream of mine: working in fashion. I did that by taking on the job of CEO at Diesel in 2010.

My career has been a wonderful journey, but it was not without its difficulties. My story began in Rome. From a young age I had dedicated myself with great energy to classical dance. I even considered it as a possible career. But after secondary school, I realized that ballet required total commitment and I wanted to go to university. I made a choice: I decided to study international political science. Later, a scholarship opportunity in marketing at Yale University pointed me in a new direction. The world of diplomacy was closed and politicized, while management was a genuinely global field, more meritocratic and rich with opportunities.

After Yale I took a position with Procter & Gamble Italy. I threw myself into the job, but my colleagues immediately put me on my guard. Of the two women who had managerial positions, one was young and unsure of herself—obviously not a strong role model.  The other was 41 years old, unmarried, and completely absorbed by her work. This woman’s behavior—and even her clothing—were modeled on her male colleagues. The message she sent was clear: management was a job for men, and if a woman chose to break this unwritten taboo, she would have to be ready to pay a heavy price. No children, no family.

I did not agree: I had always thought that women are born with the talent for multitasking. We can manage a job, children, and a household at the same time. Why give up anything without first trying?

On my first day at work I broke the rules by wearing a blue blazer with a short yellow skirt and a low-cut blouse, while my other female colleagues were in trouser suits and ties. I wanted to be professional without giving up my femininity. I wanted to be myself. And from then on, that has always been one of my unshakable values. I do it my way. To have women on the staff and in management is necessary precisely because we are women and bring values and abilities to the business that complement those of men. I believe if we think and act like men, we lose much of our worth.

Despite the fact that the company was a multinational, not many women stepped forward to volunteer for assignments abroad, even though these assignments were essential if you wanted to grow and rise at P&G. After six years in Italy, I decided to apply, and I found myself spending three years in Brussels, at the group’s European administrative center. It turned out to be important both for my career and my personal life. In Brussels I met a Colombian colleague who would become my husband. When he returned to Colombia, I asked to be transferred, too, and a year later we got married. Unlike other companies, Procter & Gamble accepts dual careers: if two of their employees are a couple, they try to move them together and to offer them both chances to develop and advance.

When we were in Colombia, our son, Matteo, was born. I was 36 at the time and saw myself as an old mother. While I was pregnant, I was terrified that something might go wrong and had endless ultrasound scans. Despite my fears, I remained committed to my job. I was working on a fantastic project at the time and kept going until I gave birth. After three months of maternity leave, I was back in the office.

I was next promoted to the position of general manager for Latin America and moved to Mexico. Here I became a mother for the second time, giving birth to a girl, Cecilia. After Mexico we lived in Caracas, Venezuela. Then I was promoted to vice president for Eastern Europe and we moved to Moscow. After Russia, we lived in Canton for five years, where I served as president of greater China.

How have I managed to reconcile the roles of mother and manager? I spent almost my entire salary on creating a serene family environment. I didn’t want to give up either doing my job well or being close to them. I bent over backward to be there for my children at important moments. I had a team of people around me to help: driver, nanny, and housekeeper. I even took the children and nanny with me when I had important business trips.

Of course, I wasn’t a mother who stood waiting for her children at the school gates every day.  But when I did manage to be there, as a surprise, Matteo would say, “Mum, you are so beautiful, you look like a film star!” Naturally: I’d come straight from work in suit and heels.

My now adolescent children, like all children, are critical of me (as I was of my parents), but they know they are lucky. They speak five languages, have absorbed the cultures of the different countries where they have lived, and have a rare open-mindedness. They have enjoyed this adventure with me, and they wonder how other people manage to live in only one place.

My husband, Juan Pablo, has also enjoyed the adventure while succeeding in finding interesting professional opportunities—or rather fantastic challenges. He is the true and unique sponsor of my career. He understands, supports, and believes in me, knows who I am and what I can achieve more than I do myself.

The story of my professional life clearly shows that it begins with us; we must step forward or “lean in,” as Sheryl Sandberg puts it.

There are companies in Italy that know how to appreciate the importance of women and the role they can play. When I was at Diesel, three of the most influential executives were women, and one of the main reasons that I chose Diesel (other than the coolness of the brand, the company, and its founder) was the total openness and trust given to women.

But it is up to women to demonstrate courage and goodwill and to know clearly what we want. It is up to intelligent businesses and governments to understand that choosing to have qualified women on their team is strategic and not “politically correct.” And if they don’t understand that, it won’t be the pink quota that will help them, or indeed us.

At Procter & Gamble, I was fortunate to work with a CEO like Alan G. Lafley, who believed gender diversity was part of a successful business strategy. The concept is simple: a good balance between men and women leads to better results and a stronger and more expert organization. Recognizing female ability improves the company’s performance.

When I took part in the Women’s International Networking Conference in 2004, they showed a video that remains stamped on my mind. It said that the human race is like a bird: it needs both wings to fly. The wings are men and women; with only one wing, we can’t lift off the ground. Companies that do not recognize the different and complementary abilities of women lose wealth and the opportunity of creating stronger organizations.

I am convinced this is right. At one point during my career at P&G, I was responsible for diversity policy. In this role I was able to help women understand what they wanted, and I tried to make them confident that they could achieve their objectives. If you know what you want, you can get it. Sometimes women hold themselves back. After five or six years in a career, young women wonder whether to get married and have a child or take on a new challenge at work and what repercussions that choice will have on their future. We must believe in ourselves and dare. Thanks to my mother, I have found the determination to do so. It is a debt that I owe her; to pay it back, I have always tried to instill courage in other women, exactly as she did with me. The economic crisis and the mentality of certain businesses might limit our range of opportunities, but today a young woman with talent doesn’t just have Italy before her but the entire world. If I can do it, any woman who wants to can.

People of talent are precious resources.  We cannot allow ourselves to ignore or lose half of them. Half of this talent pool contains us. I am addressing young Italian women in particular: shoulder the responsibility of carrying forward your ideas, having dreams, and following them with passion and discipline. If you can convince yourself, you will find the right people to give you opportunities and recognize your value.

Thank you, Sheryl. This book is a precious gift, and you have given it to us by finding the time—a rare thing in such a busy life—to share your experiences with us. I hope women will read it with focus and let the passion and willpower that animate Sheryl’s professional career become part of the DNA of their approach to work and life too.

Daniela Riccardi
Former global CEO, Diesel
Former president, The Procter & Gamble Company

Adapted from the Italian version of Lean In.