Steering one of Italy’s largest media companies is just part of Monica Mondardini’s job portfolio. The CEO tells us about the steely resolve that keeps her business decisions on track.
An earthquake strikes but Monica Mondardini doesn’t flinch. As the Earth’s plates shift beneath Rome, causing everything in her 10th-floor office to tremble, the unflappable executive reassures all those in the room. As the CEO of Compagnie Industriali Riunite (CIR) and its subsidiary Gedi media holdings she has dealt with her fair share of upheavals. “Periods of change are the most interesting; demanding, yes, but also interesting,” she says, looking out over the eastern edges of the Eternal City beyond her orchid-lined window. By her own definition Mondardini is enjoying a fascinating period as she steers some of Italy’s most important media businesses through the challenges of the digital age towards long-term survival and relevance.
The 56-year-old became CEO of L’Espresso group in 2009 before taking the helm of the publisher’s parent company, CIR, four years later. It was from this position that Mondardini negotiated a merger between two of Italy’s most prominent business dynasties in April. L’Espresso group, which is part-owned by the De Benedetti family, merged with the Agnelli family’s Itedi (publisher of the country’s number-three newspaper La Stampa) to create a new publishing entity: Gedi. Mondardini heads a media behemoth with three radio stations and more than 20 publications, including nationals La Repubblica (see issue 100) and La Stampa and weekly magazine L’Espresso, engaging close to six million readers nationally.
Mondardini’s record is one of clear-eyed leadership. Since 2009 she has restructured the many titles under her supervision, upping their online offerings while keeping the print editions vital. L’Espresso Group was the only Italian news publisher to maintain profitability between 2009 and 2016, all amid economic crises and declining advertising spending. “These are challenging times for the media,” she says.
She cites a strange paradox in the news business today: revenue is decreasing even as audiences continue to grow. Online readership has broadened the workload but it hasn’t translated into more subscriptions or advertising. Mondardini isn’t yet certain what the sustainable economic model will look like, but she is clear on one aspect of the business: “We have to have faith in high-quality journalism and we believe that most readers will come to the same conclusion.”
The rise of fake news is felt particularly keenly in Italy, where the populist Five Star party has been linked to websites that publish conspiracy theories, false reports and pro-Kremlin editorials. In the face of the worrying amount of misinformation freely available online, Mondardini remains bullish. “It confirms how necessary it is for a society to have the kind of quality information that comes from proper journalism and fact-checking,” she says.
Mondardini is practical, efficient and polished (“I dress like Angela Merkel,” she says, smiling). Her average workweek is split between the L’Espresso office in Rome and the Milan headquarters of cir. On top of steering the group’s media brands her role at cir includes managing Sogefi, a global car-parts company, and the healthcare business kos. And she still finds time for a monthly stopover in Paris, where she sits on the board of the Crédit Agricole bank.
Her methods for tackling such a gargantuan workload are simple. She eats out just once or twice a month – “when visitors necessitate the occasion” – and professes to have neither the time nor the inclination for hobbies. When it comes to managing her team she favours face-to-face communication and prefers advancing internal staff rather than hiring externally: “Choosing the right people is one of the most difficult challenges.” But she insists on a work environment that is “completely meritocratic, where recognition and approval depend on performance and loyalty”. In a country that traditionally relies on a familial and favour-based system of advancement, this is a markedly radical philosophy.
Mondardini’s own career blossomed over the course of two decades working abroad at publishing house Hachette and the Generali insurance agency. These international forays exposed her to workplaces where the role of women was more established than it was in Italy at the time. “In Spain and France women’s professional capacity was already cemented in the 1980s and 1990s. There were powerful women who were visible emblems of that shift,” she says. For her part she asserts that, whether in Italy, Spain or France (and she has held the CEO position in each), she has never felt discriminated against as a woman. “I’m either very lucky or I’ve worked in very progressive environments,” she says.
Her success is still the exception: only 7 per cent of Italy’s listed companies have female CEOs (with its annual revenue of €2.6bn, cir Group is the biggest of these by some margin). Nonetheless, when it comes to advice, Mondardini has the same guidance for both men and women should they want to rise to her position: “Study hard, work hard and have courage.” As if to prove the point, she returns to her desk unruffled as yet another aftershock hits and the glasses on her table quiver once again.
- What time are you at your desk?
Between 09.00 and 09.30 but I never leave before 21.00. I’m more inclined to work in the evening than in the morning, a habit I’ve remedied only slightly over the years.
- Describe your management style.
I say “Pane al pane e vino al vino” [an Italian idiom meaning “Call a spade a spade”]. I’m very straightforward and very transparent.
- Are decisions best taken by one person?
Business decisions need to belong to a single author otherwise successes have many parents and failures are orphans, as they say.
- Do you want to be liked or respected?
It’s much more important to be respected. Management often needs to make unpopular decisions and seeking consensus negatively impacts these choices.
- What does your support team look like?
Just six or seven people at L’Espresso group. Managing a company should be handled by very few people who have a relationship of trust between them.
- Do you read management books?
As someone once said, I believe they are the tiresome elaboration of obvious ideas.
- What’s your key management advice?
People only give their best in an environment of trust but you must also push them to achieve more by setting challenging goals.
- What is the most difficult part of your job?
It’s easier to analyse the difficulties of others rather than my own.
- How do you handle employees who disagree with you?
Dissenting opinions don’t bother me; I actually find them very useful. Decisions come from debate but once a decision is made, that’s it: everyone needs to get behind it whether they agreed with it or not.
- If you could fix one thing about your company today, what would it be?
Everything that I have identified as needing improvement I have already tried to improve.