How to use a crisis to accelerate change

By Kristen Anderson, Chief Diversity Officer at Barilla Group

Barilla is on a journey. We are the world’s largest pasta maker, but we are still small compared to the global food giants. We are a private family-owned company based in Parma, a small town at the heart of Italy’s food valley. Half of our revenues come from Italy and half of our 8,400 employees are based in Italy.

We are on a continuous path of introspection and discovery, but sometimes we lose direction.  Five years ago, our Chairman Guido Barilla made insensitive comments about featuring LGBT families in company advertisements.  So, we paused and then seized the opportunity to make a significant change in the company culture.  Shortly after he made his remarks, Guido Barilla issued a formal apology and then he and the CEO, Claudio Colzani, took quick actions to become a more diverse and inclusive company in the future.

How can you leverage a crisis situation as an opportunity? We learned these 4 key elements during our journey over the last 5 years:

  • Decisiveness on D&I: Make a plan and start acting.  Within the first 2 months after the crisis, we created a 10 member D&I Board, a Chief Diversity Officer role reporting to the CEO, and audited all of our policies and procedures for any exclusion.
  • Buying In:  Get senior leaders from around the world involved and committed to the plans.  We have executive sponsors from the senior leadership team for each of our employee groups working to improve inclusivity of generations, gender, disabilities, ethnicities, and LGBTQ.
  • Reliably Deliver:  Tell the employees what you are going to do, do it and then tell them the results. We developed a D&I survey in 8 languages for all employees, which guides the work we need to do against key improvement opportunities.  Develop metrics to track and measure the progress.
  • Learn from Others:  We knew that we needed help from the external world, so we asked three renowned experts to join our D&I Board and guide us in this journey:  Patricia Bellinger (Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School), David Mixner (Civil Rights Activist), Alessandro Zanardi (Paralympic Gold Medal Winning Cyclist).

In the words of our CEO, Claudio Colzani: "Promoting diversity and inclusion means not only doing the right thing but it is also good for our business.”

As a company, Barilla is more than 140 years old.  When Pietro Barilla opened a small pasta and bread shop in the center of Parma in 1877, the world was a very different place.  We have grown over the decades as the world has modernized and as expectations held by our employees, customers and consumers have evolved. Today, we are confident that the significant steps we have taken and will take in the future to achieve greater diversity and inclusion, will make us an even better and stronger company.  We have learned a lot in the past 5 years, but we have more work to do!


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