The following interview has been edited in the winter of 2013.
“The most important thing is to have very clear ideas and then get things done instead of worrying about them.” This is the philosophy that Cristina Bondolowski has successfully applied at each of the challenges she has faced to become world executive director of the most famous soft drink on the planet: Coca-Cola. Always with the same work formula: “Kicking into action when I face a challenge…”
After working under a fellowship at IBM during the last two years of her degree, graduating in Business Administration at CEU San Pablo and completing a Master program at IE Business School, her interest in marketing took her to companies that included Estrella Seguros, Pepsico, Universal & Paramount Video Pictures, and Colgate-Palmolive, “where there was a school exclusively for marketing”, on her way to Coca-Cola at the end of the 1990s. She started working as manager of one of the company’s products (Sprite) and later became the brand’s director in Spain. She was then promoted to director of the fizzy drinks business unit in the same subsidiary. Afterwards, her career at Coca-Cola has grown exponentially: she started managing the brand at a global scale in the US, then she moved to Singapore to lead the marketing for Southeast Asia, to then become the Vice-President of Marketing for Europe, Africa, and Middle East, and finally, moving back to the US to manage the fizzy drinks globally.
Has so much responsibility ever made you feel giddy?
If I’m honest, it has never made me feel giddy. First of all because we are all directors of the Coca-Cola brand because we all have an opinion about it. I always say that Coca-Cola is like the economy: everyone wants to give their opinion and they do so because they are interested and that is a very good starting point. And, of course, you feel very protected when you have so many brand directors outside and inside the company. The main challenge has been how to lead those points of view in the direction I want them to go. And it has never made me feel giddy because when the company offers you a position like that, it’s because they think you are capable. Perhaps one of the things Spanish directors often lack is the ability to believe in themselves. When you go elsewhere and start working with people from other cultures, you realize they believe in themselves much more than we do. In the end, the company takes its decisions on the back of a great deal of experience. They have seen your work, you have achieved results in your starting country (in my case, Spain) and they select you because they want the way you understand the business, the brand, marketing and team leadership to be applied and transmitted on a global scale. I remember my first weeks, when I thought I would be unable to apply everything I knew about the Spanish market on a global scale and my manager said: “No, no, no. That’s why we have brought you here. Because we want you to replicate the model you have created in Spain globally.” So, you start to gain confidence, but the truth is that I have always felt a great deal of inside and outside support. The most important thing is to have very clear ideas and then get things done instead of worrying about them.
During your professional career, what has been your most difficult challenge?
I don’t remember ever facing a challenge that frightened me. As I said earlier, I think that when you have very clear ideas, what you have to do is focus on finding a solution. The way I always work is to kick into action when I have a challenge – I believe challenges help your development, to learn and gain more experience… They are always positive. Perhaps the most difficult decisions I have taken in my professional career have been those that involved my family, not so much speaking about business every day, but rather when I had to decide whether or not to move the entire family to the United States, because it was not my own decision, but rather one taken with my husband and my very small children. That has always been more difficult for me than any business decision, no matter how complicated the brand was.
As we are all products of the economic situation and our environment, what aspect of present events do you find most worrying?
We live in a much more dynamic world, in which we are exposed to much more information, which also forces us to take many more decisions during our lives… and all that generates much more stress. But the most important thing is people’s attitude to that situation and the fact that, some people have such a negative attitude. When I see that, I always want to say: “Focus on doing something proactive that takes you to something better. Stop digging yourself deeper into the hole instead of trying to get out of it.”
In a framework as competitive as today’s, to what extent do you believe that customer satisfaction is the main hobbyhorse in the soft drinks sector?
Understanding our consumers and satisfying them is our obsession, and we always try to adapt the message to maintain that relevance. In my experience of marketing and public opinion, there are few companies that understand consumers as well as Coca-Cola. That is what has maintained us where we are because, in the end, the product has the same formula, the same logo and the Coca-Cola brand is still on the top according to the latest Interbrand rankings.
What type of training do you think some senior executives still need to re-adapt to the new working world?
More than training in specific issues, what they perhaps miss is experience. Experience is what helps you shape yourself as a leader. Being a leader implies having influence and for someone to influence you, you have to believe in them. Believing in people means they follow a code of ethics and have values. They’re interested in people as human beings and take care of their team and, of course, they are citizens of the world, which means being very open, seeing many viewpoints and being more respectful.