11/24/2014 09:43 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Cristina Mariani-May, co-CEO, Banfi Vintners

Cristina Mariani-May is the family proprietor of the internationally renowned Castello Banfi vineyard estate in Montalcino, Tuscany, and co-CEO of Banfi Vintners, a leading U.S. importer of fine wines. The youngest daughter of Banfi Chairman Emeritus, John F. Mariani, Jr., Ms. Mariani-May, together with her cousin James Mariani, represents the third generation of family leadership in the company founded by their grandfather, John Mariani, Sr. in 1919.

Soon after completing her studies at Georgetown University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Business, Mariani-May joined Banfi in 1993.

Among the first of many forward-thinking initiatives introduced by Mariani-May was the creation of progressive new tracking and monitoring systems at Castello Banfi, designed to elevate performance and establish new goals in the fields of customer satisfaction, environmental responsibility and social responsibility. In 2006 those procedures paid off when Castello Banfi became the only winery in the world to achieve ISO 14001, ISO 9001 and SA 8000 certification acknowledging leadership in these areas. This accomplishment underlines the strategic long-term vision, coupled with an ability to execute, that characterize her management of Castello Banfi.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up traveling the world with my parents exposed me to different cultures and people from very different backgrounds. It taught me about appreciating others and valuing people's stories. I believe it's easier to lead if I listen and try to understand people's perspectives. This helps me to better evaluate decisions with multiple sources of feedback.

Also going off to boarding school to Hotchkiss at a young age of 15 helped teach me incredible self-discipline and skills to work hard. Hotchkiss was a tough school that excelled in academics and sports. We learned at a young age that we could push ourselves to be the best possible, but that we were not always the biggest fish in the pond - at Hotchkiss many students were brighter and faster. But learning this young taught us that it is not about what others achieve, but about how to do your own personal best. I believe today I am a better leader because I set personally high standards for myself and hope to lead by example. Being a working mom, marathoner, and frequent traveler requires a lot of multitasking and organizational tools; I am thankful that my early education taught me determination and self-sufficiency.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Banfi?
Prior to Banfi I held a few jobs during college but my most memorable was working on Capitol Hill for a congressman. I was a Georgetown student and was thrilled to be working on the hill, exploring how our government worked. This position helped set me on my course at a young age because I learned that politics can get complicated and the hierarchy is overwhelming. I knew that I wanted to work in a smaller company where individuals could really make substantial contributions. It was after Washington DC that I decided to enter into my family business. Today I always appreciate the speed and lack of hierarchy that exists in a family business and privately owned company environment.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Banfi?
One highlight is our recent recognition as recipient of the Cornell Icon of the Industry Award. As many know, Cornell is the world's preeminent school in the hospitality space and this award honors industry leaders for their lifetime achievement and philanthropic contributions. My family was recognized for giving back and helping promote the wine and hospitality industry worldwide. It was a huge honor and really special to my family and to Banfi.

In terms of challenges, it's certainly an everyday challenge dealing with Italian and U.S. bureaucracy regarding wine regulations. On a higher level, it's also a challenge to build a strong business as a next generation co-CEO when you are handed such a successful company from the previous generation. It's a mission to continually improve while making it my own.

When I think about both highlights and challenges, I believe it's important to remember that it's about the journey, not always the destination. Wine is a patient business. It takes time to make a great wine and ultimately get it in the hands of consumers. When I speak to someone who appreciates wine, and they tell me about one of the greatest experiences they had with a lovely Tuscan wine, and it turns out it was a Castello Banfi wine...this is the ultimate feel good moment!

What advice can you offer women who are working for a family business?
Seek advice and guidance, especially from those outside the company (e.g., for us, the Family Business Consulting Group). Find mentors, advisors, and friends.

I listen to a lot of Ted Talks and podcasts regarding leadership. My favorite is Coaching for Leaders with Dave Stachowiak. While on my runs I listen to them and they always inspire me, help me remain creative, and give me great tips on ways to continually improve.

Communicate as much as you can. Be authentic and open. Do not bottle up emotions but express your thoughts with clarity and purpose.

Be vulnerable. Don't be afraid to talk about your mistakes and how you can improve. People appreciate honesty and being open makes us more human.

Finally, in family business there can be a lot of difficult conversations, so always think through the desired end result prior to entering into discussions. This way you can have a clearer path on how to reach resolution and move forward. It's not always easy, but when family and business combine, it is imperative to make it work. I love the book Difficult Conversations. It's really helped me through some tough times.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Running is my savior. I love to run marathons and long distances. I have a running group that I join on weekends, and the women are so amazing and empowering. We talk about everything, including our work stresses, kids, marriages, you name it. We have a mantra: "What you say on the road stays on the road." We share and I get great advice. Plus, the endorphins always help me clear my head and think through my business and personal challenges.

Also finishing marathons and all the training that goes into it makes me feel so empowered and happy. I feel that if you can set a personal goal for yourself and reach it, it carries through to business and home life. When things get tough, I know I have the mental stamina to get through the hard times. If I can do this, then I can do anything, or at least I keep telling myself this.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Work life balance, no doubt. How to manage kids, marriage, and work. So much falls on a woman's shoulders, it can cause incredible anxiety. I find that if we are open about our vulnerability and authentic in our feelings, we can work through the challenges and find kinship in other women who face the same daily grind. I love the Ted Talk by Brené Brown on Vulnerability. Check it out, it has 15 million views and she is so inspirational and honest.

And a nice glass of wine always helps too!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
It is so important to have people to guide you, but also to give back. Banfi was founded on the value of giving back and I love to work with other women to give them advice from what I have learned. I hope it helps them, but if nothing else it leads to open communication and I can learn so much from them at the same time.

I think another important thing to remember about mentoring is that it can manifest itself in "small" ways too. Adam Grant in his book, Give and Take, talks about something called the Five Minute Favor - i.e., extending a simple act of generosity and kindness to someone. Whether it's helping other women through a thoughtful introduction, timely feedback, or a few kind words of gratitude, it's really important to build these connections and ties over time.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Marissa Mayer of Yahoo comes to mind. She is so youthful, energized, real, and driven. She is a fantastic example of how women can rise to the top while still having a family and personal life.

I also admire Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. She's an impressive business leader and I also appreciate her vulnerability when she talks about the struggles of juggling her demanding career and home life.

Tory Burch is another female leader who comes to mind. She echoes the value of authenticity and she's prioritized female mentorship, entrepreneurship, and generosity in her business and foundation.

What do you want Banfi to accomplish in the next year?
Continued cohesion of our teams across all departments. We need to improve communication and collaboration to ensure that we all work together to hit our annual goals and to achieve our strategic plan.

I want our teams to feel empowered. I want Banfi to be a company that is the envy of the industry and a place that people want to work.

We also have to continue getting distribution in the right places, with the right accounts and in front of the right consumers. My goal is to introduce more and more people to the beauty of Castello Banfi and the wines of Tuscany.

Finally, it would be great to have George Clooney come visit us at Castello Banfi, preferably when I'm in Montalcino for work!