“There’s a big difference between being successful and being a role model”
When I was growing up, female role models consisted of women I should try to be like because of how they looked (i.e. fellow German Claudia Schiffer) or how successful their husbands were (i.e. Jackie Kennedy). There simply wasn’t anyone I could look up to, aspire towards or learn from in a business and career capacity. My parents instilled strong values in me but I have appreciated them more with hindsight than at the time, as is often the way with family.
Perhaps this is the reason that now more and more women are breaking into the boardroom, but an alarming number are still struggling to earn as much as their male counterparts. These women, as I did, have gone for it on their own, been hugely successful as individuals but little has been done to address the foundations of an equal workplace from the ground up. The fundamental issues are still in place for the many masked by the achievements of the few. I think it would be easy to direct the blame at men. To stomp our feet and protest at the long-standing social injustice of it all. All that is likely to do is drive a wedge further between working men and women, is unlikely to enact any real change, or make anyone feel better about the situation.
See also: The 3 definitive qualities of strong female leaders revealed – A new study from the University of Vaasa, Finland reveals that intuitive, extraverted and spontaneous women are the best choice for leading creative people.
Instead I have tried to collect some of my own learnings, all of which can be actioned pretty much immediately. By opening our eyes a little more to the reality we now find ourselves in, it should be possible for huge change on an individual level. This should, in turn, filter out to more widespread positive change across the board, not just in the boardroom.
When I set out into the world of work my first venture was in landscape gardening. Why? Despite not being a massive fan of the cold, I loved nature and it gave me an opportunity to be creative. What I really learned during that time however was the importance of hard work. It was a manual job that required me to muck in (quite literally) in all areas to reach the end goal. It also taught me the significance of finding out what you DON’T want to do as much as what you do. It is character-building and the stark contrast will be invaluable when you finally track down a job you really love.
The benefits of this were instrumental when I started at blowUP media in 1995. I was determined to get my head down, work hard at the job I had been given and prove my worth. I worked smartly, which didn’t necessarily mean every hour of the day, but productively and making sure I was always well-informed about the task I needed to complete. When blowUP media was sold to Strooer in 1997, I was the only member of the board to be kept on after the buyout. I truly believe this is because I wasn’t afraid to roll my sleeves up and, as in my landscape gardening days, get stuck in.
A successful business doesn’t make you a better person.
Mentoring is a very important part of what I do. It is vital to clarify that I mean mentoring, not mothering. By being involved, listening and connecting with the people that work around me, I can hopefully offer some insight beyond my own career. Whether that’s highlighting the importance of showing your worth, becoming invaluable to an organisation, or offering guidance on always having confidence in your arguments and sticking to the facts. Even the seemingly simple issue of responsibility. This is not something to shy away from. I want to encourage all women to embrace the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities. This will build your worth and value within the company and allow your employers to develop trust in your work.
Through collaboration and communicating with one another, I hope that infrastructures can be altered and women in all areas of business will feel like they have a level playing field of potential, rather than always being an underdog. A crucial part of that is addressing the attitude that we are ‘servicing’ rather than playing a critical role in the operation of the company, whatever it may be. If you have been given a job, it is because someone truly believes you can do it.
Katrin A. Robertson is the CEO of blowUP media.