Her resume reads like a novel: Childhood in South Africa. Founder of several successful companies. Top advisor for politicians and business people. Campaign expert for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Best selling author. In addition, Kerstin Plehwe has also set up a foundation for disadvantaged women and has trained as a ranger in the African wilderness. A talk with someone who doesn't see herself as a role model - about equality, "Female Leadership" and the need for change.
Ms. Plehwe, International Women's Day has been celebrated for more than 100 years. Meanwhile, it's even a legal holiday in the federal state of Berlin. Do you think that such a day is still needed after all that time?
Definitely. I believe that this is an important day. The social standing, as well as the discreditation and discrimination of women, are still present around the world - even in a developed society like ours. In everyday life there are still injustices and unnecessary hurdles for women. I will only use keywords like "equal pay", "poverty in old age" or "percentage of women in management positions". But we are living in a society that discriminates not only against women, but also against certain cultural or age groups. We are still far removed from true diversity and will have difficulty in successfully handling our major challenges in the competition, markets, innovation, technology and occupational health. That's why I believe that what is actually needed even more is the recognition that we can only be successful together.
Diversity as a model for success, of being successful together - isn't this concept increasingly degenerating into a platitude?
It always depends on those who implement it. The problem is that many companies make the claim, but what's happening in reality is still too little. This is at the expense of credibility. For example, if you had asked me ten years ago whether a quota for women was needed, I would have firmly rejected it because I have always believed that companies themselves have the drive to make themselves fit for the future. Meanwhile, I am convinced that government regulation is needed, at least temporarily, because it provides an important impetus. And this is indispensable for sustainable change.
Why are women in management positions so important in your opinion?
I believe that the business world can make great use of the special skills of women, especially when it comes to issues such as communication and empathy. Studies show that women are also much more likely to ask the question of the meaningfulness of their work. By the way, we can also see this in Generation Y, regardless of gender. [Note: Generation Y refers to the generation born between 1980 and 1995.] This generation is asking questions about meaning. Women set other accents in business and make a very important contribution to changing the corporate culture. And we have to change the corporate cultures. Making more room for innovation, but also for criticism, other ways of prevention, other ways to excellence - and women are important for this. Gender equality is a crucial factor for sustainable development.
In politics, in business, in the wilderness - how have you managed to gain respect so far?
I was very lucky that there was usually a positive attitude and appreciation of me as a person before I came on board. And then it's a mix of three things: Competence, passion and lack of fear even if I have to defend my opinion to seemingly more powerful actors. Committing yourself to a cause, but at the same time also acting with passion, competence and great fairness, this automatically creates respect. At least that has been my experience.
Was that also your strategy when you trained as a ranger in South Africa?
Laughs. There, the conditions were special. We were a team of newcomers, who were all faced with the great challenge of passing this ranger exam - and learning everything we had to learn, from shooting to animal tracking. The exchange of ideas and interplay in the team were absolutely necessary for us to make it through the exam at all. To that extent there were no power plays. We had to help each other in order to win. Since that time, I believe: If the challenge is big enough and the distribution of tasks within the team is clear, it acts as a fertilizer for the performance. This is exactly why I always take managers out into the wilderness with me.
Would you say that you are courageous to begin with?
No. I would rather describe myself as someone who knows what she feels. I also have a good handle on my passion. For me, passion is a greater driver than courage. But I can also deal with my fears. I don't have any problems facing my fears. I have had to do this frequently as a ranger. I believe that we learn quite a lot through our fears, also about ourselves. Nevertheless, I wouldn't say that I am brave per se.
Nevertheless you are a role model for many women…
I hear this often but I always say: "Don't take me as a role model. Take a close look at yourself and live your excellence!" I believe that the foundations of success, power and excellence lie within every one of us.
So, ultimately, is it about looking more closely and listening better?
Yes. And that against the trend. Really listening and real communication are no longer practiced very often, in that regard, stress and excessive demands also play a major role. You can see that quite well in politics, where I worked for a few years. The framework conditions of politics and democracy are changing. The turn towards very autocratic, nationalistic, one-dimensional leadership styles worries me very much. Also because I see how it divides people and nations. I believe that we are in the process of unlearning the art of social discourse, which is so important. The ability to listen and understand the other person's point of view has diminished. But I consider it as one of the most important leadership characteristics of the present.
For your book "Female Leadership – The Power of Women" you interviewed more than 60 successful women from the worlds of politics, business and society. Were there any characteristics that they all shared?
The most important is self-confidence and the feeling of your own self-worth – and this is reflected in many ways: from the office worker who is not confident enough to negotiate the same money as a man to the top managers who don't leave their own comfort zone and thus stand in the way of needed innovations and change. Most successful women I have gotten to know were confident enough to be authentic and not to let themselves be put down. This applies to all areas of business: from team leadership to clothing and working hours and all the way to the individual communication style.
When you look at Daimler as an expert, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
I think of great cars! (laughs). Yes, this may sound like a platitude. But I also think of outstanding technology and beautiful cars. And I also see a company that is facing huge challenges. Not only under competitive considerations, but also with respect to the question: What does the future of mobility look like? And are we optimally positioned in our culture and in our structures? One disadvantage for big companies like Daimler are the huge structures and the existing mindsets. A tanker like that moves more slowly. But a tanker can also send off small ships to explore the waters – and this has to happen. More than before. For this, there has to be courage for innovation and change. Not only from a technological point of view.
Does this mean that the future is ultimately decided by the will to change?
Yes, in conjunction with people's personal strength and individual abilities. I believe that we not only have a responsibility to change things, but that this is a real necessity. However, many of the managers I meet lack the required energy and self-composure, as well as -at times- also the latest knowledge. That's why I speak of SMART leadership in my lectures and coaching sessions. This involves significantly more self-reflection, mindfulness, agility and resilience and leads to sustainable transformation. And, by the way, also to personal satisfaction and health. Nowadays, too many things are still mutually exclusive, in my view. But it doesn't have to be that way. The best manager is not only successful and flexible but also happy and healthy.