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07.03.2024

Beyond the quotas

According to the Federal Statistical Office, in 2022, only just under one-third of managers – 28.9 percent – in Germany were female. Compared to other EU countries, this placed Germany in the lower third. To increase the proportion of women in leadership positions and advance the equality of women and men, laws have been passed, and the topic of gender quotas is repeatedly discussed controversially. Very often, this quota is perceived negatively by women in everyday work life. Yet, women are still underrepresented in executive suites, especially in professions traditionally dominated by men, where female forces are missing. Women offer enormous potential for the economy and individual companies – not only in times of skilled labor shortages. The benefits of increased diversity in leadership ranks are well known to many companies. However, a significant number of women cannot imagine taking up a leadership position or feel unsuitable for male-dominated professions due to a lack of appropriate role models. Natalia Czajecka, Sales Manager at TOPREGAL GmbH, and Nina Urban, Deputy Head of Logistics and Fleet Management at TOPREGAL, share their experiences as female leaders in an industrial company and explain what companies should do to attract and support qualified female talent.

Female leaders are still rare in the industrial sector. What has your career path been like, and what experiences have you had along the way?

Nina: " I am a trained office communications specialist and originally come from the automotive industry. In 2019, I started at TOPREGAL as an assistant in logistics and fleet management and took over as the deputy head at the end of 2022. Over these four years, I gradually acquired everything I needed for the position. Now, I am responsible for nearly 100 employees across three locations, including the warehouse staff, our professional drivers, and personnel from inventory management and purchasing. My boss actively approached me back then and asked if I would be interested in the position. It had nothing to do with my gender or the issue of a women's quota. My performance and skills alone were the reasons I received the offer. And precisely these indicators should be decisive for employers to fill a position with a truly suitable, competent professional. It shouldn't be about a quota. Rather, it's about looking at a person and their qualities regardless of their gender, and closely examining which hard and soft skills can add value to the company. My boss saw that I am very performance-oriented and reliable, tackle problems when they arise, and have a good rapport with the staff. Our interaction with each other is on an equal footing. My employees know that I am always there for them if they need help or have a problem – no matter who comes to me and whether it's a professional or personal matter. This attitude is also shared by the management: It doesn't matter whether our CEOs, Jürgen and Gino, are talking to warehouse staff or a site manager, a man or a woman – everyone is taken seriously, included, and listened to; there is no differentiation. I believe that in this way, companies achieve a high level of commitment from their employees, so they actively want to contribute and feel positively obliged to their employer."

Natalia: "I started at TOPREGAL in 2016 as a sales administrator, where I took over as team leader of a team of four people in April 2017. Since 2019, I have held the position of Sales Manager and am responsible for 60 people from five departments - customer service, national sales, the international department, the workshop and the department with our transport and lifting equipment. I take care of strategic matters and further development, for example the question of new locations and countries for sales. I work together with two department heads and several team leaders, including seven female team leaders. We are all very courageous here, are not afraid of development and always see a challenge as an opportunity - and both managing directors share this attitude with us. Decisions are my responsibility and I make them according to my professional judgment, so that I relieve the management accordingly. The trust placed in me by our bosses is therefore very high. I am not afraid of responsibility. Conversely, I can always turn to Jürgen and Gino with questions, worries and concerns if I need feedback or advice. That way, we support each other. In order to support employees in their development and enable them to build on their strengths, managers should, on the one hand, give them enough responsibility and freedom to make decisions so that they can act independently and gain their own experience. On the other hand, they should provide experienced support and advice in the event of concerns and questions. In this way, I have developed my very own style as a manager over the years. As the company is constantly growing and processes and products are always evolving, decisions have to be made quickly. Thanks to the interdisciplinary exchange with other departments and the constant dialog with each other, we are dynamic and make decisions much faster than is the case in other companies. This is because we know that good communication within the company is effective and results in faster and more sophisticated solutions. Twice a month, we exchange ideas in the extended management circle, make strategic decisions and discuss things that we are unsure about ourselves or where we want to hear other opinions and ideas. You can feel the identification with the company here. We all think about what is best for TOPREGAL and our customers and work as if it were our own company. Our advantage is that we learn everything from the ground up and almost all of us have worked across departments before. We therefore understand our employees and can understand what annoys them and where the problems lie. This is another skill that makes a good manager."

Were there any particular challenges during your career that might also apply specifically to women?

Nina: "95 percent of the people working in our warehouse are men. There were prejudices at the beginning and some men had to swallow hard when they were given a female manager. But there are already many women in management positions in our company. However, my expertise created a level playing field right from the start and strengthened their trust in me. It quickly became clear: it's not gender that counts here, but only the qualities that someone brings to the table. Apart from that, there are daily challenges in any company where there is dynamism and development. That's how you keep your finger on the pulse. The question is how you deal with challenges. Be it in relation to the business or the gender issue. At TOPREGAL, we operate according to the credo: we don't focus on problems, but create successful solutions for challenges. Here it is important to take a solution-oriented approach and put ability before gender - this means only looking at the challenge and not asking whether a woman or a man can do it. When solving problems, we focus solely on the know-how and skills of the individual. That's why we don't have an elbow mentality or power struggles, but instead create synergies. Competitive thinking only benefits the individual, while the customer or the goal is lost sight of. Managers should therefore avoid such a working atmosphere and instead promote team spirit. This way, employees can support each other and complement each other perfectly with their unique skills."

Natalia: "I am actually the only woman in the first management level. But we have an open approach to gender here. Although we all have our own management style and perspective, no one talks down to or patronizes anyone else. It's all about respecting each other's abilities. Of course, you can't let clichés get you down on your way. The cliché in my industry is over 50 and male. I and other female sales colleagues have often been asked by customers whether it would be better to speak to a man because he knows more about technology. But if it turns out in conversation that you are a competent specialist with extensive knowledge and convincing facts, then the prejudices are gone."

In your opinion, what are the advantages of a diverse management level?

Natalia: "A diverse team brings with it different perspectives, opinions and approaches. This has the advantage of being able to look at a problem, product or issue from different angles in order to find the best possible solution or gather as many different ideas as possible. When different perspectives or personality types come together, ideas and counter-ideas are discussed or different approaches are weighed up, particularly creative and well thought-out solutions or ideas can emerge. It also brings together people with different strengths and skills who complement each other effectively and are particularly productive together. However, diversity should not only refer to gender ratios. An effective team should consist of members with different personalities, backgrounds, ages and cultural backgrounds. This social diversity moves a company forward. At the same time, a tolerant, inclusive HR policy gives employers an advantage in the race for skilled workers. It also often makes sense to put together a cross-functional team with members from different departments. Different areas of expertise and skills come together here and enable cross-departmental perspectives and overall solutions. At our company, interdisciplinary teams work on the development of a product and employees provide feedback directly from their specialist area on how a process could be optimized. We have regular team meetings where employees and line managers come together and exchange ideas, with everyone actively taking the opportunity to put forward ideas, criticism and feedback and to be heard. This results in creative and innovative solutions and ultimately better results."

Do you think there are certain qualities that make women in management positions particularly good?

Nina: "I think that many women would take a different approach in certain areas and are a little more sensitive and empathetic than men, so that they are more likely to listen to their employees - especially when it comes to private problems. In this respect, some women certainly have a different management style than some men and open up different perspectives and new opportunities for employee development. Character traits such as empathy, openness towards employees and conscientiousness, which are attributed to many women, are particularly important for a good manager. But you shouldn't be guided by clichés here either. There are also men who are very sensitive and women who are not. Gender alone should not be used to draw conclusions about a person's characteristics. That's why we don't favor anyone in applications, but rather take a closer look at the person themselves to determine whether they will fit into the team. Employers should create an honest and open-minded atmosphere right from the interview stage, allowing applicants to be themselves and speak openly. Only in an open discussion can you learn about a person's strengths, weaknesses and potential and find out whether there is a good fit on a human level. Although assessment centers are also justified, it sometimes makes more sense for applicants to spend a trial working day looking at the real day-to-day business, getting a feel for the system and talking to colleagues. This allows both sides to get to know each other better and find out whether they feel comfortable with each other, what the working relationship will be like and whether the applicant's skills will fit in well with the team."

Natalia: "The fact that I'm a woman didn't play a role in my employment or my promotion. That's why the issue of the women's quota didn't affect me at all. But I wouldn't want to be given a position just because of my gender either. There should be no differentiation as to whether I am a man or a woman. In order to recognize the qualities of a person, it is important not to look only at the obvious or to be blinded only by outward appearances, career or hard skills. What counts is the person themselves and their personality. Our mindset is that it is less important what someone has done before - in other words, whether they have completed training or a degree or are starting out as a career changer. It is more important that you are a good fit on a human level and that you want to move the company forward together with your team - in other words, that you pull together and see the purpose of your daily tasks. Soft skills are more important to us than hard skills. We like home-grown talent - that means we want to learn and grow together with our team in the company."

How can companies support women in advancing to management positions?

Nina: "A lot depends on how employees are treated and the culture in a company and what the management exemplifies in its role model function. Companies are only ready for the future if this is also practiced in the company. This includes not only the issue of sustainability, but also the issue of equal rights. I can consider myself lucky that TOPREGAL says: You get the chance and can achieve what you set your mind to in any position - regardless of whether you are a woman or a man. In order to offer women a fair chance, it is important for companies to reduce barriers for women in working life. For example, to dispel prejudices, offer different working time models and location-independent working - also for men, so that they can stay at home instead of the woman - and make it easier to combine family and career. This not only makes the company more attractive as an employer, but also increases employee motivation and commitment. However, if you really want to develop, you should also be prepared to take risks, leave your comfort zone and try new things, even if this sometimes means setbacks. If you don't try, you will be left behind in the long term. This development is essential for companies to remain fit for the future. However, such a spirit of development requires a positive error culture within the company. Making mistakes from time to time is part of a development process. It is then important to take a constructive and solution-oriented approach and see what can be done better next time. This creates a learning curve. We therefore see mistakes as an opportunity to improve and learn. In this way, we emerge wiser, stronger and more efficient. To achieve this, it is crucial that the management opens up space and opportunities to try things and ideas out and thus also move them forward."

Natalia: "Companies should place their trust not in gender, but in the people and the personality behind it with their hard and soft skills. Holding on to prejudices not only hinders the development of the person who is struggling with these prejudices, but also the company, which loses important specialists and leaders as a result. So much untapped potential is still lying dormant in the drawer they are put in, instead of being given the opportunity to develop through progressive, future-oriented management. Thanks to the trust placed in me by my superiors and my team, and the opportunity to prove myself in my field with my skills, I have become a strong leader who is not afraid of decisions or responsibility. Especially in traditionally male-dominated professions, it often only takes a few courageous female trailblazers to serve as role models and guidance for other women. The recruitment of female managers can create a dynamic process through which women in management positions follow other women. Women could become mentors for other women, showing them how to operate in the world of work and how to deal with challenges, stress or prejudice."

What advice would you give to young women who want to pursue a career in the industry or as a manager in general?

Natalia: "My advice is to simply be brave, give it a go and don't let stereotypes stop you."

Nina: "You should just go your own way, regardless of what others say. The most important thing is to believe in your goals and abilities. If you know what you can do, you shouldn't let yourself be put off - not even by the industry."