August 2020 - Diversity

Women in Leadership: The Only Way is Up

Simone Menne, former CFO of Lufthansa and member of multiple supervisory boards, on the importance of striving for a 50/50 gender balance on teams – and how to do this.

Women in Leadership: The Only Way is Up

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There are any number of good reasons as to why the Internet industry needs female reinforcement. Numerous fields in the branch are up against a shortage of skilled workers. What’s more, homogeneous teams and uniform ways of thinking represent a clear obstacle to innovation. The digital industry is booming, new digital business models are being created each and every day, and lucrative jobs are being created – but all too often, women are still missing out. The eco Association wants to change that. As part of its topic field “Women in Tech”, eco invites inspiring female specialists and executives from the Internet industry to take the floor in a series of interviews. Here we deal with the really important topics: from development perspectives, through career tips and hopes for the future, to the challenges in a male-dominated working environment – and ultimately, to highlighting why working in the Internet industry is fun. This article with Simone Menne, member of multiple supervisory boards, gallery owner and former CFO of Lufthansa, was first published as part of this series on in the German language on 17 February 2020.


eco Association: Ms Menne, you have had a very impressive career. At only 32 years of age, you held your first management position, as commercial manager for Lufthansa in Nigeria. In the Lufthansa Group, you rose steadily to the position of Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Today you are a supervisory board member at BMW, Johnson Controls, and Deutsche Post, among other companies. You also opened your gallery in Kiel in the north of Germany in September 2019. What is your personal recipe for success?

Simone Menne: There are two essential qualities that have helped me a lot. To advance up the career ladder, you need to be above all self-confident and be willing to take risks.

eco: You’re passionate about the topic of Women in Leadership. Why is the topic of women in management positions important to you personally?

Menne: In general, it is very important to me, first of all, that everyone gets to have their say in society and that we create a cross-societal perspective also at management level. Look, for example, at the field of AI development: If all the algorithms there are written predominantly by a homogeneous group of 25 to 40-year-old white men, then this will result in stereotypical solutions. It’s very important that women contribute their perspectives – also in the programming of algorithms. Secondly, I am committed to the issue of Women in Leadership because it is not legitimate to complain that you are not heard or that you are treated badly if you do not get involved yourself.

eco: In the area of Women in Leadership, there are some positive developments. To name a few: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and SAP Co-Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Morgan, the first women to head a DAX company. On the other hand, there are corporations that settle for a quota of zero percent women on their boards. How far do you think we have come in the area of Women in Leadership?

Menne: There are, of course, a few good examples, but you shouldn’t be blinded by what is in the headlines. We are still a long way from achieving parity in management levels, which should be what we’re aiming for. In the DAX companies, there is barely 10 percent women at management level. So there’s still a lot to be done. This is true in all areas. Look at the Oscar nominations, for example. Not a single woman has been nominated for best director, although there are very good female directors and very good women in the film business. The systems – and this is not only true of management bodies – propagate themselves further and continue to produce very male systems. A sole woman at the top doesn’t change that.

eco: What could strategies look like to break both these male-dominated management levels and the Thomas cycle*? 

*There are more men on the boards of DAX companies called Thomas than there are women.

Menne: Firstly, we need quotas, because otherwise it will not work. You have to work very, very consistently with quotas. Every single manager must keep on insisting that every single list of applicants should actually be 50 percent male and 50 percent female. Secondly, women must strengthen their informal networks and support each other. Every woman who learns of a vacant management position should name and praise another woman and say: “I recommend her.”

eco: Studies show that teams with a high degree of diversity are more innovative, efficient, and successful. Diversity therefore has concrete financial added value. That should immediately win over every board of management. Nevertheless, Thomas still prefers to hire a Thomas rather than a Tatiana. What is the reason for this and what do we need to convince managers?

Menne: People – and this applies to both men and women – tend to choose someone who has experienced a similar type of socialization. If 80 percent of management positions were filled by women, then very possibly Sabina would rather hire another Sabina. However, clever leaders deliberately look for someone who might rock the boat and make controversial staffing choices. Corporate culture also plays an important role in this. If the culture is one where sexist jokes are still allowed and eyes are rolled when a woman speaks out strongly, even though she is saying something clever, then that is problematic. Then sometimes investors must contribute to changing things.

In one of the supervisory boards I’m on, we are currently working on such an evaluation of diversity. We’re taking a good hard look at: How old are the members of the supervisory and management boards? What cultural backgrounds do the members have? How international are the boards? These factors are very clearly evaluated by investors, and a homogenous 50-year-old all-male board all with the same cultural background definitely results in a poor evaluation. This pressure from outside helps, of course. In addition, the supervisory board must also get involved. Supervisory boards must do everything possible to ensure that boards are staffed with members who advocate for diversity and who have clearly shown in their careers that they are capable of doing excellent work with diverse teams.

eco: You once said: Every woman in an executive position has had the following experience: A woman makes a suggestion in a meeting and doesn’t get any response. A few minutes later, a male colleague makes the same suggestion and garners applause. How can I stop such behavior or how can I confidently counter it?

Menne: It is important to seek allies in advance or to have allies per se. Make some kind of deal beforehand: If one of us makes a suggestion that is passed over, then another should point it out. Exactly the same applies if a male colleague makes the same proposal that a female colleague has already put forward. Then an ally should say: “That’s great, Mr Smith, that’s exactly what Ms Jones said five minutes ago. I’m glad you agree with her.” That’s a very nice, charming way to put it and point out again that this is not his original idea, but Ms Jones’. Interestingly, such things often happen unconsciously because women are listened to differently.

eco: You once described it very nicely in an interview: If a handyman comes to you and says: “That looks tricky, I don’t know if I can fix it,” and a second handyman says, “No problem. I’ll get that sorted” – then I’ll take the latter. Why do women tend to be modest and hesitant about new positions?

Menne: It is often a matter of socialization. Girls are still brought up to be modest and exercise restraint. Boys who are loud, on the other hand, get a pat on the back. It is important to encourage girls to act differently and to educate them accordingly. This is something female bosses should pay attention to and strongly encourage in other women. And say over and over again: “Yes, I do believe you can do it.” The tendency to appear very humble and hesitant is sometimes, unfortunately, true throughout all levels of hierarchy. I had a female candidate that I could place on a supervisory board. She told me that in the first interview she was going to point out that this was her first position on a supervisory board and that she might not be familiar with several issues that could arise. So I told her very clearly: You’re not going to do that; you’re going to say: “I know Ms Menne, and I know other members of supervisory boards, and I am very well connected there. I’m not at all worried about whether I’ll be able to get up to speed straight away.”

eco: How has leadership changed from your perspective?

Menne: I believe that in some companies, unfortunately, not much has changed in terms of leadership. Many companies are still organized very hierarchically. Ideally, however, leadership is characterized by cooperation and acting on an equal footing. A good leader is a kind of enabler – a person who listens, who brings ideas together, who asks clever questions, who networks people with each other so that groups can come up with new ideas across the board. In no case ever is a good manager the person who always knows better. As a rule, the individual employee knows much more than their boss in their special field. Therefore, a boss has to have a certain amount of modesty and yet, of course, they have to keep their team on a clear course and to set goals. A certain willingness to take risks is also important. Many people in high positions are afraid of making decisions. But any decision at a higher level is a decision under uncertainty. My personal approach is therefore: Listen, develop ideas, get people networking, delegate well, but still be careful if something goes wrong and then finally come to a decision, ideally with as little delay as possible. 

eco: Key word: Diversity. From your point of view, is there a formula for success in putting teams together? What does the ideal team look like?

Menne: The important thing is to create diversity. If you have a purely male team, try to influence the gender aspect and hire a woman. If you have a number of older employees, try to get a young employee for your team. Also try to get international perspectives into your team. Then you as a manager are especially in demand when it comes to moderating the team, because these people do not necessarily act and communicate on the same level. You must then mould together a team from this group of people who can engage in heated debates, so that they can come up with good solutions. But you will be rewarded and be really successful, because you have considered many aspects and have managed to bring together very different people to reach a common goal.

eco: Sometimes the argument comes up when filling management positions: “I would have loved to hire a woman, but I couldn’t find one.” Is this really the case and how can I as a company reach suitable candidates?

Menne: Unfortunately, I know these examples too. Then there’s a terse comment: “We couldn’t find a woman.” If someone actually says that, I ask them to call me next time so I can help with recruitment. In this way, I have already helped various talented women join supervisory boards, advisory boards, and executive boards. Women should recommend each other much more often. I always have several CVs on my desk from women that I regularly recommend because I know they are very good – and then that often works. Sometimes the reason why no women apply for positions is also due to the recruiters themselves, because they recruit very homogeneously at times and have a correspondingly similar social network. During my time as CFO at Boehringer Ingelheim, for example, we wanted to fill a commercial management position that had to be globally deployable. I received a list of suggestions with five men with very homogeneous backgrounds. That was clearly not the assignment. I had clearly requested that a list of women be drawn up as well. If there is no female German applicant who can currently be deployed globally, then one simply looks internationally. And then we found some good candidates.

eco: We’ll now give you another interesting job and make you editor-in-chief of a leading media publication: Which headline would you like to see in a lead article concerning “Diversity/Women in the Tech Industry” in the lead article? And what should the article say?

Menne: My headline is: It’s just a rumour that there are no women in the tech industry. Because they are already there. 

eco: We would also like to bring your thoughts and questions into the debate on diversity. What question would you like to pose in this context?

Menne: Imagine that you have to find a new Head of the IT for your company. How can you generate applications from women in the most creative way possible?

eco: Thank you very much for your time and the interview, Ms Menne!


Further information on the topic of women in the Tech industry can be found on our focus page Women in Tech and in our 2020 study on Women in Tech Across the Globe: A Good Practice Guide for Companies.


Simone Menne started her career for ITT, later joining Deutsche Lufthansa. In 2012, Ms Menne was appointed CFO and stayed in this position till 2015. She worked as CFO at Boehringer Ingelheim from 2016 to 2017. In both companies she was responsible for the foundation of the digital lab. Ms Menne serves as non executive board member for BMW, DPDHL, JCI, and Russell Reynolds. She also owns an art gallery in Kiel, Germany.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Industry Insights published by dotmagazine are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the publisher, eco – Association of the Internet Industry.