Kerstin Günther is an engineer in electronics with an MBA in finance. She became Managing Director of Deutsche Telekom Pan-Net in 2015. The company was set up by Deutsche Telekom to design, operate and steer a joint pan-European network, using cloud technology. She holds a number of other board positions including Chair of Magyar Telekom in Hungary, and she is a member of the supervisory board of Euronext in the Netherlands.
Was it always your ambition to lead a company? Why?
It was always my ambition to be on a board, ideally as Chair or CEO because they have the greatest impact in guiding a company and influencing areas such as strategy and succession – although my first dream as a child was to be an astronaut or a politician!
I had good mentors who were excellent role models. I learnt a lot from them and realised early on in my professional career that I could listen, had empathy, and I wanted to work with people and become a role model myself. I liked leadership roles and guiding people to make them successful, although it was doing an MBA that persuaded me that I wanted to become a Managing Director.
How did you feel when you were first appointed?
I was first appointed to a board in 2012 as Chair of Magyar Telekom, the Hungarian Telekom company, and it was a dream come true. I had worked for Magyar Telekom for nearly eight years (1993-2001) in a variety of roles with the most inspirational CEO I’ve ever worked for. Eleven years later I became Chair of the company where I had learned so much. I felt very appreciated but also confident, because I was being asked to guide a company I knew within a familiar environment.
I later took a board position in the Netherlands with Euronext, a pan-European stock exchange –a sector I was not experienced in. This was very challenging. But I had learned the job within Magyar Telekom and was able to apply my skills to this new environment.
How many women sit on your board? Are they executive or non-exec appointments?
I’m currently the only woman on Magyar’s board –one other woman left the board last year and so far I’ve not been able to find a replacement for her. Euronext’s board has 40% women board members. All are non-executive directors.
Do you see benefits in term of better business performance through having a gender balance on your board? If so, what?
Yes, but it’s not just about gender balance. Diversity should also include skills, age or nationality. Having a mix of young and old, women and men, provides a range of different perspectives. Women tend to bring other emotions and views. They look at things from different customer or financial perspectives, but that ability also applies to different ages or nationalities.
I’m Managing Director of DT Pan-Net, a tech company we set up two years ago inside Deutsche Telekom and currently half my management team as well as half the workforce are women. We have 50 employees and by the end of the year we should have 200. The gender diversity was supported by our location and internationality – it was set up in Bratislava and the percentage of women on management teams is far higher there.
Do you actively promote women through the company or do you currently recruit from outside?
It’s a mixture. But Deutsche Telekom is very active in this area and has a target to get more women onto its boards as well as actively encouraging more women to work in Technology and IT.
My boss, Claudia Nemat, promotes various programmes within our company, including one called “Prepare Women for Board Positions”, while I do a lot of mentoring and coaching. Added to which, we are always looking for new talents from the external market. There is a limited number of women we can bring on top positions in Technology – even for big companies. To find the best talents, you need to look beyond dedicated functions and beyond just Western Europe.
What would you say has been your most successful strategy in changing the composition of your board? (Have you ever encountered resistance to changing the board composition, and if so what strategies did you use to overcome this resistance?)
Changing a board composition starts with the person at the top – the Chair or the Managing Director. You also have to understand that changes of this kind require a long-term succession management; there have to be sufficient numbers of women in the pipeline which means you need diversity right through the company, not just on the board.
I haven’t personally encountered resistance to change because as a leader I can determine the strategy, but I’ve seen resistance elsewhere. You just have to be insistent in order to change both mind-set and the company’s guiding principles.
My CEO at Magyar Telekom really lived the change he wanted to see, which was promoting women.
What do you think are the main barriers to women progressing down the executive route?
I think there are many barriers – some of which I’ve experienced. One is networking. Networks used by women tend to be different to the ones used by men, but those at the top of companies tend to hire people they’ve met through their networks.
Men are often more self-confident than women. When I took my first board position I questioned my ability to do it, in a way that a man would probably never do.
Added to this, in Germany there are societal expectations and a lack of infrastructure and support. Women should be able to have a family and be successful in business at the same time In Deutsche Telekom for instance we offer kindergartens for children, and give women the flexibility in their working environment they need, e.g. work from home.
Quotas can help, but I’m not a fan. I was successful before the quota came and I think that it can be used to argue that a woman has been promoted to a board on that basis, and not because of her skills, capability and experience. That said, I know that quotas have been helpful in promoting the discussion, attracting attention and making progress. In essence, it’s a tool to help this discussion but, fundamentally, society should see women occupying the same roles as men.
In your experience, why aren’t more women appointed CEOs of companies in your sector?
In sectors like technology it’s because of the lack of a filled talent pipeline of highly qualified women. In other industries like banking, women may represent half the workforce in total, but there are only a few of them in top management positions, which is down to acceptance. In other words, there are different reasons for different sectors.
The person at the top must open their mind to new ideas to drive the change. For example, if I only looked for women in the telco sector I’d only have a small pool to choose from, but if I go to other industries or start-ups, the number goes up.
Aside from technical competency are there any generic skills or personal qualities that make a good director?
It’s vital to be visionary, and to be a team player to motivate and involve people.
It’s also about social competency; I believe it’s really important to be authentic and to do what you say. Be a role model.
Which of those qualities, in your view, are required of a good leader/CEO?
A (female) leader has to be able to find the right team to empower. She has to be visionary as well as straightforward, open and a team player herself. She needs to be a good listener and ready to change her opinion.
If you stay authentic, then being a leader is not lonely. You need to be down to earth, remaining the same person you have been all your life. Don’t try and be a man. Be whoever you were that made you successful.
What are the most valuable lessons that you have learned?
Be authentic. Be available for your team. Be flexible and always look for new opportunities. Never stand still.