Leadership Stories: Elisabeth Stheeman - a role model of embracing diversity and inclusion

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Starting out in a career in banking, Elisabeth received dismissive comments. This propelled her to prove her naysayers wrong and to achieve success in senior roles as well as bring up a family of four boys. She embraces diversity and inclusion in her professional and personal spheres which enhance her ability to lead and engage.

What does leadership mean to you, and how has your approach or style changed over time?

My leadership style has been strongly influenced by my upbringing. I grew up in rural Northern Germany as one of six children in a catholic/protestant family and my father’s mother was of Jewish descent. My father (who turned 100 earlier this year) gave me the advice to pursue a career in banking rather than study music and literature as he felt I should be able to support a family on my own. This was very modern advice in the early 1980s. My mother started working outside the home in her early fifties. Her mother was one of the first women to obtain a PhD in Northern Germany and she worked while her husband was still studying to become a doctor.

While I never saw myself as a leader per se I was both shocked and surprised when I realised a few years ago that others, especially junior and mid-career women, looked up to me as a leader and I felt I had to “step up to the plate”. Having worked in Financial Services and Real Estate for some decades I did not have many female “role models”. I have become particularly aware how important it is to mentor and sponsor other women and to give them the confidence to believe in their own abilities, particularly those from ethnically diverse backgrounds.

I have been fortunate as I have benefitted hugely from the advice of many friends and colleagues, both male and female. I have also realized that bringing up four sons while working in a demanding job has made me a better, a more balanced and a more empathetic leader.

One of my favourite quotes on leadership is from Jack Welch: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others”. Another favourite quote of mine is from Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women”.

What have been the biggest challenges and the biggest successes in your life, and what have you learned from them?

When I first applied for a job in banking in my home town of Hamburg in Northern Germany I was told by the person who interviewed me that I was overqualified and, as I was a woman, he did not think I would return to banking after university as I would have children and stop working then. At the time I was very disappointed as nobody had ever turned me down for anything although this made me very determined to prove him wrong. And I did. I decided to take the offer from another bank which offered me a scholarship and also paid for my studies.

My most challenging period was many years later when I had four children of five years and younger (including twins) and I worked in Investment Banking. I was the first woman to work in a so-called “flexible work arrangement” in that area of the bank. This was despite the head of the department saying “I don’t think this is going to work but I can’t stop you.” Thankfully this is not something anyone would dare to say nowadays.

Although it was not career enhancing at the time, I am very glad I persevered working flexibly for over a decade. In the long run it was definitely the right decision. I have learned from this experience that you have to trust your own judgment and that you should not give up, even if it involves a lot of hard work and many sleepless nights.

One of the highlights of my life has been seeing my four sons grow up as happy, balanced, caring and quietly, self-confident individuals, after having faced challenging times as adolescents. Two of them are due to get married this summer. My future daughters-in-law are both from ethnic minority backgrounds and they both work as junior doctors. I am learning new things from them every day and they have hugely enriched our family life. Living and working with people from diverse backgrounds is such a wonderful experience and it makes life so much more interesting than spending time with people who are like yourself.

Outside my family I am actively engaged in various activities and diversity initiatives. In addition to my participation in IWF, I am a member of Council of the LSE (my alma mater) and a member of Council of the German-British Chamber of Commerce. I sing in two choirs, one at work and one at my local church. I would hope that this has made me a more rounded and a more interesting individual and leader.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

  • Believe in your own abilities, don’t undersell yourself and aim high.
  • Volunteer for challenging assignments which give you exposure to other people.
  • If you work for a company or a boss who does not mentor and/or sponsor you move on. There are plenty of opportunities elsewhere!
  • Do not be afraid to ask others for advice. Build your own network as broadly and as diversely as possible, both inside and outside your own organisation.
  • Get involved in activities you enjoy, which broaden your horizons and which bring you together with different people.

Living and working with people from diverse backgrounds is such a wonderful experience and it makes life so much more interesting

Elisabeth Stheeman
Elisabeth Stheeman