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Conscious leadership driving inclusive culture for sustainable change

Women's International Networking Conference 2017

In September 2017, almost 600 delegates from all corners of the world came together in Oslo for the global WIN (Women’s International Networking) Conference. Now in its 20th year, WIN promotes itself as the leading forum for developing, empowering and connecting leaders in a ‘feminine, authentic and global way.’ This year’s overarching theme was Creating a Thriving Future and, as Astrid Borgmann — Swarovski CPO and attending WIN for the second time — explained, the event is more important now than ever before: 

“The overall mindset of WINFwome is connecting with purpose and pleasure in a world that is transforming and that necessarily must be transformed. Participants who attend WIN acknowledge that working life today is full of the unexpected, change is exponential and issues are interdependent and complex. After three days enjoying presentations, leading-edge discussions and growth workshops, sharing ideas in solution-oriented ways, people leave full of energy and ready to drive positive change at their companies.” 

While tackling broad themes and challenging attendees to imagine different futures, at the heart of WIN is recognising the valuable role of female leaders and the ‘feminine’ qualities they bring to leading organisations today. WIN suggests that factors such as authenticity, listening and emotional encouragement are indicative of feminine talents and, according to Astrid, are best suited to tackling modern challenges: “Feminine qualities become more important because they help people to embrace diversity and encourage inclusiveness — two factors which facilitate success within companies in times of ambiguity, complexity and insecurity.”

Astrid Borgmann, CPO at Swarovski

A recent study by management consultancy, Oliver Wyman, found that companies with a higher ratio of women working in procurement – and ergo demonstrating and encouraging collaborative and adaptive working practices – outperform the market in cost savings as well as value creation. Business services firm Sodexo, too, recently confirmed that an optimal gender balance between 40 and 60 percent at management level leads to better sustained and predictable results, as well as higher employee engagement. While the context is the same for all businesses, this approach can make a difference.

While these pronouncements sound great, the issue of underrepresentation of women in leadership roles remains a reality. Despite positive steps during the last few years to correct imbalances at the top of companies, women still only make up a third of managers in OECD countries, even though they represent over 50% of university graduates. The ratio of women in procurement leadership positions, Astrid confirms, is only 19%, with women making up around 40% of all procurement workers in Europe. In Astrid’s view, the problem is related to retention rather than recruitment: 

“Improving the gender balance of senior leaders remains a key challenge for organisations. From my experience, and depending on the country, there’s generally more done today to support and develop female leaders. However, if we look at the statistics there seems to still be a wall or ‘interruption gap’ at middle management and in the mid-career development of women. A broad range of activities will solve this — inclusive cultures, hiring targets, role models and mentoring, giving more responsibility early on to develop careers, and special training for all leaders to increase awareness and provide specific skills and support.” 

As a female leader, however, Astrid urged the importance of always remembering your responsibility as a role model for others coming through the business. Role models are critical, she claimed, especially as women leaders are scrutinised more so than men. She also highlighted that the higher a woman climbs in business, the more comfortable she must feel on her own: “It can be very lonely if you’re the first or only woman at the top, but it is vital to endure and embrace this time alone to be truly successful.” 

Astrid Borgmann at the Procurement Leaders World Congress 2017

Ultimately, gender diversity improves the quality of everyone’s working life. Gender diversity by itself, though, as WIN suggests, is not enough. All leaders, rather, Astrid explains, should seek ways to leverage the potential of ‘inclusion’ whereby gender, as well as ages, races, beliefs, sexual orientations, nationalities, values, personalities, physical abilities and education — essentially any differences that better represent social demographics today - are given visibility and celebrated at work. Questions companies should ask themselves include: do incentive schemes serve the needs of an inclusive workforce? How can we solve the skill shortages with inclusive thinking? Astrid explains:

“Difference and diversity are dominating discussions about future leadership. In central Europe, for example, many companies are struggling to hire employees while in other regions and countries we have high unemployment. Leaders are now solving talent shortages by seeking ways to hire more women or people from abroad, integrating older people with all their knowledge and intelligence, or being more flexible with regards to qualifications as well as the places and times for where and when work takes place — recognising the needs of employees during different stages of life.” 

Describing herself as a “conscious” leader and “agent to drive sustainable change”, throughout her career Astrid has found that understanding the motivational drivers of individuals and embracing diversity, creating gender balance in leadership roles, and encouraging flexible and remote working has been essential in ensuring that employees have the freedom to develop their talents and achieve success. Inclusive leadership, she claims, requires awareness of and achieving a balance between intuition and rational analysis; collaboration and competition and receptiveness and directness: “I realised over time that analyses alone will not lead to the right decisions. The more complex and longer term the issues, the more you need intuition — listening to your feelings and feeling your actions, using your imagination and taking risks.” 

Astrid described her own feminine vision to demonstrate conscious inclusive leadership, evolve Swarovski’s culture and ready it for the next step in digital transformation. As a conscious leader – with vision and purpose, authentic in her actions, acting upon her values and transparent in her communication – she is seeking to harness digitalisation, analytics, process automation and a new consumer experience to create collaborative value for the company. Procurement, she argues, is the Bridge Builder between internal stakeholders and external markets and only through leveraging digital tools will it create disruptive innovations, create new markets or value networks and build sustainable partnerships with and for the whole organisation: 

“Digitalisation means increased participation and opportunities in the global economy. It also means, though, that jobs and roles in traditional industries will disappear or be transformed, while demand for new jobs will increase. Therefore, people need to be involved in these rapid changes – to be brought along on the journey and excited about new opportunities. To succeed, organisations must be agile, with high performing cultures and home to engaged, resilient and innovative employees, each flexible in their response to the demands of today’s world.”

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