Strong Voices Interview #12: Dr. Kerstin Braun – Adviser to Stenn Group
ABOUT DR. KERSTIN BRAUN:
"Nowadays we are relatively free to choose which way we want to go. And even though we made a decision at a young age we do not have to stick to it. It is just the starting point." - Dr. Kerstin Braun
You studied law, even did a PhD in this field, but then decided to pursue a career in the financial industry focusing on trade credit insurance and trade financing, which was the beginning of an impressive international career path. What were the reasons behind your decision to go this way?
It is interesting that it strikes you as uncommon. But let me answer the question of my rationale of my career decisions first.
I spent a good amount of time on achieving academic credentials, including a PhD in Law as I believed at a young age the PhD title would indicate any future employer that I am serious about making a career and would not pose a financial risk for an employer even if I became a mother at one point.
My initial ambition was to work in a legal department of a larger global corporation but realized that in this capacity I would only be able to advise and consult decision makers instead of being in a position to make decisions myself.
In order to fast track into a decision maker role and with my newly developed interest in economics I started at Coface, a global trade credit insurer. After completing the trainee program for a career in sales, I outperformed my piers already in the first year. I always enjoyed the fact that individual performance is measurable in a sales role. It’s objective and as such you are instantly visible to the top management which in return entrusted me with management roles very early in my career.
But let me get back to my initial remark on “stereotypical careers”. I am a believer that staying within the professional box initially chosen is a thing of the past. 200 years ago generations of families stayed within the same profession, if the father was a shoemaker, sure thing the son would step into the same shoes. Nowadays we are relatively free to choose whether we want to learn a craft or want to go for an academic career. And even though we made a decision at a young age we do not have to stick to it. It is just the starting point. There is so much technological progress these days with the consequence that professions can disappear as they are no longer of value for society. Just think of the impact of AI or prior to that the introduction of computers in the accounting world. In addition, our professional interests can change with the changing environment. I am a strong believer that it is good for society if people stay open to external and internal change and have the guts to adjust. Especially the times we live in allow us even more so to shape our own future and follow our passion.
Your clear ambition and passion showed success looking at the leadership position you are holding nowadays. Which events and experiences (positive as well as negative) were decisive on your way to get there?
One of the most important factors was the constant support and attention I received from the senior leadership due to my outstanding performance. This visibility made it easier as it was a natural consequence that the next door would open up. I was lucky that results of my work were so clearly measurable with lead to promotion opportunities paired with personal development. Early on I was offered a position as branch manager although I didn’t have any previous leadership experiences. The confidence and support of senior management helped me to grow into that position.
The downside was that I had to deal with the disappointment of colleagues who expected this role for themselves. With this big promotion I skipped career steps so there was a lot of discussion on the factory floor why a young mother would be promoted into a role which used to be a role for men only and definitely at a later career stage.
The fact that so many people talked about me was exhausting and discouraging. It made me look weak in front of my own team and piers. But I kept going, focusing on doing a great job, working harder and ignoring this unpleasant talk. My mantra is: move on, don’t allow negative influencers to demotivate you. As such I always got back on my feet and kept going. I focused on doing my job, achieving great outcomes, and tried to ignore all unpleasant noise around me. Eventually this convinces even your opponents.
What I would like to add is that strong friendships within and outside work are very helpful to get through difficult times. Make sure you stay connected with good friends and don’t get fully absorbed by work which will push you into isolation.
How did you overcome this “bullying” and achieve the respect of your colleagues (especially the older, more experienced, male colleagues)?
I think it is important to recognize these situations and understand why people react in a certain way. Does it have to do with your lack of experience, their personal disappointment or is it true intolerable discrimination?
In my case I didn’t blame people. The way I saw it was: we were in a male dominated field, there were no woman in any senior sales positions. It was so unusual and revolutionary that I understood that people were debating my promotion with some trying to throw stones in my way.
I tried to understand that all this was not about myself and that I had to move beyond my own frustration about this reaction to eventually path the way for younger women.
Which elements helped you to find a balance between work and private life?
For me, balance means balance from within. It is important for everyone but especially as a manager to be balanced as a person. For me it means that I bring this balance into my relationship and work and put attention on the well-being of my family and team. In my eyes, balance doesn’t mean you need to make a decision between personal life and career or that you try to split equal portions of energy and time between the both. I am convinced that if you have a passion for what you are doing then your work can have a balancing effect on your life.
But of course, along your career path you will encounter certain difficult situations which can drain you. In these periods of struggle, it is extremely important to have good friends or a partner, on who you can rely on and to whom you can talk to. And always remember after a tough time, in general a good period follows – that’s just how life works, there will be ups and downs and it’s almost impossible to find a state of “constant balance” (and to be honest, this would also be a little boring).
I also believe that now, post-COVID, the meaning of balance changed. We gained more freedom and flexibility when it comes to work hours and places. We will be more self-determined in our decisions of when to work and where to work, leading to a higher satisfaction level and more balance in general.
Which recommendation would you give young women at the beginning of their career? What would you have liked to know at the beginning of your career?
To be honest, I’m quite happy that I didn’t know so much when I started my career 😉. Just start somewhere and life will get you where you belong to. I never had a typical role model I wanted to follow, because I think in the end, we all have an individual character and a unique personality and “being yourself” is better than “being a copy of someone else”.
What always helped me was having great mentors throughout my career path. I had regular “mentoring sessions” with them and I learned a lot during all these conversations. I believe it’s very valuable to have people you can trust, with whom you can talk openly and discuss topics you wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about to your supervisor. Our company also had an internal leadership coach to support young employees in leadership positions and provide training, which also helped me extremely to become a better leader. I’m still in contact with my mentors and coach today as they are key people in my life and my career. So, I can only recommend: find yourself such a person of trust, it’ll help you a lot for your personal development.
And last but not least: when starting your career, first listen and absorb knowledge from people who are more experienced than you – mostly, they are happy to share. Take time to learn, work hard and then eventually create your own opportunities. Open the doors for yourself – not everything will come to you – and always follow your passion. Although this may be hard sometimes, eventually it will pay off.