Petra Pirron, Managing Director at Datavard Software, marketing enthusiast, passionate team leader and a doting wife and mother of two talks about how female leaders can embrace their feminine side in their professional lives.
Petra, throughout your career you successfully managed both big and small teams. Starting this year, you became the Managing Director of Datavard Software. How did your career evolve? What made you realize you would make a good manager and, later on, leader?
I started my career as what they call a “single contributor” and in the first 5-7 years I had never thought that being a people manager or a leader would be my thing. When I first led a small team (back at SAP), I was more afraid of failure or that the team would not like me vs. being a real leader who is working with the team (and accepts that this is not about being liked) to achieve the best results. Don’t get me wrong, we did achieve – even overachieved – but it was more at my expense. The success depended on me finishing tasks rather than managing performance and making sure each and every one is contributing in the same way to the team’s success. In hindsight, I know that it was not the team’s fault, it was me not being direct and not communicating and not managing expectations properly. But I also realized that I truly enjoyed working with a team, being the enabler of individuals, team spirit and making sure that they communicated with each other and drove towards the same goal. This is still one of my key drivers, seeing the individual – their talent, drivers, passion but also weaknesses – and making sure that a team has awareness about each other. Secondly, while working with teams it’s important to show appreciation for being different but also to set and live up to joint standards.
I realized that I am really passionate about this and that I started early to be the enabler for collaboration and goal-orientation within teams. Over time, experience and global diversity was added. But all of that would have been for nothing if I was not a curious and always-learning person. We all are here to learn and as leader of an organization, I know that I will never stop learning – from people, changes in the industries, my own achievements and mistakes… I think that this is key for staying open which is an essential leadership skill.
Statistics say that female leaders, especially in the IT world, are still a minority. Why do you think it is this way?
I believe that women are as great leaders as man, but still many female talents feel they have to choose between having a family and having a career. Some women fear that they are not good enough or that they must lead like a man to be successful. I personally think those assumptions are wrong. Studies say that if a company was “female only”, no hierarchies would be needed because women would just naturally organize themselves. We have a different style of leading and collaborating, and I truly believe all organizations can only benefit from that. Then, the IT industry is still not attractive enough for women, many of us do not see themselves coding – I see this as an issue and I wish that the tech industry would open up to see the benefit female talent can bring to the table.
On the other hand, it IS still difficult to balance between being a mom for example and having a career at the same time. It took me some time to find my happy way and to accept that if I would strive for “perfect” in either Petra as a mom, wife or Petra the Managing Director, I can only fail. So I step back every now and then and try to figure out, what needs to change NOW so that I am happy and the people around me are happy too. I think the most important thing is to make sure that you really want this life for yourself and do not try to play a role or do this because you think it is expected from you. I accept that sometimes I do not have everything under control and things are far away from being perfect (by my own standards).
Speaking as the Managing Director, what actions should organizations take to promote gender equality?
First of all, woman need to learn to speak up and be aware of what they need, how they would like to work and to have an open and honest discussion with their bosses. Stop accepting the status quo. As a mother of two teenagers I had to find a way to balance my career with being a mom and wife. I was always finding ways to agree to more flexible working hours or home office days which allowed me to create balance.
In addition, I see that it is important to make sure female talent is valued. And yes, you are right if you just thought “what does that actually mean…?”. Women work, think and lead differently and I have seen teams where true diversity was the trick to stellar results. It means, accepting the difference, no matter if one is male, female, old or young.
Then, flexible working models for sure help as well as promoting women into leadership roles, even if they do work part-time. Also, here it is important to make no differentiation. I have seen companies where fathers who wanted to share parental leaves with their wives had hard times getting this approved. If we work on making sure that we value diversity and move past male/ female stereotypes, then I am super confident we will take a huge step.
I am still not sure if we need gender quotas for leadership roles. That might help now but it does not help if cultural and mindset changes are left out.
A confident man shows leadership skills, a confident woman is… bossy. Is this still the case?
Well, unfortunately for a long time woman thought that they have to be the “better man” when taking on managerial roles. I personally think, that this is where conflict starts; female leaders lead different and they should embrace that as something positive. We ARE different and the moment a woman imitates masculine style I agree, it might come up as bossy or harsh. I think for a long time we have been missing female leadership role models and when taking on my first job as a manager I needed time to understand that when I live up to who I am, I am the better leader for my teams. At the end we are all humans not machines – so why should I not embrace female power skills which are more on the emotional side vs. analytical? It does not mean that women are led by emotions all the time, but we are more sensitive to them and by nature we have a stronger need to connect to people, enable collaboration and we tend to lead more intuitively.
What has influenced your management style?
For sure experience. I was never afraid of taking on responsibility or being the forerunner. But as said earlier, I was trying to copy male leadership styles early in my career and to a certain extent it worked. Until one day I realized that I had a great career but I felt exhausted and sometimes I didn’t feel like myself. It got to the point where I asked myself if I really wanted to progress this career for the next let’s say 20 years and this perspective scared me. I started to work with coaches who helped me to understand that being a successful leader means first and foremost being authentic and true to myself. I had to learn that, and I still do every day.
Second, I moved from a large corporation to Datavard where I am not only getting the chance to lead teams but where it is a key responsibility of each leader, to grow with the organization, help shaping it and to be a beekeeper and evangelist for a diverse culture. Our CEO is a great challenger and believer into authenticity, honesty and personal development.
Over time, I became more reflective and I definitely see my role as an enabler of the individuals I work with. What makes me really happy and satisfied today is being truly connected with people, being 100% honest, direct and knowing that we drive together towards success, in the beginning of my career I was sometimes more making sure we drive for results.
Do you have a career tip for the talented women out there looking to become leaders?
Find out what your female superpower is and make sure that you embrace it. Whether you lead as a manager or mom or friend – the most important thing is that you are aware that nobody expects you to do the same things males do.
And, being a woman is wonderful! But don’t forget to appreciating male behavior or leadership styles as well. Make sure that you also live up to diversity.
How do you balance being a mother of two teenagers, wife, and the leader of a business unit?
That wasn’t always easy, and it still is sometimes difficult. When the boys were still little, I often felt guilty leaving them alone when I had to be on a business trip. Today I know, that those have been – again – my own limitations and perfectionism. They have never been alone, and I am very thankful too, that my husband and I shared responsibilities not only when I had to travel.
And yes, I know those “Working Mom” moments, when you just forget a school thing or that you were supposed to bring a cake to kindergarten. I try my very best and I still have days where I feel overwhelmed by all the things which are on our plates. But on the other hand, I also see that I have the chance to teach my kids that no matter the gender, living up to your own dreams is what we are here for.