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Learning through dialogue

Sabine Scheunert is wearing a white suit with a black top and smiling into the camera. In the background there is a geometrically imprinted wall.
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Mercedes-Benz manager and mentor Sabine Scheunert champions women in the IT and technology sector.

Scheunert is responsible for almost 2,000 employees worldwide. Her area has 35 per cent female employees and almost a quarter of the leading positions are filled by women. These facts alone are impressive testimony to the cause of this mathematician, who has been successfully carving out a career in the automotive industry for around 20 years: after all, she wants to encourage women to be more visible in the IT and technology sector.

Since the end of 2018, Scheunert has been actively mentoring a colleague who works in the field of long-term data security through cryptography. She also regularly participates in mentoring sessions and events such as the Ada Lovelace Festival, a conference aimed at the female IT and tech community; partly to share her knowledge and experience with other practitioners here, and partly because Scheunert is convinced that even an experienced manager always has something new to learn as soon as they enter into any dialogue.

When you are travelling on business, you always take time to listen to your employees’ concerns at each location, especially those of your female employees. Why do you think this kind of international dialogue is essential?

The IT department I am responsible for has global reach and it is important to me to promote the talents in my team all over the world. Firstly, it’s irrespective of gender, as that is not the deciding factor in the digital world. However, I do believe it is relevant to give more women visibility in this profession and encourage them to be self-confident. And generally speaking: the entire automotive industry is currently facing the greatest transformation it has ever gone through. We must not only rethink our existing products and the way they add value, but above all create a corporate culture that lives and breathes this change and spurs everyone to be part of this journey into the future. Transparency and a rigorous exchange of ideas are essential if we are to achieve this.

Sabine Scheunert is sitting in a bright office. She is talking to a person out of the picture while looking a little to her left.

In the course of your career you have worked in both France and China for several years. Did you notice any differences in female leadership there?

There is generally a deep respect for seniority in China, regardless of the gender of the more senior person. Some of my colleagues there are absolutely brilliant role models for the next generation of Chinese professional women who want to enter the IT and technology industry. We can learn a somewhat pragmatic attitude towards careers from our French colleagues, largely based on promoting women. Women working full-time, which is taken for granted, is certainly a help towards equal rights; France is way ahead of Germany in this respect. Moreover, working mothers are not frowned upon in the French working world. As such, the balancing act between work and family life is made noticeably easier for women, at least in terms of societal expectations.

As a female manager, is the onus on you to act as a role model for young talent?

In my opinion, openness and the willingness to take on different points of view and learn from the team are the characteristics of a strong manager. I think that mutual mentorship is one of the most sustainable and rewarding experiences a leader can have. I feel I have a responsibility to stand by young women with my advice and coaching, but I also learn from this dialogue myself.

How can both sides benefit from the exchange?

Basically, it’s important for both parties to actively engage in the relationship. The time frame plays a key role here and should be clearly agreed on at the outset. Open discussion and transparency are the be-all and end-all, and this is where the greatest value can be found. Even difficult moments and failures need to be shared, because there is usually much to learn from these situations. In specific terms, mentoring can take many forms, some of them quite simple such as job shadowing. I have always found personal meetings to be rich experiences. Regular two-way discussions can also work well via Skype or email.

As a mentor, how do you approach the first meeting with your mentee?

I give her the Gallup’s StrengthsFinder test as a kind of preparation. We use the outcomes to work together intensively on her strengths and look at how and where she can put them to the best use in a professional context.

How can someone find a mentor in the first place? Do you have any advice?

There will often already be people within your own team or company who you can establish a mutual rapport with. However, you can also look online for a mentor. For example, I really like the LinkedIn network and am constantly seeing personalities there from whom I can learn. But whether you are looking online or offline, my recommendation is: just ask and get in touch openly.

Is there any one person you think you yourself can learn from?

Daimler launched a reverse mentoring programme as part of the Leadership 2020 cultural programme. Digital natives, the mentors, share their digital trends expertise with experienced senior executives, their mentees. My mentor, Patrick Klingler, is a true expert in artificial intelligence and we share a passion for digital technologies and methods.

Sabine Scheunert, wearing a dark suit, is standing in front of a blue wall, talking and gesturing towards an audience.

Which working methods are important to you personally? What values do you aim to exemplify to both your mentees and your employees?

I am strongly committed to ensuring that our culture remains fearless and unbiased, and that this is actively put into practice at a management level. We demonstrate that in my team by our employees being free to question decisions that have already been made, to give honest feedback and to point out ineffectiveness they identify. There is also room to make honest mistakes and learn from them, identifying personal problem areas, exchanging ideas and supporting the ideas of others.