Why women can’t be afraid of power

02.09.2019 | Text Nora-Vanessa Wohlert | Photo Mirjam Kilter

A portrait of Simone Menne standing in a room, which is out of focus, and smiling into the camera. She is wearing a white blouse with a light blue undershirt.
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Simone Menne, first female CFO of a DAX-30 company, encourages women to leave their comfort zone.

When Simone Menne became the first woman to be named chief financial officer of a DAX-30 company, she found herself in a field completely dominated by men. And while this may sound like the distant past, it is regrettably just as true today: of the around 200 executives of the 30 DAX companies, only 25 are women, with each new executive board seemingly a spitting image of that which preceded it. Indeed, there are more executive board members named Thomas or Michael than there are women board members. Not to mention the fact that Germany has yet to see a female CEO of a DAX-30 company. That’s not to say that Menne isn’t up to the job.

She made it loud and clear in her position as CFO that she was ready to reach the top, and her proclamation was met with resistance. Behind closed doors, her critics made sure she knew this type of statement in public would not be tolerated. When it was decided that she would not become CEO, Menne changed employers. She left the new position just a short time later, citing irreconcilable differences, and has since been active as a speaker, mentor and supervisory board member with different companies. I had a chance to sit down with her to talk about the key moments in her life, her leadership tips and her plans for the future.

Simone Menne is sitting at a wooden table, talking and gesturing with her right hand and holding a cup with the other.

Power can be a positive thing because powerful people are in the position to effect change.

Simone Menne

Why women should talk about their strong suits more often.

It’s typical April weather here in northern Germany. One minute the sun casts a shadow through the floor-to-ceiling gable windows, across the hardwood floor and narrow West African dining table – the next, it’s dark and rainy. I’m in Kiel, visiting Simone Menne. The first time I read an interview of hers was five years ago, and I’ve been keeping up on her fascinating journey ever since. Menne is a role model to many women.

She returned to her birthplace just over a year ago, close to her family and friends with whom she goes way back. Here in Kiel’s historic city centre, she found a place to set up house: living quarters upstairs, gallery downstairs. Art is a great passion of hers, but unfortunately, she doesn’t have as much time for it as she’d like. She’s only home two, maybe three nights per week, she explains. Menne knows how to keep herself busy: she speaks at conferences, gives interviews and is a member of no less than five supervisory boards. She’s also a mentor, an investor in a start-up and an adviser to the Ministry of Finance in matters related to the capital market. But there was a time when it seemed unlikely that she would ever be where she is now. She admits that she was never a particularly good student, having graduated with a meagre C average. Maths was never her thing either, and it didn’t help that her teacher saw the subject as a boys’ club. It wasn’t until attending a vocational school for tax clerks that she first discovered her passion for numbers. After that, she studied business administration and started her career in the auditing department at the ITT Corporation. That was in 1987. Two years later, Menne began working as an auditor at a major airline, which saw her leading the accounting department for the West African region by 1992. Years later, she went on to become the first female chief financial officer of a DAX-30 company.

Women tend to emphasise the things they can’t do. That needs to stop. Why don’t you speak up about your strong suits?

Simone Menne

By the time Menne left in 2016, she had been with the company for 27 years, changing positions – and often countries – almost every three to five years. “The first time I moved abroad, everyone looked at me and wondered how I could possibly do that to myself.”

“A lot of people are afraid of leaving their comfort zone, of taking the less-beaten path.” Even after being demoted in the aftermath of a mistake on her watch, she stayed persistent and pulled through. This is a quality that allowed Menne to reach the top. And she likes power: “Power is something that tends to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, particularly for women. But power can be a positive thing because powerful people are in the position to effect change.”
Menne was never one to keep her mouth shut as she climbed the ladder. In fact, she says she has a bit of a reputation for stirring the pot. She tells me about “classic antics” that I personally have no clue about. For example, in the upper echelons, it’s normal to occasionally keep quiet if you don’t support a certain decision – your counterpart will return the favour by doing the same at a later time. This way you can make each other look good, she says. Menne, on the other hand, often took more unconventional approaches. “I would much too often speak about strategic matters publicly, which is typically reserved for the CEO. It was then through my interest in strategy that I knew I wanted to be CEO myself.”

Simone Menne is sitting at a wooden table, holding her eyeglasses in her hand and smiling while looking to the right side of the picture.

Menne’s peers are almost always men. “And they often cling to old-fashioned stereotypes. Studies show, however, that mixed teams produce better results,” she says. And those power-broking tactics one always hears about? Well, they’re real. They’re used to subtly “keep women in their place”. At least that’s the idea, says Menne. If a woman comes up with a good idea at a meeting, for example, nobody will listen. “Then a man says the same thing 10 minutes later and everyone applauds.” Menne was also the subject of much ridicule. They would say things like “looks like that went over her head once again.” She mostly had to go it alone to get to where she is now. She was already CFO by the time she had her first coach – incidentally a woman. Menne says she learned a great deal by surrounding herself with clever people and asking for critical feedback. “There are a lot of things that your team will be able to tell you much better than your coach will because they’re with you on a daily basis.” Openness has always been an important theme on Menne’s journey. She doesn’t fool around: “The alpha male shenanigans, the power grabs – I don’t have time for that.” And the argument that there aren’t enough qualified women, she says, is total nonsense. Asked whether a quota would help, Menne is unsure.

“The excuse that there aren’t enough women is easy to debunk. You just have to open your eyes, even look abroad. And women should make their presence known. We have to help each other: if I turn down a request, I try to suggest another woman. Men do the same thing.”
What’s lacking above all, she says, is the assurance that there will be a mixed audience at events. Often at conferences, all of the speakers are men. And they don’t show up to the panels on the female quota – they leave that to the women. This doesn’t make much sense, Menne says. She says that talking about this topic on an equal footing would make a big difference, that everyone needs this mixed network.
Discovery is important to Menne. She tweets, blogs and gets up on stage. You’ll spot her at the Noah start-up conference in Berlin, South by Southwest in Texas and at her own gallery in Kiel, where she works with a range of artists from northern Germany. There are plans for a first exhibition, but the date keeps getting pushed back further and further. With good reason: there’s still a hell of a lot to do. “I have more plans and ideas than I know what to do with. It’s a good problem to have,” she says. This seems to be a common thread in her life. “I never wanted to be sitting there at age 60 being afraid to try new things,” she once said in an interview.

But watching and listening to Menne, I get the feeling that she doesn’t think she still has it in her to become the CEO of a DAX-30 company. Gallery, family, supervisory board appointments, candid interviews – all of that sounds a bit like closure, pre-retirement if you will. I ask Menne directly. She pauses for a moment, then says: “The right people know that the fire is still burning. Maybe I am too old. I tend to think 40 is a good age for a new CEO. But before they take a man in his late 50s, they should go with me. I know I’d do a good job.”

This interview portrait originally appeared in the She’s Mercedes newsletter. In the monthly newsletter, authors from the She’s Mercedes network portray strong women who think things differently. Subscribe to the newsletter here and be inspired.

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