Hillevi Lausten, COO at DCMN, and Anna Michel, multiple founder and partner at scale up, are jointly involved in the scale up Women initiative for more equality in the workplace and in society. The initiative involves a whole range of women who want to shape a new form of feminism. In this double interview, the two talk about characteristics of founders and give tips for young female founders and managers.
Ms Lausten and Ms Michel, you have both held leading positions or founded your own companies. Why do you think women find it more difficult to start up?
Michel: I think the central challenge for founders is initially exactly the same for men and women. When you think about founding, you first have to deal with some self-doubt: "Can I even do all this? Do I know everything important?" The difference is that men like to assume they can do it all, or at least learn it all, and yet unfortunately women often have beliefs like, "Can I really do it? Can't others do it much better than me?" persist.
Lausten:For me personally it is a little bit difficult to distinguish this topic between men and women. When I look at my past, for example, I've had the toughest negotiations with women. In turn, there were some men that I had to push in salary negotiations. The experiences I've had in that context have softened some stereotypes for me.
How did you learn to assert yourself?
Lausten:Especially in previous leadership positions, I noticed that some male colleagues defined their leadership style by being very loud and taking up a lot of space.For me, that was definitely a challenge. I had to figure out how to make myself heard. Do I need to get that loud now too? How do I not lose myself and still get noticed?
How have you dealt with this?
Lausten: I actually stayed calm. I used pauses in conversation to dig in and make my points. I stated my opinion clearly, for example, if someone ran their mouth over mine, I didn't do the same to them, but calmly said, "Please let me finish." Self-reflection was also particularly important for me in this position. I realized relatively quickly where I stood and how I needed to respond.
I guess this is also especially difficult for women fresh into such a role. To get into the habit, I recommend reflecting on yourself first and then targeting the things you'd like to change. Coaching and books can help a lot. It helped me to always be very well prepared and to present my concerns in a calm but determined manner. After all these experiences I would say: I am an alpha animal, but a calmer one. I don't have to get loud to make myself heard.
Ms. Michel, you coach management best practices for female founders & founders of high-growth companies and their leadership team, and you have founded several companies yourself in the past. Can you remember the coaching that helped you the most yourself?
Michel:For me, it was sales training at the time. Before that, I always hated sales. My association with sales people was someone who aggressively nags you about something pointless. During this coaching I realized that this aversion actually has something to do with an internalized belief system: "As a girl, you must not chum up. And doing sales means pandering, and you're not allowed to do that. You have to be discovered." And that, of course, is the most obstructive thing you can do as a female founder.
This coaching has shown me how to effectively identify and work on specific issues for myself. In general, it's tremendously important to find people to talk to and get honest feedback from.
How do you feel about sales now?
Michel:If I stand behind the product or service and know that it really adds value for my counterpart, sales has become extremely easy for me. But I'm sure that also has something to do with the fact that I now see the human relationship in the foreground in every sales situation and no longer have to work on my own beliefs.
Ms. Lausten, back at jimdo, you worked with a coach to grow into your new role. What does good promotion look like in your experience?
Lausten: When I took my second major career step and assumed responsibility for a new area , we had a coaching team available internally with which I could prepare for my new role. A lot of importance was attached to the topic of "change management", and rightly so. I was really given sparring partners to work with. That definitely helped me a lot.
I also got a very helpful tip from a coach at the time. After anonymous feedback, I received feedback that I was dominant.
Was that a bad thing for you?
Lausten:Yes, for me it was quite bad in the beginning. Being dominant was something quite negatively attached to me.
The coach said to me "Honestly, a certain dominance is a super trait for someone who wants to be in leadership." He said I just need to think about what the impact of this trait is and what strengths I want to build alongside it that will reduce the negative aspects of having some dominance. Honestly, this point changed my life.
What advice would you give to young female founders today?
Lausten:Many things don't come until you ask for them. No one should forget that. You can't wait to be found or promoted. You have to be aware of where you want to go. This is perhaps a point where women and men actually differ. I think many men find it easier to articulate that than many women.
Michel: I think another element is that we women often have to articulate our aspirations for advancement to men in traditional structures. It's easier in most cases to establish a dialogue with someone of my own gender - and of course that's also related to habit. It's simply a classic phenomenon of psychology and rapport, that is, a relationship sustained by mutual empathic attention. When I deal with men who work primarily with men, they are used to a male rapport. As a woman, I am breaking the familiar pattern, so to speak, and it is beneficial to be aware of this. At the same time I have to meet a counterpart who is willing and able to see, hear and understand this other pattern and to enter into a rapport with me. Otherwise it will be a terribly exhausting process with little likelihood of success.
What qualities do you think are most important for founders?
Michel:In my eyes, one of the most important qualities is the ability to self-reflect. The willingness and ability to continuously question oneself without questioning oneself. That means, above all, to be open to develop yourself further. Where are things I can work on, things I can improve? This basic quality is equally important for men and women; the challenge is that this questioning, especially in women, unfortunately sometimes tips over into self-doubt. I know this all too well from personal experience, and it's not easy to get past this point.
What advice would you give to parents on how to boost their daughters' self-worth?
Michel:Well, to give courage! Give the feeling: "You can do it, try it out!", "You can also fall down, that's not bad." Part of trying things out is failure, and that's perfectly okay.
What do you think of the women's quota?
Louse:I like them!
Michel:I was against them at first but now I am a supporter. I think it's sad that we need them but I have since accepted that nothing will change if we don't have them.
Doesn't it bother you to think that you only got the job because you are a quota woman - or at least that others think that about you?
Michel:So what? Always wondering what others think about me doesn't get me anywhere. I'm used to being the only woman among men, and whether I end up being a token woman or not: as long as I accomplish what I set out to do, it doesn't matter at all.
Lausten:On the contrary, I actually feel it more as a privilege. I'm a trailblazer then because I'm making sure that maybe the next generation will have it easier. I feel that this is something that gives me even more of a push. For me, it's a step on the way to the world I'd like to have. A token woman should therefore be a great role model.
About the people
Anna Michel has founded a total of six companies within 10 years, most recently Fast Forward Imaging GmbH, an innovation company in the field of digital asset generation for ecommerce and augmented and virtual reality applications. Since 2018 she has been working as a coach and since 2020 as the first female partner for scale up, where she accompanies founders of growth companies and their management teams during scaling and strategic transformation processes.
Hillevi Lausten spent several years in PR after earning her master's degree in communication sciences, psychology, and civil law tAfter earning her master's degree in communication sciences, psychology, and civil law, Hillevi Lausten spent several years in PR until 2015, when she took her first leadership position at jimdo and was responsible for the website builder's paid marketing. Since then, she has held various marketing leadership positions and now works as COO at DCMN. Together with her team, she was coached at scale up and is herself part of the scale up Women initiative.
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