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Women in fashion leadership: Petra Scharner-Wolff, Otto Group

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Women in fashion leadership: Petra Scharner-Wolff, Otto GroupINTERVIEW

Petra Scharner-Wolff is Group Executive Vice President Finance,
Controlling, and Human Resources at Otto GmbH & Co KG. The Hamburg-based
Otto Group, which operates in more than 25 countries and boasts an annual
revenue of 14.3 billion Euros in 2019/2020, is one of the world’s biggest
e-tailers. FashionUnited spoke with her via email about the leadership
style of women versus that of men, about showing more courage, and about
the Cultural Change program within the company.

Ms. Scharner-Wolff, please describe your career in your own words.

I have never been one to focus on the hurdles, but on the steps that I
want to take next. Before joining Otto Group, I worked as a business
consultant. At Otto, I started working as an employee in Controlling and
slowly took on more and more responsibility, changing departments every few
years. I loved to learn about the different perspectives and focuses in
combination with challenging transformations. Fortunately, I always had a
husband by my side who fully supported and approved of all my professional
aspirations.

What qualities have particularly qualified you for your current
position?

I enjoy making things happen and using my creative freedom. I also love
dealing with people, understanding them and I don’t mind conflict, if it
helps to push the right issues forward. Because if you want to change
something, you have to be able to make difficult and even unpopular
decisions. Thanks to my professional expertise, I can trust myself and my
decisions because I can derive and justify them objectively. Last but not
least, willingness to change also plays a major role. At Otto Group, we
have been living our Culture Change 4.0 for just under five years, which
has changed our entire way of working, our way of thinking and acting, our
attitude. This new way of working makes us fit for the future, but it has
demanded a lot from all our colleagues – especially from our managers – I
can tell you that from my own experience. Anyone who is not flexible or
able to take criticism will have a hard time in a leadership position.

What changes has the pandemic brought to your job?

As for many others, work became all about remote work: From one day to
the next, last March, we completely converted ongoing operations to work
from home wherever possible – with great success. This has shown me that,
technologically and culturally, the Otto Group was in a very good position
for these extraordinary, Corona-related challenges.

New ideas and formats were developed everywhere to further improve our
virtual collaboration – from daily stand-ups and team workshops to virtual
learning formats and bar camps to digital employee events and international
management meetings, which now even take place at a much faster pace than
usual, because no one has to travel. What impressed me positively was how
close we have become despite the distance. We want to and must maintain
this Group-wide collaborative cooperation. When I look at my own personal
work context, this year was indeed very special, because my role as head of
the corporate crisis team inevitably took up much more space than usual and
brought with it many challenging issues. For example, protecting the health
of all colleagues as best as possible while maintaining business operations
as continuously as possible.

As Executive Board Member you are responsible for Finance, Controlling,
and Human Resources. How does that go together, numbers and people, and
which is closer to your heart?

I am passionate about both topics – you can’t have one without the
other. After all, it is primarily the people who are responsible for the
economic success of the Group. From my point of view, it is even a great
advantage to have a close link between these two, at first glance
contradictory, departments, especially when difficult projects are on the
agenda.

Women in fashion leadership: Petra Scharner-Wolff, Otto Group

Do you think women have different leadership styles than men? How do
they differ?

The role of leadership, and therefore of managers, is changing a lot.
Until now, many corporate cultures have tended to favor so-called
‘masculine’ traits, such as rationality and risk-taking, and have lacked
female role models. But when we think of new buzzwords like agility and
empowerment, leadership is no longer about command and control, but much
more about creating a shared vision, trusting the team, and handing over
responsibility to it. I see this as a great opportunity for women, because
qualities that tend to be attributed more to women, such as empathy, social
competence, and communication skills, will help a great deal. However, the
female-male comparison is only one side of the coin. Experience clearly
shows that mixed teams always make better decisions and develop more
innovative ideas. Diversity is no longer a ‘nice to have’. We need
diversity in all aspects to be economically successful in the long run.

Do you exchange ideas with other women in comparable positions? What
topics engage you in these conversations?

Absolutely. A good network is essential and above all, it helps to drive
issues that are becoming more and more important. My role as Chief Human
Resources Officer is very much about female empowerment, equal
participation, and overcoming social conditioning. I am committed to
ensuring that this discussion is conducted in an interdisciplinary manner –
with representatives from business, politics, and society. Companies are
often given a high level of responsibility. We are happy to accept this
responsibility, but we also make it clear where the framework conditions
need to change elsewhere.

For example, the issue of womens’ careers cannot be discussed without
asking why men, on average, still earn so much more and continue to be seen
as the family providers. This is a structural problem that makes women
disproportionately stay at home with the children – especially in the phase
between 30 and 40 when the most important career steps are usually taken.
We need a strong awareness of the different levels of female, but also male
careers in order to really create new perspectives. The more women and men
talk about it, the better.

Do you see yourself as a mentor to other women? How do you personally
encourage them?

Yes, that is an important concern for me. Women still lack role models.
I definitely see myself as a role model. In terms of content, I am
particularly concerned with mirroring learned female behavior, which often
appears defensive in a professional context, and motivating women to break
with these patterns. Take career planning, for example. Men approach gaps
in their knowledge with the attitude: ‘Everything I can’t do, I can learn.’
We women, on the other hand, must learn not to focus too much on hurdles
and to see possible failure as an opportunity for personal development. My
appeal to women is therefore: “Have more courage to fail! Dare to learn new
things and open up even unfamiliar topics.”

It is similar with visibility. Women don’t negotiate worse than men per
se, but they tend more often to think that ambitiousness could seem imposed
or show-offish. So they miss out on putting their performance in the best
light, receiving recognition for it, and being considered for leadership
positions. In the end, good mentoring leads to better self-reflection:
Those who know their own strengths and weaknesses are much better able to
develop into authentic and successful leaders.

Otto Group has put a Diversity Management Programme in place. What
does that entail?

It means anchoring the topic of diversity strategically throughout the
Group. We initiate Group-wide development programs and projects, for
example, to promote female junior managers. Mentoring is also an important
part of this. We network and provide the impetus for the individual Group
companies and, together with the contact persons, develop measures to
achieve the goals set in the area of diversity – recently also within an
overarching Diversity Community, which has just been established to further
increase the broad impact and relevance of this topic.

And there is a Culture Change 4.0 department. What’s happening there?

The culture change process initiated by shareholders and management at
the end of 2015 ensures the future viability of our company. The central
culture change team plays an important role in this process because it
encourages the Group companies and the local culture change teams within
the Otto Group to make fields of action visible and to implement change
processes. As multipliers and enablers, they support colleagues across the
Group, for example by developing collaboration tools, formats and
structures and by networking local knowledge carriers. In fact, the team is
working with great dedication on its vision of doing away with itself in a
few years.

What tips would you give your younger self in their 20s (or current
graduates) regarding their careers?

American psychologist Norman Vincent Peale coined a saying that I like
to quote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the
stars.” I believe that we should all take this to heart. We live in a time
when we are allowed to be so brave as to try things out, to listen to our
own intuition, to contribute our own perspectives and ideas. It helps to
allow yourself a positive restlessness, to have the desire to go forward,
to show yourself and raise your hand, for example when it comes to
presenting results or even to dive fearlessly into a completely new
project. This confidence will be rewarded and will always be more
beneficial than detrimental to one’s career.

Women in fashion leadership: Petra Scharner-Wolff, Otto Group

This article was originally published in November 2020 on
fashionunited.de. Translation and editing: Barbara Russ

Images: Otto Group: Petra Scharner Wolff; Otto Group Executive
Board; Otto Group Headquarters

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Image: Fila x LN-CC x Flock Together
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Image: Fila x LN-CC x Flock Together

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