On 8 March, Engel & Völkers is celebrating International Women’s Day. We used this opportunity to interview three female executives from the Engel & Völkers headquarters in Hamburg’s HafenCity: Bettina Prinzessin von Wittgenstein, Head of Global Corporate Communication, Michaela Cordes, Editor-in-Chief of GG Magazine, as well as Paloma Pérez, CEO of the Engel & Völkers Market Center.
International Women’s Day at E&V: Interview with our female executives
Please tell us how you came to be at Engel & Völkers.
Bettina Prinzessin Wittgenstein, Head of Global Corporate Communication: It was more of a coincidence. Christian Völkers and I were friends and he convinced me to join the company. This happened 25 years ago now – and I am still very happy to be here. This is certainly also due to the fact that I am lucky to be able to work together with many of my friends.
When I started, the company was very different than today. Back then, we were only around 100 employees, today there are more than 11,000 people working under the brand. I was able to accompany this exciting journey and actively shape many developments.
I started in the field of "Castles & Manor Houses" and over the course of my career managed various corporate divisions, from the E&V Academy to Grund Genug Verlag. Since then, I have been responsible for our Global Corporate Communication department for many years.
Paloma Pérez, CEO of the Engel & Völkers MCs: If I have to choose the main milestones of my career, I would say the following;
Graduating as a telecommunications engineer in a moment where in college engineering classes men outnumbered women 50 to 1 was for me the most unique learning experience; self-belief and hard work will always earn you success and in spite of being outnumbered, I have never felt I didn’t belong.
My first job as an engineer in IBM Group was a great creative technical experience. It also gave me the opportunity to try to break some stereotypes as dressing female fashion clothes are not incompatible with being taken seriously in my capabilities as an engineer.
My first management position was as Technology Integration Manager in Andersen Consulting, where I learned that leadership is not about you but about turning our focus from me to others. Selfishness is incompatible with leadership.
In 2004 I decided to move out from Technology and I started as COO in Pelayo Insurance, being responsible for a team of more than 300 people and with the challenge to manage the biggest transformation of its history. During this period I also took the opportunity to start a Masters' program at IESE and Harvard.
Before joining Engel & Völkers in 2014 I was VP Sales & Operations for Europe Australia and Asia in Best Doctors.
Michaela Cordes, Editor-in-Chief of GG Magazine: In 2005, a friend of Christian Völkers suggested taking me on as new editor-in-chief of GG Magazine. After I had finished the Springer School of Journalism in Dresden, Hamburg and Los Angeles I moved to the US to work as a foreign correspondent for Gruner & Jahr in LA for two years. When I later in 2005 joined GG magazine, Engel & Völkers was in the process of becoming a franchise company which meant the magazine needed a more international approach. This was a time in Germany when high end magazines such as “Park Avenue” and ”Vanity Fair” started appearing on the market. Christian Völkers and I knew each other as friends, as we had both grown up in the same neighbourhood - in Blankenese. In the summer of that year we met at his finca in Majorca for the first time to speak about his more global vision and I presented him with my idea on how to transform his GG Magazine – which up to then had been used primarily for presenting beautiful, but empty homes – into an exciting, international lifestyle magazine. “It needs more soul”, I explained, “and it must feature interesting people that the readers would like to get to know!” International personalities who inspire the readers and thus indirectly draw attention to the beautiful homes in the latter part of the magazine. Christian Völkers gave me the go-ahead! We put together a new GG team, I brought Janine Weitenauer on board as creative designer for the look & feel, and six months later we presented the new GG to Christian Völkers! Instead of using a conservative interior picture as had been done in previous issues, the cover showed Valesca Hermes sitting surrounded by two other beautiful women sitting in a palace in Marrakech, all of them laughing and wearing long, slit evening dresses. Inside we featured an exclusive interview with the star architect Richard Meier, a report about party etiquette as well as other exciting personality stories. I still remember exactly how Christian Völkers loosened his tie, took off his jacket and sat down without saying a word. Finally, he laughed and said: Yes – now that’s a real magazine! It remains an unforgettable moment to this day!
What’s your take on equal opportunities for men and women in professional life and what are your experiences in this regard?
Bettina Prinzessin Wittgenstein: A lot has already changed, but unfortunately, there is still a gender gap in many areas. When I started my business studies as a young girl, this was very unusual. Most of my female friends studied languages or history of art. The older generation was very sceptical about my choice of subject. But it was just right for me.
Michaela Cordes: I think I was very lucky in this regard, as I learnt from an early age how to deal with male cheekiness and intimidation. When I started as an intern at BILD in Dresden in 1992 shortly after the reunification of Germany, it was quite normal to be tried and tested. And it is safe to assume that, as a young woman, I was treated differently to men my age. At the daily conference on my first day, my boss asked me in front of everyone: Are your teeth actually real? I jokingly brushed it aside and retaliated charmingly, “Yes, but I also don’t smoke as much as you do!” When I returned from a photo reportage and handed over my camera to the senior picture editor, he approached me a little while later and said: “Unfortunately none of your pictures have turned out well. We won’t be able to print any of them!” So I went back and retook all the pictures. But after they realised that I went out all the way for a good story, I started earning respect. In the end, I was even offered a permanent position. Later, when I worked in Hollywood a lot, I also experienced similar male behaviour from time to time that was made public by the #Metoo debate. However, I am of the opinion that you can protect yourself from this as a woman – as long as you are strong enough, of course. But in the course of my career I also encountered German editors-in-chief who said: “I won’t appoint a woman as head of department. At some stage they all fall pregnant and then they leave.” Fortunately, this kind of mindset has changed completely in recent years. I myself nowadays prefer working with women who have children and family. This is because they don’t discuss for hours on end how else something could be done in theory, but know how to work efficiently, quickly, reliably and in a targeted manner. It’s logical, after all: Mothers don’t have time to focus only on one topic, but must be able to do many things simultaneously. Provided that you have the knowledge and skills, this ability can be very helpful in your job!
Paloma Pérez: I feel very lucky since I didn’t live in the world my mother or women for other countries live in where career choices for women are so limited. I have been in very meritocratic companies where if you work hard you have always opportunities. I do not recall anyone questioning my capacity just for being a woman.
But the reality talks; only 15% of top management in business are women. The numbers have not moved since 2002 and are going in the wrong direction.
I think the problem is a question of trust. Top management positions are positions of confidence and it is easier to trust what you already know. That is why it is very difficult to be the first woman in a position; You need a male manager taking the risk to appoint someone so completely different.
Once the glass ceiling is broken, the first woman is followed by others.
Which woman in the public sphere do you admire and why?
Bettina Prinzessin Wittgenstein: I am particularly impressed by the CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour, who has worked her way up in the male-dominated world of war reporting and has been broadcasting from every international crisis area ever since. She is the chief presenter of the successful "Global Affairs" format "Amanpour", in which she interviews the most important people in the world. She has won the most prestigious prizes in international television journalism for her work. Alongside this incredible career, Christiane Amanpour is also a caring mother of her eighteen-year-old son.
Michaela Cordes: Katherine Graham, the former CEO and owner of the Washington Post is a woman I have always deeply admired. Her biography “Personal History” is an incredibly inspiring read. It’s the story of a woman who unexpectedly - due to the suicide of her depressed husband - found herself in charge of one of the most important newspapers in the world. And this in a time when women did not hold such positions and thus were not taken seriously initially. Yet she became a very successful publisher, maybe also because of her humility and civic courage, and substantially helped to uncover one of the biggest political scandals of our time – Watergate. Generally, I admire women who have the courage to do things differently to how they are usually done or to what is expected of them. This is also how I choose the protagonists for our GG cover stories. Anine Bing, Tory Burch, Tanya Streeter, Katharina Harf – I consider all of them modern-day heroines who take a passionate stand for what they believe in and overcome prejudice and negative mindsets. Just like our current cover woman Dr. Barbara Sturm. What is interesting in this regard: They all have children and their own business.
Paloma Pérez: Madeleine Albright. She is an example of breaking the glass ceiling. She was the first woman to hold the high office in the US after receiving unanimous support from the US Senate. Albright was the most unusual choice; a non-American woman from Czechoslovakia. Albright took many courageous decisions and she never loses her confidence and her style. Her female leadership allowed her, for example, to become the first Secretary of State trying to extend the hand of friendship to North Korea.
What makes you a “superwoman”?
Bettina Prinzessin Wittgenstein: I think, first of all, the qualities one should have in order to be successful are discipline, speed, decisiveness, stress resistance and - especially at Engel & Völkers - flexibility.
Emotional intelligence and the ability to set goals and to pursue them are also indispensable. In professional life, it is very important to be able to delegate well and to motivate the people you work with. However, I have always been lucky to have a great team!
International networking plays an important role for me, as well as multitasking - I actually never drive my car without working through my list of phone calls to make. And you also have to accept to renounce on certain things that might be important to you: while my friends met for lunch several times a week, I divided my time between my family and my job.
And something else that is still very important to me personally: none of that works without a great sense of humour.
Michaela Cordes: I’m not sure I would call myself that. However, I must say that I have been surrounded by powerful women all my life. My maternal grandmother was an opera singer and a very loving, but also very strong and independent-minded woman. Her daughter - my mother - had me at a very young age and then still adopted two children at a time when this was not something anyone thought about. Simply because my parents wanted to give these children a home. To this day, my mother is a strong minded woman who says what she thinks and brims with vitality and curiosity. She taught me from a young age to always form my own opinions and believe in my dreams. And I can see in both my daughters (17 and 20) that their legacy will live on.
Paloma Pérez: I don’t want to overstate the female leader characteristics because there are as many individual styles as there are leaders, but I think there are certain attitudes and behaviours that are more prevalent in women than in men:
1. Power women are strong in soft-skills such as passion, determination and empathy.
2. Power women feel more comfortable in a flat organization than in a hierarchical one. They understand that leadership is not about control; everyone is equal, no one is superior. Therefore, they do not usually exercise coercive methods to demonstrate their leadership. They prefer to convince, being a referent and work side by side.
3. Finally, power women are not afraid to credit the support of others for their success. This constant recognition makes the team feel safe and valued.
Is it (still) necessary as a woman nowadays to decide between career and children, and what advice would you give to young women in this regard?
Bettina Prinzessin Wittgenstein: The world today looks very different from what it did in my youth. In the generation of my adult daughters, a university degree is a must. Nowadays, women and mothers have to be self-reliant and financially independent. It is still a balancing act for women - no matter how well organized they are. I have a husband, two daughters, two dogs, two households and my job. Nevertheless, it has always been a great pleasure for me to achieve something outside of my family.
I am firmly convinced that women can reach the same professional goals as men. The Scandinavian countries serve as great examples. In Sweden, for instance, around 80 per cent of women work, many of them in management positions - this is what we should strive for.
Paloma Pérez: I think a woman or a man should never be in a position to decide between personal and professional life. Successful people are happy people who have a well-balanced life. I have decided not to have children, not because of work but because I do not see myself as a mother.
My advice for young women is that they need to decide what kind of life they want to have, what are their priorities and what they really love and being coherent with that.
If you enjoy work and also having kids you need to make your partner a real partner. Something that also distinguishes power women is their partners. If you do not have a partner that does not try to compete about who has the more important job and does not understand you are equal…..forget about your job or forget about your partner.
Michaela Cordes: I wish I could say “no”. But especially in Germany, it seems to me that we are not only dealing with a shortage of childcare options, but also with a certain status mindset that makes it difficult for young women to pull themselves out of this predicament and find their own way in life. I experienced this myself when I had my first daughter. Half of the women(!) around me asked me when I would be having my second child. The other half asked me when I would start working again. I was fortunate in the regard that the father of my children supported me tremendously and thought it was great that I stayed at home for the two girls and would go working again when one of them started going to school and the other going to kindergarten. But that’s an exception. Nowadays, it’s common that both partners need to work. I think the French model works well: There, it’s totally ok and socially acceptable – and affordable – that professional women leave their babies and small children at a daycare centre. In any case, I would recommend that young women learn a sensible profession AND gain a couple of years of experience before having children. This makes it easier to return to the job market and helps you maintain self-confidence when your world is suddenly reduced to nappies and baby bottles. When I think back on the many sleepless nights at that time – what helped me a lot was to remember all the exciting work-related experiences I had had, which in turn helped me to commit myself fully to the unique and fleeting baby phase at hand.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we also recommend our interviews with powerwomen from our international network.