(Article first published in Currents 2 2005).
“I never felt that anybody looked at me differently because I was a woman. What made the difference was that I got the opportunity to work in line management where you can show results,” says Annika Falkengren, deputy CEO and soon full CEO of one of Sweden’s largest banks, the SEB.
Annika Falkengren was recently named the most powerful businesswoman in Sweden, but female bosses are a rare species in the private business sector of welfare Sweden. Women are found in many management jobs in the public sector, they have captured close to half of the seats in the parliament (45 percent), and eleven of twenty-two posts in the cabinet. Although 90 percent of Sweden’s women work, the private sector has been embarrassingly slow in letting women join the ranks of management, and even more so when you reach the top. Only two percent of the CEO’s of publicly traded companies are women, and although the number of female board members took a dramatic jump after vice-premier Margareta Winberg in November 2002 threatened with quotas, women are still few and far between in most boardrooms. This in a country that has been run by social democrats for most of the past three quarters of a century, not counting a couple of short-lived non-socialist interludes.
Annika was of course not selected as a CEO because she was a woman, something Jacob Wallenberg, the chairman of the board, made explicitly clear as he introduced the result of a yearlong executive search done by headhunters. She got the job for the same reason that Samuel Palmisano became the new CEO of IBM when Louis Gerstner retired. She had been a line manager in charge of SEB:s largest business area – Corporate & Institutions - that had produced the right numbers year after year, adding value to the bottom line. There may have been many good soft reasons to pick a female CEO in a company where 60 percent of the employees are women, but this decision was about competence and performance.
The symbolic significance of this decision may however not lie so much in today’s outcome, but in the fact that she might very well have been overlooked a generation ago.
“I am proud over the fact that the bank, for the first time in 50 years, picked the new CEO from inside. The SEB and the Wallenberg family is sometimes seen as rather conservative, so it is nice to be able to show that we as always are professional and modern in our thinking. We preserve the heritage, but view the world with modern eyes,” she says.
But change is coming and it is reaching the boardrooms as well: Half of the eight members of FSB’s board are now women, five of fourteen board members at Svenska Handelsbanken (SHB) are women, as are four out of twelve at Nordea. In this area however, SEB is a laggard: When Annika joins the board next year; only three out of twelve members will be women.
Annika has worked in the bank for almost half of her life (she is 43), and claims that she never experienced any glass ceiling or glass walls. “I work in the financial sector, which I think is an excellent sector to be in, as it is results-oriented. I’ve also had very good managers. My first manager, Mats Larsson, followed my career for ten years, and he meant a lot to me. I turned down a couple of job offers in the beginning, not feeling quite confident about my ability, but he pushed me ahead. There was no corporate policy to promote women; it was just that my manager felt that I was suitable, even when I couldn’t see it myself. I think that women tend to hesitate more before taking on a new task. We want to be so sure, while men just throw themselves into the game saying ‘I’ll take care of that!’ I was lucky in having a manager that believed in me, and then I started to work for CEO Lars Thunell, which also worked out well.” (He is 58 and will retire when Annika takes over the reins.)
“I never felt that anybody looked at me differently because I was a woman. What made the difference was that I got the opportunity to work in line management where you can show results. I felt safety in knowing that I had delivered ‘kronor’ and ‘ören’ (i.e. dollars and cents) to the bottom line and had happy customers. It shows,” she continues.
She may not have faced a corporate glass ceiling herself, but she is fully aware of the wider impact of her appointment. She wants to encourage other women to become managers, which is why she has addressed the Swedish-American Executive Women’s conferences founded by Renee Lundholm, president of SACC New York, and speaks at universities and business schools.
For Annika herself, this has been only one of the large changes to her life over the last few years. She married Ulf Falkengren and gave birth to a daughter about a year ago. Now she had the option of enjoying 480 days of paid parental leave - the standard in Sweden - but she was soon back at work. “I married the right man. I was on maternity leave for three months, and now he stays home taking care of our daughter until she is ready for day-care. So far that solution has worked well for us. I am also privileged in that I can afford to buy the services we need to make our everyday life manageable,” she says.
When asked about managerial role models, she says that she has many, but can’t single out one particular. She is grateful to her managers at the bank, and admires Jack Welch for his focus on human resources and quality. In the background there is also her mother, who was working outside the house until her father, a diplomat, was stationed in Thailand. “I had a very strong father figure who believed that anything I did was fabulous,” she laughs.
Her road to the top was never mapped out at an early stage. “There are those who come out strong, pushing with all their might, but things don’t always happen according to your plan. You must be ready to seize the moment. My first boss left the bank when he was 51 and wanted me to take over. I was only 37 then. It was pure luck. If he had stayed on for ten more years, I may have been doing something else. And then we have the fact that Lars Thunell retires relatively early… Don’t expect the road to be completely laid out. Find a job that you feel passionate about rather than skit around from base to base.” For her it was also important that she worked in a wholesale division, and she advices women to pursue jobs as line managers, which is unusual as many women choose to work in HR, marketing or communication. “There are few women as line managers, but that is where CEO’s are usually picked, not from the staff at the headquarters.
“One woman cannot change society. There needs to be more of us for it to be possible to say that Sweden has truly embraced the concept of women as leaders in the corporate world. SEB is pro-actively aiming at increasing the number of senior managers. For us it is a question of profitability. We cannot afford to miss out on 50 percent of the most talented people,” Annika Falkengren concludes.
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