More Talent, Less Gender

Written by Judith Sterl

A Male Feminist and Executive Search Consultant on Glass Ceilings and Gender Disparities

The empowerment of female founders, entrepreneurs, and businesswomen only concerns women, right? Wrong. In today’s working world, women and men are working side by side and men need to be part of the discussion more than ever. Harald R. Fortmann is not only an acclaimed executive search consultant and entrepreneur, but also a very distinguished author and publisher. In his new book #FemaleLeadershipPictured, he portrays 40 successful women of today’s digital economy. He is a mentor for female and male founders and an active member of the initiative Male Feminists Europe #men4equality. We were curious to know more about this man who chooses to support and write about female leaders.

Portrait of Harald R. Fortmann, five14

What made you decide to publish a book on successful female leaders?

During dmexco 2017 – Europe’s leading digital marketing conference and exposition in Cologne – there was a major shitstorm about why there were so few female talents on the stages of the conference. My first thought was “why do people always have to blame others instead of leading the way and showing alternatives?”. Due to my job as an Executive Search Consultant, I am in touch with amazing talents every day and a significant amount of them are female. And so the idea was born to give female leaders a platform to demonstrate their great level of talent.

Instead of a digital platform, I opted for a coffee table book to reflect the variance of female leaders for the industry. It also was very important to me to not approach individual females in order to have the greatest possible diversity – something we achieved in cooperation with the dmexco management and The Female Quotient who hosted us for free during dmexco 2018. This worked out pretty well and we had photo shootings with 80 impressive women, of which we conducted interviews with 40 of them for the book.

Photo of Books with Headline

What made you decide to publish a book about women? Have you always been interested in female leadership or was there a moment in time or a situation that made you mindful of the topic?

I kind of always was interested. At all my previous companies, the percentage of female talent was very high; at my current company five14 I am again currently the only male. I grew up with a strong mother in France, a country where women working and leading businesses is much more common than in Germany. Already in my first business, it was clear to me that I needed more EQ in my staff to achieve the best results – something female talents are so much better at than their male counterparts. In my daily job, this is a major topic and I have consulted Dax, MDAX, and medium-sized enterprises on positioning their companies to attract female leaders and master digitization.

You have spoken with many successful women in business – What impresses you the most? Is there something they all have in common?

Due to the diversity of the 40 females we published – and those we couldn’t consider for the book – we had quite a wide field of experiences and also life experience. The younger the women are, the less they have to fight for their role in management. Which is kind of reassuring as it shows that – slowly – things are changing in the Digital Industry. What I observed was that most of them are willing to support other women in their careers, but then again this may be a one-dimensional perspective, as those women followed my requests on social media to support our project. Among those 80 women, we saw during the two days at dmexco many impressed me – from a 23-year-old female founder up to super senior C-Levels in large enterprises. What’s surprising to me is that even though all these women are successful and have achieved a great deal, they doubted themselves and hesitated to be part of this project.

Is there a common challenge the female leaders in your book have faced and have or are trying to overcome?

Well, all of them at a certain point in their careers hit the glass ceiling. But most of them mastered to conquer the higher level by speaking up or just leaving the company for another, more open one. And for the mothers among them, still in 2019, there was always this doubt if they really will make it with all those duties on their plate – even if they exceeded the KPIs by far.

You’ve also interviewed Pia Frey, Co-Founder of Opinary? Pia participated in the German Accelerator program and is one of our German Accelerator Ambassadors now. Tell us, what impressed you most about her?

Pia is an amazing talent and individual. She has a level of smartness that unites not only business comprehension, but also that emotional intelligence you need to really change the world. I also like how she told me about the challenges of establishing a family business, as her brother is one of the three founders of Opinary as well. Pia is very supportive of other female talents and if you look inside this pretty amazing company, you will find a lot of other impressive female leaders. She leads the pack there and I definitely would put money into her companies – she will achieve even more in the future.

You’ve founded and managed five14, an executive search firm in Hamburg. From your experience, is it more difficult to place women? If so, why?

Over the last year, our perception is that this is not an issue anymore. Before that, most of our clients, especially those building up digital teams, were doubting women’s ability to do the job. Mostly due to the fear of losing them too soon because of a pregnancy. Right now, we even get clear advice to focus on female leaders for certain roles. We are executing accordingly, but we did not really change our process as we always made it a point to offer the largest bandwidth of talent possible among the three to four candidates we present to the customer. And there are certain companies or roles we actively advise women not to take – i.e. if they have young children. – some cultures are impossible to satisfy if you still want to spend a certain amount of time with your kids or want to work (really) part-time.

Fun Fact: we had a search for a female CTO at the end of last year for a very specific area. Their CEO called me up as he thought if anyone, I could achieve that. We actually found well suited and excellent candidates. However, the company was entirely decentralized and didn’t have a physical office. Those female CTOs denied further interviews as they were looking for companies with an attractive, positive work environment. They simply had no interest in working from home. An argument I wouldn’t have expected coming up.

What do you think needs to be done to close the gender gap? Specifically, what can men do to support female leadership/ close the gender gap? Both in the short term and long term?

First of all, it would already help if we stop talking about gender. As I state in my book’s subtitle “It is not about gender, it is about talent!”. There is no reason to look at gender for the filling of a role. You just want to get the best talent.

One initiative I also support to speed this up is Male Feminist Europe #male4equality,an initiative that Robert Franken started and where you self-commit to not accept any conference invitations where you will encounter an “old white men panel”. This is a very small thing to do with a huge effect. Because if somebody asks you to come on stage and you respond you are happy to do so, if 50% are female, the conference organization is suddenly under pressure and – what a surprise – realizes that this is doable.

Quote Visual #GAccelerateHer Harald R. Fortmann about #men4equality

Mentorship for female founders or women in the middle of their career is also great. Don´t mansplain, support those female leaders by opening doors or introducing them to other great leaders in order for them to grow their network. And what I tell clients is – do it like Nike says: Just do it!

Don´t hesitate to hire more women and give women the chance to grow and take leadership roles. Open up to create tandems on a role. Think about 70% of roles like SAP did in order to empower your entire staff, not only women, to work part-time.

There are so many more possibilities. Anyone can change the world here. Bit by bit.

Quote Visual #GAccelerateHer Harald R. Fortmann about possibilities

What do you think are some cases of unconscious bias when it comes to hiring women? How can we train ourselves to be more objective and minimize unconscious bias?

In Germany, a lot of this is historical. Look at the difference between Eastern and Western Germany. In the western part, we even created words like “Rabenmutter” – by the way the only language and country in the world to have a word for this – as we grew up thinking women have to stay home. What a waste of talent. In my humble opinion, it is already possible even as a small company to implement procedures for when employees get pregnant. I always celebrated having a team member getting pregnant. And then we had open discussions about succession planning etc. I’d rather have someone getting pregnant and coming back after a few months than leaving the company for another job. There are different ways of working on unconscious bias and everyone has to find his own way. What definitely helps and is the easiest is to include more people in the hiring process – that usually challenges one’s own thoughts.

How can we engage more men in women’s leadership topics?

By showing positive cases. The issue is that the media generally focuses on the negative sides instead of looking at the role models and all the positive ways men have contributed. There are tons of studies out there proving that diverse companies – which by the way doesn’t only mean female, but this is certainly the largest and easiest part of it – are more successful in any aspect of their business. Those who back #heforshe should motivate other men to do so. And suddenly it is the most natural thing.

One phenomenon that I currently see on the market is that certain, mostly larger, companies have declared that any promotion to i.e. Director will be for only female candidates for the next 12 months. This has caused the male talent to question the company they work for as they want their talent to be recognized as well. If you have a hard criteria like this, your male high potentials are in danger of leaving for other companies.

What advice would you give the next generation of female leaders?

Aren’t these wonderful times? Thanks to all the generations before them, young women now have every opportunity they want. My advice would be to work on their knowledge and abilities, and leadership will come to them. Support other women, build up a network of inspiring female but also male talents which will support your growth. And be more fierce. Talking to female talents is often more time consuming for me as an Executive Search Consultant than with men. You often have to convince them that they are suited for a role – a thing a good headhunter will check before talking to a potential candidate obviously – whereas men will always be open to proving themselves.

Quote Visual #GAccelerateHer Harald R. Fortmann about support for female leaders

Do you think Germany as a country is making progress when it comes to closing the gender gap? Have you seen advancements made? Do you feel more and more women can break the glass ceiling?

Currently, I see a lot of attention on this topic and on a few role models, but not enough real change in the leadership market. We have some female leaders who are really overhyped and for some of them, I really ask myself whether they even have time to deliver on their jobs as they are giving so many interviews, etc. This is why I intentionally did not want to have any of those interviewed in my book. They achieved amazing things in their career, no doubt. But what about all the other rising stars?

We have to give change some time. Like any transformation, it is not done within 24 hours and it will never have an end. It is a marathon not a sprint, or in this case perhaps rather an ultra-marathon…

Are there certain industries that are doing a better job in closing the gender gap? If so, why do you think that is?

Absolutely. I think especially the digital economy is doing very well here as the Digital Bohème – those who started their career in the 90s as I did – are the founders of the New Work Era, not Gen Y or Z. And with the New Work Era comes more flexibility on the job with regards to working hours, technologies, places of work and so on. The more traditional an industry is, the longer it takes. But just look at the amazing Hildegard Wortmann – she took the chance after a superb career at BMW and went over to AUDI to be their CSMO. We will see more female C-levels in automotive, in engineering, in banking or in pharma in the future.

What makes a successful leader in your view?

It differs from job to job, from company to company, and from industry to industry.
A main point is certainly the ability to adapt to new situations, curiosity, empathy, and trust in people. If you have those skills, the others you can learn.

In your view, what makes an entrepreneur?

A real entrepreneur, not just a founder or would-be-millionaire, is someone who is looking to build something lasting, beneficial for the user and with the potential to change the world or an industry. An entrepreneur has to be a visionary person – but you don’t have to be Steve Jobs, baby steps are fine. An entrepreneur is also someone who can balance risk and chance and with that always has his staff and his shareholders in mind. I do not believe you can learn to be an entrepreneur, either you are born and educated as such or you won’t succeed.

Who should we watch in 2020?

The thing with rankings or the ones to watch is that it puts single people in the spotlight. We will see a significant amount of female leaders flourish in 2020 – taking one or two out would not be fair for anyone.


About Harald Fortmann, Executive Partner, five14 GmbH, Hamburg

Harald grew up in France and Germany and has been active in the digital economy since 1996. He is considered one of the best-connected managers in the industry and has received several awards as an entrepreneur and as a lecturer. Since 2013, Harald has dedicated himself to the executive search industry and was able to merge his passion for people and the digital world. At five14 he is responsible for advising corporations and market-leading medium-sized companies on the appointment of new executives and supports them in the strategic planning and implementation of their digitization. One of Harald’s expert focus topics is “new work”. He founded his first company at the age of 23 and has also worked for several international companies like AOL and Pixelpark. The father of two is a passionate runner and cyclist, and has published two books so far: „Arbeitswelt der Zukunft“ (Future of Work) and #FemaleLeadershipPictured, a photo book with interviews on the subject in collaboration with star photographer Frank Wartenberg.