‘You have quite a nice salary!’ a man said. ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ was my reply.
Andrea Abt is a board member of five companies including Polymetal International. She regards becoming a portfolio non-executive director (NED) as a good career move for females who have broad operational and executive background in an international company. She talks to Women in Mining Russia about how to contribute to a company if you haven’t worked in the industry, steps to building a sustainable supply chain, and why business alone cannot solve the gender disparity issue.
— I read your LinkedIn post on 8 March about women advancing in their career. I loved the question you got twenty years ago, ‘Why do you want to earn so much money as a woman?’
— I was reading the comments of the people I have seen over the years who have not done anything for women, and I thought I needed to write something. Like that guy who asked me why I wanted so much money. I replied, ‘Why, because I need it!’ Later, there was another man, in Italy, who said, ‘Oh, you have quite a nice salary!’ And I said, ‘Well, why shouldn’t I?’ Times have changed since then. There are still some people who have not. They just don’t say it.
— You are on the board of five different companies in different industries at the moment. How do you manage it?
— From an organisational point of view, I had to get used to not having a PA and organise everything myself. Although technology helps, I did mix up times zones in my diary in the beginning.
As to the substance of board work, it is beneficial if you’ve had a successful operational and executive career. It helps to judge and properly assess what is being put in front of you. I get numerous papers and need to see what’s being presented, what is missing, ask questions. For that, you need a solid basis. My learning is usually by comparison to the things I know. If I see differences, I’ll ask myself why. Secondly, you need to talk to management on an eye-to-eye level. They need to recognise you as someone they accept, with a certain seniority, personality.
And the third point, for an independent NED, it is important to be and remain independent, not to depend on one company for an income.
I have an outside view as I have not been in this industry. Over the last thirty years, I’ve worked in many different industries, cultures and functions. I try to transfer this knowhow to the new industry. Before an induction program for a new board starts, I try to learn as much as I can, including from books. Especially in the beginning, I try to limit my input to the areas where I can give better advice than others, such as supply chain and procurement matters.
— It sounds very exciting, lots of learning.
— It is, and there are always many things to learn. For example, Deloitte Academy in London is open to directors of the FTSE 350. They hold lectures on many topics ranging from politics through governance to regulatory topics. In the last year, it has been easy to attend, because you don’t need to travel to London. You could spend hours and hours attending, and I actually do this.
But one should not forget that board directorship is not only about learning. It comes with a lot of responsibility.
— The board type of communication must be quite different from the usual employee—manager communication, equal.
— On healthy boards, there is a mutual respect for opinions. Directors value other directors´ input and experience. The value of a board lies not so much in an individual director, but in a combination of skills in different areas, age groups, personalities, experiences. Altogether it provides a 360-degree view, and Polymetal is very good in this respect. We have different nationalities, cultural backgrounds, business experience, age groups, leading to a robust discussion of topics.
It is however important to know your role. If you want to be an executive, don’t go on a board as a non-executive director. Management might decide against your advice, and unless it is something unethical, you will have to live with it. There are many paths to Rome.
— Am I correct your expertise is mainly in supply chains?
— Throughout my career, I have covered many functional roles, finance, sales, productivity management. Only my last two executive jobs were in supply chain management, but these were large functional roles with a lot of responsibility. In all of my current board mandates, I am usually the one with this functional expertise.
— Each company has its own supply chains issues, but what is the common problem they are facing?
— Currently and for some time to come it’s a pandemic-proof sustainable supply chain. At the same time, you have to look at your suppliers and their suppliers in turn to make sure that the whole chain is committed to your sustainability targets. It is no easy task. But that’s the only way to achieve a completely sustainable supply chain. At Siemens we started this exercise almost ten years ago with our first female board member and Chief Procurement Officer. One of the success factors was making suppliers adhere to our code of conduct and sending experts helping them to improve their energy efficiency.
Polymetal also has a strict procurement policy, and I am looking forward to eventually coming to Saint Petersburg in order to learn more about its implementation. As I joined the board only one year ago, I had to do the complete induction programme remotely by videoconference.
— Making suppliers adhere to your own sustainability targets is challenging in some regions.
— I know, because you will have few suppliers.
— Or even one.
— But you can help this company to improve. It does not need to cost a lot, and it pays. I think Polymetal is doing really well. Not just for a Russian company, but internationally. Of the companies I am on the board of, it is the most advanced in the sustainability area. Gold mining by nature is not the most environmentally friendly industry, so it is essential to limit its negative impacts. And it is important that the executives are driving this out of conviction. It is very clear that Polymetal`s CEO drives the sustainability agenda from his heart, not because of regulation.
— Be it sustainable use of natural resources, climate change or gender equality, it seems like society expects business to change much faster. Meanwhile, many companies are still at the stage of implementing policies and guidelines, not showing tangible results.
— I would not totally agree with this statement. Society needs to provide a framework. Take gender equality. If business is given a target like 33% females on board, it will achieve it eventually. But the real change will come with improved conditions in society. Like in France where you get great childcare and tax incentives for families with children. This leads to women working without a bad conscience, advancing in their career.
It is also a cultural issue. Germany, for instance, in gender equality, is not very much at the forefront. In Western Germany, many women didn’t work once they had children, because they could afford it, childcare wasn’t good, and schools are still open only till lunchtime. Women with small children who went back to work were not regarded well by society. ‘How can you leave your poor child alone?’ On the opposite, in the former GDR most women worked and children went to kindergarten. When unification happened, Eastern German women assimilated to the western lifestyle.
— What kind of support did you get to grow to where you are now?
— I don’t have children of my own, it just never happened. My husband and I both pursued a career, and I always had his support. The most important aspect to pursue a career as a woman is the choice of the right partner. You need someone who gives you confidence, who sees the opportunity and says, ‘You can do it! Don’t worry, go to Singapore, we will organise it.’ In the end, I did not go, but I knew I could have.
— Did you expect to become a portfolio director fifteen years ago?
— Funnily enough, I never properly planned my career, but I have always taken on interesting tasks. I could never walk away from a good challenge. Fifteen years ago, I had just come back from Italy to lead the restructuring programme for Siemens’ Transportation Systems division. I did not imagine a position outside of the company. When I was about to leave Siemens seven years ago, I was contacted by a headhunter to consider a NED position. I was later nominated to the board and realised a portfolio director was a great opportunity for females with a broad operational executive background in a blue chip international company.
— What would be your first step now if you decided to start an NED career?
— You should start on the basis of a sizeable executive role in your current company and establish where your unique selling point lies. Look at companies you might want to join. In some countries like the UK, you can do well with headhunters. Do your homework and obtain a solid foundation in finance and governance for listed companies. Normally, you will have to start with a small-cap, as it is fairly unusual to be nominated to a FTSE 250 or 100 board straight away. Then build your portfolio and develop it. This will take a few years, but it is worth the effort.
Interview by Elena Chigareva