This time, Moonshot News and Dimitra Letsa are talking with Sofia Arhall Bergendorff from Google: about her experience from working in a number of countries and how she had to balance national and corporate cultures – including the situation for women in management. Looking back she can see how she fixed it on a day-to-day basis – but when it’s time for her daughter to enter work life, Sofia does hope she will come to another place!
by Dimitra Letsa
I will honestly say that Sofia is for me one of my role models, even though I have not known her for many years.
Her qualities as a leader make her one of the best I have ever met. Somehow she seems to always achieve a unique balance between empathy and objectiveness, be engaged without being intrusive, reflecting authority and friendliness in one mix. She is totally international with a Scandinavian way of being and scarily efficient in a human way…
I was really privileged to have her as my hiring manager in Google (and actually my first ever female manager), but this is not the reason why I wanted to interview her.
The main reason why I want to share with all of you the story and views of Sofia, as with every person whose interview I write, is to show the amazing people, talent and leadership styles that are out there: I hope to inspire and persuade every talent, female or other, to seek for those qualities when looking for job; to show that, even in the most challenging times, leaders like Sofia do exist – and that we should aim at working with one, aim at becoming one… and do not settle for anything less.
Many thanks, Sofia, for taking the time to talk to us today, I really appreciate it. Would you like to start by sharing a bit about who you are and what you do?
I work as Director of Partnerships in Northern Europe for Google which means that I manage the relationship between Google and publishers when it comes to ad markets. I have done this for a little more than two years now. Before that I spent seven years in a Google strategy operations team. I have worked both in the Nordics and globally with the publisher business.
Prior to Google I was many years in management consulting and before that I got an MBA and I worked with startups.
So you have been working all over the world and not only in Denmark where you are based now?
Yes, I have been based in Denmark for approximately five years now, but I am Swedish, studied for my bachelor in the U.S. and started working in Sweden, in Goteborg’s State Theater. Afterwards I moved to Paris where I worked for five years and after that in New York for several years, with an interval when we moved to Singapore with my Danish husband for his job – but I have not really worked in Asia.
Have you experienced any big challenges, or any big differences for a woman, in the different environments? You said you have not worked that much in Asia. Was it because it was difficult there?
I could not get a job there. I tried but I arrived in Asia right after the financial crisis. It was a challenging job market.
I would say there are definitely cultural differences between the different areas. You have the national culture and the corporate culture. When I was in it, I never experienced it as difficult. You always deal with it on a day-to-day basis. But when I look back at it, there were definitely moments when diversity and inclusion was missing. And when I look at some of the things I experienced and think about my daughter going into the work life, I do hope she will come into a different place.
I don’t think what I experienced was because of ill will from leadership or colleagues. It was just a lack of understanding of the dynamics. For example, if you were in a management group with two women and sixteen men, or if you work in a company where you often were the only woman in the room, you were an outsider. In such a situation, you are both dealing with the normal pressure of the job but also with being different.
There is for sure a difference between working in Sweden where there are a lot of role models and strong equality framework and other cultures where there is a much stronger push for women to stay at home with the children and the structure of the society does not support them being in the workplace – so there are fewer women in leadership teams.
But there are differences even in the same country: I have been in Google for ten years now and when I worked in the US I could see that not all the market was like that: I worked in a company that was strong in diversity and inclusion and in many ways created a positive workplace; but still you could see the difference between the company and the rest of the society.
You could see the difference for instance when you picked up your kids at school. Probably half of the other mothers had stopped working to run the family despite that they were highly educated and had very successful careers. That makes it a very different cultural environment compared to work in Scandinavia where it is quite normal with both women and men in the work life.
What was your main way of coping with this being in the minority in a boardroom or being in an environment that was driven by men?
There were things I accepted when I was younger that I would not accept today. After working in Google and having seen the evolution of the company, I feel a lot better equipped to talk about these issues today than I was earlier in my career. I remember I felt uncomfortable that I had to be the one to raise gender issues. Today, it is easier to speak up. Fundamentally I don’t think it is the women who should solve the gender issues as I don’t think it’s the role of the black community to solve racial issues.
At Google I think there has always been a positive intent around inclusion as it is in many media companies. You see very few companies today saying we don’t care about diversity. We have learnt a lot along the journey. A number of things stand out.
First of all, you can’t improve what you can’t measure! And of course the top line measurement is the share of women in management or share of other ethnic groups in management and even the work process as a whole. This is important but I think it is even more important to look at salaries and rates of satisfaction. For example, if you have an average satisfaction of eighty but if it is much higher for one group than from the other, this is very interesting data. We need to really understand the data and we need data that is useable.
Turning cultures and behaviors is nothing you fix over a year. It´s a multi-year journey.
Another parameter that I find interesting is how do we approach key positions and engage the whole population of the company. How do you attract key talents to your company? If you are a woman interested in working for a specific company, what does it look like as a whole, what does the management team look like? Today, diverse top talents have a choice where to go and if you are not on top of this issue as a company, you will have a big difficulty in attracting talents.
It has been proved that diversity increases the profitability in companies. It is also a bad business solution not to account for it.
The last thing that is important is to stop making excuses! If you say diversity really matters in this company and you have no diverse talent in your leadership team – then you should start thinking about your team. As a leader you influence your company on every level.
Do you have a sense whether it will get better or worse after covid? Covid helped in speeding up the transformation of the workplace but do you think it will have a positive or negative long term impact on how we manage people and how we structure teams?
Covid has opened up for different ways of working so it is a positive outcome. Some of the norms have changed. I hope that covid will be an eye opener in many ways, like being at the office but not being at the office. We have seen a lot more children at meetings than ever before. I think it can create new thinking about what it means to be at work and to be at home and how these worlds collide.
In a way I am hopeful that even with all the strain and all the bad things covid has brought, we can also take something positive from the experience.
I was thinking about doing a compilation of video clips kids in meetings because I noticed that when normally men are so proud of showing their fatherhood side and the connection with their children in the meeting, but if it is a mother more often than not they excuse themselves for failing to prevent the child from appearing in the call.
How we set up the workplace is one of the most important decisions leaders are going to take in the next few years. Of course it has an impact on diversity and inclusion. It allows a different contract between work and home.
I think as a company you have a broader responsibility for the work environment, for the employees when it comes to systems, support or psychological safety. I am super impressed with what we have done at Google for the teams. Handling the covid situation right improves people’s well being. And flexibility is the right approach. I manage people across different locations. If I am going to have six hours of video conferences it does not make sense for me to drive into the office when I can sit comfortably at home.
I think this is a real opportunity to re-think: ‘what is the role of the workplace?’. Is it just to sit next to each other and have phone calls? Maybe we should think differently…
I think we should definitely spend time together, but be mindful about how we use this time: dedicate it to workshops and creative problem solving, to get to know each better and connect, to brainstorm… In short, to be more intentional about our physical meetings.
I fully agree that there must be more planning behind the system and avoid the trap of believing that just by letting people work from home we have solved everything. But I would like to wrap-up with two questions that can be applied more at a personal level. Can you share with us what is the best advice you have been given?
I can definitely think of one; my former manager shared an advice with me that he had gotten himself ‘Assume good intentions’!
For example, when you are in disagreement or when you receive a message that makes you uncomfortable, assume good intentions! That advice has saved me from many conflicts. Instead of going into a discussion, I have asked myself: why are they doing this?
The advice to assume good intentions means to try to understand others. And also to stay out of the conflict is an advantage, as conflicts are rarely productive.
Being aware of your own stress also helps you to see why you are reacting to things, to understand the overall impact of stress. To have that extra filter has always been useful.
And could you indicate what was the biggest mistake you have felt you’ve made?
I think it is when you ignore your gut feeling. There have been situations where I should have walked away earlier. There are things you can’t win and if you decide that something is wrong, you can just take your talent somewhere else.
Sometimes you try to fix things and make the best out of the situation, when the right thing would have been to get out…
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