Women in fashion leadership: Petra Scharner-Wolff, Otto Group

By Barbara Russ
20 Apr 2021

Petra Scharner-Wolff is Group Executive Vice President Finance, Controlling, and Human Resources at Otto GmbH & Co KG. The Hamburg-based Otto Group, which operates in more than 25 countries and boasts an annual revenue of 14.3 billion Euros in 2019/2020, is one of the world’s biggest e-tailers. FashionUnited spoke with her via email about the leadership style of women versus that of men, about showing more courage, and about the Cultural Change program within the company.

Ms. Scharner-Wolff, please describe your career in your own words.

I have never been one to focus on the hurdles, but on the steps that I want to take next. Before joining Otto Group, I worked as a business consultant. At Otto, I started working as an employee in Controlling and slowly took on more and more responsibility, changing departments every few years. I loved to learn about the different perspectives and focuses in combination with challenging transformations. Fortunately, I always had a husband by my side who fully supported and approved of all my professional aspirations.

What qualities have particularly qualified you for your current position?

I enjoy making things happen and using my creative freedom. I also love dealing with people, understanding them and I don’t mind conflict, if it helps to push the right issues forward. Because if you want to change something, you have to be able to make difficult and even unpopular decisions. Thanks to my professional expertise, I can trust myself and my decisions because I can derive and justify them objectively. Last but not least, willingness to change also plays a major role. At Otto Group, we have been living our Culture Change 4.0 for just under five years, which has changed our entire way of working, our way of thinking and acting, our attitude. This new way of working makes us fit for the future, but it has demanded a lot from all our colleagues - especially from our managers - I can tell you that from my own experience. Anyone who is not flexible or able to take criticism will have a hard time in a leadership position.

What changes has the pandemic brought to your job?

As for many others, work became all about remote work: From one day to the next, last March, we completely converted ongoing operations to work from home wherever possible - with great success. This has shown me that, technologically and culturally, the Otto Group was in a very good position for these extraordinary, Corona-related challenges.

New ideas and formats were developed everywhere to further improve our virtual collaboration - from daily stand-ups and team workshops to virtual learning formats and bar camps to digital employee events and international management meetings, which now even take place at a much faster pace than usual, because no one has to travel. What impressed me positively was how close we have become despite the distance. We want to and must maintain this Group-wide collaborative cooperation. When I look at my own personal work context, this year was indeed very special, because my role as head of the corporate crisis team inevitably took up much more space than usual and brought with it many challenging issues. For example, protecting the health of all colleagues as best as possible while maintaining business operations as continuously as possible.

As Executive Board Member you are responsible for Finance, Controlling, and Human Resources. How does that go together, numbers and people, and which is closer to your heart?

I am passionate about both topics - you can't have one without the other. After all, it is primarily the people who are responsible for the economic success of the Group. From my point of view, it is even a great advantage to have a close link between these two, at first glance contradictory, departments, especially when difficult projects are on the agenda.

Do you think women have different leadership styles than men? How do they differ?

The role of leadership, and therefore of managers, is changing a lot. Until now, many corporate cultures have tended to favor so-called ‘masculine' traits, such as rationality and risk-taking, and have lacked female role models. But when we think of new buzzwords like agility and empowerment, leadership is no longer about command and control, but much more about creating a shared vision, trusting the team, and handing over responsibility to it. I see this as a great opportunity for women, because qualities that tend to be attributed more to women, such as empathy, social competence, and communication skills, will help a great deal. However, the female-male comparison is only one side of the coin. Experience clearly shows that mixed teams always make better decisions and develop more innovative ideas. Diversity is no longer a 'nice to have'. We need diversity in all aspects to be economically successful in the long run.

Do you exchange ideas with other women in comparable positions? What topics engage you in these conversations?

Absolutely. A good network is essential and above all, it helps to drive issues that are becoming more and more important. My role as Chief Human Resources Officer is very much about female empowerment, equal participation, and overcoming social conditioning. I am committed to ensuring that this discussion is conducted in an interdisciplinary manner - with representatives from business, politics, and society. Companies are often given a high level of responsibility. We are happy to accept this responsibility, but we also make it clear where the framework conditions need to change elsewhere.

For example, the issue of womens’ careers cannot be discussed without asking why men, on average, still earn so much more and continue to be seen as the family providers. This is a structural problem that makes women disproportionately stay at home with the children - especially in the phase between 30 and 40 when the most important career steps are usually taken. We need a strong awareness of the different levels of female, but also male careers in order to really create new perspectives. The more women and men talk about it, the better.

Do you see yourself as a mentor to other women? How do you personally encourage them?

Yes, that is an important concern for me. Women still lack role models. I definitely see myself as a role model. In terms of content, I am particularly concerned with mirroring learned female behavior, which often appears defensive in a professional context, and motivating women to break with these patterns. Take career planning, for example. Men approach gaps in their knowledge with the attitude: 'Everything I can't do, I can learn.' We women, on the other hand, must learn not to focus too much on hurdles and to see possible failure as an opportunity for personal development. My appeal to women is therefore: "Have more courage to fail! Dare to learn new things and open up even unfamiliar topics."

It is similar with visibility. Women don't negotiate worse than men per se, but they tend more often to think that ambitiousness could seem imposed or show-offish. So they miss out on putting their performance in the best light, receiving recognition for it, and being considered for leadership positions. In the end, good mentoring leads to better self-reflection: Those who know their own strengths and weaknesses are much better able to develop into authentic and successful leaders.

Otto Group has put a Diversity Management Programme in place. What does that entail?

It means anchoring the topic of diversity strategically throughout the Group. We initiate Group-wide development programs and projects, for example, to promote female junior managers. Mentoring is also an important part of this. We network and provide the impetus for the individual Group companies and, together with the contact persons, develop measures to achieve the goals set in the area of diversity - recently also within an overarching Diversity Community, which has just been established to further increase the broad impact and relevance of this topic.

And there is a Culture Change 4.0 department. What's happening there?

The culture change process initiated by shareholders and management at the end of 2015 ensures the future viability of our company. The central culture change team plays an important role in this process because it encourages the Group companies and the local culture change teams within the Otto Group to make fields of action visible and to implement change processes. As multipliers and enablers, they support colleagues across the Group, for example by developing collaboration tools, formats and structures and by networking local knowledge carriers. In fact, the team is working with great dedication on its vision of doing away with itself in a few years.

What tips would you give your younger self in their 20s (or current graduates) regarding their careers?

American psychologist Norman Vincent Peale coined a saying that I like to quote, "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." I believe that we should all take this to heart. We live in a time when we are allowed to be so brave as to try things out, to listen to our own intuition, to contribute our own perspectives and ideas. It helps to allow yourself a positive restlessness, to have the desire to go forward, to show yourself and raise your hand, for example when it comes to presenting results or even to dive fearlessly into a completely new project. This confidence will be rewarded and will always be more beneficial than detrimental to one's career.

This article was originally published in November 2020 on fashionunited.de. Translation and editing: Barbara Russ

Images: Otto Group: Petra Scharner Wolff; Otto Group Executive Board; Otto Group Headquarters