Inspiring Woman in Fleet : Laura Friebe (OCTO)
“You don’t need to become ‘one of the boys’ to succeed”
Laura Friebe, Global Key Account Manager (OCTO Telematics)
The glass ceiling is not really made of glass. It’s made of the expectation of those on either side that this invisible barrier cannot be crossed. Although today, Laura Friebe has found in OCTO Telematics an unbiased company that believes in gender equality, at the beginning of her career, she didn’t share that belief. Back then, there was limited space for women in the executive boardroom, but her ambition led her upwards. She came into the fleet industry “by pure accident”, as she freely admits. But she soon found it to be her life’s calling.
“Back when I started working, I knew nothing about cars, fleets, or leasing. When I applied for my first job in this industry, I went through a rigorous interview process, with all the usual questions, like Where do you see yourself in five years? Twenty-four-year-old me had the audacity to ask a question of my own to the interviewers: What about this job makes you get up in the morning?” “The reply that came back explains a lot about why I’m still in this industry: Because each morning, we never know whether we’ll be working in logistics, healthcare, emergency response, or any other industry. And that’s so true! The fleet industry touches so many verticals, so many different lives… Every day, I’m learning new things. It’s wonderful.”
You got your start in the early 2000s. Were there any women on the work floor back then?
“Oh yes. But there was a very effective glass ceiling. Anyone pushing papers or answering phones was female. The senior management was predominantly men. I started out in a very junior role, but I wanted to progress to a senior one. And I could only do that by working very hard to prove my worth, both to customers and to senior management itself.”
How difficult was that?
“It was very difficult to be taken seriously. Especially because most of the women hired by that company fit a certain mould (laughs) Yes, I know, you couldn’t get away with it anymore these days. But back then, nobody questioned it. I was blind to it, too. But the result was that if you fit that mould, it was very hard to be heard, to be taken seriously as someone fit for any role outside the ‘female’ stereotype.” “So, I was very privileged to have had a mentor and a sponsor. I progressed from junior sales to senior sales. I wanted to move up further, but I was told, rather bluntly: You’re not cut out to be management. The last laugh was on that person, as I was eventually headhunted by another firm. Over the next five years, I would grow into a very senior position, with the responsibility and ability to pull various teams together, to drive agenda topics such as innovation, diversity and inclusion.”
Can you explain the importance of – and the difference between – a mentor and a sponsor?
“A mentor is a senior person, not necessarily in the same industry as you, but someone who guides you to help you solve your problems, by challenging you and helping you to grow. A sponsor is a senior person in your organization who has your back; who is your voice when you’re not in the room.” “I would also add that it’s important to find an alliance partner: someone near your own level, with whom you can collaborate and help each other reach your goals.”
When you climbed the corporate ladder, were you aware of doing things differently from men?
“At some point, people called my team ‘Laura’s Angels’, because we had so many women in it. For me, what mattered was that you had the talent and the right attitude to become successful. Because if my team is successful, I’m successful.” “If I succeeded, it’s because of the support I had, among others from my mentor and sponsor. And because I went out of my way to become knowledgeable, a ‘thought leader’, as you would say today. Later, however, I also noticed that I had become harder. I had built a shell around myself to protect me as I moved forward. I had let go of my softer side.” “I later corrected that mistake – but it’s a mistake many ambitious women make. They think they need to act a certain way to succeed. But no: you don’t need to be ‘one of the boys’. You don’t need to play golf. And don’t hide your vulnerability. It’s actually a strength: it makes you more approachable.”
Let’s develop that a bit. What is it exactly that women bring to the table in a business environment?
“We listen. We’re natural problem solvers. And don’t underestimate a woman’s intuition. It has never failed me. Except when I went against it (laughs). I remember one male colleague arguing against my intuitive objections. Enough with the wishy-washy, he said. Well, it turns out my intuition was right. That colleague was fair enough to admit: I should have listened to you and I apologize.” “However, we should also note that sometimes, women can be very hard on other women. There can be a degree of competitiveness and jealousy that keeps us all from progressing. I suppose part of the reason is that women think they’re competing with each other for limited spaces around the table. In my opinion, there’s plenty of space around the table. The battle is more than half won. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
What would you say to CEO or someone in senior management who’s wondering whether to give a woman a chance?
“Don’t underestimate a woman’s ability to fight, to improve and to win!”
You had your first baby about the same time when your career started moving upward. You’ve called it the best year of your life. But considering the expectations placed especially on young mothers, it must also have been a pretty tough one.
“Yes, it was the year without sleep. And the year I almost got divorced (laughs). I struggled with post-natal depression, and as a means of coping, I threw myself into my work. That made it very hard to combine work and family life.” “My very traditional German mother-in-law sat me down and sternly explained to me the duties of a wife – to wash, to cook, to clean. I explained to her that we lived in the 21st century, and that family life is a group effort. Fortunately, my husband and I had an agreement that allowed me to pursue my ambitions. Because I would have made a terrible stay-at-home mum. (laughs).”
You’ve made a very successful fleet industry professional. Looking back on your career so far, what are you most proud of?
“While I’m certainly proud of the Grand Prix award I won within my former company, what I’m most proud of is that since I left South Africa and came to Europe, I’m still being contacted by the people I worked with, many of whom thank me for furthering their career. One example was this young African lady who worked in Admin. I got management to take a chance on her. It paid off, and her career took off. She’s now the General Manager of a Sales team in a major bank.”
Final questions: Who’s your hero? What’s your motto? And what are your ambitions for the future?
“My hero? Without question my dad. He had to deal with four girls – he deserves a medal just for that – and moulded us all into strong, independent women who could make their own way in life. Wouldn’t he rather have had boys? Of course. Why do you think there were four of us (laughs).” “My ambition is to become a CEO one day. Why? I’m extremely passionate about smart mobility and data, and about the difference it can make in all of our lives. Especially with the added element of sustainability. I want to have the biggest possible personal impact on that process. That’s why I’m now giving myself five years to find my footing in the European mobility landscape, and grow into – or be asked for – the right role.” “My motto? I have two. Do unto others as you would others do unto you. And What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. I have that one as a tattoo!”. Thank you!
|Current position||Global Key Account Manager|
|Previous roles|| |
Sales Exec at Imperial Fleet Services, various roles at Avis Fleet in South Africa (from Regional Sales Manager to General Manager Inland Sales),
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