Raise your hand and go for it!

The percentage of female execs in the tech scene has not been impressive to date. But there are some impressive standouts and Ursula Soritsch-Renier, member of Software AG’s Supervisory Board, is one of them. She is Chief Digital and Information Officer at Saint-Gobain, the French building materials group. What follows is a conversation about hard work, skillful communication and why a big-picture approach to digitalization is essential.

Ms. Soritsch-Renier, many years ago you were in Las Vegas at a trade show booth for your employer at the time. A man approached you and said, “Hey booth babe, can you tell me who I’m supposed to talk to about ...?”
SR: (laughing) Yes, that’s right! He wanted information about technology from my own field of expertise. He was very embarrassed. After exchanging a few words, needless to say, he walked away pretty red in the face.

Does this type of experience still happen?
SR: No, it hasn’t for a very long time. What was interesting to me then, and still is today, is that the man verbally expressed his perspective of women. When it comes to attitudes like thatwe must prove ourselves twice: with our brains and with our hard work. But that has never intimidated me. It motivates me.

You majored in philosophy with a minor in computer science at the University of Vienna—an unusual choice. In retrospect, was this the right combination?
SR: I think so. I’ve always loved thinking strategically, reflecting and philosophizing. Technology can’t work without people - just like computer science can’t function without solid, broad analysis. As a CIO, you can’t just blindly employ technology. You always have to think of it in terms of how it is embedded and connected to other systems. The necessity of considering the bigger picture is something philosophy has taught me.

Reflection is one thing. Action is something else. It seems you are fond of making decisions. Is that true?
SR: I like clarity and appreciate when people are frank with me. I believe every decision is right—even the ones that turn out to be less than optimal or even wrong. If you’re agile and flexible enough, you can adjust and adapt to nearly any decision. You can’t learn if you don’t decide.

What drives you?
SR: Ambition and the love of having an impact, effecting change, taking matters into my own hands. Here’s a little example: At a previous job, we successfully rolled out large-scale IT projects for production. One time the CEO paid us a visit., but I wasn’t on his list of people to see. I persisted all day until I got the chance to present my project. It was very important to me to be given credit for the success I had worked so hard for.

“I have always been the one shouting out “here!” I love seeing young women and men who do this as well, obviously while showing respect for hierarchy.”

It is said that a woman who behaves in this manner is more polarizing than a man who does. Does that reflect your experience?
SB: There is some truth to that. There are a lot of men who support and actively promote professional women. Nevertheless, so many women are still met with skepticism on their way up the ladder. They really have to stake their claim to keep from being considered weaker than the men.

What do you mean by “stake a claim?” How?
SB: It has multiple layers. But performance is what ultimately counts. Successful projects. Being competent is always extremely important to me, especially in technology. To this day, I’ve never been talked down to by a customer or supplier. In addition to IT expertise, you also need to know your industry. I have always worked for companies in manufacturing. Naturally, I familiarized myself with this industry so I would be treated as an equal, but above all to be able to ask the right questions. That is what enables me to make clear, sound IT decisions.

Speaking of clarity, you once said that it is very important for women in particular to clearly articulate what they want to do and the path they want to take. When were you able to do that for yourself? 
SB: The moment I felt I had gathered enough experience to become a CIO, I expressed this desire clearly. That made it concrete and allowed others to help. Networks are a key component. I am in a couple of IT and female-oriented networks like Generation CEO, which was established to highlight and facilitate women on their way to the top. We need a lot more of these.

One piece of career advice, particularly for women, is to put yourself out there when you see a promotion opportunity, even if you don’t have all the qualifications. Do you agree?
SB: Studies show that men apply to positions when they meet six out of ten criteria. For women that number is eight or nine. My advice: Raise your hand and go for it!

You have worked at several different companies. What is essential to you when you change jobs or employers?
SB: The people, the team, the behavior. And the leadership culture. At Saint-Gobain, where I started in March 2021, we carved out time to get to know each other despite the lockdown that was in place due to the pandemic. That was when it clicked for me. You have to be on the same wavelength and share common values. Of course, there are also facets of my job that interest and challenge me enormously. That’s where I say to myself: You can really make an impact here. They give me a true sense of satisfaction.

Saint-Gobain – Digital Solutions showcases at Saint-Gobain Tower, La Défense

So where can you make an impact at Saint-Gobain?
SB: The idea of steering this large, far-reaching company through a digital transformation is very exciting to me. My job is to unite people, processes and technology. Digitalization will only work if we succeed in synchronizing these three elements. People will naturally ignore a system if they aren’t comfortable using it. Any change will fall flat. You have to engage your people. Technology is just a means to an end.

Can you give us an example?
SB: Let’s take cloud computing. It’s a dynamic approach rather than static. You can add or remove resources depending on the demands of your business. If needed, calculations can be done faster, applications can be scaled back, and so on. Cloud offers a highly agile IT environment. But establishing one is challenging for everyone in IT. Their old familiar world is turned upside down.

A technological and cultural transformation?
SB: Exactly. And that’s just one example of how ubiquitous dynamic agility is becoming in companies. Digitalization is organic and it has to be approached holistically. And, it has to be well explained, steered and moderated. In the end, people need to like working with it for it to succeed.

Ursula Soritsch-Renier joined Saint-Gobain as Group Chief Digital and Information Officer in March 2021. She is a member of the group’s Executive Committee. Saint-Gobain specializes in materials and solutions for the construction, health care and mobility sectors. In 2020, the group generated €38.1 billion in revenue and employed more than 167,000 people. The Vienna native’s previous positions included over two years as Group CIO at Nokia and, prior to that, more than five years in the same position at mechanical engineering group Sulzer. Ursula Soritsch-Renier is married; her husband and son live in Winterthur, Switzerland. She commutes regularly between Winterthur and Saint-Gobain’s headquarters in Paris. 

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