Ursula Morgenstern, CEO, Atos Germany

Ursula Morgenstern is a role model for many women. In 2016, she won the prestigious title of “Woman of the Year” at the Women in IT Awards, in recognition of both her success and her dedication to promoting diversity in technology. Now, she is committed to helping others rise to similar heights.

Ignoring your fear

Like many of the female leaders we’ve spoken to, Morgenstern is disarmingly willing to mine the depths of her own back story for our conversation. She takes us back to her days growing up as a teenager, when she was a competitive swimmer. There’s one particular race that has stayed with her all these years: the 400m that she wasn’t able to finish.

But she learned her lesson. She remembers a time when she was preparing for an earlier CEO role at Atos and a huge incident threw everything into chaos. Her boss threw her in at the deep end: The crisis went on for 48 hours, and it was up to Morgenstern to manage the situation. Thankfully, her swimming days have an influence on how she handles situations like these: “How do I deal with a crisis, the really tough moments? One stroke at a time.”

Facing power

So, there’s resilience, but there’s also bravery: Summoning up the courage to face her fears has made a huge difference in Morgenstern’s career, and she is passionate about empowering other women to do the same. When an opportunity arises, she explains, women often shy away from taking it. “Most of us think we’re not ready for the role. I always think I’m not ready for the role.” To combat these anxieties, Morgenstern gives some brilliantly forthright advice: “Look at your peers. If they think they’re ready, you’re ready as well, aren’t you?’” It’s a case of “forcing yourself to ignore your fear.”

This willingness to go out on a limb has almost certainly been a part of what makes Morgenstern a natural leader in the eyes of her peers: “When I saw a problem I just got my peers together and said, ‘We have a problem here, let’s fix it’”, she says. “I never ask for permission.”

Behind that is an ability to see things in perspective. Despite the pressure that comes with working in a professional services firm, Morgenstern is able to take a step back: “Which decisions do we make in our industry which are life and death?” she asks. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not a surgeon. If it’s wrong, I can always say I made a wrong decision.” It’s refreshingly level-headed thinking in an industry that’s often guilty of taking itself far too seriously.

It’s probably part of what has driven Morgenstern’s rise to the top, too. Instead of following a rigid career plan, she’s simply met each challenge head on, before moving on to the next one, driven by a need to be challenged and a desire to keep learning. “I never had a career plan, which might be good or bad, I don’t know,” she laughs. “But I knew what I liked and what I wanted.”

Feeling safe

In fact, you get the sense that instinct might have actually served Morgenstern’s career far better than a plan: “One of my guiding principles,” she explains, “other than not wanting to be bored and always wanting to learn, was that I wanted to be where the power was.” She’s quick to point out that this was accompanied by strong mentors and well-aligned stars but it’s all part of a story that has seen Morgenstern continue to put herself in the centre of the action.

She is, however, quick to recognise that not having children has made this easier: “If you don’t have children, your career ends up on exactly the same path as men’s; I didn’t have the work/life balance issue which I think you have when you have children.” She references a fantastic lecture called ‘Breaking the Glass Ceiling’, delivered by Professor Marianne Bertrand at LSE in 2017. Packed with fascinating statistics, Bertrand sheds some light on factors contributing to the gender penalty in professional services, and, as Morgenstern summarises, “the biggest single difference is the amount of time you’re not in work.”

She explains: “I had to travel. I was a consultant Monday to Friday in Paris – how can you do that if you have children? I went where I wanted to go. When I had to work late I could work late. When the guys said after work, ‘Let’s go out for a drink,’ I just went out for a drink.”

“The women I really, really admire have children,” she stresses. “I just always say ‘I don’t know how you do it.’”

Nevertheless, Morgenstern is well-versed in the challenges women face in professional services. She confesses that she found moving into consulting difficult: “The first four weeks were an utter shock,” she says, going on to describe the working environment as “white, male and hierarchical.” She recalls a specific time—thankfully an isolated period, when she had just moved into a new role—that she was made to feel really uncomfortable by the men on her new team.

But things have started to move on since then: The more women are at the top, the more things will change. But there remains a long way to go: “I sometimes have people say to me: ‘Ursula, you are our favourite woman in the Atos executive committee,’ and I just laugh—‘yeah, I’m the only one.’”

She stresses, however, that it’s necessary to be aware of all sides of the issue. “Yes, the system is flawed and yes, change is necessary.” In the meantime, though, there are ways for women to take advantage of these flaws. Often the only woman on a team of men, Morgenstern explains, “you walk in to any of these meetings, everybody knows you. You don’t have to introduce yourself, and they remember you. The other assumption is that because you’re in the position you are, you must be good.”

“Of course, I want to be promoted based on my skills, everybody wants that—but the reality is that being different, while it’s sometimes hard, has its advantages. I think you have to see both sides.”

Nevertheless, there’s a broader issue at play here, according to Morgenstern, that goes beyond gender and is about inclusion more generally: “It should be okay to be yourself. If I’m transgender, if I’m gay, if I’m from a different nationality, I should be able to be myself.”

For Morgenstern it comes down to this: “We should feel safe. We’re not talking sufficiently about the fact that even in Western Europe we don’t always feel safe. It’s a fundamental right.”