From her university days in the 1970s, Sibylle Krieger has climbed many corporate leadership mountains along her career journey. A former lawyer and economic regulator, she is also one of Australia’s leading and most sought after non-executive directors.
“The professional services workplace in the early 1980s was a very different place than it is today,” she recalls. “When I first walked into Baker & McKenzie in April 1981, I was 23 years old and knew virtually no-one in Sydney. The Sydney office was run by a small group of young male partners in their early to mid-30s.”
From her vantage point, as a young junior solicitor, Krieger says “they seemed experienced. They were undoubtedly powerful. There was one woman partner but she was clearly not part of the ruling junta.”
Gender diversity wasn’t even a phrase at that time, let alone a preoccupation of professional services workplaces.
“Back then the firm culture and remuneration structures were strongly biased to business development. This culture combined with the ethos of the 1980s made for a very boysy environment, with quite a few senior lawyers spending more time on the golf course and at Len Evans than in the law library.”
Krieger recalls being told that to have any chance of being made a partner, she had to learn to play golf.
“I made no comment but took that as a challenge and decided I would become a partner without playing golf!”
And she did just that. While others were out on the green, Krieger was back at the law firm working hard, clocking up a lot of experience in a small number of years to ultimately make partner in 1986 at the tender age of 28. She never learned to play golf.
Having been a partner for 22 years (at Baker & McKenzie, then Clayton Utz) Krieger spends her time these days as a company director.
Still to this day, she is committed to ensuring skilful and experienced women are afforded the opportunities they deserve.
“I really enjoy working with a range of people from different backgrounds with different experiences. I value all kinds of diversity but I have a special attachment to gender diversity,” she says.
“At Board level, it no longer goes without saying that the ideal candidate is a former CEO from the same sector or someone with whom you went to school.
“The more Boards focus on diversity of skills and experience, and move away from ‘who do we already know?’, the more opportunities there will be for women.”
On the listed company Board which Krieger chairs, there are three men and three women, all recruited on the basis of their skills and experience.
“It wasn’t that hard to do,” she adds.
Female representation at Board level is a hot topic. According to a report by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (August 2018), female representation on Boards declines significantly beyond the ASX top 200, falling from 27.9 per cent to just 15.8 per cent across ASX 201-500 companies. This has led recently to the new target launch of the 30% Club, an event which Krieger attended with enthusiasm.
But there are companies bucking this trend, and Krieger predicts that generational change will eventually make diversity an accepted norm.
“Younger people notice a lack of diversity, and not in a good way,” she says.
“By 2025, 75 per cent of the workforce will be millennial, and they treat diversity as a given. I’m sure they’re surprised that we’re still having this conversation.”
She adds: “I think boards are also becoming more nuanced and sophisticated in analysing their skill gaps and needs before recruiting a new director, which is helping achieve greater diversity.”
She is also quick to recognise other factors in opening up avenues for women at board level.
“Probably the greatest catalyst for the advancement of women as non-executive directors is the increasing use of search firms, and the ability to find and research candidates online and across social media.”
She explains: “This allows the pool of candidates to be much bigger than those already known to the Board or to the search firm. Focusing on the needs of the company and the skills gaps around the boardroom table enables Boards to develop cascading lists of skills and experience for the role – essential, desirable and nice to have.”
“The more the focus is on skills and experience, the less likely it is that there will be pre-conceived ideas of what a candidate should look like or what background they ought to have.”
Krieger also points out that Boards are now becoming more acutely aware of the benefits of diversity – especially the corporate benefits that flow when experienced input is sought from people from a broad range of backgrounds.
“I think you never realise the extent to which you see the world and its issues through the prism of your training and experience, until you work with people who see quite different issues in a situation and interpret them very differently. Diversity is a key risk mitigant for this reason. And it’s also way more fun than homogenous groups!”
This element of fun is intrinsically linked with inclusivity; inclusion is the heartbeat of diversity.
An inclusive business culture is one of the fundamental must haves when it comes to breathing life into all types of diversity, including gender diversity.
“An inclusive business culture is one of the fundamental must haves when it comes to breathing life into all types of diversity, including gender diversity…diversity without inclusion is like a plant without sun and water.”
“An inclusive business culture is one in which every thoughtful person is encouraged to have a view and has their views listened to, irrespective of their gender, age or any other personal characteristic.
“It’s a culture in which different perspectives are regarded as a good thing and the speaking roles are not limited to a subset of very senior people. It’s a culture which is curious, aware of the need for change and open to new ideas and new ways of seeing and doing things.”
Although the role of organisations and their leaders is an important one in moving the gender diversity discussion forward, Krieger believes women themselves must also take responsibility and some well-considered risk.
“Women can do way more, and take bigger risks, than they might think they can.”
She goes on to share her favourite piece of advice – which helped her, and is now helping many more.
“My favourite piece of advice came from a speech given by Alison Watkins when she was still MD and CEO of GrainCorp, and she attributed the advice to her father,” she starts.
“Always take the opportunity that scares you the most, because it has the most development potential in it. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t sure whether you can do it. They think you can, or they wouldn’t offer it to you.”
Krieger adds one more thing.
“And if you do take up golf, do it willingly for fun and not grudgingly because it’s expected of you. And then play to win!”