For this #ayaniwomen interview, we had the pleasure to meet Anna, Senior Executive Manager at Michael Page, and a passionate artist focusing in her art on topics of feminism.
Here is a short version of our conversation on qualities to succeed in corporate headhunting, the journey to becoming a leader, diversity in the workforce, her artworks and what confidence means to her. Inspiring read with many insights and tips for self-development. Enjoy!
Ani: Well my first question is always, could you tell a little bit about your professional path until now and your educational background as well?
Anna: Sure, I studied Integrated Social Sciences at Jacobs University Bremen until 2011. It’s a mixture of politics, sociology, economics, psychology, business and logistics.
Afterwards, I moved straight into professional life because I realized that a Master was not for me – I wanted to gain work experience as soon as possible. I was 22 years old when I landed my first job at Michael Page where I’m still working today. Despite working for the same company, the job has changed a lot over the years. I started as a headhunter for Finance positions, which did not work out very well. I was moved to the “IT Perm Division” and was recruiting permanently employed IT professionals and IT leaders. This turned out to be a great move. Through strong sales results I got promoted and five years ago, started my managerial career when I employed my first official employee. Over the years, there were successes but also setbacks. Still, through resilience and thanks to my boss’s patience who kept believing in me, I managed to grow the IT Perm Division from a handful of people to 16 team members, who share a common vision, loyalty towards each other and who often feel more like a family than just work mates.
Ani: Why did you choose to work in corporate recruitment?
Anna: Right after university, I didn’t know what I want to do, just what I don’t want to do. For instance, I knew that I do not want to go into politics, since I got a bit disillusioned in political careers throughout my university time. I chose the corporate recruitment field because I believed that this is where I can learn the most, challenge myself and develop skills that are valuable for a business professional, like turning “No” into “Yes”, negotiating and dealing with rejection. Also, I liked that the environment is very results driven and I would always know exactly the benefit that I brought my company. I was right about the self-development opportunities at PageGroup. For instance, it was extremely challenging at first to be confident in front of customers if you just started your first job after university. Another challenge was being a young woman in a male dominated office culture. While Michael Page has been very keen on diversity and e.g. developing female managers, back in 2011 when I started, I was the third female consultant in a group of 25 male consultants & managers in our Hamburg office.
Ani: Really? So few women in headhunting?
Anna: It depends. Many people believe that headhunting is a very female dominated sector because headhunting is often confused with an HR profession. Don’t get me wrong, we deal with HR topics and talent acquisition, but our job clearly is a sales profession and a lot of men work in the headhunting industry. Nowadays at our Hamburg Office, we managed to achieve a good 50:50 gender balance among our 80 consultants and actually a good number of female managers & managing consultants.
Ani: What do you think are the main skills that are required to succeed in the headhunting field?
Anna: I think that the major predictor of success in headhunting is not necessarily a skill, but a strong hunger for success and the readiness to go “all in”. It is a profession for people who don’t give up, who fight for their goals and are always on the look for opportunities to go the extra mile. Asked about a main skill to succeed –you need strong listening skills. Most people believe that sales is about talking, but it’s actually about listening. Not just listening to know what to answer, but listening to thoroughly understand the needs of your clients and candidates. The most typical mistake headhunters make is that they try to sell without knowing the requirements and needs. But the best salespeople are the ones who listen actively. This helps to build long-term relations and trust, which is essential. If your customers believe in your good intentions, they will remain loyal to you even in a competitive industry.
Ani: Being a team lead is a tricky position to say the least. Setting goals, monitoring the execution and giving feedback on the way, being physically and emotionally present for your team members, time management etc. What do you find the most challenging in being a team lead?
Anna: At every stage there were different challenges. When I was leading my first employee, the biggest challenge was time management. From one day when I was just responsible for myself, there was someone next to me expecting direction, training and guidance. I was working long hours to bring the person into the business, at the same time I managed my own projects.
When I started leading a team of five or six people, apart from time management, team dynamics became the next challenge: developing a vision that works for several people. Also, I was trying to find the balance between managing everyone individually and yet treating them equally.
Currently the challenge is to manage “indirectly”. Earlier, I would have a direct influence on every single employee. Now I am leading managers. On the one hand, this is extremely helpful because they do a lot of great work and I can delegate many responsibilities. On the other hand, it means that I am not directly involved anymore on a day to day basis with training juniors.
Another challenge is to always keep a balance between being professional and authentic at the same time. This is sometimes difficult for me as I’m very close with my team and it is challenging to be a friend and a boss at the same time.
Ani: When you recruit members for your team, do you look for diversity? Do you think it is important?
Anna: Yes and no. All my employees should share certain qualities. For example, hunger in the eyes and readiness to work hard should be present in all of them. But I look for diversity in terms of character, strengths and backgrounds, so that we end up with a “characterful” team. I have “classical” sales people – pushy, results driven, active and fast, who are strong with KPIs. Then there is the other category of people whose are more into “individual consulting”, quality approach and a strategic/long term orientation. Some of my employees are very structured, others are more “creative”, and some are harmonious while others enjoy competition. What I really enjoy is to see how they complete each other step by step. It’s always easier to be with people who are exactly the same as you are. But it is exactly the differences, the occasional tensions and the interpersonal challenges that make the team strong when they realize it is a personal growth opportunity and that they are strongest together.
Ani: Aside from the full-time job, you are a passionate painter focusing in your work on celebration of feminism and femininity. Why did you choose to dedicate your art to these topics specifically?
Anna: There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, I started drawing at the age of five. Two years ago, my mother showed me the sketches that I did back then and you know what? At the age of five I had been drawing women and girls – exclusively. Sometimes people encouraged me to do landscapes. But that did not give me an inner joy, so I guess it was a natural thing for me to paint women. Secondly, since early age, I was very inspired by watching strong female leaders in animes and movies, especially when they succeeded in male dominated areas. I found that very inspirational and these were my role models from early age I could identify with.
Ani: (laughing) Xena?
Anna: Yes, for instance. Actually, “Lady Oscar” was my favorite Japanese anime. It is about a fictional woman who was raised as a man during the times of the French revolution, who became a chief commander, leading men into battle yet being praised for her personal qualities and not just her skills in battle. I always wished I could be like her.
Ani: Interesting. What is feminism for you?
Anna: A very good question. For me, feminism is accepting yourself and being ready to take on challenges and leadership without compromising on your identity. Traditionally, the qualities we regard as leadership traits are the ones that are regarded as more “masculine”: self-confidence, strong speech, decisiveness, execution, giving directions and feedback without asking for feedback in return. In my portraits of women, they are strong warriors who have incorporated these masculine traits. But they have not simply become men. Feminism to me is when female warriors have extended their capabilities, but do not forget their own strengths. These are qualities that we would traditionally regard as feminine, like emotionality, caring, humbleness, asking for feedback and admitting weaknesses to learn from mistakes instead of pretending to know it all. If you combine all these traits in a person, this could be an ideal leader, in balance and a combination of the best of both worlds. So for me, ironically, this is feminism. It’s not about women becoming men, it’s about women being ready to fight, but using their softer qualities everywhere they can to gain without fighting – and it is about men allowing for a softer side as well to complete the traditional male qualities.
Ani: What would you like to achieve through your art?
Anna: I want to inspire women to achieve more and to feel like warriors who fight for what they want. It doesn’t have to be a career. But to stand for what they believe in, to do what is necessary to achieve their goals and to not get too distracted by thinking they are not good enough. Also I want to celebrate women from different historical times who were brave and fought for their dreams, be it protecting their home country in World War II or pushing societal boundaries in the 1920s.
Ani: What is a book you would recommend that had that an impact on your professional life and why?
Anna: „Leaders Eat Last“ by Simon Sinek. It’s about how important it is to sacrifice as a leader. I love the stage and I love the spotlight – maybe a bit too much 🙂 But leadership in the end is not about getting applauded on stage, but about the sacrifices you make behind the scenes so that your team can thrive.
Ani: What is confidence for you?
Anna: I would say that confidence is when your happiness doesn’t depend on other people’s approval anymore. There will always be someone who criticizes or disagrees. Do not let this criticism discourage you, or feel that now you need to change yourself to please someone else. Because it’s more important that you please yourself in the end.
Ani: What is the piece of advice you would like to give to working women out there? What would you like to see women being better at?
Anna: I would like us all to feel the freedom to be as authentic as possible. When I started my career, it was a lot about fitting into a professional environment and behaving professionally. Of course, you should still comply with the basic behavioral requirements of your company. But I always search for a bit of craziness, weirdness or individuality when I recruit people and that they can open up and let us see what is inside. I think the more authentic the work environment gets the cooler it is to come to work because your inner self and your environment will be in balance. So be truer to yourself, and allow others to be true to themselves.
Ani: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and advice with our community!
If you would like to get in touch with Anna, connect with her on LinkedIn.
To read more about her artworks and view her collection, feel free to visit her website:https://reneahrens.com/blog/