“Conviction has
to come from within”

Journalist: Franziska Pfister | Photographer: www.foto-shooting.ch | Magazine: Trust engenders courage – October 2022

Board member Monique Bourquin explains which management experiences have shaped her. This former CEO of Unilever Switzerland doesn’t think that choosing children over a career is a sign that you lack courage.

Ms Bourquin, what was the bravest thing you’ve ever done in your life?

One event immediately springs to mind: my daughter dragged me along to a climbing park two years ago, where I jumped down from a tree, ten metres in free fall. I was really proud of myself after that.

You were at the helm of Unilever Switzerland for five years. In your experience, do women lead differently than men?

If you ask me, there’s no typically female leadership style. Everybody leads differently. I, myself, work closely with the team and encourage people to voice their opinions and to make decisions and act on their own. In my experience, teams work better and perform better when they’re allowed to debate controversial issues.

“Deciding in favour of a career is no more courageous than giving something up to spend time with the children.”

Women currently account for 14% of executive board members in SMI companies. Why don’t more women in Switzerland aim for a career in management?

As a manager, I’ve always looked for ways to help competent women develop in leadership roles, but have never tried to persuade them. Conviction has to come from within. Women in Switzerland are shaped by certain values and these are slow to change. Many women, for example, don’t want to leave their children in the care of strangers all day. I respect that.

Fathers apparently have less of a problem taking their children to a crèche.

That would be a false conclusion, although I’ve scarcely ever had a man come to me to ask for his workload to be reduced because of the children. It’s always been the woman. In my experience, lots of men are essentially open-minded about the possibility of their partners working. Of course, they’re also happy if their children are looked after by the mother. Compared to a country like France, where I grew up, the situation for many families here is more traditional.

Monique Bourquin sits on the boards of directors of dairy products group Emmi, the biscuit manufacturer Kambly, the cosmetics and pharmaceuticals brand Weleda and food ingredients supplier Kündig. She is also on the board of trustees of Swisscontact, the Swiss Foundation for Technical Cooperation, and is president of Promarca, the Swiss branded goods association.

Isn’t professional success equally important for everyone?

Men define success more in terms of career advancement. Their job and rank matter to them when they’re talking to each other. Women, on the other hand, have a more nuanced definition of success. Having an interesting job with good social contacts is often more important than a highly ranked post. Of course, those aren’t mutually exclusive.

Does working part-time show a lack of courage?

No, that has nothing to do with courage. It’s about other priorities. Deciding in favour of a career is no more courageous than giving something up to spend time with the children.

Corporate cultures are still maledominated. What has to change?

I’ve always told my staff to contribute actively to meetings and projects. Otherwise, especially in a competitive, international environment where everybody speaks up, you might get lost even if you’ve performed extremely well. I’ve never been afraid of standing up for my own opinion and disagreeing if necessary and appropriate. Determination, courage, a healthy tenacity, communication skills and decisiveness are other important attributes. Corporate cultures should empower leaders to move in that direction and develop their leadership skills – and that’s something that doesn’t just benefit women.

Monique Bourquin grew up in France and studied economics at the University of St. Gallen. She started her career at PwC Switzerland. Stints at Rivella and Mövenpick were followed by 14 years working at the consumer goods giant Unilever. There, marketing and sales roles were followed by a promotion to Country Manager Switzerland in 2008, where she managed 500 people for nearly five years. She was then appointed CFO for Germany, Switzerland and Austria in 2016, a post she held for four years. Even though Monique Bourquin has not been involved in operations since then, she is on the boards of directors of several firms, including Emmi. In addition, she lectures on the subject of change management at ETH Zurich and is president of Promarca, the Swiss branded goods association. She lives in the canton of Schaffhausen, is married and has one daughter.

What do you think about the women’s quota?

For me, hiring women with the sole purpose of meeting a quota is unthinkable. I always used to think that a quota was unnecessary, but after 30 years in the world of employment, I’m a bit disillusioned by how little progress we’ve made.  

Actually, businesses can’t afford to exclude women.

No, businesses rely on talented people and capable leaders, regardless of whether they’re male or female, young or old. A lot of companies suffer from an obsession with youth – employees can rise up within the organisation until they hit 50, after which they’re made to feel thankful they still have a job. That’s unfortunate. My strongest teams were built by blending people approaching retirement age with recent university graduates. The more diverse, the better: academics and people who’ve learned a trade, young and old, women and men, different nationalities.

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On which social issues would you like to see more courage being shown?

Switzerland is far more progressive and courageous than it realises. Our democracy is highly developed, we allow heated debates but also look for pragmatic solutions and implement those solutions. Most people here feel responsible for the country as a whole and aren’t just pursuing their own interests. We absolutely have to hold on to that strength, even if I occasionally wish we were a little bit faster to change.

What advice would you give to young adults whose careers are just getting started?

Don’t let yourself be pigeonholed. Do something that gives you pleasure, something that lets you be true to yourself, where you see your values reflected in your job and you enjoy giving it your all precisely because of that. Also ask for feedback, use it to get to know yourself better and develop continuously, both professionally and personally.

Monique Bourquin – In the spotlight

The first thing I think of when I hear the word “courage” is …
bungee jumping and Nelson Mandela.

For me, the colour of courage is …

When it comes to courage, my role models are …
people who impress me with unselfish acts.

This animal embodies my personal courage the best …
every animal that protects its young from danger.

If you want to make courageous decisions, you have to …
be ready to act with the big picture in mind and take responsibility for the consequences.