Interview: Dr. Maria Bergler about women & leadership

As an executive coach, Dr. Maria Bergler supports leaders and top performers in their personal and professional development through consulting organizations, startups and companies. Born in Bad Reichenhall with Ethiopian roots, Dr. Maria Bergler, who holds a doctorate in education, is one of the most sought-after leadership coaches and mentors in the European consulting environment.

We talked to her about women & leadership, unrealistic expectation and the joy of freeing yourself from them.

Dr. Bergler, you support leaders in their personal and professional development—have you noticed that women and men face different issues/challenges?

That’s a good question. It might come as a surprise, but I actually don’t see a huge difference. I think men’s and women’s issues are the same: How can I approach my career strategically, what do I want to be known for, how can I have an impact on the world? What are my strengths? I think both men and women ask themselves these kinds of questions. Perhaps one difference is how they answer them. Men are more aware of their resources and they use them more than women. 

What do I mean by resources? Men have better networks, they get their ideas validated, and they look for feedback. They are much more aware of their abilities and accomplishments and it’s easier for them to take pride in what they do well. Men are able to build on this certainty achieved through their own efforts. Men often have a certain characteristic that gives them a competitive edge over women: Confidence. They have much more confidence in themselves. 

There are two qualities I try to cultivate and nurture in my clients: Confidence and trust.

What advice do you have for women to help them address these topics?

Start with the two topics of “confidence” and “trust.” It’s equally important to become aware of one’s own resources and abilities and to develop a certain pride in them. Everyone should be proud of themselves and say, “Wow! It’s great that I’ve achieved that. I’m really good at this!” It’s also important to exchange ideas with people in your network and really use these resources. Creating an environment that expresses confidence and trust can be a catalyst and accelerator to personal development.

Have you dealt with the topic of mental health in the course of your coaching experience? Is it a topic that your clients bring up?

Actually, mental health isn’t a topic that comes up explicitly. It’s still present implicitly and tends to surface in questions like “I want to be less stressed” or “How can I manage my stress better? How can I make more time for myself?” These kinds of topics came up a lot more during the pandemic. This was and is, after all, why so many people are leaving their jobs right now, the so-called “Great Resignation.” People have this intense need right now to better manage their stress. 

That said, stress is, to a certain extent, a good thing; it’s just part of life. If it’s managed well, it can be helpful — a lot of people feel energized and develop and grow. But if managed poorly or not at all over a long period of time, stress can lead to serious psychological problems. Depression and/or burnout are often not far behind.

It’s a good sign when my clients approach me proactively and say that they want to develop ways to manage their stress. This is usually a sign that they aren’t seriously depressed or burnt out. People often notice the first indicators early on when they’re still feeling fairly well and then they make the decision to work with me to manage their stress before it becomes a problem. 

There are studies that show women suffer from burnout significantly more frequently than men—why do you think that is? What can we do about it?

That’s interesting, I wasn’t actually aware that women suffer more from burnout. But it makes sense when I think about the things I hear a lot from women, such as “I have to prove myself” or “I have to be a great wife, a great mother, a great colleague.” As a society, we (unfairly) expect a lot from women. A second, common belief is “If others can handle this on their own, then I should be able to as well” or “Only I can solve this.” 

The unrealistic expectations that women face are usually the first steps toward burnout. Women, unfortunately, often have the compulsion to live up to those expectations, to prove themselves. Because of this compulsion, women — and men, too — end up working harder and neglecting other important parts of their lives. At some point, you start to feel unwell: your sleep suffers, you’re irritable. Because of how you’re feeling and maybe because of how people start to react to you, you distance yourself and withdraw. Burnout is a real possibility. 

We need to reflect and rethink the daily expectations we put on women — through the media, through social discourse, and at work. We should be encouraging each other and accepting that each person with her or his unique qualities goes her or his own way and isn’t accountable to anyone.

What do you think constitutes a corporate culture in which equality and diversity are lived out?

A corporate culture in which equality and diversity are lived out no longer thinks in pigeonholes but brings the individuality of each person to the fore. It’s interesting that when we think about diversity, we think in pigeonholes: men vs. women, with or without a migration background, people from academic or working-class families, and so on. But the bottom line is to see the full individuality of each person. A white man with academic parents is also unique in his own way, as is a lesbian woman with an immigrant background. 

Everyone brings their own individuality with them. Inspiring leaders recognize and appreciate this. With curiosity, courage, and self-confidence, they recognize the strengths of everyone in the team and give everyone the space they need to grow. In a corporate culture in which equality and diversity are lived, every team member can contribute his or her authentic self with his or her strengths, preferences, etc. No one is made bigger or smaller than they are. Everyone is part of the big picture and fully integrated into the team. Everyone is seen and equally valued.

You mention a good point here: A lot of women experience a form of imposter syndrome, when they’re aware, often subtly, that they are just the proverbial “token woman.” So as soon as individuality comes to the fore, can this feeling be counteracted?

Yes, absolutely. What I often experience is that women — especially after the introduction of diversity quotas — are constantly confronted with the fact that they got certain positions because of their gender and not because of their abilities. It creates feelings of envy and resentment within the company. If you focus on promoting the individuality of each person when building a corporate culture, resentment and envy play a much smaller role. If the strengths of each individual are clearly shown and communicated, the reasons for a possible promotion are much more transparent and understandable. Promoting the individuality of men and women has a balancing effect.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given by another woman?

It’s definitely a piece of advice from Bettina Orlopp — now Deputy CEO at Commerzbank —  that she gave me back when she was a partner at McKinsey & Company and I was a management consultant pregnant with my first child: “Over invest in your support network!” It’s a phrase I’ve passed on ever since. Why? I found the advice liberating: Maria, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. What a relief. On top of that, it taught me that any investment in support will pay off 10,000 times more down the road. And she was right about that.

Her advice was to build a network for me and my family that had double and triple floors. We took her advice to heart and acted on it so that I could pursue my consulting career full time and at the same time be a happy mother and wife. 

I faced a lot of criticism. We were met with incomprehension by many people — I wasn’t living up to their idea of what a wife and mother should be. I can still hear a mother in an antenatal class say, stunned, when I mentioned that I wanted to go back to work full time, “Haven’t your priorities in life changed now that you’re a mother?” Yes, my priorities have changed: As a mother, it became even more important for me not to forget myself. Only a happy and content Maria can be a good mother and a loving wife. And that is the only thing that counts for me.

My key takeaway from this is: Be brave, free yourself from the expectations of others, and invest in support options such as domestic help, etc. so that you have enough time for yourself and your loved ones.

What advice would you give to women in the working world?

If someone, or maybe even several people, see something in you that you don’t see in yourself (yet), then there might be some truth to it. If an opportunity then presents itself: Take the opportunity, take the risk, and just do it! Just do it! Trust in your strengths and abilities—you have nothing to lose. On the contrary, no matter how this opportunity develops, you’ll be enriched by a valuable experience.

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