25. May 2023

«There may not be a recipe other than being honest and transparent»

Today I am very pleased to meet Dr Gabriela Maria Payer, founder of PAYERPARTNER, who has more than ten years of experience in a wide range of supervisory and advisory mandates across industries and countries. In this interview, she sheds some light on the role of supervisory boards in today's changing economic landscape. She reflects with us on difficult management decisions, what she thinks about women's quotas on boards, and what she recommends organizations to strengthen moral intelligence in leaders, employees and corporate cultures more generally.

What a pleasure to see you again after so many years, Gabriela!* Thank you so much for taking the time to join us for this "Human Facts meets". You have had an incredibly successful career as a senior manager in large international companies. Today, you hold a number of advisory and supervisory board positions. So I can't wait to learn from your experiences, your challenges and your lessons, especially when it comes to ethical dilemmas.

1. But before we dive into that, would you mind telling us what was the most morally courageous decision in your leadership career and what helped you make it?

Gabriela: There may be not THE one decision, but more generally, the most courageous ones were always the people decisions. For example: Appointing a CEO, or even more challenging, letting go of a CEO is one of the most important responsibilities of a board, and I have been in the position to lead or be part of such a process several times. Having a clear view on the profile certainly helps, as does listening carefully to the various stakeholders and communicating transparently within the required confidentiality. It helps me to rely on three things: Trust the process (it has to be a good and holistic one), trust the gut feeling and stick to the decision. The most morally challenging decision for me was when I have had to demote or ask for the resignation of someone who is competent and a strong performer, but who has a behavioral and/or cultural downside. How do you do this correctly and respectfully? There may not be a recipe other than being honest and transparent.

2. What was a decision that - looking at it from what you know by today – you would have decided differently? And why?

Gabriela: There are a few ones, especially at the beginning of my career, when I was not patient enough. I had to learn that timing is essential, and I was too fast or sometimes also too slow. Being mindful about that idea “there is a timing for everything” is a lesson I had to learn – and maybe still do…!

3. Looking at the work of the board in general, what do you think is currently the biggest challenge for them to do a good job? And what do good boards do to make informed and balanced decisions?

Gabriela: A board needs to act as a team while valuing the diverse backgrounds and competencies of its members – and this in quite short interactions and in a generally pretty volatile environment. Finding this balance as well as leading a powerful board is challenging. Sharp and respectful communication with a sense of mutual understanding and listening to each other helps – as does sometimes a bit of humor. And: continuous education and learning are essential.

4. When recruiting board members, how important is moral integrity or a sense of ethics compared to functional, technical expertise and experience?

Gabriela: It’s highly relevant given the supervisory nature of the role. Sharing common values is important when discussing different positions as well as for role modeling in the company. It’s not limited to boards, to me it’s relevant for any leadership role, ideally for every person hired.

5. As a female representative on multiple boards, I have to ask you this: What do you think about a fixed quota for women on boards?

Gabriela: Not much. I’m a big believer in diverse boards and women are one part of this diversification, so I try to contribute wherever I can to support progress. However, I believe in the right person in the right position and team. Sometimes there is no gender fit.

6. Back in 2003, when our paths crossed at UBS, I remember you as one of the first women to be appointed to a top management position in a male-dominated industry. Today, we both know that things are different and that we see many more female leaders. As one of the first generations of female top managers, what was different then, and what would you recommend to the next generations of female managers?

Gabriela: I think what is changing – as far as I can tell – is the relationship between women and men at work. I see this, particularly in a start-up company I work for. When I mentor both,  men and women, I get some interesting and somewhat similar questions. Men may be more on how to deal with specific work/life situations, and women more on behavioral issues. Overall, I would advise female managers to work on their communication and their communication style. Don’t be shy, be straight, very clear, and to the point, maintain a respectful tone, but “no verbal extra-miles” to distract from the message.

7. Based on your extensive experience in top management and advisory roles, what do you consider to be the most important skills, competencies and attitudes for such roles today?

Gabriela: A well-defined set of competencies including strategic ones, industry and environmental understanding, intellectual and personal honesty, collaboration, and communication skills. Just to name a few – there will, of course, be others to add depending on the specific roles.

8. And what is the one thing you would generally advise organizations to do to develop leaders, talent and the whole culture in moral intelligence?

Gabriela: Setting the right tone at the top of the organization and not being negotiable on “moral intelligence”. And role modeling from all sides is crucial. I often take on mentoring roles, formal and informal ones. Getting other colleagues to do the same and running mentoring programs over several years and hierarchical structures is an authentic way to create a space for role modeling, sharing experiences, and by that creating naturally more advocates with a similar understanding and appreciation of  “moral intelligence”.  That’s what I’ve seen work best and that’s my one piece of advice. “Moral intelligence” needs a context to be experienced and filled with life.

9. Human Facts collects questions from each interviewee that have had the power to change your life or way of thinking. What is the question you've been asked that has changed your life?

Gabriela: It was very early in my career when one of my professors asked me: “What do you like spending your lifetime with?” Since then, I have been able to spend most of my time with work I enjoy. Having choices is a huge privilege and you can do so much about it. That’s why I am grateful, for the choices I’ve been and I am still given in my professional life and try to give back as much as I can.

10. And finally, is there anything else you would have loved I ask you – or that you would like to share?

Gabriela: Simply thank you, for still staying connected.

Thank you so much for your time, Gabriela, and for generously sharing your insights and experiences with us. I wish that your example of living the role of board member in an authentically humble, mindful and responsible way will be an inspiration to others

*) I met Dr Gabriela Maria Payer more than 20 years ago at UBS Zurich, where we were both committed to taking talent and leadership development to the next level. Under her leadership, we brought a managerial P&L approach to our corporate training efforts, which led to a more conscious reflection on purpose and value added to various stakeholders. As a result, we were able to move training and development from a support function to a core strategic function - what was then called a corporate university approach. Since then, we have enjoyed staying connected as much as our schedules allow.

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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