Women in Leadership, Boehringer Ingelheim
07 March 2018
Sarah Pfeffer

“Leading with purpose and courage”

At Boehringer Ingelheim, we are powered by our people. We nurture a diverse, collaborative and open environment, valuing and respecting the differences of our people: we are convinced that diversity is an enormous asset. While we focus on diversity of thinking, we have to admit that gender is one of the most visible dimensions of diversity. We strive to increase gender balance in our leadership to reflect our diverse markets and customers: 80% of the healthcare decisions are taken by women.


With our series "Women in Leadership" we want to introduce female colleagues who hold leadership positions at Boehringer Ingelheim, to share their experiences, successes and challenges. With that, we hope that we can inspire our leaders and our talents to continuously strive for development. In the career blog, they tell us about their career path, how they combine work and private life and why our society needs a mindset change. So get to know Maria Castresana, Head of the Center of Expertise (CoE) for Talent, Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness for the Boehringer Ingelheim Corporation.

Mrs Castresana, currently you are heading the CoE Talent, Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness for the Boehringer Ingelheim Corporation and directly report to the CHRM Andreas Neumann, member of the Board of Managing Directors. Can you describe your career path that led you to this position? 


After graduating in law and business administration in Spain I chose to work in HR in a multinational company, since I wanted to work internationally and go abroad. I also realized that Human Resources (HR) was a great place to blend what I had learnt in college and have a strategic view on a company. I was extremely curious to see and experience the world and how people make businesses successful. 


Bayer gave me that chance, my first job and also the possibility to move to Germany, where I built most of my career. At Henkel-Ecolab I had the opportunity to acquire more specialist knowledge in Compensation and Expatriate Management and when I came to Boehringer Ingelheim, I moved into more generalist roles as Business Partner, working with businesses in Germany, the U.S. and Emerging Markets.


I have always looked to develop myself in positions that would challenge me in terms of complexity, people management and business/market knowledge. And what I did needed to make sense, in terms of my contribution to the company and the impact to others. This meant that my moves were not always promotions; I often moved laterally and also even took a step down to gain experience in the United States since it was the right development opportunity.  My career path, although always in HR, has allowed me to work for major multinational companies, work in different markets and extend my knowledge.


What was critical for you in achieving your current leadership position?


I think that at critical points I had to make what I would call “brave” decisions such as going abroad with my 10 month year old son, to take jobs that were not popular or even where the next step was quite unclear, such as leading the divesture of our Consumer Health Care (CHC) business. These decisions required balancing choices, being determined and having a long-term view. 


There are also many people that have been critical in my success so far, it starts with my family, who understood and supported me in my aim to combine my work with raising two children, bosses who pushed me to believe that I could do things I never thought of, peer colleagues who gave me and give me feedback every day, helping me to reflect and to improve. I have worked hard to be where I am today but I have also had wonderful people around me that have given me that special advice, word of encouragement or listened to me when I needed it. All of them helped me to go on and become a bit better every day.


Could you describe yourself in three words?


PASSIONATE about family and medicine.

BRAVE in making life choices.

CURIOUS about all there is to learn!


How would you describe your leadership style? What is important to you as a leader?


It is important to me to have a sense of direction for me and my team, to understand the purpose and the impact of what I do, so that I can engage myself fully. And I think that it transpires in my leadership style.  I try to lead with purpose, engaging others in a vision of what could be and then empowering them to make the best out of it.


I have also learnt two important things over the years: 1) that emotions are not to be neglected but to be acknowledged and leveraged and 2) that a leader is not a leader without followers.  You earn to be called a leader because others recognize your ability to inspire them and you earn their trust and confidence to take them on a journey with you.


You are a woman with a leading position in a family-owned international acting company, what are the challenges for you as a leader and for you as a woman?


I have been trying to think if I can separate the challenge of being a leader from being a female leader… not sure I can! 


Having a leadership position is a big responsibility; the challenge is to make sense of it all… and every day! Because as an executive you have a role to fulfill, a contribution to make, and a team to lead. And in today’s business world, things move so quickly, that you have to be constantly on your feet to make sense of it all and to be able to lead across boundaries.


Every person in a leading position has a personal and work side to them. There are choices to make and everyone has his or her own recipe for balancing work and private life. I find balancing work and family in a leadership position to be somehow easier actually, than when I was an individual contributor. It is true that currently heading a global function there is international travel involved and a couple of other extra commitments, but I am also more in control of my agenda.  


What were the biggest challenges you had to face (as a woman) during your career? How did you master them?


During my career I have learnt to appreciate the differences in communication and influencing skills across cultures and gender. Coming from a Latin environment and having extensive work experience in Germany and the United States I had to flex my style and understand my personal impact on others. It is right that we should appreciate diversity and what comes with it, but as a diverse employee and manager I also need to be self-aware and understand how my own style and preferences impact others and be willing to adjust at times. It is not about which culture or style is best, it is about being effective.


What role did men play during you career? How could men support?


Well, I would say that men in my family starting with my father, a medical doctor and also my husband, encouraged and supported me to fulfill my life plans. At work, I have had very good male and female bosses.


I think men can help in two ways, first in trusting women that they know what they are doing, and that they can be as effective, even if it is in a different way than how a man would do it.


And second, by also not feeling threatened by women in the workplace. There are not only enough places for both but also a big need for women in the workplace.


What kind of role model or gender model would you prefer for future Germany and the future of Boehringer Ingelheim? 


I would like to see a similar proportion of women in leadership positions than in lower levels. I believe that women and men are equally capable to work as specialists and as managers or executives. We should aim to remove the barriers that are preventing this from happening.


What relevance does a topic like Equal Pay (“equal pay for equal work”) have to you?


It is very relevant; I believe everyone should be paid based on their work and contribution. In today’s world, it seems inconceivable to me that this is something that needs to be formally addressed and fought for. It reminds me of the discussion about if men and women should have equal rights, including the right to vote.


Concerning family and work, especially women seem to be under a certain pressure caused by a feeling of “making important decisions”- what do you think about that? What role does the employer play; what the own supervisor?


Women that want it “all”,  like some people say of me, because I wanted to have a family, kids and an interesting job, often face lack of understanding from their partners, family and social circle. Even though the employer plays a certain role in creating a supporting environment, I believe that the social and family environment is often even more critical to allow women to make those important decisions.  Even with flex time, remote working and other policies that help women and men to balance work and private life, these can only go so far. Unfortunately, in Germany and other countries, despite many laws and supporting policies there is still a certain bias within society that in my opinion is not helping to advance on the issue of women in the workplace.


How do you handle your life balance and your compatibility between work and private life?


I would highlight three things: I live close to work, which allows me to be home or pick-up my kids in 10 minutes from leaving the office. I share all responsibilities with my also working husband, from pick-up of the kids, to supermarket and also cooking! And lastly, I align with other parents, neighbors and others in my social network to support each other for sports and driving arrangements, or household topics. 


Is it easy?  For sure not! It is hard work and a logistical effort, but one that is worth it and I would not want it any different! Our family life is rich, everyone has responsibilities but also the possibility to fulfill their life plans. And our kids grow up understanding the importance of both family and work and that everyone in our family should be there for each other.


In your current position you focus on the development of the Top Executives and their successors, leadership development, learning culture and organizational topics. What are your plans for the future within Boehringer Ingelheim?


I would like to help Boehringer Ingelheim continue to evolve and be even more successful with ideas and approaches to grow our leaders to be the best they can be. I also want to attract diverse people to join our company to enrich our culture and make us more global. And finally, I would like to create an environment for individual and company growth! I feel that I am still growing myself every day and whatever the future brings, I hope that I can continue to contribute to improving health, in the intersection of people and business.


Do you have a personal advice for young talents, especially young women?


Be brave, fight for what you want and surround yourself with the right people that recognize what is important to you and help you fulfill your life dreams!

"I try to lead with purpose, engaging others in a vision of what could be and then empowering them to make the best out of it, says Maria Castresana. "
Sarah Pfeffer
Maria Castresana, Head of CoE Talent, Leadership, Organisational Effectiveness

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