Exclusive interview - Sauber CEO Monisha Kaltenborn 28 Jun 2011
There are plenty of women working in the Formula One paddock, but Monisha Kaltenborn is the first to take on the job of team CEO. Perhaps surprisingly its with Sauber, traditionally seen as a relatively conservative team, but for Kaltenborn - someone whose ambition was to go into orbit - holding the fate of an F1 squad in ones hands holds few qualms. We spoke to her about her rise to prominence with Sauber, attending the boys club that is the team principals meeting, and the unique qualities she believes women can bring to bear on Formula One
Q: Monisha, becoming an astronaut was your dream job, but you then settled for law. With Formula One, do you feel you have landed somewhere between the two extremes?
Monisha Kaltenborn: No, I wouldnt say that - probably something just went terribly wrong between my heartfelt choice and what I ultimately took up. I still am very fascinated by space - I know that I will never make it into space, even though the longing is still there - but I think I was already pragmatic at that stage of my life, knowing Id rather settle for the possible than run after a probably impossible dream. I settled for law because that gives you a very wide range of activities you can go into - even Formula One, as you see! What I always knew was that I never wanted to end up as a lawyer in a law firm - and I was lucky enough to get involved with a very exciting field.
Q: Once in F1, what was it that made you stay?
MK: The fact that it is a very interesting platform. I would not even call it a sport, because there is so much more to it. I think I started from a very interesting angle, doing the legal work for a team, and right from the beginning I was able to look into many areas - areas that are almost always invisible to outsiders. Having insight into the inner workings of a team - the sporting aspect, the commercial side and the regulatory issues - is a very unusual view on Formula One.
Q: You have been with Sauber for many years in a legal role, and then since 2010 as CEO. Has the ability to draft airtight contracts with sponsors and drivers become more important than the petrolhead qualities of previous decades?
MK: Nowadays I guess you have to have both qualities - and slowly but steadily my petrolhead qualities are on the rise. (laughs) Fact is that a contract can be as tight as you want, but unless both sides want it to happen, its not going to help you. Formula One over the years has become more regulated, so the regulatory requirements for so many aspects have gained far more importance than in the past. You can argue if this is good or bad, but the moment you come to certain levels in any business or sport and more funds are coming in, you automatically become more careful about how you regulate things.
Q: You are the first woman to land a job so high up in the Formula One hierarchy. Why do you think that is? And what do you think it is about you to that has made you that female frontrunner?
MK: I think to be in the position I am in was probably a simple fact of opportunity. Very often you just need the right opening - and qualities that I believe many have. What I think is important in such a job is that you have to be quite pragmatic and to able to maintain a distance from what you are doing, never forgetting the overall picture. And you have to accept the way the business runs: there are rules which you have to accept, and make your moves within them.
Q: You frequently attend the team principals meetings. Were you ever treated as an intruder in the boys club?
MK: I dont think that they see me as an intruder and I dont think that they changed anything because of me being there - and they shouldnt. They sometimes use words that they instantly realize they shouldnt have used and they apologize for it. We have interesting and important meetings, and then meetings that seem just a waste of time - but I think that goes for every business
Q: At such meetings do you have the impression that your male colleagues have changed their manners and that verbal lapses are less frequent now that a lady is present?
MK: (Laughs) No, I dont think that they were so badly behaved in the past - this is probably only a persistent rumour.
Q: What do they call you in meetings?
MK: Monisha, and the German speaking ones Frau Kaltenborn.
Q: So not darling or sweetie
MK: They wouldnt dare! (laughs)
Q: What qualities do you want to add to the culture of Formula One team management?
MK: Probably because Formula One is not the typical area of interest for a woman - even though statistics say it is growing - I think you see it much more as a business or a job you have to get done. I also believe that women tend to see the bigger picture. We are not so stuck to our position. Women dont have turf wars. Of course I want to get the best for my team, but I am just a part of the whole picture - and if the whole picture benefits, so do I. Women tend do see - and accept - that more. We dont have to play golf - we manage to get our job done during working hours! (laughs) You can be critical about things, but never forget the bigger picture. That is what really matters.
Q: So youd say that that your male colleagues are unable to see the bigger picture
MK: They tend more to see only their position. But, of course, it is always a question of what position you are in. If you have a strong bargaining position you dont have to look so much at others. But I believe that even if a woman were in the stronger position she would look at things differently because even if you are stronger you still need the others in the whole equation.
Q: How do you see the drivers - these young man who have to get the job done while you prepare the environment?
MK: Probably a little bit more relaxed then maybe my male colleagues might be seeing them. And probably sometimes more particular when it comes to discipline - I guess I am far more strict at that. But I wouldnt go so far as saying that I have some kind of mother role because I dont consider myself that old and they are not so young any more that it would fit in that equation. Our talks are never very confrontational, but they are very clear. It is a kind of, you say it once and it has to be done - there are no excuses. Im probably more strict in some ways - but also more approachable! I think they feel that they can approach me more easily with problems or issues that they have - and that I will listen.
Q: Finally, as an aficionada of fancy shoes, how do you cope with Formula One team gear?
MK: Not only shoes, bags too - theyre a bit of a soft spot for me. Well, there is a professional life and a private life and you have to be able to separate them - and we are working on our team gear! (laughs) To be fair, working in the shoes and clothes that I like would probably not be the best of ideas. I have to make my way to the pit wall and a scrutineer once told me that my own shoes were not appropriate for that.
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