Simone Menne

"People who don't want power should come to power."

Simone Menne has made history in Germany: She was the first woman to make it into the inner management of one of the largest German companies, the executive board of a DAX company with around 130,000 employees and an annual turnover of 35 billion euros in 2017. She worked for Lufthansa for a total of 27 years, most recently as CFO (Chief Financial Officer). In this function she had a great influence on strategic decisions in close cooperation with the CEO, i.e. the Chairman of the Executive Board. A powerful woman. And a strong woman. A woman who has to prove herself in men’s rounds. One would think that she must have worked early and purposefully towards this career. And either particularly talented in dealing with numbers, or at least particularly diligent. Far from it. And that’s exactly what makes her so likeable.

I was never good at maths

“I had German and French as advanced courses in the upper school, I was never good at maths and physics,” says Simone Menne, who is now one of the most important financial experts in Germany. The grades, including the Abitur section, were not record-breaking. Simone was the class representative, basically “rather loud” and “tore everything out” with oral participation. She was also the speaker for her volleyball team. Her parents always gave her the feeling that she could do anything she wanted. In particular, her mother, who has always worked in a small accounting department, set an example. When Simone Menne was born, the boss told her mother that she was urgently needed and that she should simply bring her child to work. From then on, little Simone grew up during the day between files and calculating machines, and sometimes the boss took her with him to appointments. The mother was also the one who told Simone how important it is to always earn one’s own money as a woman and not to become dependent on men.

Giving children the feeling “You can do it!”

Simone Menne discovered her passion and talent for art at an early age. She had inherited this passion from her father, who sometimes worked with her on works of art. She would have liked to pursue an artistic direction professionally, “I wanted to become a goldsmith”. Her father, however, who was a master craftsman, strongly advised her to learn a decent profession.

Simone Menne was always keen to experiment and dared to do something. She attributes this to her upbringing: “My parents always motivated me so that I could do anything if I wanted to. The fact that they didn’t exactly encourage me in my desire to become an artist is another issue. After graduating from high school at the age of 17 – on the basis of an above-average IQ test one could skip a class in her school as part of a pilot experiment – she first completed training as a tax advisor assistant. She enjoyed taking on responsibility for the tax returns of small companies herself. “And if you ever screwed up, you had to pay for it yourself and explain it to your clients,” recalls Menne, “That was definitely good for personality development.”

There’s more beyond the horizon 

After training as a tax advisor’s assistant, Simone Menne couldn’t imagine couldn’t imagine doing that for life.: “But I didn’t really know what to do instead – something about art was taboo. That’s why she finally enrolled at the University of Kiel in her hometown of Kiel for business administration, at least that had a certain consistency with her education. But then she didn’t enjoy her studies; she only did what was necessary. “I’m not a numbers person and I have to learn the numbers quite hard,” says Menne. “I was good at statistics, which I found exciting and important. I still don’t understand why calculating square roots of numbers are needed in life and work”. After her studies, Simone Menne wanted to leave the small manageable port city in northern Germany. She applied in Frankfurt am Main for the American conglomerate ITT and got a job in auditing. A prerequisite for the recruitment was a good knowledge of English. “My boss at the time told me later that he had taken me even though I couldn’t speak English very well at the time,” joked Menne. After three years she became restless and wanted to develop further. The English was excellent in the meantime.

Leaving the beaten track

Simone Menne applied for a job advertisement at Lufthansa and calculated that she had few chances of being invited at all. Again it was about the position of a financial auditor. In this position, she was particularly attracted by the opportunity to travel, because in a globally active company the job also promised foreign assignments in Australia, America or Asia. To her great surprise, Simone Menne was invited and suddenly found herself in the inner circle of applicants. “At that time I met Christoph Müller, who is now in a leading position with the airline ‘Emirates’, and who had also applied for the position,” Menne recalls. He was tall, attractive, self-confident, winning – and a man. And Menne thought the race was over. But no, Lufthansa hired both of them. It was a great time for the financial woman, who loves to travel and get to know new countries and people. After some time she applied for a position abroad at Lufthansa in Lagos, Nigeria, which was advertised for three years. Not a destination for tender minds, but for Simone Menne it was a dream. She had incredible degrees of freedom in her position, got to know exciting people, dropouts and free spirits, and travelled a lot through West Africa. “Of course you couldn’t close your eyes to the cruel poverty and crime around you,” says Menne. Beggars, lepers, and occasionally corpses on the streets were part of the daily reality. After the three years, she was offered a position in Amsterdam, which she refused because it was “too boring”. She would rather have stayed in Lagos. “I like the risk and I dare to do something,” explains Menne.

With personality and skill through the “glass ceiling”

Lagos was followed by a position in Norderstedt near Hamburg. Simone Menne became Managing Director of the subsidiary Lufthansa Revenue Services. But here she was not so successful and failed in an IT project, which led to her being dismissed. So she went abroad again as CFO of Lufthansa’s external organization, first in Paris, then in London, which she filled very successfully. She then moved again to Lufthansa Technik, an industrial company, to take on the role of CFO in the British Midland restructuring case. According to Menne, money never played a particularly important role in her professional life. Rather, she finds that board members earn too much and has never made a secret of it. That’s why she gave up her company affiliation and Lufthansa’s pension entitlements at British Midland in order to authentically try to restructure the company with the employees there and finally, with a heavy heart, organise the sale. At that time she also waived her bonus as Chief Financial Officer. This, in addition to the willingness to solve difficult tasks, impressed the then Chairman of the Supervisory Board and former CEO of Lufthansa Jürgen Weber. And in 2012 he offered her the position of CFO on the Group Executive Board. Even though she didn’t know what was happening to her, she accepted the offer. “After all, I am also a little bit vain, but in a different way than many male competitors. “I think it’s nice to be appreciated and to experience recognition,” says Menne. “But I wouldn’t need a big car or a driver.” With her new position, Simone Menne was the first CFO of a DAX company in Germany. And with that she pushed through the so-called glass ceiling – the invisible barrier that most women still encounter in the course of their careers. This barrier usually means the end of a career in middle management, even if the qualification would speak for something higher. Reasons for such a “glass ceiling” lie in a still strong preference of male colleagues for the selection of higher positions. In order to be able to break through this glass ceiling, it is important to teach girls at an early age how to exploit their opportunities and talents and pursue their goals. It is also necessary for women in leadership positions to set an example for young girls and encourage them to break through the upward barrier. Women such as Simone Menne, who are committed to equal opportunities for women in management positions.

(c) Lufthansa / Oliver Roessler

No fear of “male circles”, your own courage and capable employees

During Menne’s time as CFO on the Executive Board, there was a “glass ceiling” again, because to this day there is still no female CEO of a German DAX company. The question is when one of the last male domains will actually fall with the position of CEO. In the minds of many decision-makers, women are still a quota cast in the “round tables of male knights”, but they are by no means suitable for the role of “king”. Menne explains that in many cases the recruitment policy of executives is also characteristic. Before hiring employees whose qualifications could make them dangerous, one prefers to opt for so-called “me-toos”, i.e. small images of oneself. You can always keep up with them and keep track of things, but whether or not that will help the company move forward is a different matter. That is an outdated management style. Today, it is more a question of attracting the best and most innovative employees who can advance the company in competition. It is also a matter of promoting employees and exploiting their potential. “In principle, people should be given power and leadership responsibility who don’t want power,” emphasizes Menne. For example, parents or teachers as career changers. They are concerned with getting the best out of their children and supporting them – whether boys or girls. Analogous to the CEO above the “glass ceiling”, the positions of chief physician and flight captain, for example, in which women are still a rarity, should be mentioned. Politics is different: with Angela Merkel we have had at least the first chancellor in Germany since 2005! Simone Menne has never kept her hands off the fact that she dares even more as CFO. “I can also be CEO,” she is convinced. At the next change of squadron, however, Lufthansa’s Supervisory Board again opted for a man with the highest position in the Group.

After a total of five years as CFO at Lufthansa and then at the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, Menne withdrew from operational business in 2017. She is still active on four supervisory boards, including BMW and Deutsche Post DHL, and also acts in an advisory capacity, in particular as an expert on finance and digitisation. The latter is her hobbyhorse, as she recognized the importance of digitization for the industry at an early stage and has developed into an esteemed expert. Simone Menne is particularly focussed on her own gallery in her hometown Kiel. She wants to dedicate herself there primarily to young talent and give young artists a platform. But now she also has more time to realize herself artistically, which makes her very happy. A childhood dream that finally came true.

Read more here:

Simone Mennes Blog Post Lessons I would like to share with my younger self

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Simone Menne has been a mentor of the FollowYourTalent Foundation since 2018.