Susan Olivier is Vice President Consumer Goods & Retail Industry, Dassault Systèmes
At what moment in your career do you remember saying yes to your abilities, to your talents? Were you aware of this moment happening?
I think as I look back, yes I can say there were two very important moments for me. I don’t think at the very second I realized the first one, I realized the second one. But the first one I was maybe in my very early twenties and starting to work. And I am old enough to have seen many changes in how women are seen in the working world. I have daughter. I have a granddaughter and the world they are experiencing is very different than when we grew up. And I remember being in my early twenties and working with a woman who was in her forties and saying how do you do it, how do you manage all of this? You are so well organized, you are always so sharp with your information, you command the room you are so well dressed. She was just to me the epitome of an executive woman. And she said you know there is no magic to it. There is no magic. You just have to believe that you can do it as well or better than anybody else and go for it. And I thought she was maybe not taking me seriously and I then realized, this was late one evening, I realized the more I thought about it over the next few days as I watched her, I realized that really what she did was just prepare better and analyze the situation better and that made her then the one who could command the room. And that for me was the first moment that I realized that if I wanted something and I worked at it why not, why shouldn’t I be able to do it as well or better than any of the men who were the business leaders at the time or any other women in our organization. I’ve had the good fortune to work many, many years in the fashion industry which is very open for women but working in manufacturing perhaps was a little less so. And so she was a great inspiration to me.
The second moment for me was in my early forties and I had an opportunity to make a career change from where we lived and worked in Canada to the US. And to really take on a totally different job and a big risk. And I was talking to my husband – do we do this, do we uproot the family, what about the children, what happens if I fail and he looked me and said why would you ever A. doubt your abilities, and B. doubt that we would support you. He asked if he had such an opportunity would I even raise the question and I said no of course not. Then he said then why shouldn’t I support you? You’re the one with the opportunity.
Yes, it was my husband. What’s the worst thing that could happen if somehow you hate the job or you fail? We won’t starve to death. We won’t be without food. We’ll adjust. He said go for it. You have the talent, you have ability, go for it. And that for me that sense of the support from my family was the insurance policy I felt I had to then take any additional risk to go to the next level of senior management. And I’ve never looked back. I work hard. I love what I do and knowing that my family is there for me in good times and bad and that I can change my job, If I don’t like it I can change my job and the only person I have to answer to is me. I don’t have to worry about anything else. Because I have that unconditional support from my family. That’s an important sense of security. And I don’t say that lightly to young women for example because it’s not about asking permission, you don’t have to ask anybody’s permission to do what’s important for you. But when you have the responsibility as part of a family and you are a two-income family and you are raising children, these are joint discussions, these are important discussions. And so knowing that I had that unconditional support was helpful for me in feeling bolder at taking risks. I was aware of that moment happening because I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
Why do you do what you do? What motivates you?
I have always been motivated by the idea that what I do can make a difference. I can somehow leave something of myself behind in the world I see that in my family, I see it in my children and grandchildren that I leave behind but also in the world that I can leave them. And so when I worked originally in fashion it was the idea that I could work to make a brand better or a retailer better and after 30 years in fashion I am moved into working with the technologies that support fashion and I have been doing that for quite a while already and that to me was even a bigger opportunity to have an impact on the broader world because it’s not just one brand or one retailer at a time, it’s an entire industry. I lead a team that has the ability to impact an entire industry. And that’s very exciting. The world is changing extremely quickly when it comes to technology. When I started working we didn’t even use the fax machine and now I work with all kinds of technology that are generations ahead of fax machines, augmented reality, all of that. It’s great! And that’s what motivates me, being able to make a difference.
What two pieces of advice would you give to other women to empower them to say YES to their abilities, yes to their strengths?
I think that women by nature are more collaborative. Regardless of how we are raised, we want to be in an environment where there is perhaps less competition and more cooperation. And sometimes that makes us hesitate to push too hard for something even if we believe it is important. so My advice to young women is to find what you love to do and find what you can do well and then go out and be the best that you can be and if that means that you are a team leader and not just a team contributor go for it. Be the best leader you can be. Learn the skills that you don’t have. And maximize the strengths that you do. Never be afraid to go for it.
If you could do it over, looking back now with your experience, what would you do different?
I think I would maybe push harder earlier. Again I think perhaps because I started working at a time when women were not expected to have lifetime careers but only to work for a certain period, even I had a sense that I may not be working forever, I may not be climbing a ladder forever. Now I look at it and say this is a lifelong journey. I will be learning and growing my entire life. Whether that is through the work I do today or different work in years to come and ultimately perhaps through consulting or teaching or other things as I get older or writing which I also love to do. My whole life will be a journey up until the last moment. So there is never an end to the journey that we are on. So my advice would be to go fast, go hard and keep going, don’t hold yourself back.
Do you have a manager? If you have one, what have you learned from him or her?
I have had many managers over my career. I think that we can learn many good things from our managers. Sometimes what do to and sometimes what not to do. the things that I have learned that I try to take advantage of is to always have a big ambition, a big dream and try to inspire other people to see that and to help paint a clear picture that people can move towards. I think that has been a very good learning for me. One thing I have learned not to do is to micromanage my team. I try to give them a direction let them choose their own path.
What are your « rituals » before entering into a room to meet with clients or an important meeting?
I have two rituals. I am actually by nature a very shy person. Particularly when I am speaking to customers or sometimes I speak to large groups, hundreds of people, and I have to remind myself that I am there for a reason. That I have information which is probably something that they don’t have and are interested in. I have something valuable to offer them and it’s important that I offer it in a way that is as clear and as compelling as possible. Because people are very busy and so if I am going to ask them to give me some of their time I need to give them something worthwhile. But they’re there for a reason and they probably think that I have something worthwhile. So it’s important that I can learn how to convey this to them well. And so I think speaking well and being able to organize your thoughts is very important.
And the other ritual I have is something else I learned from one of my managers. He said you know everybody’s lives are very busy and we often today go from one meeting to another and we change topics every hour. So never assume that everybody in the room remembers why they are there. You have to start by reminding them what is the purpose, what is the objective. And sometimes that is as simple as the agenda but other times it’s just taking a step back and reminding them of the bigger picture, and what is the important inspiration that brought them there in the first place. So I always try to have that fresh thought – why are they here? How can I make it worth their while?
Do you see a difference between the management styles of men and women?
Oh very much. Men are very much in their nature, and even in the games they play as boys, very much focused on command and control. There is a leader and then there are followers and boys are always positioning for who will be the leader like who who leads the army, who controls the fort. Women by their nature, and in the games we play as girls, are more y collaborative, such as playing teacher, or tea party.. And I think we learn the importance of participation and collaboration. I believe this actually makes women very good leaders of teams because we are more participatory. Where we sometimes run into challenges is that, as women, we have to remind ourselves that not everyone is approaching the discussion from the same perspective and this is something that I have learned over time and from managers as well. If I am in a negotiation situation, a business deal or trying to gain over a new employee or a new customer, as a woman my style is always to say what can I offer you before I ask you for something in exchange so that we’re going to collaborate but I am going to always make it fair. And what I sometimes see is I will make an offer and a woman will reciprocate with her offer and we will go back and forth and we will find a good common ground. A man will make take my offer and he will say thank you very much I am done. And so I think women are always looking to find a common ground and to collaborate and men are looking to win. What I have observed over more than 30 years is we win better when we work together.
As a woman at the level of the board of directors, do you get the impression that it changes something on the board? For you?
Well I am not currently on a board of directors, not here within my current company. But I have been on different boards in the past. And the communication style that women bring does change the dynamics of a room. We generally bring our strengths to collaborate and to find common ground and find what will be meaningful for other people. Bringing that to board situations and to executive leadership situations allows for ultimately a better exchange and a bigger goal for the total team because it’s not just about how I win, it’s about how we all win. So the total team or the total board or the executive committee is looking at the bigger and we are working towards larger goals and I think women’s natural style does tend to bring this out.
A female mentor? Do you have one?
No I never actually had anyone that I would call a formal mentor. When I had a good manager I would often ask many questions to learn. But I have on the other hand been in situations where I have been a mentor and in fact someone just asked me if I can be her mentor and we are having our first lunch tomorrow. Have just started meeting. I do think it’s important to find people with whom you can communicate openly. Sometimes it’s easier if they work in a different company so you can speak about the broader issues or style and not individual problems. But overall I think mentorship is a very good thing. Looking back one thing I would do differently is look for a mentor because I didn’t have one before.
What do you dream of, what makes you dream?
As trite perhaps as it sounds, I would like to look back and say I have left the world a better place than I found out it. And that means from two aspects: One, I want to ensure that the world I leave my grandchildren is a better place with more opportunities for my granddaughter, with more inspiration for my grandson. And they’re wonderful and both my children and grandchildren I think are seeing a more open world than what I might have been expecting when I was young. So from a people perspective, I want to leave the world a better place for my family. But I also see these things around me and I see how fast the pace of change, of technology change around us is happening. I remember the introduction of fax machines, I remember the introduction of mobile phones and that seems so old already. And so now every few years we are facing a completely new paradigm and I am very excited to be able to participate in things like that. And I believe that I can in some way in some small way make a difference in what happens in the world. And that’s why I like the idea that I can look back at the end of my time and say I’ve made a difference and I’ve done things that I couldn’t even have imagined when I was younger.