When the enquiry from the “Coatings Industry” fluttered through the door, I first had to look up what the “Coatings Industry” even is. Aha, the varnish and paint industry. Hm, didn’t mean much to me.

But my curiosity was aroused when I heard they wanted to initiate a “Coatings Leading Women’s Forum” to which only female top managers were invited, right through to CEOs, from SMEs to international corporations. After the briefing everything was crystal clear: absolutely thrilling! Support female managers in a very male dominated business environment? Count me in!

Not least because it immediately brought back to mind my own past, when I was the Austrian representative in 2 European Commission’s committees (namely energy research + demonstration) and pretty much the only woman. But it was even worse in the Austrian energy research community, where I was ploughing a lonely furrow so to speak with all my “flaws” :-): young (fresh from university) + female (slim and not particularly tall), and to top it all off, non-technical (but social scientist.)

But back to the Coatings Leading Women Forum: The mission was to establish a network in which female leaders could talk, learn from each other and inspire each other. The whole thing was initiated by Gloria Glang (Clariant), Paula Salastie (CEO & Owner, Teknos, FI) and Sonja Schulte (Vincentz Network, DE) – see picture below.

As soon as I heard that, I knew that the World Café would be the obvious choice of method, as it matched up perfectly with the needs definition.

And now I’ve just returned from Forst in the German vineyards and more than impressed with what I experienced and also learned there during those 1.5 days. I feel I have to share it with you right away in this blog article.

Excellent organisation, wonderful location (the Murjan family’s vineyard estate, the Murjans are also in the coatings business – DAW), tasting superb wines and – as if that weren’t enough already! – the dedicated top women fired up with enthusiasm for the topic at hand.

The first morning started with exciting presentations, documented pictorially by Daniel Freymüller, Kulturproduktion.

The host and company owner Ralf Murjan (DAW) provided insights into his family business DAW, which employs 5,600 people (well, DAW meant absolutely nothing to me at first, but bringing the „Alpina“ paint brand in connection with it helped a lot) with his presentation “Family business culture drives value creation”.

Did you know that approx. 91 % of all German companies are family-run businesses that generate ca. 55 % of the total revenue and employ approx. 57 % of the German workforce? Well, I certainly didn’t. His appeal was: “Create a culture where people can grow and follow ethical criteria!”

This was followed by input from Professor Heather Hofmeister from Goethe University Frankfurt on “Being authentic and successful as a women leader in a man’s world: Expanding your leadership toolbox”. She explained the fascinating backgrounds rooted in sociology, psychology, economics and gender research as to why women are still held back by the glass ceiling.

As if that wasn’t challenge enough! We then learned about how crisis management unfolds from a very authentic CEO, Sabrina Kunz, ACC Beku GmbH (GER) who reported about a fire in the newly constructed factory: “Disaster – One morning it simply happened. Field report of our plant fire on 8 February 2017”.

And Paul Harnick from KPMG  informed us about “Women in the chemical industry and the gender diversity challenge”.

During the lunch break I’m afraid I may have driven the busy helpers a bit crazy because it was clear to me that we would have to make some changes to the setting (making the large table arrangements smaller) to combat the less than ideal acoustics. This involved dismantling some of the heavy tables and carrying them away. Thank you and sorry again for the inconvenience, but sometimes there are unfavourable circumstances that one only notices when one is actually at the location, and which then have to be adjusted accordingly.

After lunch we started the first interactive part with a somewhat modified World Café. The question was: “What will be the most important challenge for the international coatings industry during the next 10 years?” The process and the roles of the “Host” and “Traveller” are described below:

Modified because we didn’t have 1 and the same question for all 3 rounds. In the 1st round we addressed the challenges and in the next two rounds collected possible solutions. Hm, not clean methodology (I would have preferred a classic topic reaping session) but the timeframe available to us did not allow this.

Daniel, our visualisation master, was kind enough to also pictorially tart up my “Café Etiquette” (Thanks, Daniel! I could never have made it look this good!):

These questions spawned very lively discussions among all 30 participants. After answering all the challenges there was an extra 5 minutes to filter out the most important 1-2 and then – find possible solutions in the next two rounds.

As always in the World Café, much writing took place on the tablecloths. In the past I had all of this presented, but in the meantime I’ve realized that it’s better and more structured to extract the essence of the discussion, in particular when the groups are very large. With the result that the presentation is really crisp and to the point.

That was the 1st World Café with seriously engaged leading female leaders, which almost definitely further stimulated the already vibrant discussions. And where else can communication ideally take place? While socialising! That’s why the next step was a leisurely stroll through the vineyards (unfortunately in awful weather) followed by a gala dinner in a beautiful, domed wine cellar.

2nd day: another early rise, of course, because who’s always first at the scene of the action? The event managers and the moderator! A brief consultation with the clients, because I had noticed that no slot was foreseen in the programme in which ideas for the follow-up could be reaped. And so we spontaneously changed the morning session accordingly (by the way, following my credo “Excellent planning is the foundation for flexibility in the workshop.” Don’t rigidly adhere to your planning when something important comes up on the spur of the moment!)

But just before the next World Café there were 2 more exciting inputs:

First, by Ezio Braggio (President EMEAI, Sherwin Williams) on the topic “How to give equal opportunities to all genders, races, religions etc? Value the human being!”

Next, by Paula Salastie (CEO & owner of Teknos, FI), boss of 16,000 employees worldwide, who reported on various mergers: “How to handle leadership and company culture during a merger?” One of the answers was: Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! (and this coming from a Finn, as she herself jokingly said :-)). Teknos, by the way, was founded in a chicken coop!

But back to the 2nd World Café, which now spotlighted the leading question: “How to systematically identify, hire, support and retain top talents in my company?”

This time there were only 2 discussion rounds, followed again by a few extra minutes to extract the results, and then again – very short – presentations in the form of elevator pitches.

The rest of the time available was used to collect ideas as to how the all of this could be consolidated after the event. Once again Daniel artistically rendered the results on paper (I have to admit I’m a bit envious! 🙂 ):

My methodical conclusion: The World Café has proven to be an excellent method again and again as a means to get into contact with a lot of people in a relatively short time and to share views on a specific question or to generate ideas. The important thing is to find a relevant question (even if this may sound trivial) that creates energy among the participants and the wish to learn more from the other participants – and also to share own experiences and ideas.

To sum up the 1st Coatings Leading Women Forum: I was thrilled! Impressed by the concentration of female power, the wonderful mix of professionalism, intelligence, openness and cordiality.

Thank you for letting me be part of it! Birgit