Stephanie Thoennissen, 42, holds a doctorate in business administration and is the mother of two delightful children. She lives in Cologne and specialises in the medical products industry as an independent consultant. Stephanie’s everyday life is clocked through, from morning 7am to evening 9pm. Nevertheless, the successful working mum does not let her positive energy and radiance be taken away and stays pretty much relaxed.
For us she is a brilliant example of how you can manage to reconcile job and family, even if a lot of organisational talent is often required.
In our interview she tells us what advice she would give her young self, what she thinks of the women’s quota and what her business power outfit looks like.
How did you get into the pharmaceutical industry or the field of medical products?
After studying business administration, I joined the Boston Consulting Group, initially with a focus on financial services. At the same time, I was looking for an exciting and suitable doctoral thesis. I finally found this in health economics, because for family reasons I had to deal with the changes in health care at that time. After the sabbatical for my doctorate, I – back at BCG – worked on a number of projects for health insurers and pharmaceutical companies before finally moving to Novartis. It was exciting and the company offered great development opportunities.
However, the birth of our children meant that I was no longer as mobile and tied to Cologne as a family base. This naturally severely limited the great opportunities within the company.
In which area do you currently work?
After the birth of our son almost five years ago, I turned my back on Novartis and have since worked as an independent consultant, primarily for my husband’s company based in Cologne. Until I joined this company, it was a pure marketing and distribution company, especially with products for orthopaedic surgeons.
I then built up a new division and turned the company into a manufacturer of medical products. Comprehensive regulatory requirements had to be created for the so-called CE certification. For product development, many scientific investigations and studies had to be carried out, numerous technical validations had to be made, suppliers need to be coordinated and German and international customers have to be looked after. Since we are a very small team and a start-up in the field of manufacturing, I do almost everything myself. This is a real feat of strength, but also a nice intellectual challenge.
You work closely with your husband. How does this go and when is it not allowed to talk about work anymore?
Clearly, when the kids are around, the job isn’t a talking point! At least we try that.
I admit that at the beginning I was very sceptical whether it was a good idea to do business together. Meanwhile I like it very much. This is probably due to the fact that we have very clearly separated areas of duties and responsibility. However, we rarely get in each other’s way. In fact, we enjoy having lunch together and being able to deal with our exciting professional topics. Our different talents and careers complement each other quite well.
Do women generally have to fight harder in the professional world?
I did not experience it like this. It seems to me that women basically have every opportunity in their careers, but unfortunately the issue of starting a family often carries us out of the curve.
Do we need quotas for women or are there alternative approaches for you?
Especially in West Germany, the understanding of the family is still very traditional and conservative. If there are children, the woman very often takes a shorter career step in the long run and the man’s career suddenly has right of way – no matter to their work situation before having children. Many couples seem to feel quite comfortable with it. I am not sure whether a women’s quota can help.
As parents, we want to be there for our children and not place them ten hours a day in a care facility. But does it always have to be the mother who leaves the office in a rush at 15:00? It shouldn’t be enough for us to just “do something” part-time as soon as there are children. I don’t think it’s acceptable for women to regularly back out of exciting, well-paid jobs. There is also the risk of old-age poverty for women (but that’s another issue).
To change that, we might need a new social mindset that allows fathers and mothers in leadership positions to look after children and work with flexible hours. A mindset in which men, like their wives, feel responsible for all the issues that are part of the private life. Meaning, a mindset in which both partners meet at eye level and agree on how an exciting professional activity can be possible for both and how the family income can be secured.
What advice would you give to your young self?
In fact, I am quite happy with my career. Basically, I would not want to change anything at all. But I would advise my young self to be a little milder to myself from time to time. There is no point in always being over-critical of yourself and spoiling your mood with it. A high demand on oneself is fine and important, but one should not constantly stand in one’s way. To enjoy life even in stressful phases and to celebrate what I have achieved in a decent way – I should have done that more at a young age.
What makes a good female manager for you?
First of all, I don’t see any difference between a male and a female manager. I have worked with both, met very inspiring managers and total failures, from both sexes.
I think it is important for a good manager to have a clear strategic goal for his department or company in mind and to be able to get his team enthusiastic about it. Creating a working atmosphere free of fear, trusting one’s people and giving them the freedom to get involved, but also being approachable for those employees who have difficulties, is part of this.
Work and family, the never-ending topic: How do you manage the balancing act?
It is a challenge, no question. Since the birth of our children, everything needs to be organized and clearly agreed upon. We have a firm support for the children, without whom it would not work. The grandparents also step in again and again, especially when we travel together on business. This means a financial and organisational effort that should not be underestimated. But even if this may mean sacrificing elsewhere, it is the right concept for us.
What does a good work-life balance look like for you?
I’m sure it looks alike to many others: An exciting and well-paid job with a lot of nice time with the family at the same time. Of course, this works better and worse. I really appreciate the fact that professional and private time sometimes flow into each other. It doesn’t bother me at all if a customer calls me at 9 p.m. in the evening. Thanks to our digital devices we are always available, which I don’t find stressful. It calms me down when I know what’s going on. That’s why I don’t have an “Out of Office Reply” when I’m on holiday.
I can recharge my batteries with my children, during sports, with friends and of course on holiday. Thanks to our independency we can also come to the office later or go earlier to accompany the children at their events, be it an excursion in school or an Advent performance in kindergarten…
In your opinion, how important is a suitable business outfit?
Extremely important! But it can be a tough challenge. My business outfit should be sophisticated, chic and yet, a bit cool, by no means stuffy or elderly. In the best case the whole thing is also suitable for travelling. And then it needs to fit well and emphasize my chocolate sides. That’s a lot to ask, so I’m always on the lookout! All the more I appreciate Styles4Work and find it great that my girlfriend Alexandra provides some remedy! From the beginning I encouraged her in her idea to create a curated platform for working women and business outfits.
Is there a business outfit for you in which you always feel good?
A finely cut blazer, ideally a bit extravagant in colour, cut or material. And the matching trousers or a pencil skirt. Otherwise my favourite basic: the white blouse in all its variations, I can’t get enough of it.
Which book is on your bedside table at the moment?
“Becoming” by Michelle Obama, an impressive and likeable woman with an exciting career. And the “School of Magical Animals”, currently Volume 10, for reading aloud to my children.