Isabelle Faber: “Creativity doesn’t start with a blank page”

Director of communications and public relations at Post Luxembourg, Isabelle Faber is also the president of Women in Business. She talks about connecting female business leaders, equality, marketing strategy and her passion for storytelling.

Duncan Roberts: You have been president of Women in Business since the start of the year. Marie-Jeanne Chèvremont-Lorenzini is a tough act to follow, but what is your ambition for the association?

Isabelle Faber: I think it’s a great honour to succeed Marie-Jeanne Chèvremont, because she’s a grande dame. You know, even before I worked [with her] at PwC, she was inspiring women. She’s like a role model. She did a lot at PwC to give women access to higher positions although she was not the kind of person who would hand you things on a plate. You know, you had to work. But she always was there to listen and she always gave good advice, even if sometimes it was not easy and you were not always happy to hear it.

So, it was not difficult to take over from her because I worked with her for years, I have been a member of Women in Business for years, and I was even on the board. So somewhere we were on the same wavelength. And there were no surprises because we knew one year beforehand that she would leave, so everything was prepared.

The ambition is not to change. Marie-Jeanne’s basic idea when she founded Women in Business 20 years ago was to create a conducive environment for networking, but dedicated to women in business, women in C-suite positions, and to create an environment where they can exchange ideas that could empower them to advance together. It’s very important for us to have the input and ideas of our members, not just the board members, but all the members. So, it’s an ongoing process.

How many members are there, actually?

We have close to 140 members. Let’s say we have membership requests coming in every day. But as it’s called Women in Business we want to maintain this spirit. So, sometimes we have to refuse members because we focus on C-suite women who are influential leaders. It’s not that we want to discriminate. But sometimes when you are a female in management you feel alone on your island. I mean, you have your friends and family and whatever, but it’s important to meet women who are in a similar position as you. And we also want to empower young women entrepreneurs, you know. So, it’s not a question of seniority or not, it’s more about entrepreneurship.

Indeed, you have some young and dynamic women on the committee…

Yes, and we are very happy about this. It’s important to have some people with experience. It’s important to have women who are dynamic, as you call it. But you can be experienced and dynamic. But I think what is more important is benevolence and the creativity of the members–to have new ideas, to create new networks and not to always just be among ourselves… And this is important for the sustainability of the association. And also to maintain awareness, you know, because–and this is hardly a scoop–the world is changing and habits are changing. So, it’s important to have this new generation, I’d say, because they have other battles, other fears, and also other victories, than those we knew. But there’s also the matter of governance. At Women in Business, and also as a member of other boards, I think you have to change every three or five years–five years is probably even long–so that there is fresh air, so you don’t sleep on your ideas. It’s very important to change regularly.

Do you have contact with other similar associations abroad?

Not yet, but it’s one of the items at the top of the list. But I think it’s also important to have something in Luxembourg and for it to work well. And, you know, this is all voluntary. And every member of the board works on events, whether it’s the golf tournament or our new tennis tournament in September–because all the ladies do not play golf–or our major talks or get-togethers I mean, I am the president because the statutes say we need a president. But we are all hands on.

There has been much debate that Luxembourg lags behind in terms of women on boards. What do you think can be done to improve the situation? Are you in favour of quotas, as some politicians–notably Viviane Reding–have been advocating?

I think the government does a lot to encourage female entrepreneurs. And also takes actions to give women access to boards. So, they do things, you have to be honest. But it’s clearly not enough.

Women and men have to be judged on their competence, so it’s a false problem. If you reach a position of responsibility, it’s because you are good at what you do, not because you’re a woman… or a man. For a long time, I was against quotas. Because I was like, yes, now I’m on the board because I’m the “Quotenfrau”. And then you have positive discrimination.

But then experience shows that if you have it just on a voluntary basis, then nothing happens. Or it’s too slow. So, I have changed my point of view. And I see now that if you impose women on a board it brings added value and opens up the door, it takes away the complex women may have. You know, throughout history women have faced bigger challenges. But if [quotas] change the world for the better for future generations, then let’s do it.

I think it’s our role as women, mothers, sisters, whatever, to transmit values to our sons, but also our daughters, to cause a paradigm shift in their education. 

Isabelle Faber

Isabelle Faber

Then when we get to these higher positions, figures show that women earn nearly the same salary as men. And what hurts me is this “nearly”. But this is another debate, or fight.

You talk about education at home, but does Luxembourg’s education system play enough of a role in encouraging girls to consider a career in business, especially in the financial services sector?

I would even ask, does the school system allow boys and girls to express themselves to be innovative, and to go maybe beyond their curriculum? I think that if we want to have engaged entrepreneurs, women, and men, we have to ask ourselves what we transmit at school. If you give a child the keys to success, and let them go, then they will open paths and they will succeed.

That’s why I love associations like the Jonk Entrepreneuren and their mini-enterprise [mini-companies] contest. As Post we also sponsor that, and it’s amazing when you see the quality of the projects. Usually, they are mixed teams and I think they don’t even ask themselves about it–we are the ones who ask these questions, but for them, gender is not such an issue.

But if you look at all the women leaders here in Luxembourg, very often they are managers of a family business. So maybe the mindset changed quicker in family businesses than in big companies. Maybe also because they don’t have to question whether the successor is a man or woman. Sometimes, like at Brasserie Nationale, you have a balance, with Isabelle and Mathias Lentz. But even in finance you have Françoise Thoma at Spuerkeess, Béatrice Belorgey at BGL BNP Paribas or Mirjam Bamberger at AXA. And you have Edith Magyarics at Victor Buck Services or Kenza Bouzouraa at Ainos, and that’s high tech, you know.

Nevertheless, do attitudes towards women who show ambition, especially those who have also started a family, need to change?

I already said that women and men have to be judged only on the quality of their work and commitment to the company. Full stop. But I think that companies also have to make life easier, to offer conditions to their employees that make it possible for them to reach their goals if they have a family, or not. Sometimes, you know, you’re very busy not because you have a family. Maybe someone is sick at home or you have a hobby… you have a life after work. So, if a company asks employees to work overtime or to work on a public holiday… then the company also has to be flexible. It’s a question of fair play.

Do you think the introduction of parental leave for men and giving ten days paid leave for fathers when their baby is born is changing attitudes as well?

Yes, it’s great and I encourage it. It shows that attitudes from women to men also have to change, you know, because sometimes you have women who think that only a mother can take care of their child. And of course, you have couples where there are two mothers or two fathers…

Maybe we can look back at what has been a fascinating career spanning many different sectors of the economy and Luxembourg society. Was that planned, are you a restless person always seeking a new challenge?

I would say I’m quite loyal. At every step in my career my goal was to make the experience positive for me as well as for the other stakeholders. But as in real life, sometimes you have to leave. But it’s never a hot-headed decision or because I think the grass will be greener… and even less because of salary–that never enters into it, otherwise, I would not have become an entrepreneur. It’s because I think the timing is right for me, and maybe for the other party, so it has to be well thought over. Maybe it’s my métier, you know, in communications, like in other creative jobs, you have to constantly challenge yourself. But it is always coordinated with a state-of-the-art handover, and I always leave on good terms, because you never know who you will meet again. You know the saying, only mountains don’t move. Nevertheless, I find it amazing, all these people who stay in the same company their whole life.

What is the secret to a good communications strategy? How do you approach making a compromise, for instance, between what you think is best and what the client has given you in a brief?

Well, it is a true métier, a profession that has its rules and foundation. You can’t improvise. And you have to fully understand what you are communicating about. When I had my own company [Leitmotif], sometimes I refused clients because I could not find this enthusiasm, this passion for the project. But I had clients who produced organic fertilisers, clients in the IT sector or in archiving–it doesn’t matter as long as you are passionate about it. And I had startups and multinationals, so there is no such thing as a “small” client.

And then you have to find something amazing to say–this famous “storytelling”, or, in French we would say a “fil rouge”, which is why my company was called Leitmotif. You really have to be curious. I think what describes me is eclectic and enthusiastic.

And innovation and creativity doesn’t start with a blank page. You have to look to the past, what the company did before.