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“Growth happens when you step out into uncharted territory.” - Talking to Anabela Pires

International Women’s Day puts women front and center. But this shouldn’t just be a once-a-year thing. A diverse workforce is key to corporate success. We spoke to Anabela Pires, a member of the Freight Management Board and CEO Freight CESE, about what she thinks still needs to happen to create the ideal professional environment to encourage more women into executive positions. Here’s what she said when we asked her for tips she would give to young female professionals.

Portrait of Anabela Pires

Anabela Pires looks back on more than 25 years of experience in freight operations. Having begun her career at Deutsche Post DHL Group in 2012, she took on the additional responsibility of managing Freight's Maintal, Germany terminal in 2014 before assuming her role, in 2015, as Area Manager Central DHL Freight Germany & Terminal Manager Maintal. Since January 1, 2021, she has been CEO DHL Freight CESE.

How did you end up in logistics and, ultimately, in a senior leadership role at DHL Freight?

I decided on the spur of the moment to train as a forwarding agent. It didn’t take that long before I realized I wanted to be a boss. My thinking was: “What my boss can do, I can do too.” So, I went for a logistics degree, majoring in transport and business. I began my career in sales and soon took on more responsibility.

And now you’ve achieved your goal of becoming an executive and heading up a major region at DHL Freight.

I started at Freight twelve years ago and held various positions here before Uwe Brinks approached me and asked me to join the Freight Management Board three years ago. It’s amazing to see how a pretty spontaneous decision to get into the logistics sector all those years ago has led me to something I love doing – and has shaped my entire career.

“I can do whatever my boss can” – were you already on to something back then?

You can achieve anything if you want it enough. If I have any life wisdom to share, it’s that it’s good to have aspirations and give things a go. You never know, it might just work out. I’ve tried to pass this very same mentality on to my two daughters, who are now adults. If you don’t try something out, then you might regret it for the rest of your life. It’s important for me to be progressing, improving, and developing, both personally and professionally. This is something you should never stop doing, whatever your age. I think it’s vital to be open to whatever lies ahead, whether positive or negative.

Did your aspirations also have anything to do with the lack of female executives in the logistics sector?

Absolutely. I’m 52 now and I’ve seen a great deal of positive change within our industry over the last two decades when it comes to gender equality. After I graduated, I barely had any female colleagues at the senior level or in sales where I worked, and I felt very alone as a woman at times. Things are so much better now though.

At DHL, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman or a man, where you come from, what your skin color is, or what you believe. I think that’s fantastic!

Anabela Pires, CEO DHL Freight CESE

Why is it important for us to have a diverse and inclusive workforce at DHL Group?

I’m convinced that working in mixed teams offers a much broader range of perspectives and a wider variety of approaches to tasks. When a diverse team makes decisions, then it does so without ruling out particular options or points of view in advance. This can only be a good thing for a company.

How does a company benefit from female employees and leaders? What qualities do they offer?  

Women look at things from a different perspective. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the individual pieces of the puzzle, and different interpretations should never be discounted. It’s important to bring everyone on board to create the kind of balance and diversity from which companies can benefit. Attention needs to be paid in the long run to individual components because they can truly make the difference.

How well is DHL doing when it comes to diversity in the workforce?

We’re doing a lot better than other companies out there. At DHL, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a woman or a man, where you come from, what your skin color is, or what you believe. I think that’s fantastic! Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Plus, companies that actively decided to promote women early on are also experiencing more success. This is reflected in their financial results too. I also think that companies with female executives are generally more attractive.

To potential female applicants?

To female applicants and existing female colleagues. Women probably find the job interview experience more authentic when they can talk to other women, rather than to a man, about things such as combining family and work commitments. At the same time, I don’t think that gender will be such a relevant factor in the future. My daughters are 21 years old and for them, there is less stigma attached to the topic than for my generation. No woman should feel she needs to be three times as good just because she’s a woman. Interestingly, this isn’t an issue in Eastern European countries, where women taking on leadership responsibility is more the norm.

Give things a try. Go for it! Growth happens when you step out into uncharted territory.

Anabela Pires, CEO DHL Freight CESE

Is there anything you feel is missing in terms of the ideal working environment?

I believe there’s still a good deal that needs to change within our company, specifically in terms of equal opportunities and salary transparency. There’s no denying that. Women shouldn’t have to decide between family and career. In many part-time positions, women have no opportunity to take on responsibility. The career downturn experienced after they have children is sadly still far too often the norm, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Why shouldn’t you be able to take on new responsibilities just because you’ve had time off from your job or you work part-time? There is still a way to go in terms of salary transparency, especially because women often have to accept missing out on one or two salary reviews due to their absence from work for childcare reasons.

You’ve taken part in the Shift up a Gear talent development program for female employees. How can this kind of initiative help to increase diversity within our workforce?

The program’s fantastic. I was talking to Tobias Meyer back when he was still CEO of Post & Parcel Germany. I mentioned to him that I was interested in getting to know another division, not necessarily as the next step on the career ladder, but rather to engage in dialog with others. He made a note of this and then a few days later, I got a call from P&P. This kind of exchange is incredibly important and worthwhile! Networking and discovering other perspectives is something I can’t recommend enough, whatever your position or level of seniority.

As a mentor yourself, what’s your advice to younger colleagues?

Network and share your experiences with others. This will help you develop further in your role or advance towards an executive position. I find these discussions highly rewarding. Being able to express my aspirations more clearly to myself and those around me has been helpful. Give things a try. Go for it! Growth happens when you step out into uncharted territory. And I don’t believe that women have to be or act like men to have a successful career. They should hold on to their femininity. It’s this mix that makes us and our company successful. We’re making good progress as a Group, but we can achieve even more if we listen to the hopes and aspirations of well-qualified women, advise them accordingly on their career options – and keep on developing as the Employer of Choice in this area.

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