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“I believe in having fun.” With her bright smile, deep rich voice, sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks, one doesn’t hesitate to believe Lena Olving’s words. However she also values personal effort: “We can become whatever we want,” she says. “Everything is possible - it’s just a matter of hard work.”
In 2010, Lena Olving was named the most powerful woman in Swedish business. As chief operating officer for the defence and security group Saab AB and sales of SEK 25 billion, she topped the list of the 125 most powerful women in Swedish business published annually by Swedish weekly magazine Veckans Affärer. On the basis of four criteria – position, financial responsibility, type of industry and potential – the jury selected Olving as last year’s number one after successive years of working her way up the list: in 2002, Olving was number 82 as the newly appointed CEO for Volvo Cars in Asia, and in 2009 she made it into the top 10.
Throughout her career, Lena Olving has worked in typically male-dominated environments, first in engineering and cars and now in defence. “But I never made gender an issue for myself, even though I was always the only woman.” For 20 years she worked for Volvo, including five years in Asia, and earned herself various distinctions, awards and the respect of the business world, which is now being echoed in the press. Lena Olving is known as a “manager with high drive to execute strategies which are based on facts.” She is also well regarded as a leader with a “high degree of common sense”. Equal to her professional dedication is her strong connection to her family. Every Monday morning she takes the first plane to Stockholm from her hometown of Gothenborg and returns again on Friday. Gothenborg has been the Olving family’s main residence as well as the place where her two children grew up – even if they have now moved out.
After graduating in mechanical engineering in 1981, Lena Olving was in her early twenties and ready to enter the business world, but her beginnings weren’t nearly as radiant as her friendly smile. She was a woman coming from a family of immigrants from Estonia, yet she believes that her alleged disadvantages actually played in her favour: “If you come with nothing, the most important thing is to have a good life. It teaches you how to get there and get what you want.”
The first and most important piece of career advice was from her mother, who came from an academic background and believed in the power of education: Equip yourself with the most possible set of choices.
The second piece of advice Olving came up with herself. “Every day I question myself: What could I have done better?” Her daily habit of reflecting on her own actions helps her to cope with the criticism of others. “It is not so easy to criticise me. There has to be solid ground for it.”
The secret to succeeding as a woman in a competitive and still male-dominated business world is, “to act as competent, yet accessible, as anyone else.” It is about sending the right signals and understanding those coming from others. “If you know what you’re doing, your colleagues and others will understand what you’re doing and why.”
“Women don’t speak up for themselves. They believe the results should speak for themselves. Well, it doesn’t work that way.”
The Veckans Affärer list of 2010 draws attention to an ambiguous truth – although there is an abundance of qualified and skilled women, female representation in management teams and on boards of directors is still low. “This puzzles me,” says Lena Olving. “Research shows greater profitability for companies with female representation, and to me it’s so simple: business benefits from diversity!”
For Olving, diversity is about getting out of one’s comfort zone and doing it for the larger goal, which in the business world is profit. “Claiming that they cannot find a suitable female candidate is not sufficient. It makes me really angry. They had better take a closer look.”
This leads to Olving’s third piece of business advice: Find allies who will speak for you.
“I never planned my career. It was really pure luck. I was there at the right time and the right moment, and someone mentioned my name.”
As a member of senior management, Olving is responsible for recruiting the talent that will advance the company, but for her it is not just about surrounding herself with highly trained and skilled people. “I need the right mix of experience and qualities to bring out the best in the team and our business. Nature has given us a source of multi-faceted brain capacity, and as it is today, we don’t make use of it.”
The fourth secret to her success is to have fun, enjoy what you’re doing and who you are. For Lena Olving, that means coping with the realities of the business world while keeping the twinkle in her eye.
International Editor – auFeminin Group