We, women at ArcelorMittal Europe - meet Nicola Hirsch

Nicola Hirsch is Managing Director of ArcelorMittal Duisburg, in charge of human resources, health and safety and social dialogue. In this interview she talks about women in leadership positions and her personal challenges.

Nicola, as a woman, what was your motivation to join ArcelorMittal and the steel industry?
I joined the steel industry because I was and still am fascinated by the way steel – as a basic of the modern world – is produced, and the people working within the steel industry keep me fascinated as well. On a daily basis our work is impressive; we are running processes on a high level of complexity and responsibility. In addition, steel making is a complex process and you cannot imagine the end product when you see the product first hand. This is what has kept me interested and motivated to work in the steel industry.

Can you briefly describe your career path – where you started, and how you got to where you are now?
Briefly about my educational background: I studied Social Sciences with a focus on politics, economics and law, as part of my MBA and doctorate. I started my career within the group in 2003, when I was appointed member of the supervisory board of the former ISPAT steel plant in Duisburg (ISPAT Stahlwerk Ruhrort GmbH). In the summer of 2006, the supervisory board assigned me as managing director of ArcelorMittal Ruhrort GmbH (former Mittal Steel Ruhrort GmbH) and ArcelorMittal Duisburg GmbH (formerly Mittal Steel Duisburg GmbH).

Nicola, could you tell us more about your function as a managing director of ArcelorMittal Duisburg? Could you describe your typical day at work?
As a managing director I am responsible for human resources, health and safety and social dialogue. I start my working day with a review of the main KPIs and if necessary I take corrective actions. However, I prefer to be on the shop floor especially when dealing with safety issues.

What are your perimeter’s biggest challenges? How do you respond to these challenges?
The biggest challenge is about our aging workforce. With this age structure a lot of our experienced employees with high occupational knowledge are going to retire – as of 2019, more than 5 % per year. We started with a project of knowledge transfer in order to preserve the occupational knowledge and to transfer it to the successor generation.  Having said that, I would say, that as an employer we are also sensitive to the needs of the older workforce in terms of adjusting the workplace environment to their special needs concerning listening abilities, sight, standing for long hours and lifting .The most important challenge is to organise multilateral workload to avoid unilateral strains and the willingness for flexibility.

Do you think your career would have evolved differently had you been born as a man?
Yes – indeed I think so. Networking is essential for career development. Taking the so called male face of the steel industry into account it is very logical that mostly men would profit from career networking. During my own career, I learned that network is crucial because a lot of occupational changes happen during networking. I think that women need to use networking opportunities as a way to step up their career aspirations.

What are, from your perspective, the biggest challenges for women in leadership roles?
I am convinced that each leader, whether a woman or a man, needs to prove her or his “mettle” in their leadership role. But in our predominantly male industry, women have also to demonstrate that they are no “quota woman”, which means that they have not been appointed to a leadership role merely because we want to increase women leaders in our company.

In that case would you say that quotas for women are not a solution?
In an ideal world, quotas of any kind should not be necessary. However, in today’s context where women are not equally represented, quotas could be a solution. However, if you are a “quota woman”, you need first to earn the respect and trust of your teams otherwise it will be extremely difficult to successfully carry out your projects and theirs.

What is your leadership style and how do you implement it in your daily work?
Leadership is not about asking people to follow the rules or to stick to their daily working routine. As a leader you have to formulate challenges to come to drive results. You have to question things and to aim for continuous improvement. And I am convinced that you have to do this as a TEAM. I believe that we are all experts in our own professional field and I want to encourage my team members to share and discuss their knowledge amongst each other and across sites. My role herein is to thus create the context where people can easily share both knowledge and experience and learn from each other.

What advice would you give to women who are still hesitant about taking leadership roles?
During my career development I learnt that it is not sufficient to be interested only in daily routines. The best is to look out for challenges, for opportunities to manage problems and for projects in which new working paths would be found and would be implemented. This is the fascinating and exciting side of leadership. And so my advice is:  listen to your instincts and if you have a “good” feeling, take the challenges, just DO IT!