Martha Oberndorfer (SL 2011) encourages women to take on P&L responsibility if offered the chance to raise their visibility as leaders, in the first of a series of stories celebrating the 20th anniversary of our Strategies for Leadership (SL) program. - IMD Business School
Alumni Stories · Leadership

Increasing your visibility as a woman leader

Martha Oberndorfer (SL 2011) encourages women to take on P&L responsibility if offered the chance to raise their visibility as leaders, in the first of a series of stories celebrating the 20th anniversary of our Strategies for Leadership (SL) program.

Martha Oberndorfer has a proven track record of success as a woman leader. Over the past few decades, she has built a reputation as a seasoned leader with deep expertise in capital markets. The finance veteran has held executive positions in private sector investment companies and banks, including wealth management specialist Gutmann Group and financial services company Dexia Group.

She has also helmed state-owned enterprises in Austria, including Oesterreichische Bundesfinanzierungsagentur (Debt Management Office of Austria) from 2007 to 2015 and Oesterreichische Bundes- und Industrie-beteiligungen (Austrian State Holding Company) between 2015 and 2018. Looking back, executive programs such as IMD’s Strategies for Leadership (SL), which she took up in 2011, played a significant role in her leadership journey.

“I wasn’t looking for a women’s-only program, and I entered SL by chance,” she said. “But as it turned out, I really enjoyed it. One of the things I loved about the program was the diversity of its participants. They were not just diverse in terms of age, but they also came from different industries and geographies.”

She vividly recalled the lessons of Ginka Toegel, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership, who specializes in the leadership development of women executives.

A key takeaway was learning to build and project leadership presence, she said, recalling one session on the power of verbal and nonverbal communication techniques in public speaking. “It showed us the power of voice and body language and how to use them to create greater leadership impact.”

Another takeaway was understanding how to inspire and motivate teams. “One important leadership principle which I found very insightful was learning to let other people shine in the workplace,” she said.

Seek out roles in business critical functions 

If we are to make more progress towards gender equality, it is important to have more female role models excelling in senior leadership positions. 

A top lesson Oberndorfer has learned as a woman in the C-Suite is to prioritize performance visibility. One way is by taking on roles in business-critical functions where you can objectively prove that you  positively impact the organization’s profitability.  

“If you have the opportunity, take on a role that is most bottom-line relevant as opposed to a supporting function,” she said. 

In her opinion, women leaders need to generate more visibility in the workplace as part of their leadership journey. Oberndorfer, who also took up IMD’s High Performance Boards program in 2017, described her  experience: “Very often, I have to fight to be visible at top-level meetings. However, I’ve learned a technique at IMD on how to raise my visibility at such meetings and contribute to them despite not being the Chair. One way to go about doing this is by summarizing the highlights of the discussion or rephrasing certain points in it.” 

Merit-based hiring 

While Oberndorfer observed that there are more women in leadership positions today, fair and equal representation is still much needed. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 by the World Economic Forum, the overall global share of women in leadership roles stands at 31%.  

“In a world where the gender ratio is around 50:50, why is the share of women in leadership positions set at a target of 30%?” she questioned.

Nevertheless, she recognized that things are changing for the better, and  now more women are on boards. “More women leaders are now being hired, especially in listed companies, as a result of pressure from investors and shareholders,” she said. 

Oberndorfer, however, cautioned that the hiring of women leaders should be based on merit and not  on fulfilling gender quotas. “I’m not saying quotas are bad and should be abolished. To the contrary, we need them,” she said. “But the prime objective of hiring women leaders should be based on increasing the value of the company. After all, there are plenty of studies that have shown that not having enough women in an organization can prevent a company from achieving its full potential and maximizing its value.” 

A sisterhood of women 

Although it has been over a decade since she formally completed SL, Oberndorfer remains deeply connected to the program through its alumni network. Each year in November, she makes it a point to attend SL’s annual alumni retreat at IMD’s Lausanne campus.  

For her, an alumni network is more than just a professional social network. “Within the alumni, there is a lot of common ground. Hence, it creates a safe space with an atmosphere of trust, which allows us to open up to each other and share our experiences in our lives and careers,” she said. “Many of these contacts have turned into friendships.” 

At the same time, Oberndorfer believes that the alumni network offers rich lessons to women leaders beyond the SL classroom. By sharing their experiences and insights for professional and personal growth, these women empower each other to navigate leadership challenges.  

“In fact, I’ve met so many great women from the SL program whom I’ve learned a lot from,” she said. “Many of the SL participants are women in their 30s and 40s who are raising children while pursuing their careers. Through the alumni community, many of them shared their personal journeys and the challenges they face, including how they overcome these hurdles,” she said. 

Moving forward, Oberndorfer believes there’s still much to be done in women’s empowerment. She has these words for aspiring women leaders: “Reach for the stars.” 

“And don’t shy away from a crisis,” she said. “It’ll be a good opportunity for you to showcase your leadership skills and leave an impression.”