Above the Glass: Effective Ways to Be a Leader And Improve
Written by Radost Rychtera
From left to right: Claudia Frese and Radost Rychtera
In this edition of Above the Glass, Radost Rychtera, WWCode Community Lead and Software Development Engineer at AWS in Berlin, sits down with Claudia Frese, CEO of STRATO AG and Chief Brand Officer at IONOS, to discuss effective leadership styles, concrete ways to improve diversity, and what makes a person fit for a managerial role.
Thank you for meeting with me, Claudia. So, you’re involved in two different companies, STRATO and IONOS. Can you tell me about your roles at each?
Of course! This setup is fairly new to me; I joined STRATO as its CEO last September. I’ve spent most of my 20-year career in digital marketplace businesses, which is different from what I do now. STRATO is a Berlin-based company and the second biggest hosting provider in Germany, and probably the third largest in Europe. IONOS acquired it four years ago, which is the biggest hosting provider on the continent. Essentially, number one bought number two, and I’m on the board of both companies.
As such, besides being the CEO of STRATO, I work as Chief Brand Officer at IONOS, which is advantageous because I get to see how the two brands fit together and shape our overall marketing strategy. My dual role allows me to dig deeper into both brands and expand my work scope beyond marketing into branding.
So marketing is relatively new for you, then? What’s the newer role of the two?
It is and isn’t. I’ve always had two legs to stand on in my career, one in marketing and the other in product management. I’ve spent more time with the latter, but I’ve always considered them “sister skills” because they’re both essential when trying to drive a digital business’s growth.
That makes sense. You need to develop a product that people want and then promote it, so they go hand-in-hand.
Exactly. This is different from a traditional, more tangible product where sales and marketing account for 80% of how well the product sells. I’ve always thought that the feeling and experience of using a well-developed product is what truly drives usage, so I’ve always enjoyed going back and forth between the two roles.
Very cool. Can you tell me about your career journey into leadership, both within the companies you work for and before?
My journey has been pretty standard. I worked in marketing right out of university — the digital landscape didn’t exist yet — then went into the tech industry because I saw how quickly it was developing. It was the place to be, I thought. I’ve been growing ever since, not necessarily in terms of how many people I manage, but in developing new competencies, gaining experience, and acquiring new skills.
My management path zig zags if you look at my resumé, but from a general point of view, it looks linear: first, I started with a team of two, two turned into five, five became 15, and it went from there. My previous job was as the CEO of a small platform company called MyHammer AG that I grew into a mid-sized business over seven years. That was the first time I no longer worked in an operational position, but had a pure leadership role.
What intrigues you about tech in the first place, and why did you want to go in this direction?
What I love most about tech is its structure. I’m someone who thinks in patterns and visual frameworks. It’s the same reason I enjoy brand marketing because it’s almost “meta” and theoretical. I get to understand large systems and visualize how different components and connections work. Tech seems like a concrete thing, but I love thinking of it in an abstract way.
Tech also offers more modern and non-conformist places to work. The industry in Berlin is community-oriented and facilitates lots of meetups and opportunities to connect with other like-minded people.
Did you study tech in university?
Product development didn’t exist as a field yet, so I actually studied history, politics, and economics, with a concentration in international relationships. I also studied Spanish and Portuguese on the side because I was really interested in Latin America. It was a lot of fun, but not something I necessarily wanted to build a career on. While in school, I also worked for an automobile supplier and sold car parts — a perfect example of retail sales and marketing.
Returning to your leadership journey, what essential skills did you develop, and how did you figure out which were the most effective?
One of the most important leadership skills is being able to stop talking and listen. Your role in the conversation shrinks over time. Initially, I think many managers attempt to talk people into doing things, telling them exactly what to do, giving precise instructions, but that’s completely wrong. That’s not how people work.
I’ve learned to listen to people more closely and ask questions once they’re finished. To me, agile management is about removing obstacles and establishing efficient workflows for my team members, then letting them do their thing. My job is to let everyone else tell me what our priorities should be, and then I give them ideas, strategies, and guidance for achieving our common goals. Learning to trust everyone you manage is critical.
I like that because the higher up you are, the less immersed you are in the details, so you need to surround yourself with people who understand those details.
Absolutely. Management’s function is to understand people and their skills. What are everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and how can you bring out their best qualities? How can you help people work together effectively? Once you’ve helped everyone bring their best to the table, it’s time to get out of the way and let them work.
Unfortunately, this is hard to learn, especially for middle management not used to hands-off operations. I’ve had phases in my career when I needed to sit on my hands because I love getting into the nuts and bolts and sharing my experience, but it meant being tempted to tell people exactly what they were “supposed” to do. If I had gone that way, work wouldn’t have been much fun for them. It’s also not a leader’s job.
Regarding finding people’s strengths, do you engage in mentorship or sponsorship to help them develop and grow?
Certainly. That’s one of a manager’s core responsibilities. Recruiting is significant as well — you have to find the right people for the team — but not everyone comes to a role perfectly equipped. If you try to recruit people who already know exactly what to do, you’ll waste your time because those people are ready to move on to the next thing, and they won’t want to work for you.
Much of my mentoring involves helping people learn and grow into their roles. I talk to people, listen to them, glean insight into their potential, and support their development. Getting involved outside of the company is important, too; that’s why organizations like Women Who Code are great, because they bring together people of all ages and experience levels to share knowledge and boost confidence.
That’s a great retention strategy, too. People like to know you’re investing in them and that their leaders care.
It’s a win-win then, isn’t it? As a company, what you want is to bring out the best in your people, to keep them longer, and to make sure that they’re happy and having fun. However, you reach a point when you might have to say, “There’s nothing left I can teach you. You can stay as long as you want, but you won’t grow anymore.” Some people are fine with that depending on what stage of life they’re in, so people need to identify what their priorities are and what they want from their careers at any given time. Managers and employees should be candid with each other about these kinds of things.
I definitely agree. I suppose when people’s careers progress, many times they assume the next step is to go into management, but there’s also staying on the expert track, whether it’s being a staff engineer or a lead product developer. How did you approach this decision, and what advice do you have for people making the same choice?
You need to know what you enjoy most. What you think is the most fun is often what you become the best at. Some people excel at communication, removing obstacles, and encouraging people to engage with each other more. Those are things I enjoy, so leadership was natural for me.
However, some people enjoy more tangible work, like architecture or design. If you love doing something, you can make it your specialized skill. I have someone on my team right now who was a manager but decided to step away and become an expert (as we define this), so he’s in a single contributor role, which is one of the most important positions on the team.
It’s helpful not to think of your career as an accumulation of headcounts, but a measure of impact. You can make a significant impact in your organization without managing anyone. Work is a big part of our lives and you should love what you do, so it’s fine if leadership isn’t right for you because you wouldn’t enjoy it.
Absolutely. I want to touch on diversity because it’s one of Women Who Code’s core values. What do you think companies can do to encourage diversity in tech, specifically getting people into leadership positions?
In my opinion, the main driver for increasing diversity is cultural openness. Lots of research backs this up. This needs to start from the top down. Upper management should be insistent and deliberate when hiring people of different genders, ethnicities, ages, and abilities. A mid-level manager who is passionate about diversity won’t move the needle as much as someone higher up.
Companies should start by analyzing their data. Who currently works for them, and whose points of view are missing? You need to understand your funnels and pipelines to see where people are coming from and where they’re being shut out. Let’s say, for example, that you lead a startup in Berlin. Startups are often more diverse in terms of gender, maybe ethnicity, but not in age — people tend to be younger. Conversely, you might work for a mid-sized company in Frankfurt, which will have an age-diverse workforce, but it might be 90% men. If you want real change, you need to set concrete goals either way.
And action follows goals. You can hire, promote, teach people, provide bias training — all of these are good things, but they’ll only work if there is executive buy-in. If it’s not on upper management’s agenda, it won’t happen.
I agree. I think the German government enforces policies that try to address this issue with diversity quotas; do you believe these kinds of practices work? On one hand, it’s mandatory, but does improving diversity need to come from a more cultural place?
We’ve seen them work, at least with quotas for women. They were only enforced for listed companies and supervisory boards, but once it became law, businesses complied. I’m a firm advocate of introducing a quota for women, such as 30%, in all the executive boards at public companies. At the moment, there are about 190 listed companies in Germany. That’s not a lot, so it’s just a start. Right now, women make up only about 12% of the executive boards at those companies and this number hasn’t changed much in the last ten years. So going from 12% to 30% would be a big change. Unfortunately, gender diversity isn’t growing organically.
That’s why executives need to be intentional and even compelled to diversify their boards and workforces. We’ve had enough lip service over the past several decades. Quotas aren’t ideal, but apparently, it’s the only thing that works. Hopefully they’ll be less necessary once we reach that 30% and have more opportunities to enact real cultural change.
You’re right that good intentions haven’t gotten us very far. Many companies don’t follow through on their promises. If diversity is genuinely a board’s priority because it has to be, though, then they’ll be more inclined to make it happen.
Plus, companies with women executive board members often have more diversity in other areas as well. I can’t define why that is, but it suggests that opening the door for one group opens the door for others. It’s not that implementing cultural change magically ensures you hit your quota, but reaching your quota encourages cultural change.
True. Gender diversity is only one aspect. We also need to see more racial, sexual and sexual-orientation diversity, as well as neuro- and ability status diversity. It’s all crucial, so if the catalyst is having more women, that’s a start.
It certainly doesn’t hurt! I’m actually the first woman on our company’s board, and I’m one out of seven. Obviously that ratio is lacking, so I’m excited to balance the scales. That’s something we have to address, though — we’re not talking about very many people who we hope will open the doors for others. 30% is just the beginning.
Do you know if other countries have approached it differently in a way that’s proven successful?
I’m not sure about any specific countries, but I know that the European Union as a whole is discussing implementing quotas. We also have certain companies paving the way, but I don’t think other countries like the United States enforce diversity quotas the same way we do here in Germany.
I would say, however, that the tech industry in the US is already more diverse than Germany’s and maybe even Europe’s in general. I worked in product organization at eBay 20 years ago, and the CEO, CTO, and several directors were all women. At that time, seeing women in tech in Europe was rare.
It would be interesting to see how different companies compare.
Absolutely! Especially since I’ve noticed that women are often more mindful when they’re in leadership positions. They’re more likely, for example, to allow flexible work schedules and provide parental leave. When you have other points of view at the table, it’s easier to make what’s important to workers fall into place.
It’s essential to normalize these things. And on a final note, did you pick up any new hobbies during the pandemic?
Besides sitting in video conferences? [Laughs] It’s been hard to pick up anything new, especially because I started a new job halfway through, but if anything, I would say cooking. I cook now more than ever now since I’m working from home. And I really love making food with my 14-year-old daughter. We bought lots of spices and started making curries, pies, and all sorts of dishes we don’t usually eat.
I also love to read fantasy and science fiction. I spend so much of my time looking at screens that sitting down with a good book when I can, just to escape to another world, is exactly what I need!