Today we have the pleasure to have Prof. Dr. Isabell Welpe featured on our latest edition of Females of Impact Series. We will explore her professional journey; the challenges, motivations and influences that led her from a student unsure about her career, to a lead researcher on her field and a voice of Impact in the area of Strategy and Organization, Digital Transformation and the Impact of Emerging Technologies.

Interview with Prof. Dr. Isabell M. Welpe

Alexis 

Let us start with a small introduction   

Prof. Welpe:  

My name is Isabell and I’m a professor for strategy and organization at TUM Munich and current academic director from the TUM side of CDTM. I am a CDTM alumna from the first class ever in 1998 and I am also very fond about digitalization disruption, diversity and decentralization.  

Alexis 

What were your expectations and goals when you started university? Did you already have hints of your academic future career?  

Prof. Welpe:  

Originally, I had studied psychology in the University of Konstanz, and I felt entrepreneurial and management aspects wise missing. I wanted to switch to Munich to study both management and psychology. Unfortunately, it was not possible at the time.  

Later, as many people know, I was not always happy studying management at LMU. If I had not met Prof. Arnold Picot, one of the founders of CDTM, I think I might have quit studying management. Prof. Arnold Picot, together with Manfred Broy, Andrew Kelly and Jörg Eberspächer, started CDTM. I am very thankful they did, I joined the program and immediately loved it. CDTM has been transformative for many people and for me as well. I went to MIT with CDTM and that really turned my outlook on management studies around and I quite happily finished. I did not think about an academic future at all at that time. Later I went to England to study at the London School of Economics and then I decided to do my PhD but, to be honest, it was mainly because doing a PhD somewhat enables you to explore career options and I felt allured by that possibility.

Alexis 

It looks like the academic career came as a result of the process and not as its main target. 

Prof. Welpe:  

I am very happy with this career, with my profession and with working at TUM as a professor. It is a great job, but I only felt so once I arrived at TUM. TUM is a great place to do research and teaching.

Alexis 

Are you happy with the process leading up to your academic profession? 

Prof. Welpe:  

Absolutely! Something that guided me during the process is that I preferred to be on my own schedule, to work entrepreneurially, was very important to me, and that is something academia offers. 

Alexis: 

People might enjoy different scenarios and there is no single path that fits everyone. It seems particularly important to discover what do you really want.  

Prof. Welpe:  

And what do you not want. Pay attention to what you prefer, where you like to be, the places you seek out again and again – that will guide you to the right place for you.  

After my PhD I was working for the EU delegation at the United Nations in New York. I had the best boss ever there and I could observe my colleagues were happy. It was just not the right place for me. I ended up organizing lots of things after hours. Pay attention to what even your body reactions are in certain work settings. I would advise to listen to that.  

Alexis 

Part of your research and projects gravitate around leadership. What sparked your interest to dedicate your research to this topic?  

Prof. Welpe:  

If you do your habilitation in organization studies, leadership in the role of leaders and followers in organizations is one of the things you must do research about. It comes down to; what are your core values? What kind of people inspire you? For me, the stories that inspired me are those of people that have been able to withstand “the sins of their time.” This pattern is also linked to innovation and interestingly, it is also linked to humanitarian causes.   

I have always been fascinated by people who stand out from the crowd and will go their own way, whether it is in saving people, like many did during the Second World War helping persecuted victims, or whether it was people who took decisions against all odds. If you take it to an economic perspective, the great disruptors are always people who were belittled by the men and women of their time but would take the risk. At the end, they often succeed, not always and even if they did, usually was at some personal cost.  

Alexis 

Following important topics of our time, let’s talk about diversity. As an expert in strategy and organization, what impact does diversity has on organizations on the long term?  

Prof. Welpe:  

Our research group has been doing research on women in leadership and diversity in leadership and organizations for over 10 years. Some years ago, I reckoned that the public would start to lose interest in these topics, I was obviously wrong, as they are high on the agenda today.   

Up to date, there is no study that shows that, any social or demographic group outperforms any other by virtue of their social or demographic characteristics. Talent is equally distributed across genders, nationalities, ages, etc. This is the main reason you want to have social and demographic diversity. If you only employ people, let’s say, Norwegian females that are early risers, you will miss out on a lot of talented people who like to work at night from Sweden.  

Diversity also means cognitive diversity with different perspectives and opinions. There is value in tolerating and encouraging different diverse perspectives.   

Alexis 

Now a less pleasant topic, failure. Did you experience through your career failure? If so, what did you learn from it?  

Prof. Welpe:  

In my 20s when I observed my fellow students from LMU management being happy to work  in a corporate 9-5 jobs. I felt different from them in that regard.   

When I did my habilitation and had the first job talks I was anxious to find out whether all the investment you have taken all those years pays off. I remember some early rejections and I remember thinking: – Will I ever get a tenured job at university 

Through my failures I learned to hang on and to try again and again. It did all work out in the end, but it makes you humble in a way. It makes you appreciate things that work out more.  

Alexis 

Now to a more positive turn. How do you measure success, and what are the key factors to achieve it?  

Prof. Welpe:  

I have a very easy answer for that: If you can lead the life you want. That is the measure for success, I think. of course that includes the challenge of figuring out, what kind of life do you want and what does society tell you to want.  

I think the main challenge when you are in your early 20s is to distinguish what makes you happy, what gives you energy, regardless to what society defines as a great job. If you don’t know yourself, then you risk “occupying a house that’s been purpose built for someone else.” It is a pre-constructed home and society gives some thought into that, but it is not a purpose-built home for you and that is what you really want. It’s an old thing, right? Know thyself!  

Alexis 

Now for the last question, what is your message (or advice) to all students interested in developing their high impact or entrepreneurial career?  

Prof. Welpe:  

I think when it comes to entrepreneurship … Do it!   

I have a lot of mentees whose CVS are stunning and often they are thinking about how to put the next star on their shoulder claps. I say to them, you are already a high potential. You can now switch from being a high potential to realizing your potential. I don’t think you need to work at a consultancy company just to prepare for a startup. If you want to learn about management, run your own company!  

The other aspect is community and networking. Meetings, socializing, showing up even if you don’t know who will be there and what will happen, those are most important parts, so don’t leave that out. You don’t know beforehand if you meet someone, who has valuable insight or interesting discussions. That’s where the magic happens, the serendipity!   

My last advice is a topic well developed by Adam Grant on his book “Give or Take.”  

If you have a gift, a talent, I encourage you to share it generously and freely! Empower other people. Somehow, magically, it will come back to you, I cannot explain how it works, but will come back. People will think positively about you, they will remember your expertise and how you generously shared your knowledge, and it creates positive self-reinforcing circle.  

Alexis 

We would like to know on which channels can we follow you?  

Prof. Welpe:  

Mostly twitter these days.   

Alexis 

Thank you very much for joining us, we appreciate sharing this time with you!  

Prof. Welpe: 

You’re so welcome. 

Know Thyself

We are in a present that offers many choices and paths to all kind of goals, and this access to options might overwhelm us. The stories, experiences and advices from Prof. Welpe are great examples of how these circumstances can be overcomed and on how to guide our own journey when building your own future, or a Prof. Welpe defines it: “building your own house”. If you would like to follow Prof. Welpe and stay updated on her works don’t forget to follow her on Twitter!

In an added note, the book “Give or Take” by Adam Grant, and the concept developed in the book, was recommended as well by Josephine Kühl, our last guest of this series!

Thank you Prof. Welpe for sharing your story with all of us!