CEO Caroline Farberger on leadership, coming out as transgender
This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business leaders to learn everything from how they got where they are to what gets them out of bed in the morning. to their daily routines.
For nearly five decades, Caroline Farberger spent every day pretending.
In her professional life, she was known as Carl Farberger, a high-level executive who rose to the position of CEO of the Swedish insurance company ICA. “I had a high socio-economic position, a big house, a family, [three] kids,” says Farberger, 54. “The complete package.
But by age 8, she tells CNBC Make It, she felt like a character in a play. “Being a boy was my character, my role,” she says. Assigned male at birth, she hid her female identity, first at school and then at work and at home, fearing she would never be accepted.
In 2017, with the support of his wife, Farbarger found the courage to take action. Dressed as a woman walking the streets of Stockholm, she says, she immediately felt that being a woman was her true gender identity.
“Finally, at 49, I felt authentic,” she says. “But later, when I reflected, there was also a terrifying feeling, because I understood that there could be no turning back.”
On Thursday, September 13, 2018, Farberger told his staff of 120: This was his last day as Carl. The next day she would be Caroline. “I wanted to do it from one day of the week to another, just to show that it’s really just a wrapper, I’m still the same person,” she says.
It was nerve-wracking, she adds: “I had a lot to lose.”
Today, Farberger considers his transition a success. She became the first Swedish CEO to come out publicly as transgender, and earlier this month she was named partner and working chair of Swedish investment firm Wellstreet.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she says. But now “I’m as happy as anyone can be. I haven’t lost anything. I’ve got my position in business. I’ve got my wife, I’ve got my kids, and I’ve got my house. .”
Here, Farberger discusses the hardest parts of her journey, how it changed her as a leader, and why being CEO already gave her a leg up.
On how the transition affected his leadership style: ‘It fundamentally changed me’
At first, I didn’t think I would change. I was cocky enough during my transition that I would be the same leader. But it fundamentally changed me.
It’s a business privilege to be a straight white male. There are social structures in the company which are constituted by men for men. Women, people of color, people with disabilities, and other non-normative people must, in many ways, abide by the rules set by men.
[Before I transitioned], diversity was more of a statistic for me. I knew I had to recruit a certain number of women around me to look good. But now having people who are diverse around me is much more meaningful. It empowers the people involved, and as a company we become much more effective if we learn to use the full potential of people who are different in some way.
As a leader responsible for corporate culture, my behavior sets the tone for the entire organization. If I’m not inclusive, my managers who report to me won’t be either.
I vowed to myself never to play theater again and to create an environment where everyone can be themselves – unlike what I learned early in my career, which was to project an image to fit in to the organization.
On the hardest part of her transition: “The biggest transphobia was mine”
The hardest part of my transition was getting out of myself. The biggest transphobia was mine. I really thought I would be a failure if I couldn’t realize the male character I was playing.
People around me took it very well. My children, who were 12 and 7 at the time, had no problem when my wife and I informed them. We had the “big talk” and I told them that I intended to live as a woman and change my name from Carl to Caroline.
They said, “Okay.” And my wife and I looked at each other thinking, is it really that easy?
I realized that what is normal, and not normal, is not something that is in our head when we are born, but entirely in the social structures of our upbringing. I am very happy to see that the next generation accepts differences in sexual orientation and gender identity much more easily than I did when I was a child.
Being welcomed with open arms at work: “I am in a privileged position as CEO”
I didn’t have an uncomfortable situation [at work]which is a big mystery to me.
But I know that when I network with other transgender people at a lower level of the corporate ladder, they have encountered difficulties. I realized that even though I am very non-prescriptive, I am in a privileged position as CEO.
I am not a storekeeper. I work with white collar workers who are educated and very politically correct. There may be people who have issues with my appearance, but they probably think things through before acting on those opinions. If I had been a storekeeper, I might have had difficulties.
I sincerely thought, before my transition, that I would have to make sacrifices. That I would be treated badly, that I would have fewer opportunities and that I would feel more alone. I was ready. But I’ve been given so many more opportunities now than I would have if I continued to live as a middle-aged white heterosexual man.
I found additional meaning in my life to be public and to encourage others to be themselves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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