Regula Bührer is a Zürich success story. As a partner at Rod Kommunikation agency, co-founder of the #FRAUENARBEIT organization, and a mother of two, she represents the idea that you can have it all - a leadership role, a passion project, and a family. How did she do it? And why is she inspiring so many other women today? We sit down to speak about leadership, feminism, and career lessons.
You are a partner at Rod Kommunikation. Was it a conscious choice for you to start your own agency so you would be in control rather than having to climb the ranks in a male-dominated world?
Yes, absolutely, it was a very conscious choice. I launched Rod with two male partners and for them, my gender was never a discussion. We just chose each other as humans. It was clear from the beginning that we would have the same salary and to me that laid a foundation of fairness. Had I stayed at my former employer, it would have taken me years of grinding to even have a seat on a management team. I did not have that patience.
It still must have been a brave choice at the time.
I remember that I saved 34’000 Swiss Francs with lots of freelance work and that was the amount I had to chip into the setup of our company. Every Swiss Franc that I invested was hard-earned and that made me so proud over the years, to see what we have grown into, creatively and as a team.
If you compare the agency world to the corporate world today, which one do you think is easier for women to navigate?
Sometimes I actually think for women it would be easier in the corporate world because most larger corporations have clearer rules and guidelines for employees when it comes to promotions, childcare, and home office. I see so many female CMOs (Chief Marketing Officers) nowadays, and it makes me wonder if the corporates are more modern than the agency world.
What are agencies like?
Agencies are mostly small- and medium-sized companies where everything is a bit improvised, rules, and guidelines hardly ever exist. You need to be quite tough, street-smart, and a really good negotiator and networker to get ahead in an agency environment.
A tough career choice?
It depends on the agency. We are all working in the service sector and if a client says, “I need it by this evening” - it doesn’t matter if you’re on the playground with your kids or you have your off day – you must react and get the job done, or organize someone else to help you get it done. This is a huge challenge for part-time employees, i.e. mothers and fathers. I can’t sugarcoat this, agency life with kids is a lot of juggling, but it can be done. It’s important to choose an agency that has empathy for parents. And then be a parent who repays this empathy with a great service attitude and loyalty. It only works as a two-way street.
In many professions, a “drop-off” happens in senior ranks where women leave because it’s too difficult to manage the workload and the family. Do you see the same trend?
Hardly any Swiss agency has real, equal, diverse leadership at the top. But this is changing as we speak. Clients simply expect a diverse leadership team. Seeing women in senior ranks inspires the younger ones to follow their example.
You need to be quite tough, street-smart, and a really good negotiator and networker to get ahead in an agency environment.
Let's talk about your work with young women. We’re sitting here at Kronenhalle in Zürich after another successful #FRAUENARBEIT networking event. Can you tell us about the organization and its mission today?
#FRAUENARBEIT is a passion project. We want to give ambitious young women the tools, insights, and a network to be successful in their careers. Many Swiss-based female entrepreneurs and leaders exclusively share their successes and failures on our platform, inspiring our audience with their stories and honesty. Women need to exchange ideas and lessons with each other and we want to be the space where that happens. And we offer all of our content and network for free.
It all started with you writing the #FRAUENARBEIT book. What motivated you at the time?
Yes. I wrote my book #FRAUENARBEIT because I wanted to share what I learned. I achieved professional success quite early in my life: I started my own advertising agency at age 29, I was voted «Advertiser of the Year» at age 32, and I was a member of many boards by the time I was 35. Yet, oftentimes I felt alone and unguided because I had no one to turn to and ask questions, no one I could really relate to. And how could I admit insecurities to my male bosses without ruining my career? Business clubs were not my thing. And business literature felt like it wasn’t targeted at me. So I had to learn my lessons and make mistakes along the way.
Sounds like something many women would relate to.
I hoped so. I took note of all my experiences and put them together into a book with the intent that my story may help a young woman out there. The #FRAUENARBEIT organization came soon after that. Now we’ve had leaders like Jessica Anderen (CEO IKEA Switzerland) and Aglae Strachwitz (CEO McDonald’s Switzerland) share their stories with us. It’s very cool to see the community in Switzerland embrace and relate to the #FRAUENARBEIT movement today.
Women need to exchange ideas and lessons with each other and we want to be the space where that happens.
It’s nice to hear you say that you achieved success. We women often downplay our wins so we don’t sound too “boastful”. What gave you the feeling of success at the time?
I guess the buzzword is «attraction». There comes a point in your life when you have put in the hard work, the long hours, have gone the extra mile, etc. and people start to talk about you, and you as a person seem to attract attention. At this point, your career «just» works and has a lot of momentum. I had that.
And how do you feel about success now?
Success, to me, is when you can sustain the momentum, and make smart decisions about what you will do and what you won’t do. When you can create lasting value for your clients and gain satisfaction from this.
#FRAUENARBEIT started five years ago in 2017. How have things changed for women since?
When we started, it was a time in Switzerland when you could be a feminist at work – but only secretly. Because having that reputation could really hurt your career. Today you can be a feminist at work publicly and it won’t hurt your career. Actually, Swiss companies can no longer afford to be silent about equality. In most companies, I might add, there is a huge demand for women who want to take on leading positions. Companies have neglected women for too long, and there is now a war for female talent.
Today you can be a feminist at work and it won't hurt your career.
How do you manage leading an agency, mentoring many women, and co-running a foundation?
I have a clear list of priorities: Family comes first, clients and agency second, #FRAUENARBEIT third. And somewhere in between, I also want to have a social life, walk in the forest and swim in the lake. Having my priorities straight makes it easier to distribute my energy.
How does that translate into the day-to-day juggling?
The juggling part assumes that you are alone in this. But you are never alone. I juggle in collaboration with my husband, we talk about our weeks and see who can take over more at home. Then I juggle with my team at Rod and my colleagues at #FRAUENARBEIT, we set priorities together, and say yes to things we want to pursue and no to others. You have to surround yourself with people who see when you’re swamped and step in, relieve some pressure, and take over. People who dare to tell you to stop when you are overburdening yourself. And you do the same for them when the going gets tough.
So tip #1, have a great team.
Yes, and then learn to identify the most important tasks. As humans, when we have a ton of work before us, we tend to focus on the easy, nitty-gritty tasks and make the mistake of not tackling the bigger problem first. I force myself to attack the bigger issues first, even if they make me feel uncomfortable. It’s a habit. This way, it is also easier to decide if you can take on new projects or you can’t possibly take on another.
But it’s not easy, is it?
It’s not. A few years ago, when we had a meeting and someone was going around the table, asking who is going to be in charge of a new project, I was always the one raising my hand. I had to unlearn that. Because I would constantly get overloaded, overburdened, and overstressed. Oftentimes with stuff that wasn’t even important. Now I’ve learned to say “sounds interesting, who’s doing it?” or ask if we can drop internal projects that are unnecessary.
I’ve learned to say “sounds interesting, who’s doing it?”
You have a son and a daughter - are you mindful of how you raise your daughter so she would also feel empowered to be a leader one day?
Work is integrated into our lives. And the kids are integrated into that part, naturally, too. I know that both our son and our daughter pick up bits and pieces about the work and the duties my husband and I have and probably learn a bit about the perks and the challenges of leadership this way. I treat them equally, I believe.
Would you want them to have leadership roles in the future?
They both come to my office regularly with me, they know the people on my team, know who is doing what (sort of), the campaigns we are working on, etc. And they both ask a lot of questions. Perhaps this will inform their decision later in life if leadership is something they even aspire to. We are not pushing this, though.
As an advertiser, do you think companies are doing a good job of marketing to women or communicating the equality topic?
I can give an example of a company that did a great inclusive advertisement, in my opinion: In 2020, IKEA got involved in the vote for two weeks of paternity leave in Switzerland. The campaign was intended to explain in a funny and accessible way how easy it is to make an important socially-defining decision in favor of more family time, more equal opportunities, and ultimately more job satisfaction. So IKEA used the well-known and recognized "IKEA assembly instructions" template to tell voters how they can help make Switzerland more family-friendly.
What made it inclusive?
There are many ways to go about a campaign like that, but what I liked is that they talked about a family topic without focusing specifically on women or men. Jessica Anderen (CEO of IKEA Switzerland), one of the few female CEOs in Switzerland, was very outspoken about the issue even though it could have had negative consequences. But the campaign didn’t feel like a “female crusade”, and it wasn’t a war of the sexes. It spoke to everyone. I loved that.
Companies have neglected women for too long, and there is now a war for female talent.
It sounds like something more companies should do.
Absolutely. Right now in Switzerland too often companies say “we can’t talk about diversity topics because we’re not perfect”. And if companies keep saying that, we will never advance. Instead, they need to say “hey, we’re not perfect but we are on the way”. Be brave enough to say something even if you feel like you haven’t reached your targets yet.
How do we make men feel that women advancing to the top is not a “zero-sum game”?
I think we are at a point where having a diverse team is a logical thing for most people. Diversity adds more perspective, makes for a livelier culture, and is ethically and logically the right thing to do. However, some people are not convinced yet that gender diversity in a team truly adds value. That’s why we need to do a better job of demonstrating how companies prosper with more diversity, equality, and integration. There is work to be done to convince the skeptics. And some people will only be convinced by numbers. Let’s show them the numbers, I say!
Thank you Regula for your time and honesty. We're looking forward to the next #FRAUENARBEIT event.