We recently had the privilege of interviewing Esther Oberbeck, SVP Strategy Development at De Beers. She has been named as one of the UK’s women to watch in the business world. In this piece, Esther shares her views on the importance of women taking on leadership roles whilst successfully balancing relationships and family life. She also discusses the challenges and opportunities women leaders face today on this critical subject.
About Esther Oberbeck, SVP Strategy Development
1. Tell us about your career journey. And what brought you to get to where you are today?
I’d like to start by thanking Phipps Cameron for inviting me to share my career journey so far and what could lie ahead. I hope that what I will share today can help your blog readers make better career decisions.
I am the senior vice president of Strategy Development at the De Beers Group. For those who don’t know De Beers, the company was founded in 1888 and has been a leader in the diamond industry since. Our businesses cover the full spectrum of the global diamond value chain: from exploring and recovering diamonds in Africa and Canada, to selling them in India, US and other cutting and trading centres, to marketing and retailing diamond jewelry globally, and producing and selling synthetic diamonds for industrial and jewellery applications.
Several factors have contributed to bringing me to my current role. After studying law in Brazil and gaining a master’s degree in common law studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. in the US, I completed my MBA at London Business School in London and went into management consulting. Then, 20 years ago I received a call from De Beers asking me if I wanted to join their marketing planning department. It was an unexpected invitation but one which I never have regretted accepting.
I have had several roles in the company, always with a focus on strategy, planning and insight and analytics, across the entire diamond value chain. And in the last 10 years I have headed the group’s strategy function. In this time, I have helped our executive team charter the company’s path through what have been extraordinary times for our industry and the world.
As far back as I can remember I have been interested in issues of culture, economics, and decision making in a global context. My roles at De Beers have allowed me to marry my own interests and skills to the needs of the business.
2. What are your career ambitions?
Well, I started working in the mid-1980s already – it has been a long career, almost 40 years! Importantly, I was able to combine my career with a successful marriage, raising a family and making many friends along the way. That has been important to me.
Looking ahead, my priority is to continue to learn and adapt to help De Beers succeed. Astounding technological shifts have re-shaped and will continue to re-shape society and the workplace. And with that, also how a strategy function delivers value to the organization.
I also look forward to continuing to use my broad experience and global outlook in governance and advisory, inside and outside the De Beers and Anglo American organizations. I would also love to one day do more to combine my love of the arts and business. Who knows what the future will bring?
Esther’s current job role at De Beers
3. What does your role consist of at De Beers?
As the most senior strategist at De Beers, and together with my team, we are responsible for recommending to the executive committee and the CEO where the company should focus its resources to grow and succeed sustainably. The strategy development area is also responsible for delivering competitive intelligence, advanced analytics, foresight & insight, and supply and demand forecasting, giving the company enhanced confidence in its strategic decisions.
4. What impact do you want to make at De Beers?
My objective is to help make the company resilient to economic cycles and strategically future-ready. Technological, geo-political, demographic, macro-economic and societal changes have had and will continue to have an enormous impact on how people interact with diamonds and jewelry. As industry leader, I also want to help De Beers equip the industry today to succeed in a future that looks very different from the past.
5. How can we get more women into strategy roles?
Diversity and inclusion are high profile objectives at De Beers. We aim to create an inclusive leadership culture, developing talent with transparent processes, and offering flexible working environments. Since 2017, De Beers has been partnering with UN Women. We have committed to increase the representation of women in technical and leadership roles across our business and to promote a culture that enables us to achieve gender parity by 2030.
Strategy roles are by nature challenging and demanding and require commitment and resilience from those working in this area. However, I can say that our policies have made possible to attract a diverse group of men and women to our team – in fact, my strategy teams have tended to be majority female, with me trying to balance the team to attract more men!
But diversity and inclusion is more than just more female participation – it’s also about having a good representation of different cultures, skills, experiences, personalities and ambitions to enrich the inputs into strategy, making the outcomes stronger. What is not negotiable is always behaving according to the company’s values.
The importance of women in leadership roles
6. Why is it important for women to take on more leadership roles?
For organisations, the evidence on this topic has been clear for some time. As recently as 2020, McKinsey published a study in which they have found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 27% more likely to outperform their national industry average in terms of economic profit. Female talent is highly correlated with organization success.
For women too it is important to take leadership roles and realise their potential as professionals. Women are taking leadership roles in all areas of human endeavor. Creating role models for future female generations is just one aspect of why it is important for women to be seen in leadership roles. Another is to ensure that men and women work together to improve gender outcomes in poverty and other social indices, ensuring a more productive, healthier and happier society.
7. What are the challenges facing women in leadership roles?
The challenges that distinguish female leaders from male leaders are mostly related to responsibilities at home. Even when household tasks are shared, I think there is a genuine desire by women to take care of their children and the family home.
My personal experience has been that asking for help is important – you can’t do it all, all the time. Also, children grow up, life goes through different phases, and women should take the long view when facing these challenges. More than ever before, organisations are embedding flexibility in career paths and helping get the best out of their talented female (and male) leaders.
8. What are the main factors that influence women’s rise to leadership positions?
In my experience, being a high performing professional is a precondition to rising to senior positions. For that, women need to make sure that they have the network inside and outside the organisation that helps them to perform well in their areas of responsibility. Beyond that, it is essential that their good work is seen and appreciated and that their ambition and commitment to grow is known in the organization.
Finally, for women looking to rise to leadership positions, it is also important to recognize when this is unlikely to happen – so that they can seek opportunities where this may more realistically happen.
9. For professional women looking to get a leadership position, what advice would you give to them?
Seek an area of work that interests you. Deliver good work, work you will be proud of. Seek out responsibilities that will come with progression potential. Be resilient in the face of obstacles, ask for help. Don’t neglect your family and relationships.
There are plenty of opportunities out there. Our time is now.