Corinna Hörst is the co-author of the recently launched book “Women leading the way in Brussels”. The senior fellow and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Office in Brussels engages in various women leadership development initiatives. She is president of the Brussels Chapter of Women in International Security (WIIS) and founded the European Network of Female Policy Experts in Brussels. I sat down with her to discuss, amongst other things, her sources of energy and inspiration.
Dec 12, 2017, 9 min read
Written by Sarah Wagner
Resistance against traditional upbringing
When I meet Corinna for the interview, she welcomes me wearing a bright yellow blazer and glittering heels in the lobby of the Residence Palace. The magnificent 1920s Art Deco building is located right next to the Council Justus Lipsius Building and the new ‘Europa’ Building in the heart of the European Quarter. It houses, asides from various media outlets and UN agencies, the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Founded in 1972 as a non-profit organization and permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, the GMF facilitates transatlantic cooperation on regional, national and global challenges and opportunities. The Marshall Plan was an US policy initiative to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II, providing more than thirteen billion US Dollar in support. Corinna has been part of GMF since 1999, when she joined as executive assistant to the president at the headquarter in Washington DC. In 2002, she moved to Brussels to help establish the EU branch.
But let us start from the beginning: Corinna recounts that she grew up in a very traditional family in Germany, where, at the time, the mainstream family was organized in the way that men were the primary bread earners and women would be housewives. However, next to raising two children, Corinna’s mother was actively involved in voluntary work. She stresses that her father made everything possible for her and encouraged her to seek different opportunities such as studies at Saint Andrews University, Scotland, and obtaining a PhD at Miami University, Ohio/US. It was him who took her PhD diploma to the ministry of education to have it recognized in Germany. On the other hand, he would think the birth control pill and mini skirt were bad inventions and considered women’s responsibility to be the primary caretaker of children at home. “He was a creature of his time, shaped by the society he grew up and lived in”, Corinna explains. I ask her why she was as adventurous and open-minded in spite of her conservative surrounding. “I was always curious and simply took all the chances I got”, she responds.
He would think birth control pill and mini skirt were bad inventions and considered women’s responsibility to look after their children.
Living in the country of boundless opportunities
Corinna signed up with a temporary work agency after finishing her PhD at Miami University. She wasn’t done exploring the US and wanted to understand the American corporate identity spirit. She worked in an engineering office, an insurance company run by Orthodox Jews as well as a real estate and relocation company. Here, Corinna still remembers that the department she worked in was run by a very tough woman, who did not necessarily exercise an inclusive, empathic leadership. Being proactive and professional, anticipating work that needed to be done and speaking up for the way she did her work gained Corinna respect with the head of the department over time.
Another memory about the US is the positive can-do attitude, the entrepreneurial spirit and the risk-taking mentality Corinna encountered on an everyday basis. She misses that in Europe.
Then her father passed away. It was a wake-up call, as she puts it. Corinna had never planned on staying that long in the US. Because of professional opportunities and meeting her future husband, she ended up staying for a decade. Together, they had moved from Ohio to Washington DC, where she had started working for GMF. The tragic circumstances forced her to reflect on her life and her level of satisfaction – and to make a drastic decision. She returned to Europe. As GMF had just opened an office in Brussels, she took the opportunity to work there. In retrospect, it was personal circumstances and considerations that made her leave everything behind and take a step that turned out to advance her career. She facilitated the connection between the headquarter and the new branch office, built up GMF’s core programs in Brussels and increased GMF's networks through targeted outreach. It was a very difficult period in her life, things were not always clear; but there was always a gut feeling of that there was something else.
Working at the Marshall Fund
Today, Corinna’s work at GMF is multi-faceted, which she likes a lot. As deputy director she supports the executive director in all aspects of strategic planning, programming, management, communication and engaging with stakeholders from government, media, business, as well as non-governmental and think tank communities. As senior fellow, she monitors and frequently comments and speaks on international and European affairs as well as leadership and diversity. She has also just co-authored a book “Women Leading the Way in Brussels” which highlights the professional development of women in senior positions in various sectors and highlights Brussels as a multinational center with several power centers.
Time is Relative
Corinna has been working at the Marshall Fund for 18 years now - a very long time, I find. My generation always hears that we will have to change our jobs various times throughout our career. Corinna holds the opinion that when you like your job and colleagues, and there are continuous opportunities to grow, there is no need to change jobs. She adds that external forces and working conditions have a big influence on how long someone works at a specific organization.
“Don’t leave for the sake of working at different institutions. Work needs to be a place where you like to be, where you can learn, have an impact. It should be an environment where you can combine personal and professional interests”. In her case, she has always had the opportunity to grow, moving from executive assistant to programmatic work and management – from being involved in grant making to designing fellowship programs and events to eventually policy shaping. In her sector – think tanks and public policy institutions – there are two career tracks, internal such as administration and management and external, such as policy shaping. Corinna has managed to combine both.
What is a good leader?
To Corinna, good leaders are authentic and true to themselves. A good leader has a vision of what she wants to accomplish and manages to take people along while at the same demonstrating emotional intelligence: be respectful, professional, able to listen, take advice, not being focused on yourself and willing to continue to learn. Corinna also highlights that, in her opinion, leadership style is not determined by gender but rather by personalities. She firmly believes that generalizations regarding male and female leadership traits are “a waste of time”. Nevertheless, male and female leaders are perceived and described differently at the workplace. What is relevant are the different skills sets and perspectives that they bring to the table. In a think tank that means, for example, elaborating and analyzing the development and impact of policy decisions with a diversity lens.
Women networks in Brussels
Over the years, Corinna founded and is engaged in various women networks in Brussels. Today, she is the president of Women in International Security in Brussels. She founded the European Network of Female Policy Experts in Brussels with the purpose of promoting and facilitating gender equality in EU policy debates by raising the profile of female policy experts in Brussels. A very concrete project of the network is the creation of the BXL Binder (www.brusselsbinder.org), a database of women policy experts who can be called upon by events organizers and journalists to contribute a new perspective to the on-going policy debates. Women networks, according to Corinna, are useful for strategic partnerships, professional development opportunities, and creating solidarity among like-minded people.
A very concrete project is the creation of the BXL Binder, a database of women policy experts who can be called upon.
Single mother by choice
Corinna is a single mother by choice. To my surprise, Corinna emphasizes that being single made it easier for her to be a parent - in the sense that she never expected to rely on anyone and “just did it”. She built herself a support network consisting of friends, and new friends she met through her child and paid support. She simply made her child part of her life and took her along whenever possible. According to her, her daughter makes her a better and more balanced person: “She helps me to disconnect from work and look at the world from a different perspective.” Of course, she is lucky to have an easy-going and healthy child and at the same time have the financial means to employ assistance, she adds. Yet, she admits that single mothers must live in an accepting environment to be successful in combining work and family. She feels that having been a single working mother would have been much harder in Germany, where societal pressure regarding traditional gender roles are much stronger. I can only concur: In Germany, people often still speak today about “Rabenmütter” (‘raven moms’), i.e. mothers who do not spend all day with their children but work or look after themselves. Corinna is frank: “I don’t have to be the perfect mother. It needs a community to raise a child. Others can teach her something too, e.g. her swimming teacher. You just have to be willing to let go!”
“I don’t have to be the perfect mother. It needs a community to raise a child. (...) You just have to be willing to let go!”
Professional development and mentorship
Corinna tells me that she has had a number of mentors – both within and outside of work. While there are various organizations that offer mentor-services in exchange for money or require membership, there are other possibilities to find a mentor. Often, one just has to grab an opportunity and ask if a person who is a role model would like to become one’s mentor. Corinna has also been asked several times both in formal and informal settings. To her, a mentorship is a two-way street; both mentor and mentee can learn from such a relationship. While mentoring is usually limited to a certain time period and has a specific professional development goal, Corinna also stresses the importance of “sponsorship”; a deeper professional relationship where someone looks out for you and also provides access to job opportunities, fellowship opportunities, and speaking engagements.
Corinna’s advice in the end: Whenever you make a mistake, reflect on it, analyze what went wrong but do not dwell on it for too long. Move on! Often, the rest of the world has already moved on. Moreover, it is often good to wait 24 hours before you respond to a complex subject matter. Finally, while it is clear that we need structural changes to reach gender equality at work, women need to feel empowered to be part of that change process – and their own success!
Corinna Hörst is senior fellow and deputy director of GMF’s Brussels office. She supports the executive director in all aspects of strategic planning, operations, personnel, management, and communication. In this capacity, she plays a central role in program planning, networking, and relationship building with the EU institutions, NATO and stakeholders from governments, media, business, as well as nongovernmental and think tank communities. She monitors and frequently comments on transatlantic relations and European affairs and is engaged in various women leadership development and diversity activities. She is president of the Brussels chapter of Women in International Security (WIIS) and also founded the European Network of Female Policy Experts in Brussels. Her recent book “Women Leading The Way in Brussels,” co-authored with Claudia de Castro Caldeirinha (John Harper Publishing, 2017) looks at women leadership in Europe and Brussels, including vignettes of women who exercise leadership across different sectors in Brussels. Before coming to GMF in 1999, she was a teaching associate at Miami University, teaching American and world history and worked as assistant project manager at a publishing company in Germany. Hörst has a PhD and master’s degree in history and studied at Miami University in Ohio, United States, the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and St. Andrews University in Scotland.