Voice of Experience: Heike Eckert, Executive Director, Eurex

Image via MarketsWiki

Image via MarketsWiki

By Jessica Titlebaum (Chicago)

In the mid 1990s, Heike Eckert launched DTB’s US office in Chicago (DTB is a predecessor of Eurex) and after successfully establishing Eurex’s electronic trading business in the US moved back to Frankfurt in 2000 to head up global marketing and sales for Eurex. She moved back to Chicago in 2006 to further expand Eurex’s North American offices in Chicago and New York, and in late 2009, headed back to Frankfurt where she currently resides.

Throughout her career, Eckert has worked with people from many different cultures and expressed the need to differ her management style in the U.S. and Germany.

“We always think that Western culture is the same wherever you go but it is very different. The U.S. has a hierarchical structure and is very goal orientated,” she said. “In Germany, everything is much more of a discussion. We are a society of debate historically.”

Given her frequent international assignments, Eckert developed a wide network of international business relationships. To help manage the relationships Eckert has made throughout her career, she read Understanding Cultural Differences in German and American Business Relationships by Nils Grave.

“I am very selective about the business books that I read. When I get home, I prefer to read to relax, as I firmly believe that you need to relax in order to be able to address new challenges with a fresh mind, but this one is about cross-Atlantic business relationships and so really applicable to both my business and private life,” said Eckert. “It’s a practical guide, and it describes how people from different cultures react to things…you recognize your own patterns and then see how this is perceived in another culture.”

Differing Cultural Approaches to Work/Life Balance

Eckert has spent the majority of her career straddling two continents and readily admits that she prefers some aspects of the US and some of Germany. One major difference between the two countries is the way that Germany approaches the work-life balance and she thinks that the German model facilitates part-time arrangements for working mothers. “It is very usual for a women, after giving birth, to stay home fore a couple of years and then come back to work part-time,” said Eckert. “This is different in the US where most women come back full time and it is normal.”

Eckert added that maternity leave in Germany is often around 12 months or longer and subsidized by the German government. The decision to give women 60% of their monthly net income for a year was made in 2008 due to Europe’s low birth rates, which is on average around 1.5 children per woman and even lower in Germany.

“I took three months off after my first daughter which was great after working full steam ahead for so long,” said Eckert. “But after that break I really enjoyed going back to work.”

A mother of two, she now balances her work and career responsibilities by compartmentalizing her day. “I work from 5-7 in the morning and spend time with my kids until 8:30,” she said. “I carry my office back and forth with me every day. By splitting my time into segments where I can be the most productive, I do the best for myself – and achieve the most for my company. My employer recognizes that – and for that reason is highly accommodating.”

In terms of advice for other working mothers, she recommends being strict about when you work and don’t work. “When it is family time, it is family time and when it is work time, it is work time,” she said. “Don’t have your blackberry in your hand all day.”

Balancing everything has been much easier for Eckert due to the fact she always had the support of the managers she worked with. She stressed that things could be challenging if you don’t have that relationship.

She also credits Eurex chief executive officer, Andreas Preuss, in helping her and other women at the exchange. She remarked that he was always a proponent in providing career opportunities for women and that he sees the potential women bring to the company in terms of perspective, relationship management skills and the ability to multitask, among others.

“Representation of women is far from equal but we have about a handful of women in management positions and the company is committed to raising this number,” said Eckert. “Studies show that companies with female managers often perform better,” she said. “Women bring a fresh perspective. Also, men won’t act the same way when women are around which sometimes influences the decision marking process.”

Eckert says she has not faced many challenges as a woman in particular, but admits that this may be due to working alongside a group of employees that are relatively young in age. She does recognize that many people are not used to having female managers and in some cases it leads to either resentment, or even just an extended period of adjustment. “I think that sometimes employees have more difficulty taking constructive criticism from a woman. But that’s life. On the other hand, I think that female managers, as a general observation, tend to give employees more second chances to improve their performance, which certainly helps companies effectively manage human resource costs.”

Advice: Keep an Open Mind

Eckert first came to work for the Exchange 15 years ago when she was recommended by a professor from school for an economist position at Deutsche Boerse. Within a year she transferred into a customer facing role building Eurex’s business in overseas markets.

“I have never been a big career planner,” she said. “Keep an open mind. If you plan ahead you miss out on opportunities that just come up. If you asked me five years ago if I would have gone back to the US I would have said no but when it came up, it was a good opportunity for me to help my company strengthen its role in the US and it was an excellent step for me professionally and personally.”

Looking forward, Eckert can imagine quite a different career path, ranging from serving on a board level to spending more time with her family and a deeper involvement in charity work. “I like getting into different roles even if that means stepping into a new career path.”

“I cannot see myself not continually challenged – nor doing the same thing for much more than three years in a row” she said. The derivatives industry is continually reinventing itself to deal with customer demand and marketplace realities. I really connect with this industry – and I let it guide me to a certain extent. When I started in exchange-traded derivatives, we were championing the advantages of electronic trading. Look at the changes that occurred during the last decade – and imagine how many new types of careers that have emerged as a result of this change. In my opinion, this cycle will continue.” Eckert’s closing advice: “Keep an eye on changes in the industry and proactively identify how you can help your firm or your next one meet those challenges.”