Phenomenal Women of AltoPartners – Birgitte Olrik
CEOs describe her as their wingman and clients love her straight-talking ability to cut to the chase. Meet Birgitte Olrik, managing partner of Peoplement, our exclusive and dynamic partner in Denmark.
What influenced your career?
I grew up with a French mother and a Danish father, so was lucky enough to be influenced by two very distinctive cultures. My father was a senior executive in a big shipyard and during my teenage years my mother worked for the World Health Organization in Copenhagen. My dream was always to work for international (French) companies and was drawn to business administration and leadership from a relatively early age.
So, to a very large extent, you are fulfilling your childhood ambition, even if it’s not exactly as you’d imagined it. Tell us how you got here.
After school my mother insisted that I study French - not at university - but at the Copenhagen Business School (CBS). The idea was to become a translator at the EU Commission in Brussels. But after two years, I abandoned that idea and switched to a degree in business administration at CBS, which was far more suited to my interests. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that my mid-life crisis took the form of an executive MBA! It was a terrific experience – especially, since all the students already had a professional career and were studying part time – so we had some very inspirational and challenging discussions based on the group’s real-life experience during the MBA sessions.
Did you get a chance to put your French to the test?
I did! After my first job as product manager for a big Danish medical device company, Coloplast, I spent the next decade of my professional career with two of France’s best-known global brands, L’Oréal, and Danone, and then later as country manager for a global French industrial company. In my capacity as country manager responsible for marketing and sales, I was very exposed to French culture, business, and leadership. It was a good if steep learning curve.
How did you get into Executive Search - was it by accident or design?
It was accidental in so far as executive search wasn’t on my radar. I was approached by Korn Ferry Denmark, who was looking for a “senior” associate to handle clients within the industrial and consumer goods sector, and I had experience of both. I decided to give it a go for 12 months, and then see…. That was 15 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
What makes executive search so special?
It’s the ultimate people business, it’s global, and it’s fascinating. We like to think of ourselves as a professional wingman to our clients who trust our recommendations because they know we understand their requirements. You also get to shape people’s careers and make recommendations based on your insights and understanding of the individual, the company, and the sector. So, it’s a big responsibility and there is a lot of pressure to get it right, and the only way to do that is to really understand the sector and the client.
What is your superpower?
I listen and observe. This is the basis of my analytical skills and helps me to forge relationships based on trust.
What advice would you give youngsters thinking of entering this profession?
First of all, I would not recommend that very young people enter this business as the first step in their professional career, unless they happen to be looking for a research position to learn about the business. I believe it is crucial to have a professional career behind you, so that you have a thorough understanding of the various industrial sectors, the business models, and the roles and functions in an organization. This allows you to speak from experience. As a partner, you act as a trusted advisor – hence, you must demonstrate your ability to understand your client’s needs and the dynamics of the industry.
Secondly, as a partner in an executive search company, you are yourself the product or service offering. You don’t sell a physical product like shampoo, or beds or coffee machines. So, when it goes well, you and your brand shine. But when it goes wrong, you alone are responsible, and you feel the “defeat” much harder than if you were selling a physical product. This is the hard part of being a search partner. Not everyone can live with that. Every assignment is almost like passing an exam vis-à-vis the client – and you are only as good as your last successful placement. But it is a truly exciting business, and when the bug bites, it bites!