Women in Business Q&A: Ursula Morgenstern, CEO Atos UK & Ireland

05/25/2015 10:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2016

Ursula Morgenstern is CEO for Atos UK and Ireland and Global Executive Vice President, Cloud and Enterprise Software. Atos is an international leader in digital services with annual revenues of €10 billion and 86,000 employees in 66 countries. In the UK, the company employs around 10,000 people and supplies the technology behind many of our core everyday services from the rail network transactions to MOT tests - and even the FA Premier League's fixture list.

As CEO, Ursula is responsible for driving the strategic direction of the business and managing the operations to ensure high-quality service delivery and continued business growth. She joined the company in 2002 through the acquisition of KPMG Consulting and was appointed CEO in January 2012 following a stint as UK and Ireland COO. From 2009 to June 2011, she was senior VP responsible for private sector markets, and from 2007 was senior VP responsible for systems integration.

Aware of her role as one of the few women leaders in her industry, Ursula is one of the judges for the 2015 Women in IT awards.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I studied business and organisational behaviour at university. I have used the knowledge I gathered on this course to understand how organisations function and how one can make them work effectively. It was my first exposure to technology and how it can impact businesses. IT can actually be a great enabler of a positive workplace. It can bring innovation, better collaboration and work-life balance and also enable higher productivity. So when I had the chance to join the technology industry as my first job, it was an exciting opportunity.

My love for languages and travelling brought me to the UK. I enjoy working in a multicultural environment and London is of course a great hub for many diverse businesses and cultures. I have been here now for over 15 years, but I will not lose my German accents and as my team can tell you sometimes I can be still very "German"!

I was also a competitive swimmer when I was younger. I think being disciplined in the sporting arena can give you great experience for leadership. You learn how to manage both successes and failures but most importantly you learn to never give up. When work becomes very difficult I remember to keep going, one swimming stroke at a time.

Being an authentic person is of primary importance in a leadership position. People need to find you easy to understand and know what you stand for. They also need to see you. I place huge importance in learning directly from all my employees. We are a large and varied business and the only way I can know how each part of the workplace works is by shadowing different teams and learning from them. People aren't shy about telling me what changes they would like to see and I'm glad I can have that dialogue and make positive changes.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Atos?
Being a CEO of a large IT company is inevitably challenging. Fortunately, when I took over the role at Atos UK & Ireland, I already had significant experience at the company, having joined back in 2002 as a result of the acquisition of KPMG Consulting. In the intervening time, I have held a series of high-profile roles including as head of various departments and latterly as chief operating officer, all of which stand me in good stead in my current post. I now have nearly 25 years business and technology experience in total - I've seen the industry develop at a fast pace. Through our Cloud business I've really been at the forefront of that change, so I understand the opportunity that the new digital world brings, and the fragility that comes with that for our customers.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Atos?
A huge highlight for me has been working with ODA on the building of the Olympic Park and venues as the IT provider. It was amazing to experience the Olympics from the early stages to the actual close down. It also allowed me to work in close cooperation with our colleagues from the major events team who deliver the IT for the games for the International Olympic Committee. Atos has been their technology partner for over 25 years. Obviously with this comes the challenge of ensuring you have faultless systems in place. If there is a problem on such a high-profile, global stage it could be incredibly difficult, so it was an intense project but ultimately, hugely rewarding.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in digital services?
Having an alternative view gives you an edge over people, so don't be afraid to think outside the box - bringing people skills and a different viewpoint is valuable for any business, but particularly in the tech space. Remember that you have a right to be in the room and have the conversation - and that your voice matters.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
With a sometimes unpredictable and intense work pattern, I try to ensure that I actually do integrate "my hobbies" into work. I love learning languages and about history and taking photos so business trips are great opportunities. Like everybody I use the commute into London to read - one of my passions. It is not always easy to fit sport into my life nowadays, but I definitely focus on that at the weekend.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The technology industry is a fantastic place to be a part of. It is young and fast moving with great opportunities. It would be great if more women would join this industry and benefit from it as I did. So how we attract more girls and women is the big question.

The other big challenge, and of course the opportunity, in our business is how to help women to balance the work/family equation. On the one hand, being a technology company, it is easy to support a wide range of working styles such as working from home. On the other hand, our staff often need to be on site with clients for an extended period. Fortunately, in a company of our size, we can offer a wide range of different jobs. Using technology to make it easier for women/parents to work (without creating 24/7 jobs) is an opportunity. The organisation of course needs to support this with the appropriate processes and culture. Including an inclusive culture around promotion.

For me, promotion is key - people often promote in their own image so in that way it can become self-perpetuating. We need to change this and I find internal promotions are better at being gender-neutral than external.

I believe strongly in active promotion for my employees and I think long and hard about how I can get women into the top jobs, but importantly what they need to achieve to get there - it's about specific career advice and support sometimes. The top jobs are always going to be hard to get, they are competitive and as simply a numbers game - if 9 men and 1 woman go for a top job, than the likelihood is that the job will go to a man.

This often leads into a discussion about quotas. I don't think they are needed in our industry. Women are more than able to do top tech jobs, they have to get there on merit if their voice is to be respected.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I must admit, it is my bosses or my bosses bosses that I have learned the most from more than any mentors. On a professional level, I have learnt from all of my bosses and each has given me invaluable advice. In my current role, I have an external coach which I find very helpful. Just spending the time with the coach gives me the ability to think through specific challenges and draw on the experiences of a senior executive. But one of the most influential people in my life has been my swimming coach. As a German Olympian, she clearly was highly respected based on her subject matter expertise, but also, her energy and high standards really drive you to make the extra mile.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I would love to spend a day shadowing Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. She is such a successful and influential politician with a global profile. The variety of subjects and decisions she faces like all country leaders must be significant. And it would be fascinating to see how she balances urgent short term decision making versus long term considerations - a balance which every leader has to strike - In her case for an entire country.

What do you want Atos to accomplish in the next year?
Like most companies, we are in a time of significant industry change and we need to adapt our organisation to the new reality. So making sure that we keep up with that change is key challenge. Atos is an extremely agile and fast moving company. We acquired French IT Company, Bull Information Systems, at the end of last year which brings with it real specialism in cyber security and there is a planned acquisition of Xerox IT outsourcing operations which needs to be integrated into our UK operations as well.

We are part of a really strong and important industry in the UK. Digital contributes about £70bn to the economy, represents 3% of the UK workforce and is growing five times faster than the wider economy.

We have invested heavily in our UK business and a brand new flagship data centre is opening this month and we have also opened our London Business Technology and Innovation Centre. We are bringing clients here to demonstrate the innovation we can deliver to them in the areas of Big Data, Mobility and Connectivity and these are huge focus areas for us in the year ahead.