Key Moments: Experiences in a Dedicated Lifeby Liz Mohn
"You always saw the world as your workplace."
In 2009, this was how Reinhard Mohn--the man who turned Bertelsmann AG from an unremarkable, postwar German business into a successful, international media conglomerate--described the professional dedication of his wife, Liz Mohn. Born into a seemingly hopeless world, this girl from Wiedenbrück, Germany,/b>… See more details below
"You always saw the world as your workplace."
In 2009, this was how Reinhard Mohn--the man who turned Bertelsmann AG from an unremarkable, postwar German business into a successful, international media conglomerate--described the professional dedication of his wife, Liz Mohn. Born into a seemingly hopeless world, this girl from Wiedenbrück, Germany, grew into a proactive woman who, following her late husband's death, now represents the fifth generation of Bertelsmann's ownership. She sits on the company's supervisory board, where for decades she has brought unconventional ideas to a traditional media empire, and she also serves as vice chairwoman of the Bertelsmann Foundation's executive board.
In her new book, Key Moments, Mohn tells her remarkable personal history, recalling with great candor the difficult early years in Gütersloh and how she grew into her role at the side of her influential husband. She met challenges with curiosity and a desire to learn from her mistakes. Through it all, she followed her life's motto: Try it. You can do it.
An active philanthropist, Mohn highlights the importance of every individual being accountable to a greater good while appealing to the social responsibility of the political and economic sectors as well. She makes the case that each of us is called to contribute his or her part toward creating a successful future. This, of course, is what Liz Mohn has done all of her life. In light of her efforts and successes, she is often asked, "How do you do it all?" Key Moments gives readers a fascinating insight into the answer.
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Read an Excerpt
Intuition as Opportunity
I've met countless numbers of people over the past decades, and I've always been curious about how they acquired their skills, talents, and abilities, and how they recognized these qualities, especially attributes that were not immediately apparent. My greatest passion has always been to work with others. Whether I'm hiring new employees at Bertelsmann or meeting young people all over the globe, one thing fascinates me: What makes a person unique? How does someone attain inner strength? Why do some of us not only accept life's challenges but use them for personal growth? And last but not least: What does it take for someone to become a leader? And by leader, I don't mean just someone with a high position within a company. Being a leader means leading by example--whether working in an honorary position or managing projects in social, cultural, or other fields.
Of course, having expert knowledge is a must. To be at the top of your profession, you need to have an excellent education as well as substantial professional knowhow. But that's not all. I have met many extraordinarily talented and well-educated people who become insecure when dealing with others, who won't discuss controversial subjects, and who avoid taking a personal stand. In short, they retreat just when it's their time to step up. They don't trust their own instincts, and they won't take a stand. But a keen intellect and proven capabilities are not enough to be successful. We know today that our brain's subconscious can process much more information than our rational, conscious mind can.1 Contrary to what we in the West have been taught for generations, feelings or intuition do not stand in opposition to intelligence. Rather, they are a type of intelligence.
Until just a few years ago, it was frowned upon for women of my generation to discuss the impact of their feelings on their decision making. If you showed your emotions, you were considered intellectually weak. And if, furthermore, it was a woman who drew on her intuition, her friends and family would humor her, but her colleagues would certainly not take her seriously. For a long time, concepts like "emotional intelligence" and "intuitive judgment" were considered feminine or female-oriented. Any old-school, traditional manager would have just laughed at them.
This has now all changed, with a special impact on the women of my generation. Today we know that qualities like intuition contribute to making a great leader. If we trust our feelings, we can grow as human beings. We can be open to new possibilities, take unexplored paths, develop new ideas, and launch new projects. We can bring individuals together who otherwise would have never met, and tap into unknowable potential. Believing in the power of your own intuition makes way for endless opportunities. I have seen innumerable examples of it.
Of course, intuition isn't everything. Our emotional knowledge still needs an intellectual framework, including professional expertise and analytical thinking--just as intellect without intuition has its limits. Together, however, intellect and intuition are unbeatable. The more I learned to trust my feelings, the more courageous I became. Suddenly I was going forward with projects that I hadn't dared dream of before. These are the opportunities that I want to talk about here, the key to many of my projects and initiatives. At first, I often just had the sense that something needed to be done, and so I would reach for the phone. An idea was born, and then others followed. A spontaneous initiative grew into a network, which many people then joined. An intuitive decision unleashed great creative force--what began small grew big. And yet in today's schools, students' creative potential is still not nurtured nearly as much as rational and academic learning.
Anyone who wants to make changes in our society needs to step off the well-trodden path. We must dare to try new things. We must question and rethink that which is familiar, to make sure we're really on the right track. We must be allowed to make mistakes. And we must become curious again, to want to learn our whole lives long.
Between Fear and Hope: A Childhood During Wartime
The world into which I was born was not a safe one. My life began on the eve of Germany's declaration of war on the Soviet Union. The adults were fraught with worry. Today we know that a mother's fear, along with the anxiety and hardship she experiences during the first weeks of her child's life, can have a profound impact on that person's subconscious. As adults, we carry our mothers' worries with us, perhaps for all our lives. But early life lessons are also what made the women of my generation strong. We learned that life is not a cakewalk, and that survival not only demands great strength but can even make you stronger.
The changes in society that we children of the war have witnessed are immense, especially we women, who had to fight hard for our chance at an education and a career, and for a voice in society. For the women of my generation, none of the above were givens. Today, whenever I give a lecture and see so many well-educated young women in the audience, I am overcome with joy. And vice versa: these young women are often astonished at the scope of my duties and my many interests. "How do you do it all?" they ask. "What gave you such strength and courage? What made you the woman you are today?"
What, indeed, makes us who we are? At what point do we discover our personal strengths? How do we unearth our specific talents? And what gives us the courage never to give up, no matter how many setbacks and mistakes we encounter? How do we stay true to ourselves and to the goals that we've set?
It was a long journey from being a little girl from Wiedenbruck to being a head of Bertelsmann AG and the Bertelsmann Foundation. I had the great fortune to be at my husband's side on his many travels and to meet extraordinary personalities from all over the world. These experiences were priceless. They also led to greater self-knowledge. Today I know my strengths and my weaknesses, but most important, I have learned to continually reexamine what I do: Was that the right thing to do? How can I improve? What do I have to change?
In the process of being continually pressured by new challenges and demanding situations, I, like many women, have learned to listen to my inner voice. It wasn't always so. But fortunately, as women's accomplishments in leadership positions have grown, the large role that intuition plays in our daily decision making is getting its due notice.
My personal life and the growth of my professional responsibilities have consistently been marked by turning points. Those were those moments when I knew, This is it! This is what I want to do! This could be successful! And more often than not, the only way to achieve success was through hard work, tenacity, discipline, and perseverance. Numerous national and international projects, as well as the different topic areas of the Bertelsmann Foundation, were created this way. Small initiatives grew, pushing forth against all resistance. All this has given me a wealth of experiences that I share in this book.
The two conflicting emotions of fear and hope informed my entire childhood. Because Wiedenbruck, where I was born, is very close to the Ruhrgebiet and to Bielefeld, we experienced heavy bombing. Countless times my mother grabbed me from my childhood bed and carried me to a bomb shelter. Those years of fear, hunger, cold, and hardship are seared into my memory. But even in the darkest hours, my mother was there, reaching for me. I cannot praise her optimism and courage enough.
My father had many serious health problems. As an invalid, he was not drafted, but for a man of his generation, this was a grave dishonor. He suffered greatly. As the second of five children, I saw how, during this difficult time of war, my mother raised us mostly by herself. She had no choice but to make all decisions and take responsibility for caring for her family. She often sang to us while she cleaned, cooked, and sewed, and it's from her that I learned so many songs.
Although we had to count every penny, my mother never let that stop her from being kind and generous to others in need. Nobody ever left our home without a bowl of soup or a piece of bread. During the darkest years, my mother got much of her strength from her Catholic faith. We children, too, were in church every morning at seven before the start of school, and of course we said our prayers before each meal.
My mother never complained. She took what life handed her and, with her love of life, made the impossible possible for us children. Not until decades later did I realize how much her strong personality and gregarious and joyful nature shaped my own character. Back then, she was everything to me. I clung to her and never wanted to let her go. I fought tooth and nail against going to kindergarten, although was no escaping the first day of school. I was terrified! But this first step into school also made me curious, and I soon got used to my classes.
When I felt safe and loved, my confidence and courage grew. I forgot all my fears and simply tried the things I wanted to try. At one point I walked all by myself along the banks of the Ems River. I had decided that I wanted to listen to the birds. Later, horrified neighbors reported to my mother that, starting at four years old, I tried again and again to jump into the river to make my way along the reeds to the other side. I wanted desperately to learn how to swim, and I did. Since then water has been my element, and I have always been an enthusiastic swimmer. As young as I was, I had discovered the strength of my will. My mother barely recognized her formerly frightened little girl, and she had the feeling that there would be quite a few surprises in store for her.
I took every opportunity to test my new self-confidence in school and gym class. "Try it. You can do it!" Encouraged by my teacher's rallying cry, I was the only student in my class who dared to jump off a five-meter diving platform. You can do it, I said to myself, as my knees shook and my heart was beating in my throat. These words have now become my motto.
Bit by bit, my courage and my love of adventure grew. Before long, my mother could barely contain me. At the age of six, I joined the Girl Scouts. I became a "Wichtel" (Brownie) and stayed a member for many years. I loved our lengthy excursions into nature and our trips to youth hostels, as well as singing and hiking together. I learned to be responsible for a group and to defer my own wishes to the good of the community. These early experiences had a great impact on me, and they opened me up to the possibilities that can evolve from an organization that is led with a social conscience.
Over the years, I became a real bookworm. I loved every classic young adult novel that I could borrow and was especially taken by adventure stories. I was a good student in history and German but wasn't a big fan of math. And even though I got along fine in school, when I was fourteen, I had to admit to myself that I wouldn't be admitted to a school of higher education.
I Wanted to Do More with My Life
Once school ended, I didn't know what to do with myself, so I planned a bicycle trip with my cousin. My father asked a truck driver to give us a ride to Wurzburg, and from there we would bike back to Wiedenbruck. But on the way back, we came across a road sign for the pretty little town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and from there we followed signs to Munich. We were constantly coming up with new destinations. It was a gorgeous summer, and we had seen very little of the world. We drifted along, getting rides from truck drivers along the way, and ended up traveling from the Bavarian lakes in the south all the way to the North Sea island of Helgoland. I still remember the ache I felt when we came across a group of young students. I could sense their lightheartedness and the endless possibilities that lay in store for them. The future was theirs for the taking. I didn't have that kind of freedom.
While I was away, my mother found an apprenticeship for me to train as a dental assistant--in those days, this was considered a stroke of luck. But I wanted to do more with my life, and I kept my eyes open for people who could help me. An acquaintance of mine who worked at Bertelsmann was always telling me about all the wonderful opportunities there. Why didn't I give it a try? Without telling my mother, I applied for a position at the distribution center of the Bertelsmann Book Club, and I got hired. I had no idea how much this would change my life.
As a young Catholic-raised woman, I had to follow strict rules, including not going out alone at night. Six weeks after I began working at Bertelsmann, I was invited to the annual company party. I begged and pleaded with my parents until they finally gave me permission to go--though neither of them was especially thrilled, since the legal age at that time was twenty-one. After much deliberation, they finally permitted me to stay out until ten o'clock at night. This night would change my destiny.
Along with other young apprentices, I watched Reinhard Mohn, the head of Bertelsmann, enter the room, accompanied by a group of colleagues. We were all very curious about him--he was a good-looking young man whose ideas were widely discussed in the company. His straightforward and confident manner made an impression on me, and it seems that he noticed me as well. Of all the girls in the room, I was the only one he asked to dance. I was touched by his openness and his charisma. Someone took a picture of us as we fought for the last remaining chair in a game of musical chairs. He won.
An Uphill Road
The years that followed were not easy. I very much enjoyed working with so many different people at Bertelsmann, but the man I loved was unavailable. Reinhard Mohn got married and started a family right after the war. He was one of the many men whose youth was stolen by the war, and who only afterward discovered life's joys. Fate had brought us together, but in the late 1950s divorce was out of the question. We had three children together, born in the 1960s: Brigitte in 1964, Christoph in 1965, and Andreas in 1968. Reinhard Mohn tried to spend as much time as he could with us, but the chance of our having a life together was slim. During this time, my future husband wrote me a letter every day. Long after we were married, he organized those letters into binders. It became a collection of quite a few binders, which contain our worries but also our hopes and dreams of that time. I still find it difficult to look through them. It was not an easy time, but I'm very grateful that we could go through it together.
Meet the Author
Following the death of her husband, Reinhard Mohn, LIZ MOHN represents the fifth generation of the Bertelsmann and Mohn founding families. She is the vice chair of the Bertelsmann Stiftung board. In addition, she has served as president of the Spain-based Fundación Bertelsmann since October 2005.
Her other activities at the Bertelsmann Stiftung focus on the annual Carl Bertelsmann Prize, the International Cultural Forum series, work/life balance issues, and initiatives concerning corporate leadership and culture.
At Bertelsmann AG, she is a member of the supervisory board, where she represents the founding Bertelsmann and Mohn families. In 1999, she joined the Bertelsmann Verwaltungsgesellschaft (BVG), which exercises the voting rights held by the Mohn family and the Bertelsmann Stiftung. She has been chair of the BVG executive board since 2002.
She is also involved in the Bertelsmann Relief Fund, the Medical Information Service, the German Stroke Foundation, and the Liz Mohn Foundation for Culture and Music, both of which she founded.
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