Interview with Christina Sontheim-Leven

By Maximilian Junck Dominic Pfau

Interview Partner:

Christina Sontheim-Leven has been a member of CEWE Stiftung & Co. KGaA's board since October 2021 and is responsible for Human Resources and Organisational Development. CEWE is an international group of companies with more than 4,000 employees across Europe. Christina Sontheim-Leven is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive working environment in order to attract and retain enough qualified employees, not only at the headquarters in Oldenburg, but throughout the entire group. Supporting HR in cultural and digital transformation processes, good leadership and employee development, especially through lifelong learning, are other key topics for her. A fully qualified lawyer with an additional Master's degree in Legal Informatics, she started her career at Metro AG and, after interim positions at Peek & Cloppenburg and Tommy Hilfiger/Calvin Klein (PVH), among others, worked as CEO of Spiekermann Consulting Engineers GmbH before moving to CEWE. We talk to her about the future of AI in personnel and other decisions, as well as the importance of leadership culture, good management and diversity for a company's success.

The aim should be to bring together as many of the necessary skills as possible on a board to prepare companies for the challenges ahead.

MU: You are a first for CEWE in two ways – firstly, it was the first time that a separate board position has been created for HR, and secondly, you were the first woman on the board. What do you see as the most important tasks for your role?

Sontheim-Leven: When CEOs are asked about the biggest risks facing their companies, cyber security and – not surprisingly – HR issues such as skills shortages, talent management and retention are regularly mentioned. So if I wasn't already convinced of the importance of people to the business, then as a board member I would have to do everything in my power to avoid risks in order to prevent this problem.

With baby boomers retiring over the next few years, this is an opportunity to bring more balance to the first and second levels of management below the board.

MU: What goals have you set for the company across national boundaries and brands?

Sontheim-Leven: At the beginning of 2023, for example, the board set itself ambitious targets in terms of gender diversity. And to achieve them, you need concrete measures and someone who can credibly represent them. By 2027, for example, we want women to hold one-third of the positions at the first management level below the board and 40 percent of the positions at the second management level. In the long term, we want to achieve parity at all levels. Given that the baby boomers will be retiring in the coming years, we will need to fill these positions anyway. This is an opportunity to do this in a more balanced way. In addition, CEWE has significantly more female than male customers, which is why more women in management can be an advantage in order to even better reflect the perspective of female customers in decision-making.

MU: From a purely operational perspective, how do you build diverse teams? Do you know who brings what skills to the table, and what is perhaps still missing and needs to be recruited?

Sontheim-Leven: We don't have a set model. I use my experience to put together teams. And I look for obvious things like gender, age and background. We also don't have a policy that dictates what criteria should be used in the selection process. Instead, we focus on unconscious bias and how to avoid it when making personnel decisions. This means not always taking the shortest, most familiar and most comfortable route, but also taking the occasional detour. It can be exhausting at times, but it is worth it.

MU: What do you see as the biggest benefit of diversity?

Sontheim-Leven: A discourse between different people leads to a better result than a discourse between equals, because you simply cover more aspects of an issue and include them in the solution.

AI only picks up on existing knowledge. Real innovation, on the other hand, comes from people who can be assisted by AI. The results are not only better, but also faster.

MU: How could AI help improve the work of HR – for example, by making selection more impartial? Do you have a vision for this or are you already using applications?

Sontheim-Leven: We are actively recruiting in some of the Group's companies and are already using AI-based search parameters. AI can also be a co-pilot in HR, helping to improve processes and work more efficiently. However, in HR in particular, you also need to be aware of what data does not belong in these AI systems, especially if – unlike us – you have not created a sandbox.

MU: What will be the role of HR in the use of AI?

Sontheim-Leven: We see ourselves first and foremost as an enabler and have therefore developed a strategy to implement and strengthen the issue within the organisation. We support employees at their level of development, from beginners to advanced to experts. For example, we offer training "from within" and, for several years now, we have had a Mobile Artificial Intelligence Campus with proven AI experts who we involve in the process. Of course, we also bring in knowledge from outside, for example to get inspiration on where AI can be used in production and other areas of administration. But for us, AI ethics and a healthy dose of scepticism are also part of the mix.

MU: Scepticism regarding what?

Sontheim-Leven: By that I mean scepticism about what AI presents to me as a result. We teach our employees that they should always keep their critical mind switched on, even when using AI. After all, AI can also hallucinate. And: AI only picks up on existing knowledge. Real innovation, on the other hand, comes from people who can be supported by AI. This not only leads to better results, but also much faster, as the accelerating innovation cycles in medicine show.

There are things that AI will not be able to do in the future. But it can support employees, especially in areas where there is a shortage of skilled labour.

MU: Can AI replace human labour in the future?

Sontheim-Leven: There are things that AI will not be able to do in the future. These include inspiring on a personal level, having fun together, building empathy and trust and creating really new and individual thoughts. You can easily identify the many AI-generated posts on LinkedIn that all look the same. However, AI can support employees and free up resources, especially in areas where there is a shortage of skilled labour, by taking over transactional and repetitive tasks. For example, there are already very good chatbots for simple customer enquiries that take the pressure off customer service employees. Used correctly, AI in HR will also be able to help us making objective and data-driven decisions in recruitment, for example.

MU: The fact that people remain indispensable is also demonstrated by your latest project on corporate culture. What are the guidelines for good cooperation and leadership?

Sontheim-Leven: CEWE Group is made up of many brands. Naturally, each has its own way of communicating and represents certain values and rules. With our project, we wanted to enter into a discourse about what unites us at CEWE culturally across all brands and countries. Initially there was scepticism about this mammoth task, but from the outset we didn't put ourselves under pressure, instead saying that just looking at these issues and discussing them could already bring many valuable insights for everyone.

MU: Can you give us an example?

Sontheim-Leven: For some, good collaboration means responding quickly to requests. For some, this may mean responding within a few days, while for digital natives, it may mean responding within a few hours. Achieving a common understanding here can eliminate misunderstandings on a day-to-day basis. Shared values are also beneficial when an employee moves from one company within the group to another, which is an advantage in the war for talent because it means we can offer more development opportunities. If the culture, values and leadership are similar, change is much easier.

MU: And how did you go about this process?

Sontheim-Leven: We called the project "The We in CEWE" and selected and trained ambassadors from all levels of the group. They then conducted structured interviews with a wide range of employees to gather a wide range of opinions. Such a bottom-up participatory process is obviously more time-consuming and complex than if we had just asked managers from the top down. However, the results are much more sustainable because we have given everyone the opportunity to express their views. We are now preparing to implement the results, which will certainly be exciting.

MU: Ms Sontheim-Leven, thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.


The recruitment and development of employees will become increasingly important for companies because the talent pool is shrinking as the boomer generation retires from the labour market. Christina Sontheim-Leven, board member for HR and Organisational Development at CEWE Stiftung & Co. KGaA, is convinced that the only way to fill the resulting gap is to have a more diverse, and therefore more heterogeneous, workforce. This is where the opportunity to achieve better results lies, because more points of view are brought to bear on decisions. Moreover, AI cannot completely replace human work, but it can make it more efficient and better. An inclusive corporate culture that promotes good leadership helps to meet this dual challenge.


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