"I was given many great opportunities, and I made the most of them."
Following many years spent working in Beijing and Fuzhou, Alexandra Straßburger has brought valuable insights for her work and the needs of the Chinese market back to Germany. Now, as Director of Sales Operations for Mercedes-Benz Cars, she is driving the digitalisation of sales. We asked her about working and living with a family abroad and why her current position has brought her full circle.
Ms Straßburger, as Director of Sales Operations, you and your team are currently in the process of standardising and digitising sales at Mercedes-Benz Cars. How do you actually go about achieving this?
For example, we have standardised the management of vehicle inventories for plants and also streamlined processes. We have also been using digitalisation and standardisation to make online sales possible. By trying to transform previously manual tasks into efficient digitalisation, we are creating a global basis for rapid scaling and speed in sales. This also allows us to react quickly to the needs of the market.
You are responsible for various teams in Stuttgart and Bucharest. What opportunities do you see with respect to diversity, and what does it mean for you as a manager?
Our team is very diverse, with over 15 nationalities and varied job profiles. Firstly, this means a higher problem-solving capacity because different minds come up with more solutions. Diversity is simply an incredible force and a big opportunity in our complex world. In order to look at issues differently, leaders need to be open to them, and I need to be prepared to have more conversations to better understand points of view. For example, we have just introduced cultural training in order to improve mutual understanding and get the most out of the different cultures in our team.
You have a lot of experience when it comes to different cultures. In 2006, you went to China for Mercedes-Benz to take charge of Product Management in Beijing. How was it when you first arrived?
The first year was very exciting and challenging! At the tender age of 27, I found myself sitting in front of a team of people who were all far more experienced than myself. Mercedes-Benz in China was just being set up, and at that stage, there were very few predefined processes; it was an incredibly intense period. But I grew both professionally and personally as a result of it. At the same time, I had a lot of fun getting to know the culture, something that I had already been in touch with through a previous internship. The Yonghegong Temple, in particular, was my escape when all the noise around me got too much. When this happened, I would find a spot there and enjoy the peace and quiet.
You started a family in China and have been employed continuously in leadership positions ever since. How did Mercedes-Benz help you with your work-life balance?
The HR department really supported me a lot in the three years I had both my children. Not only through Chinese language courses and a sabbatical, but seminars on leadership, online marketing and data analysis also meant that I received optimal support and did not lose touch. That was very valuable. After the birth of our first son, I rejoined as Head of Marketing and Product Management at our Van joint venture in Fuzhou. In 2013, we moved as a family of four to Beijing, where I headed up the team for future research and customer understanding in the Research & Development department and was promoted to the role of senior manager. Even after our return to Germany, I was able to take a three-month sabbatical, to help the children settle in, which was absolutely the right thing to do.
What insights did you take away from your time in China for your current position?
My time in China meant I was able to gain international experience and expand my expertise. I also have a good understanding of the local shareholder structure or product logic, and I know where issues may need to be approached differently or who I would need to talk to. On top of this, I was able to bring a data-driven marketing mindset back from China. My current job is inspired by an understanding of digital business processes there: How do I bring data together? How might that work? How might data streams look? I have structured my entire department accordingly, and I am in the process of continuously digitalising it.
Did this make it easier for you to approach the world of data in your current position?
Yes, and my studies also helped. I got a diploma in Public Administration, which looked at empirical research and methods; these days we would call this data science. Back then, I spent nights analysing data and worked in a research team dealing with large volumes of data. I've now come full circle, as it were. Everything happens for a reason. The most important thing is to follow your heart and do what interests you. Because you can only really develop if this is combined with energy and passion.
You started 20 years ago as a trainee on the former DaimlerChrysler Career Partnership Programme at Mercedes. Would you say the programme was a springboard for you?
Yes, because it gave me the opportunity to get to know the company and its various units. I was able to build up a broad network because I was always working in different business units. I was given a lot of great opportunities, and I made the most of them. From the start of the trainee programme, I learned to start from scratch and get used to new people over and over again. I realized: I can do this in each new environment. It was an enriching experience for me.
What makes the working atmosphere at Mercedes-Benz special for you?
I joined the company because I thought the people were amazing. Clever people, who take great pleasure in developing unique and exclusive products for their customers. My international team works on new solutions every day. In doing so, we encounter both exciting and challenging topics that keep pushing us to do our best. I always say: We need to make Carl [Benz], Gottlieb [Daimler] and Bertha [Benz] happy. They were brave and innovative. What would they think if we decided and did this now? I sense this motivation in all of us. As the saying goes: We need to make those three proud. They introduced the car to the world, what's next?
Alexandra Straßburger (43) started in 2002 as a trainee on the former DaimlerChrysler Career Partnership Program at Mercedes-Benz. Her enthusiasm for the individuals in the company, their skills and motivation has remained unbroken ever since. Her first assignment abroad in China became a key experience for the University of Konstanz Graduate of Public Administration. She was there for so long that her local colleagues even gave her a nickname: Big sister A. Her two sons, aged ten and twelve, are growing up speaking three languages: German, English and Chinese. She manages to find time for voluntary work despite all her professional and family commitments: She is co-CEO of the non-profit organisation UMAI – Help for Kyrgyzstan. She founded the organisation with a former colleague from Kyrgyzstan to provide targeted support for local people. What started with donations of clothes now helps to finance a children's home, a workshop and a sports centre for people with disabilities.