Lisa Åbom is amongst the top female executives in Swedish defence company Saab. She’s the chief technology officer for aeronautics, a position created a year ago that she is the first to hold. At the end of our 45-minute conversation I’ve understood that this charming woman has an iron fist inside a velvet glove.
She laughs when I ask her if she comes from an aeronautical or military family. “No, an academic one,” she says. But despite a PhD in material physics which she gained from the University of Linköping, where she also gained a degree in applied physics and electrical engineering, she was not interested in pursuing an academic career. “My intention was always to work in industry because, amongst other things, there’s a lot of competition for budgets in academia,” she tells me in her large, airy office at Saab headquarters in Linköping where discreet photos of her two children decorate a shelf and a whiteboard is covered in clearly scripted words. What they meant I cannot say as Swedish is not my strong point!
Lisa joined Saab seven years ago to manage the aeronautical engineering and weapons project office. “I came from an aluminium rolling mill where I was responsible for developing aluminium alloys and processes to make thin aluminium sheets. The company I worked for (Svenska Metallverken) made aluminium for the Saab J-29 Tunnan aircraft, the Flying Barrel, so there is a work link!” she smiles
When she joined Saab she admits she knew little about the company’s products. “You have to learn about them otherwise you can be tricked,” she notes, so she set about doing so, asking her superiors for projects to work on which would expand her knowledge base. “I also realized that I was good at bringing out what’s good in other people,” she explains, adding that ever since then she has been in managerial positions “and have almost always managed men! “ In answer to my remark that in that case it’s strange she didn’t study management, she laughs and says “I forgot to tell you that I also have an Executive MBA from the Stockholm School of Economics!”
But she understood that her subordinates had 20 years of experience and were a bit surprised to see a young woman, who apparently knew little about their products, to be their boss. “You have to not care what people think about you and be patient and wait and prove yourself.” But she admits that it did sometimes make her very angry, emotions she still works through by going to the gym on the Saab site at least once a week and playing indoor hockey. “At first I had a sort of public mask but then it’s difficult to be yourself.”
She then became the head of airframe development where she managed some 800 people. “I tend to think that being a woman in situations where you are the only one in a sea of grey suits is an advantage precisely because there’s only one of you. I’m always remembered.” In meetings and conferences if people try to chat to her about “frivolous things, then I hand them my business card where they see not only my job title but that I have a PhD and I turn the conversation to talk about important issues, the one’s we’re there for. It’s my responsibility to ensure that men take me seriously,” she stresses. Her advice to young women starting out in their careers it to use their femininity “as an advantage. It’s very important not to victimize yourself. You have to believe in yourself. Be what you want to be. And have fun, be comfortable, find your own space and don’t worry about what others may think.” But she’s also adamant that women take responsibility for their own experiences. “If you can’t cope then do something else. Decide for yourself.”
Lisa concedes that this might be easier in a country like Sweden where opportunities between men and women are more egalitarian than in many others. Her husband takes an equal share in caring for their two primary-school aged children “and my mother is another very important figure,” she adds.
Today her job does not involve managing people but rather long-term strategic thinking. “We are looking 30 years ahead , thinking about Europe’s future fighter programmes, wondering how to introduce the new technology that will doubtless appear between now and then, considering if this is the best way forward,” she explains. And, with sparkling eyes, adds “It’s fascinating!”