Gudrun Sander, you have been at the HSG for over 30 years and at the Executive School for 14. What have been your highs and lows so far?

First the successes:

The biggest success is definitely that career re-entry has now become an important topic for many companies today. And of course, with the Women Back to Business programmes alone, we have enabled around 400 women to re-enter the workforce or to make a career transition.

A key success factor in this was that I was able to recruit Patricia Widmer to set up the English WBB programme. As a former participant of the WBB, she knows the programme from personal experience. She has not only built up the English programme on the basis of the existing German course, but has also further developed both programmes and created new components. For me, the greatest success is knowing that I leave this jewel is in the best hands with Patricia and that we will continue to work closely together, even though I am now leaving the Executive School.


What do you remember particularly well from your time at the Executive School?

I remember many wonderful moments at the ES. Personally, I was most touched by the tenth anniversary of WBB, when there were more than 200 female graduates in attendance at the Executive Campus. This event made the impact of the last ten years more visible and tangible to me than ever before.

I also launched the Diversity & Inclusion conference (now D&I Week) five years ago. This cross-institutional endeavour has become a showcase for the outside world and has given the HSG a strong position in this topic area. Our organisational committee, which defines the agenda for each year, is comprised of  several institutes and schools, and we also benefit from the expertise of the ES in the organisation, marketing, and implementation of the event.

And, of course, the development of the Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion at the Research Institute for International Management. CCDI mainly conducts wage analyses and benchmark studies and supports companies and organisations in different phases of their D&I journey.


Have there been any bumps in the road?

It took a lot of effort to convince companies to take well-qualified women re-entering the workforce seriously. At the beginning, there were a lot of prejudices. Do these women really want to work? Can they still do something after being out of the labour market for so long? Since we included companies as partner companies and cooperation partners from the beginning, there was a certain openness. But the big challenge was that there were no standard profiles or jobs for women re-entering the workforce – unlike for university graduates. The positions had to be “newly created” for each of the women re-entering the workforce. In the beginning, the companies were overwhelmed. Today, they have learned that they don’t simply have to let go of well-qualified women after the birth of their first child, but can retain them with part-time positions and job sharing. Companies have also discovered that a few years of career interruption does not mean “starting from scratch”. But still, it depends a lot on the maturity of the companies and how well they can use the potential of women returning to work.


Will you miss anything after your departure from the ES?

What I will miss most is accompanying the participants of the WBB programme in a critical phase of their lives. Each course lasts over a year, so you get to know many participants on a personal level. You rejoice with them when they succeed in re-entering the workforce or changing career tracks, but you also suffer with them when they have to deal with setbacks. I will miss the intake interviews and all the personal stories. I would have loved to hire most of the graduates directly. I actually did hire some of them. I like to build relationships, and that works much better in a longer course than during a one-time workshop of a few hours. And for sure, the great team at ES, especially the WBB team and the Höfli team. But I will continue to work closely with Patricia, Melissa and also with Stephanie Schoss in new joint projects – such as the planned support programme for female resident physicians.


Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

On the one hand, I am happy that I can now fully concentrate on the further development of the Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI) and, on the other hand, that I can help to shape the continued growth and positioning of the Research Institute for International Management as co-director of FIM-HSG. In 1989 I was the first assistant at the newly founded FIM, and now I am leading the institute into the future together with Winfried Ruigrok. I am very much looking forward to this, as we are also making a contribution to the HSG’s further internationalization strategy.


Diversity also plays an important role in executive education programs. Will you stay on at the Executive School as a lecturer?

Absolutely. I will continue to give executive training in the areas of inclusive leadership and diversity & inclusion, partly for the Executive School and partly directly for companies. This is and will remain one of my great passions.

Thank you very much Gudrun for your personal thoughts and for your commitment to the Executive School. We will miss you very much!

Patricia Widmer, as Head of Diversity and Management Programmes, you are now responsible for executive education programmes in Gudrun Sander’s place, including Women Back to Business as well as newly launched programmes. Where is the journey heading?

The days when employees could expect – or even desire – lifelong employment in a single job are over. The modern career path is not necessarily an ascent to a destination, but rather a journey. With this and the developments of the pandemic in mind, we want to continue to train and support more people with so-called non-linear career paths along the way. Our many years of experience with the Women Back to Business programme make us experts in this field, and we’re using this knowledge to develop new programmes. Examples of this are the recently launched Check-in to Management Programme for pilots and the Reskilling Sales Programme starting in June.

Together with our partners and our network, we have created an ecosystem that builds bridges. We accompany participants as they take their first steps on the path to career change by imparting knowledge and skills and offering concrete support in their search for a new professional challenge. All these activities and programmes are part of a comprehensive Career Relaunch initiative, together with the Career Relaunch conference and a new Career Relaunch online platform.


Where do you see more potential?

I see three key areas for the future:

  • Modularizing our programmes can add sustainable value for our clients. Different focuses can be set to solve specific problems.
  • Digitalising our programmes also offers our clientele greater flexibility as well as greater visibility in the market through collaborative networks. This does not mean that physical face-to-face teaching will no longer take place. On the contrary, it will be enhanced by a hybrid classroom and online formats.
  • Through greater individualisation, we can better meet the needs of our participants. It is important for learning content to be concise and available at the right time. This means providing customer-specific advice and support in order to ensure a successful learning experience.


What challenges you the most?

I have to admit that I like challenges. They drive me forward and I can grow from them. Certainly, great uncertainties, such as those we experienced last year with Covid, are not always easy. But I also see such times as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves as well as to make our training programmes more agile for the future.


And what makes you happy?

I really enjoy working with various stakeholders. I would like to specifically mention my wonderful team as well as my colleagues from all over the ES and HSG. It is great to work with inspired and motivated people. Supporting our participants as a lecturer and in individual conversations is fulfilling as well. I also value our collaboration with many interesting partner organizations and inspiring people in our corporate network.

In this ecosystem, we will continue to develop our activities and thus have a lasting positive impact on the labour market as well as in the lives of countless individuals. And that thought makes me really happy.


Is there anything else you would like to add?

At this point I would like to say a big thank you to Gudrun. Not only did she lay the foundation for our Career Relaunch division with WBB almost 15 years ago, she also personally gave me the chance to reposition myself about 7 years ago. For that, as well as for the mutual trust and constant support (sometimes a push) of my further development, I would like to express my sincere gratitude.

I look forward to our continued collaboration across organisational lines and to many exciting years in an inspiring environment.

Thank you very much, Patricia, for sharing your thoughts with us. We are looking forward to your future projects and are happy to have you here at the Executive School!

About the author(s)


Executive School of Management, Technology and Law

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