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CEO Caroline Farberger on leadership, coming out as transgender

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are, to what makes them get out of bed about the morning to their daily routines.

For almost five decades, Caroline Farberger spent every day pretending.

In her professional life, she was known as Carl Farberger, a powerful director who rose to the role of CEO of the Swedish insurance company ICA. “I had a high socio-economic position, a big house, a family, [three] children, “says Farberger, 54.” The full package. “

But from the time she was 8, she tells CNBC Make It, she felt like a character in a play on stage. “Being a boy was my character, my role,” she says. She was assigned a man at birth and hid her feminine identity, first at school and then at work and at home, fearing she would never be accepted.

In 2017, with the support of his wife, Farbarger got the courage to act. Dressed as a woman walking the streets of Stockholm, she says she immediately felt that being a woman was her true gender identity.

“Finally, at age 49, I felt authentic,” she says. “But later, when I reflected, there was also a scary feeling because I understood that there could be no way back.”

The first day Farberger dressed as a woman on the streets of Stockholm, June 5, 2017.

Caroline Farberger

On Thursday, September 13, 2018, Farberger said to her 120 employees: It was her last day as Carl. The next day she would be Caroline. “I would do it from one everyday to the next, just to show that it’s really just a packaging, I’m still the same person,” she says.

It was nerve-wracking, she adds, “I had a lot to lose.”

Farberger’s last day as Carl in her office, September 13, 2018.

Courtesy: Caroline Farberger

Today, Farberger considers her transition a success. She became Sweden’s first CEO to come out publicly as transgender, and earlier this month she was appointed partner and working chairman of the Swedish investment company Wellstreet.

“I did not believe I would be successful,” she says. But now “I’m as happy as anyone can be. I have not lost anything. I have my position in business. I have my wife, I have my children, and I have my house.”

Here, Farberger discusses the most difficult parts of her journey, how it changed her as a leader, and why it gave her a leg up to be CEO.

On how transition affected her leadership style: ‘It has changed me fundamentally’

At first, I did not believe I would change. I was pretty cocky during my transition to wanting to be the same leader. But it has changed me fundamentally.

It is a privilege in business to be a white heterosexual man. There are social structures in business which consist of men for men. Women, people of color, people with disabilities and other non-normative people have to play by rules defined by men in many ways.

[Before I transitioned], diversity was more of a statistic for me. I knew I had to recruit a certain amount of women around me to look good. But now it’s much more meaningful to have people who are different around me. It empowers those affected, and as a business, we become much more effective if we learn to harness the full potential of people who are different in certain ways.

As a leader who is responsible for the corporate culture, the way I behave sets the tone for the entire organization. If I am not inclusive, my managers who report to me will not be inclusive either.

I have never promised myself to play theater again, and to create an environment where everyone else can be themselves – in contrast to what I learned early in my career, which was to project an image that fits into the organization .

About the hardest part of her transition: ‘The biggest transphobia has been my own’

The hardest part of my transition was getting out to myself. The biggest transphobia has been my own. I really thought I would be a failure if I did not succeed in achieving the male character that I played.

People around me have taken it extremely well. My children, who were 12 and seven at the time, had no problems at all when my wife and I informed them. We had the “big talk” and I told them I was planning to live as a woman and change my name from Carl to Caroline.

They said, “OK.” And my wife and I looked at each other and thought: Is it really that easy?

I realized that what is normal and not normal is not something that is in our heads when we are born, but entirely within the social structures of one’s upbringing. I am very happy to see that the next generation accepts differences in sexual orientation and gender identity much more easily than I did as a child.

About being greeted with open arms at work: ‘I am in a privileged position as CEO’

I have not had one unpleasant situation [at work]which is a huge mystery to me.

But I know that when I network with other transgender people at a lower level on the corporate ladder, they have experienced difficulties. I have come to realize that even though I am very non-normative, I am in a privileged position as CEO.

I’m not a warehouse worker. I work with civil servants who are educated and very politically correct. There may be people who have problems with my appearance, but they think about it before they act on those opinions. If I had been a warehouse worker, I might have had difficulties.

I really thought before my transition that I would have to sacrifice myself. That I would be treated badly, have fewer options and feel more lonely. I was prepared. But I’ve got so many more options now than I would have if I continued to live as a middle-aged white heterosexual man.

I have found additional meaning in my life to be public and to encourage other people to be themselves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do not miss more from Behind the Desk:

GLAAD CEO on why she postponed getting out to work: ‘There were no lesbians who had great careers’

CEO Wynne Nowland after coming out as transgender: ‘I’m much more at peace with myself’

Trevor Burgess, first openly gay CEO of the public bank: ‘Success is the best revenge’

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