CEO Caroline Farberger on leadership, coming out as a 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 in the morning to their daily routines.

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

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

But from age 8, she tells CNBC Make It, she felt like a character in an on-stage play. “Being a boy was my character, my role,” she says. Assigned male at birth, she hid her feminine identity, first at school and then at work and home, scared that she would never be accepted.

In 2017, with the support of her wife, Farbarger gained 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 49 years of age, I felt authentic,” she says. “But later, when I reflected, there was also a terrifying feeling, because I understood that there could not be any way back.”

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

Caroline Farberger

On Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, Farberger told her 120-person staff: It was her last day as Carl. The next day, she would be Caroline. “I wanted to do it from one weekday to another, 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 at her office, on September 13, 2018.

Courtesy: Caroline Farberger

Today, Farberger deems her transition to success. She became Sweden’s first CEO to publicly come out as transgender, and earlier this month, she was named partner and working chair at 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 haven’t lost anything. I have my position in business. I have my wife, I have my kids and I have my house.”

Here, Farberger discusses the hardest parts of her journey, how it changed her as a leader and why already being a CEO gave her a leg up.

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

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

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

[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, having people who are diverse around me is much more meaningful. It empowers those affected, and as a business, we become much more effective if we learn to utilize the full potential of people who are different in certain ways.

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

I’ve promised myself to never, ever play theater again, and to create an environment where everyone else can be themselves – as opposed to what I learned early in my career, which was to project an image to fit into the organization.

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

The hardest part of my transition was coming out to myself. The biggest transphobia has been my own. I really thought I would be a failure if I failed to achieve the male character that I was playing.

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

They said, “OK.” And my wife and I looked at one another, thinking: It is really this easy?

I realized that what is normal, and not normal, is not something that’s 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 kid.

On being met with open arms at work: ‘I’m in a privileged position being a CEO’

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

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

I’m not a warehouse worker. I work with white-collar employees who are educated and very politically correct. There might be people who have issues with my appearance, but they probably think before they act on those opinions. If I had been a warehouse worker, I might have had difficulties.

I genuinely thought, before my transition, that I would have to make sacrifices. That I would be treated badly, have less opportunity and feel more lonely. I was prepared. But I have received so many more opportunities now than I would have if I continued to live as a middle-aged white heterosexual male.

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 put off coming out at work: ‘There were no lesbians who had big careers’

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

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

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