Mercè Sala, the only president of Renfe: promoted high speed and female leadership
On a day like today 30 years ago, high-speed train travel began in Spain. Leaving Madrid’s Atocha station and ending at Santa Justa, Seville, more than 83 million passengers, according to Renfe data, have enjoyed this route that also stops in the provinces of Ciudad Real and Córdoba. A line that marked a before and after in the way of traveling through our country and that, in addition, was launched during the mandate of the only woman who presided over the old Renfe: Mercè Sala.
Mercè Sala Schnorkowski (1943-2008) was in charge of the National Network of Spanish Railways for five years – between 1991 and 1996 – and during that time promoted the AVE in Spain. With a disruptive and innovative vision, he also accelerated the reorganization of the railway network and, internally, promoted a new organizational model based on participatory management, strategic planning and quality management.
And by the time he arrived at Renfe, Sala already had experience in the transportation sector. An economist by training, his professional beginnings were in the private sector and he spent almost a decade at the Industrial Bank of Catalonia. However, in the first democratic municipal elections in 1979, she was elected councilor of Barcelona City Council for the PSC list.
From there, he spent much of his career in public service: first as president of Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona, and later as first deputy mayor, responsible for Urban Planning and Public Works. In 1991, the then Minister of Public Works and Transport of Spain, Josep Borrellentrusted him with the presidency of Renfe, an experience that he collected in his doctoral thesis From hierarchy to responsibility. The case of Renfepublished in 2000.
With the arrival of José María Aznar to the Government, Sala left his position at Renfe, but continued his career linked to public service. “I enjoy my job, which consists much more of listening and seeking agreement than of deciding,” he explained on his blog a few months before he died. Thus, he was a member of the board of directors of the Corporació Catalana de Mitjans Audiovisuals (Catalan public radio and television) and of the Consell de Treball, Econòmic i Social de Catalunya (the consultative body of the Generalitat on socioeconomic matters). In the private sector, she also temporarily served as a director of Carrefour and Indra.
Equality and female leadership
Beyond her public positions, her promotion of the high-speed network or for being a pioneer in the railway field, Sala stood out for her efforts to promote the incorporation of women in the transport sector and her defense of female leadership. “Women have to trust in our intelligence and identity without imitating male attitudes when it comes to leading. Feminine culture gives importance to intimacy, detail, personal relationships and the depth of things,” she stated.
Sala insisted on the need to work for this change towards labor equality since, “we have been working on the issue of leadership for a long time, which we have applied in the role that has historically corresponded to us, such as the domestic economy.” And, although he was not in favor of positive discrimination policies, he did consider it “good to force those situations.”
“On this issue, we have to be aware of our capacity, and we have to even influence it. I think we can contribute different things, as I have deduced from the opinions of many women who have reached leadership positions. They show that we have more understanding, more creativity, more intuition… Companies would have to think about hiring women “It is not something that is now politically correct, but it is good business”he expressed in an interview with Fusion Magazine.
In this sense, he was betting on the work-life balance as the best tool to achieve equality. “Measures such as childcare in the company or really leaving work at seven and putting an end to endless meetings help to have more women and the more we are there, the more things will change. I think all this would be a process healthier and more natural if it came from companies than from a government,” he declared to Five days.
The ‘matriarchal model’
With a business vision ahead of his time, he also defended principles such as teamwork and the end of traditional hierarchical structureswhich had to be changed to the “matriarchal model.”
As explained in The vanguard“this model basically encourages teamwork. The most modern companies tend to operate in a network. The network culture conceives the organization as a set of companies that collaborate to produce and deliver products and services to the customer.”
To promote all these ideas, in 1997 he created the Foundation for Human Resources Motivation -currently called Fundació Factor Humà-, which has the objective of “promoting the development of organizations that adopt a more human perspective through the promotion of a community of innovation, reflection and exchange.” Later in 2006, she published her book The charm of Hamelin (Encourages Editorial). As she herself admitted, one of her greatest wishes after leaving Renfe was to have left as an inheritance this form of work that she felt was more egalitarian and, ultimately, fair.
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