Why diversity in leadership matters: An interview with Ursa Pejovnik

How does an accomplished female leader view diversity and inclusion? What helped her personally to assert herself and climb the career ladder? In which areas does she think that companies can do better, and in which aspects is the sometimes underestimated Central and Eastern Europe region already doing better than others? We sat down with Ursa Pejovnik, SMB and Inside Sales Director for the CERTA region at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, to discuss these topics and many more.

Can you tell us what were the biggest milestones in your career as a woman in leadership?

There were two big milestones. First one when I was appointed the people manager. This happened almost overnight, as it often happens in corporations. I started leading a team of 20 employees all around the region, so this was quite a big step from being an individual contributor and required lots of adaption, as well as new practices to learn.

The second one was few years later when our company introduced the role of Chief of Staff. This was a relatively new, undefined role, which was usually reserved for politicians. For instance Presidents of USA have Chief of Staff. The way we set the role was that in a way I became a »right hand« of the Director of the region. Throughout the years that I was Chief of Staff, I learned a lot about the business, about different aspects of how one deals with unpredictable situations, how to close business with customers and about cooperation with partners by working closely with my managers (I was Chief of Staff to two Managing Directors in this period) and observed their leadership style. In those years company went through significant transformation and I was leading many challenging projects. Being Chief of Staff was like being on an accelerated learning path, almost like an MBA. The way I learned about business in those years was through practice and engaging with people within and outside of the company. I work hard to keep in contact with the network of people I have established in those years and their support and knowledge is helping me a lot still today.

Which specific things have helped you most in climbing the career ladder? What do you feel makes it a different experience for women?

I can only say that I hear that the experience can be different for a woman, and I acknowledge this. However, I also need to admit that I'm pretty lucky as within our company, I have never had the feeling that somebody would hold me back because I am a woman. If there was an obstacle, it was mainly coming from my own head. When I thought that I could not do something, that it’s not the right time or similar fears. What helped me most is definitely support of people, the network I have created. I am a huge fan of talking to people, of meeting people, of keeping in contact with them. I'm also a big fan of mentorship programs. I strongly believe that on top of performing job well, knowing the right person at the right time, can help accelerating career.

Why, from your experience, is diversity and inclusion generally so important in organizations? What does it bring?

It brings the right balance. Everything in life needs to be balanced, right? So the way we run businesses also needs to be balanced. And it's not only about male or female balance, it's also about age, about the experience. It's about mixing different cultures, different people with different backgrounds, with different ways of life. So what I think and am trying to say is, that in order to have a successful organisation you need to have a good representation of everybody.

For instance – the team Im leading is a very young team. Therefore for me it is really important that there are at least  few members of this team who are a little bit older, coming from my generation (smile). Different generations are having different points of view, and different points of view help when we are looking for a new solution. Sometimes young generation comes with a better idea because they are more up-to-date and less stuck in their thinking. Sometimes the older generation comes with a better idea because they are more pragmatic and very often they make sure we are not reinventing the wheel.

Why do we specifically need more diversity in leadership? How does having a diverse set of leaders benefit companies?

It's exactly the same reason as I just talked about. To bring different perspectives so that it’s not just one opinion of one group or one state of mind that prevails and is always »the right one«. Not just one perspective of one group that is ultimately right. If you don’t bring in different perspectives, different ideas and different points of view, you will never progress.

What do you think holds companies back from having more diversity in their leadership?

I think it's probably a fear of change. It could be that leaders are not really sure what will happen, if they bring a new, potentially even »destructive« element in. And new way of thinking that is different from their own. If you are living in your comfort zone, why would you bring in something new, right? We also hear much too often that women are not promoted or are not accelerating their careers, because of a general belief that it is impossible to balance work and private life. We still hear that we need to focus on our primary role, which is being a good mother. Take care of household. Stay with the kids.

If there is one good thing that covid times brought is that everybody has learned that we can work differently. We all needed to figure out how to balance our work and private life, how to share the household with all the members being in the same place almost all the time. How to switch off when your office was also kitchen or living room so it was very handy to check mails all the time. If there is one time when the idea about women not being able to have a right work life balance could and should disappear, it is now. Because we proved that we can adapt very very quickly, much faster then someone would be willing to admit pre-covid.

Can changes also be made from the bottom up as well as from top down? If employees want to see more diversity in the leadership of their companies, is there something they can do about that?

Yes. They need to speak about this. We all need to speak about it. We all need to participate in programs and trainings about D&I. It’s all about the way one speaks about diversity. If someone makes it a positive news, a good news than it is easier to promote this idea in the organisation. Employees should tell the leaders how and where they can do better in many aspects of business life, diversity included. Changes can absolutely come from the bottom up.

We can sometimes hear employees say about managers that “this person only got the job because of this new D&I policy/quota”. Can these measures also affect the attitudes to diversity in companies in a negative way? And how can we explain the importance of D&I measures in a way that everyone understands and identifies with?

I think it's very important to understand that while you are hiring somebody, your ultimate goal is to get the best person for the position. But what you can do more actively is focus your attention and energy on inviting diverse people to the selection process, to the interview. It is always a good idea to ask your network of people if they have another talent. If they can recommend someone. As I said before, women very often need some encouragement to apply for positions. Especially for the more challenging positions. And young generations sometimes believe that they are not having enough experience to apply. Sometimes we are not reaching an audience big enough to attract diverse talents, so here your network can help you. But I also want to be very clear. When I recommend somebody to the person that is hiring, I always say, look, I'm giving you my recommendation and I will explain you why I'm recommending this person. But at the end of the day, it is your responsibility to select the best person for this job. I don't want to influence your selection, I’m not saying you need to meet a certain quota, I just want you to consider diverse talents for the position you are hiring. And I'm super happy if, at the end of the day, a person that was not even thinking to apply in the first place, gets the job and excels at it. This is the best counterargument to the quota statement in your question.

Can you recall any situations from your career where having more diverse leadership could have helped avoid a crisis or solved a serious problem?

I cannot. In my current and past teams we always found a way to solve serious problems or overcome a crisis by playing as a team. I also never had the feeling that if my team would be structured differently, we would have solved things easier or accelerate faster. However the teams I was and Im working  with today are quite diverse, so maybe my teams are already using all the benefits of a diverse ideas generation (smile).

How do you view the situation of leadership D&I in Central and Eastern Europe compared to the rest of the world? Is there anything specific or different about it?

I've been working in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Middle East and Africa region, so I can only compare those two. The importance of diversity and the programs I see are a little bit more advanced in Central Europe than in the Middle East, but they are catching up fast. Also, sometimes we tend to forget, that very often we in Central Europe are in advantage to the rest of the world that we believe is way ahead of us. Let me give you one example: a few years ago, our company introduced an option for new parents to stay at home for six months, fully paid after the baby is born. My colleagues from North America were absolutely thrilled about this and yes, it is indeed a great project. But on the other hand, I was thinking, well, I had the opportunity to stay home fully paid for a whole year? (smile) So we should not forget to acknowledge privileges we have that the rest of the world doesn’t.

What changes would you like to see companies make in terms of leadership D&I in the future?

When I’m working with my Femme Palette mentees, I see that especially smaller companies are totally neglecting the soft aspect, the people management. Maybe they do a teambuilding two, three times per year, but they do not have development paths for employees, mentorship programs, they sometimes don’t even have trainings planned in advance. And if even this basics are missing, they certainly do not have diversity programs on their agendas. Diversity is probably somewhere on the 100th place when they think about priorities how to run company better and perform faster. If you ask me, diversity should absolutely be among the top, well if not three for sure top five business priorities. Top companies are definitely recognising all the benefits that introduction of diversity programs is bringing to them and those that wants join the top, be amongst the best, simply need to follow.

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