Andrea Leskovská: One of the strongest characteristics of a leader is the ability to learn
15 August 2022
Andrea Leskovská is the CIO and at the same time a member of the board of directors of Generali Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In the interview for Lean In, she told us about her career path, women in leadership, mentoring and quotas.
Andrea, you are the Chief Insurance Officer and a member of the Board of Directors of Generali. What was your career path in a nutshell, what position did you start in?
In my case, it was really steps from the bottom to the top, a kind of the American dream. I started in the insurance industry in 1999 simultaneously as a part-time Assistant to the Director and a part-time Claims Consulting Manager. I went from being a methodologist for processes, through de-monopolisation of statutory insurance, until finally getting to the product. Then I ranked up to being the Head of Department and then to Director, which is actually board level minus one. This had lasted 18 years with a three year break for maternity leave.
From your narrative it sounds like a smooth journey, but was it really?
Not at all. In between, I had also been in sales for two years, and had been in charge of the external sales channels that sell insurance in, for example, car dealership companies. I had been in charge of car dealers, travel agencies, car leasing... It was a winding road. In addition, I had been dealing with the so-called motor insurance sector, that is, CASCO and MTPL, where most people still imagine a man and not a woman, let alone a relatively young one.
I was 28 years old when I became Head of Department. When I was sent abroad to the parent company, authorities came from Western countries - men - fifty-something. They asked themselves – so, they have sent an assistant from Slovakia? I had also encountered this in Slovakia. I had also experienced different situations when debating with the dealership owners. For example, when they talked about very basic things about cars, not how the engine works, I often heard the phrase: "And for the lady here, I'll explain..." Because, of course, men automatically understand and don't need to be explained.
Did being a woman discriminate you in your career growth as well? Did you feel like you had to try harder than your male colleagues?
In my opinion, women who work their way up somewhere still have to put in more effort than the average man, I'm not saying all men. It is still extremely rare for a woman to reach a high position, and I have yet to meet an average woman in a higher-rank position. All the women I have met during my career have been exceptionally smart, talented and hard working. Most of the time they "stood out from the crowd".
I worked hard on every procedure and had no problem. At some point, however, you may encounter that some men have the ingrained idea that communicating with a woman can be more challenging. The board of directors is a too-narrow circle of co-workers, usually two or three men, and once a woman is part of the close-knit leadership, it means a need for these men to step out of their comfort zone and adapt. Of course, it's easier to have the same gender member in the “lot” that you don't have to adapt to. And that is often the glass ceiling that women can't get through. This is where quotas can help.
Yes, quotas for at least 40 % women on company boards have recently been approved in the EU. I've been looking at the statistics on the proportion of women on boards and it's still a big disparity. In Slovakia, the figure stands at 25%, while the EU average is even lower. Are you following the development of this situation and were quotas a necessity?
I would say it's in waves. In Slovakia, in the past, large state institutions did not suffer from a lack of women. On the contrary, in the financial sector, women were quite highly represented in the board-minus-one positions. I even remember that for a period of time the state insurance company was run by a woman.
After the regime change, foreign management came in with the new ownership and I think we have suffered in Slovakia in this respect. Now it's coming back again. Corporations have started to race to see who is better at these indicators, with women coming to the fore, sometimes to the point where men feel wronged by quotas and attempts to regulate the issue. However, the quotas came only after there was a will to raise the number of women. In fact, we have had rigorously proven results that companies with diversified management perform better. Yet it has gone nowhere, which is why quotas have come as a response.
If the numbers had naturally started to rise 8-10 years ago, no quotas would have come. Women don't like them either and feel wronged. They don't want to get somewhere because of quotas, they want to get somewhere because of their abilities. Especially the most talented ones get offended when someone accuses them of not being in a position if it weren't for quotas. It is not an altogether pleasant journey, but I understand the reasons why they have been taken.
So let us hope that quotas will help women, not hurt them. Do you remember what has helped you the most to advance in your career?
In my experience, your boss will help you the most. I had bosses for the vast majority of my career who valued the work, the result, the ability and didn't look at whether I was a woman or a man.
I used to say that at my age, I'm old enough to choose my boss. It is very important to have someone you know can see your abilities and will support them. And if you don't have one, you need to look for another place to work.
Yes, there is a lot of talk now about the so-called great resignation, where a lot of employees quit their jobs and the reason may be their boss. Leadership is also related to the topic of mentoring, which I wanted to talk to you about, as you spoke about it interestingly at our European Female Leaders Forum conference. You, as far as I know, have experience from both sides - you have both mentored and been mentored.
Yes, and quite recently. I have only recently started serious programme mentoring. I mentor a young team leader at Generali in Germany. She is 28 years old, very lively, talented, energetic. I completed my mentoring programme as a mentee a year ago, where I had been mentored for over a year by an amazing female senior leader from the Generali Group. Even though I was no longer a young talent, it pushed me on immensely and opened my eyes. I was finally able to throw away my fears, asking myself if I had done something right and couldn't have done it even better. That's where mentoring helped me.
It's similar with your boss. If you don't have a good boss, some things just don't get through, or they do, but in a much longer time and with more mental pain. We women can sometimes stress ourselves out. With a mentor, you have the advantage of the programme being a safe place. What is said in a meeting stays there. Your relationship is based on trust and that's when it works. When you bring something like this to your boss's attention, they may inadvertently use it against you. Therefore, it is better if the mentor and mentee are not in a team leader-team member position.
It is also important that it "clicks". After some time, both mentee and mentor need to tell each other if it is working for them, so that they don't waste, say, a year, unnecessarily.
At Generali, we can afford a mentoring programme because we have a lot of people. The skills are in the organisation and it's basically free, you just need to organise it well. In a start-up company with 20 people, it's probably harder and then you have to look for an external mentor.
I suppose it is more of an exception that the employer offers a mentoring programme. How do you look for a mentor outside of work?
Personally, I have never looked for a mentor outside the company. In this case, I would go after professional career coaches. Nowadays there are really a lot of them. However, I have to tell to myself up front whether I want to invest my own money in it. Another option is to contact your HR and give them inspiration, ask them if they know how to organise it in the company.
Can you think of specific situations where mentoring has helped you?
I will mention two. I make decisions quite quickly and everything takes a very short time for me. I got feedback from my mentor that my people may not be up to my pace, so I need to explain my decisions more. If I just make them face my decision, they may be demotivated as they can't see inside my head.
This is also a beautiful example of motivation and being respected more as a leader. So I share more of how I think, how I make decisions, or if I can, I explain my perspective and leave the decision up to them. This is particularly important for young people because they have to agree with the decision. If they don't agree, they won't do it.
What about the other area?
The much more challenging thing that mentoring has taught me is to accept feedback. We were brought up in such a way that no one will give you positive feedback. If they give you feedback, it means that someone is criticising you or reproaching you for something. This is what our generation grew up with. That's why it was difficult for me to accept the feedback. My mentor showed me that feedback is a gift. It shows me the difference between what I do and what I want people to perceive that I do.
For example, I'll tell you: "Let's go eat." But you don't want to come with me because you're not hungry. The effect can be that "she's forcing me", whereas I didn't mean it that way at all. If you give me this feedback, next time I'll say: "I'm going to get something to eat, and if you want, come with me."
The difference between what you think you are doing to the best of your knowledge and conscience and how others perceive it is where you need to move. You can't get there without feedbacks. The only person you can work to improve is yourself. You can't work on your child, your husband, your colleague, you can't do it. I can only move myself. And if I don't get feedback, I'm still going to get it wrong.
For many years I had a hard time accepting feedback, but mentoring has shifted my perception of it. Before, I didn't know why people understood it that way, because I didn't mean it that way. It is like a transmitter and receiver. If all receivers understand something different, there is probably a fault in the transmitter. And I can change the transmitter, but I can't change all the receivers. So those are the two most important things I took away.
It's interesting to see that even in your high position you had a mentor and that you are still working on yourself.
A mentor told me that one of the strongest qualities of a leader is the ability to learn. People who think that learning is over with college will never make good leaders. I've always had it, all my life I've been adding new things, learning, creating things. For example, 5-6 years ago I started to do aromatherapy. I have all sorts of interests and I'm always finding new hobbies. The process of learning arouses your curiosity. Things may work differently than we are used to. This is the driving force that moves companies forward. No manager is so perfect that he can't improve, no matter how old he or she is.
And what does mentoring give you from the other side?
It has to do with the fact that I've been learning all my life. Such interaction also gives me feedback. I'm learning how to read people, how to sense their needs, how to be more empathetic, how to talk to the younger generation in a way that engages them. It's an enrichment of my soft skills. You have a person you're very focused on, you have to understand what he or she wants to say, where they want to get to. I'm practicing my emotional skills.
The younger generation works differently and I try to get feedback on whether I'm understandable, whether it was awkward and also how to motivate young people. Nowadays, it often happens that if another company gives you 150 euro a month more, you leave because it's money. In addition, today's young people want to learn, to expand their skills, even by changing employers. However, this costs every employer a lot of money and blocks employees who have to constantly train someone. Fluctuation is extremely expensive. So the fact that I can motivate young or older people is also beneficial for the company. I believe that motivated colleagues will not just change an employer.
At Lean In we are also dedicated to leadership development, we have an academy for emerging leaders. What do you think are the key qualities for people who aspire to leadership positions?
Leadership is innate to a certain extent in my opinion. Not everyone can be a leader. Being a leader means that people follow you. Not that you hand out tasks and people do them. It's about the idea that I will feel sad when leaving this boss. Emotional intelligence, empathy and lifelong learning are very important. A leader cannot stagnate or his people will outgrow him.
You can find a million definitions of a leader on the internet. However, I don´t mean their decision-making skills or being able to separate essential from non-essential information, etc. I mean just soft skills. You have to motivate people and that's what mentoring does for me . You get used to the amount of your salary the second you get it. But money is not what buys people's motivation. If we want to keep people, we have to create an environment that can't be copied, you won't find it in another company, in a competitor that looks the same from the outside. Focus on people is extremely important.
Do you see differences between male and female leadership?
When it comes to really the best leaders I've met, there was no difference between women and men. It's really about personalities, individualities. Everyone is special in something different.
Nevertheless, it happens that there is only one woman in the management team and sometimes this causes tension on both sides.
When I get that imaginary seat at that table, my first task is to adapt. And when I adapt to the team and gain trust, that's when I can start to change things. I think it's very important for women to learn to adapt to their environment. Especially when a woman gets into an exlusively male team. I don't want to create prejudice, but based on millions of years of evolution, men and women communicate differently. And it's good to know that we can change our communication if we want to, so that others understand us.
I will give a simple example. When we talk to young children, we squat down to be at their level, we stop pronouncing r and other syllables. We do the same thing in adult form with a stranger, switching to another language to get along with them. But we don't do it in a gendered way - I don't put it in a different way so that the man doesn't get the wrong picture.
Once I develop a relationship with the team and know that they understand me and there is trust between us, I can start to change the image that women don't immediately have to mean a threat to the comfort zone. When I get to a barrier-free communication level and no one feels threatened, I can bring in the feminine elements and then they will be appreciated. And that's why companies perform better when they have gender-balanced leadership. Men and women typically have strengths and weaknesses, and when different perspectives, ideas, solutions come together, more things come up and the better one is chosen. But I can't start changing the course of the company and influencing things without getting to the table and gaining trust.
Christine Lagarde (now President of the European Central Bank) also speaks about this: Her advice was: Dress, Address, Redress.
If I want to start changing something, I have to fit in - both in communication and appearance. Then I can address the matter and eventually change it.
But just because I adapt doesn't mean I become a man. I will still remain a woman. I'll just make sure my surroundings understand.
Moving from the top back to the lower ranks, do you also see women being less pushing or assertive in reaching out for new opportunities?
They reach for opportunities less, but for a different reason. Not because they are less confident. I think women weigh more what they are willing to give to work at the expense of family. Unless the women are after the function, in my experience the reason is that it would take too much of their capacities and rob them of the energy and time they want to devote to something else. Almost always a woman has strong pros and cons.
I understand. And men probably don't think about it that hard because they don't have to.
Still in many families the model is that the woman takes care of most of the household and the children. I'm not saying all, but most, and thus housekeeping is their second job. So a woman makes up her mind whether she can be at work for 10-11 hours like her husband, or whether she has to do work for 3 hours around the children. She still has the same 24 hours available. We, women, probably have the sense of caring more deeply coded.
If a woman does not have the opportunity in the family to arrange it so that she does not have to do everything herself, doubts will come - will it be worth it, will I be able to cope? Of course, family is always more valuable than work.
On the other hand, there are women who have the support of those around them or the opportunities to combine career and family. Some, even with small children, can manage both perfectly - career and family, always being in the right place. Because I don't need to be everywhere, but to find a balance and be where I am needed.
What are your next career ambitions, where would you like to move to? What do you want to work on next?
When I read this question, I got to thinking. Never in my life, even when I started, did I have a specific goal of where I wanted to get to. It always came after I became so comfortable and confident in my position. And that's when the opportunity came and I said I'm taking it. It wasn't that I said to myself at 18 or 25 that my goal was to be a board member.
And this is also one of my pieces of advice - don't try to choose the position you want to grow into. Because life twists it completely differently. Considering all the positions I've been through in my life, I would never have drawn such a labyrinth with all the detours.
As a person, a team manager, I always want to work on myself. As a manager, I want to be the best so that my people will always say "the best boss I've ever had in my life". I'm going to educate myself on that and move forward, and I don't need a label for that.
Do you have any other advice for our readers - how to be happy and successful at work?
First of all, the balance of energy. Whatever happens, it is not a state that is reached once and there it stays. I have to strive for balance every day. If I'm on the road for two weeks, I have to look for where to balance that energy. I can fool it too, but it always comes back to me: not just in health, but in motivation, family, everything. One should try in all priorities to balance out all the balls in the air, so that not a single one falls to the ground. So balance is very important.
And then work on yourself and be prepared, don't get demotivated if something doesn't work out. Be prepared for a situation and when it arises, be ready: I've learned a lot, I've worked on myself, the people around me can see that, and I'll be the natural choice when a new opportunity arises.
And at the same time, if I see that I am in a dead end, I need to take courage and change the path.
(Source: Leanin.sk, 12. 8. 2022)