We spoke with Marzena Kulis, Managing Director, Johnson & Johnson MedTech, Middle East and MISSA.

You are one of very few women in such a top position, in a rather difficult region, where there are not that many female executives. Can you share with us what helped you, and what led you here?

This is probably due to several factors, first of all: the baggage of ambition, courage, and the right to pursue a professional career, which I have carried with me since childhood – I definitely owe this to my mother. I’ve always been driven to do something interesting, exciting, and rewarding. Also, I learn the most from people who are different to me, who come from other cultures, other business sectors, or differ significantly from me, for example, in age. This enabled me to become convinced that diversity is so very important – I have a deep respect for it and see it as a business fundamental.

It is also important that I work in a company which is very open and supports diversity. The presence of such companies in the Middle East instigates and encourages others to follow best practice in business and leadership imperatives and fundamentals, including diversity. It is still difficult to talk about a trend here, as it still may be in developing stages, but I observe a great desire for a change.

Do you consider yourself to be a part of this change?

Immediately after arriving in Dubai I was elected to the Management Board of the MedTech Companies Association – MECOMED. I also received the Forbes Award for the Most Influential Woman in the Middle East, which gave me significant exposure to both the business world and the wider public sphere. I am now invited to various meetings and I participate in many round-tables, where often I am the only woman at the table, but the message is spreading around the region and I am sure that something is slowly changing.

Can we somehow influence circumstances to make women's careers easier, to enable them to succeed? I am not talking just about the Middle East, but in a more general way.

This is a very important question, and as usual, there is no simple way to address this problem, but it is through embedding a culture of diversity within organizations. It must be processed and consistent. Culture builds powerful organizations.

It is worth noting that at the entry level we have a balance between women and men. We build inspiring development programs, including those focused only on women, but it takes many years for those talents to reach the managerial level, and even more to reach the executive level – unless, of course, it is someone exceptional in terms of performance, leadership, and commitment. Men climb faster, they have time to devote themselves entirely and fully engage. At the managerial level it’s 30% women and 70% men, at executive level the ratio is even worse.  Mobility, courage, and openness are necessary to make a career, and women are not so eager to practice those, or at times feels enabled to do so. Also, and all too often, they can be all discouraged by their managers or partners. As I said, building ambition and courage at a very early age plays a significant role, and you need the enabling and safe space to cultivate it.

Do you think a gender balance quota, regulations and targets in the EU will affect this?

I am not a big fan of regulations which tell us how to run the business, but as you can see, we did not make much progress the other way. So, I think that is an important step and probably necessary, but it is also important to change the mindset at the executive level. It is important is to teach top managers “inclusive & authentic leadership”.

What does that mean?

AUTHENTIC means: “You walk the talk”, you build the trust, you treat your people with respect.

INCLUSIVE means: you are open to different ideas, you learn from your people, you reflect on their point of view, even when and if you do not initially agree, however you still encourage them to be a significant part of important business decisions. It is when you are not biased.

In our company, every VP has a KPI related to increasing diversity as part of their business goals – our assessment of leadership skills depends on it. I have noticed huge progress in this area since this model of appraisal was introduced. At the moment, we are focused on strengthening our talent pool.

I have “exported” a lot of women from my region to the EU and to the USA to develop them further. Having said that, perhaps I didn’t focus enough on acquiring new talents externally – I didn’t close the loop. You have to develop what you have, as well as being proactive and rather aggressive at points, in searching for female talent and inviting them to join your organization.

Some say “the quotas” lead to hiring women who may be "weaker" candidates than their male counterparts?

So what? Our role is to support them to grow even if it is a stretch for them.  We can’t be afraid of mistakes, they will happen just like they do when hiring men. It is the part of the game. I believe that if we want to change something we have to start at home with our children: teaching girls that they have right to be ambitious and teaching boys to appreciate that. We also have to focus on building a culture of openness and inclusiveness. If quotas will accelerate this process, we will all benefit from it, not only women.

Friisberg & Partners International believes Ukraine should remain an independent sovereign nation, and we wanted to offer more than just words in support of the people of Ukraine at this time of conflict and crisis.

We are pleased to announce that Friisberg & Partners International now has an office in Kyiv.

Friisberg has specialised in cross-border co-operation in Executive Search since 1977. Our Partners and Consultants all share a strong desire to combine our skills, resources and networks and to share our expertise in support of an economically sustainable and inclusive future for Ukraine.

Ukraine has some significant economic advantages: its well-educated people, its large domestic market, its natural resources - including some of Europe’s very best agricultural land - and its location on major trading routes over land and sea. Despite the war, Ukrainian economic activity continues, and in time will recover fully.

Elena Maysyura is currently the Head of Organisational Activity Unit for the Presidential Office of Ukraine, and is now our new Kyiv Partner.

Elena and her team already works extensively within Ukraine’s senior executive community, and it is our hope and intention that when international businesses decide to invest in Ukraine, they will choose Friisberg as the Executive Search firm best placed to both understand multinational business and identify talented Ukrainian leaders for their investments.

Having graduated from the TACIS Program of the HR Management Faculty at Kyiv National University, Elena now has twenty-eight years of practical experience in the HR sphere and nineteen years in executive search, with a particular focus on cross-border search assignments for international companies with a interests in Ukraine and the CIS.

Under Elena’s supervision and with her direct involvement, a leading Ukrainian law firm successfully underwent the international HR audit and certification process, and became the first Ukrainian Company and the first Law Firm in the CIS to be awarded “Investors in People”. She has also successfully completed a practical course on the Lean Six Sigma methodology and received a certificate from The European Black Belt Institute and writes extensively on HR strategies and policies.

Our new Kyiv office already counts several of Ukraine’s leading brands among its clients, including: Teva, Sandoz, PwC, AC Nielsen, Elementum Energy, VR Capital, MSD, Organon, DHL Express, DHL Global Forwarding, Glass Troesch, DTEK, D.Trading, BASF, Hilti, DCH, and Dr.Reddy’s.

Zoltan Petho, Chair of Friisberg said, “With a Kyiv office, we are able to offer real and meaningful support to Ukraine. We acknowledge that these are turbulent times, but we can also see the opportunities, and our new office is an expression of our determination and willingness to enable international companies that want to invest, establish a presence, and succeed in Ukraine. Whatever the circumstances, we are fully committed to extending the reach and ability of our clients to attract the best talent.”

Anna Rudzinska from our office in Warsaw spoke with MICHAŁ FIJOŁ, Chief Commercial Officer and Board Member at LOT Polish National Airlines about how to introduce digital transformation and manage a large organisation in times of change.

Michał, could you first introduce yourself and tell us something about your role as a Chief Commercial Officer?

Basically, I sell tickets! That is how I describe my position outside the industry. Why so? Because airlines are associated with airplanes, captains, cabin crew, airports; it is the usual passenger perspective.

The back-end, of which I am in charge, is very seldom revealed to the public and it includes all the commercial activities of the airline: network planning, airplane allocation, ticket pricing, revenue management, global sales and marketing, product, contact centre and airport customer service and last but not least cargo business. As Chief Commercial Officer I am here, together with my team of over 800 people worldwide, to run a profitable airline business.

And the company itself? How big is this business? What are the challenges that you as an organization face?

LOT is one the oldest airlines, established in 1928. It has its hub in Warsaw, working mostly in hub&spoke model with some point-to-point flights operated from Cracow and Budapest.

I joined LOT in January 2016; the airline was at that time on the verge of bankruptcy. The simple plan of the new board was the profitable growth of LOT. As a result for the following four years, between 2016 and 2019, LOT was the fastest growing airline in Europe, over 25% every year: the number of passengers increased from 4.5 to 10.5 million yearly, the number of destinations from 42 to over 100, the number of our planes was doubled to 80. And in all those years LOT had a significant positive financial result. Then the difficult times of COVID came, which was a disaster for the entire travel sector. Now I am pleased to say: we are back on track.

These are your results and successes, but what was the path? How did you manage to achieve such results?

Firstly, let me say that aviation is an internationally exposed industry which requires extraordinary cooperation. Neither success or a failure is an individual result. The mind-set of the entire management team as well as the efforts of the entire organisation were necessary to get where we are.

This is why a great team is necessary to accommodate the growth and at the same time to charge the company. Sales is based on relations and we invested a lot of time into our network. All the rest are numbers and all our decisions have been backed up with proper analytics.

My special focus was on digital transformation of the processes within the entire company. The team needed to keep in mind the passengers’ perspective in every decision and change we made - passengers’ comfort and convenience. The ultimate goal was to deliver a smooth digital travel experience, which consists of inspiration, promotion, booking and payment process, post-sales activities, check-in, communication with the passenger, in-flight and post-flight services.

I am extremely satisfied with what LOT achieved as currently one of the biggest e-commerce businesses in Poland. The quality that we offer in our own channel on lot.com and through LOT’s apps provides a world-class customer experience which translates into great results and passengers’ satisfaction. The major advantage for an airline is direct communication with the customer – I prefer saying: passenger or guest – better control over the process and lower cost. At the same time we know more about the needs of our passengers so we can better adopt and have a better offer for them.

In parallel, we put a lot of effort in expanding our collaboration with indirect sales agents. I truly believe they will always have an important role as travel managers. An open dialogue, continuous communication, understanding of their needs, beneficial cooperation are the manifestation of this attitude.

With every transformation and change, managers must face financial restraints. Also, people often do not like change and try to avoid the new and unknown. How did you deal with such situations?

Two important aspects need to be mentioned here.

Firstly, the promotion of change: the team knows that we need to increase our business and we need to improve. The consequence is that resources are necessary because our people need time to accommodate the significant growth and also to find space for change implementation. The change means introduction of the most modern IT solutions, new products for our passengers, process optimization, and business development. Growth accommodation means that LOT serves more and more passengers every year, and the change means that we are able to serve even more passengers with the same resources and be more profitable.

Participation in change increases adoption of the new solutions, it is perceived as distinction, and enables a chance to gain new competencies. The change leaders are the ones who I appreciate the most.

Secondly, and here let us come back to the digital transformation, the changes in IT systems designed for aviation are extremely complex. Plus, the airline had a significant IT debt. Introduction of new technologies does not mean just a purchase of an IT solution. This is the entire business process which needs to be improved and adopted to the highest industry standards and the best-of-class practices from all over the world. That is why I have been always able to convince my board colleagues to invest significant amounts into IT implementations accompanied by extensive consultancy services. That is how we managed to achieve high adoption rates and avoid complains from the unsatisfied teams.

This attitude is crucial because an airline–you may not believe it–is truly an IT company. We have over 100 IT systems, extremely complicated, some of them using artificial intelligence and machine learning, including operational systems with worldwide interactions, marketing automation and content management systems. Some of them are built with the best IT companies worldwide like Adobe, Microsoft, or Amadeus. The implementation of high-tech solutions required an extensive cooperation between LOT and those suppliers, which was very exciting for both parties. Certainly, we are not the biggest airline, but we did manage to gain their interest and support with our engagement, ambition and focus on the goal.

Another huge challenge was gaining the right people. Aviation is a quite hermetic industry, because usually there is one, maybe two airlines in a country. There were not too many aviation experts in Poland, and we decided to invite young, talented people to the company. They took an analytical test even before the interview. Fortunately, we were able to sell the magic of the sector - aviation is a sexy, modern business with greatly recognized brands, so we were able to attract ambitious and smart people. My dream was to create a company which was run like the top consulting firms of the world: take the most brilliant people directly from the university and then train them quickly and let them do things, empower them, give them responsibility, so they can grow. Looking now at the commercial staff at LOT I can proudly say this is the case.

In times of ubiquitous change what leader is needed?

Flexibility is extremely important. COVID affected aviation spectacularly, we had to flexibly look for other sources of revenue, protect and motivate our people and use the time in a smart way in order to get stronger in the post-pandemic reality. In aviation geography plays an important role too: unfortunately, after COVID the war in Ukraine started which influenced both our operations and network as well as impacted Poland as a tourism destination thus also our revenue streams. LOT needed to adopt by opening new routes, by fine-tuning the sales market structure.

The leader's flexibility also means noticing a generational change; the new generation requires different communication and approach. My role is to understand, learn, not complain, and try to blend them into my ways. It is also important that the leader has the courage not to turn a blind eye to the weakest employees - a lack of reaction is extremely demotivating for the others, one must not accept negative attitudes and behaviours.

Furthermore, the leader must also be aware of how enormous the impact he/she can have on people through his/her own example. The leader is a role model - how can I expect the punctuality of airplanes if I am not punctual? How can I expect clean planes and a sense of ownership from employees if I do not bend myself to pick up a piece of paper lying in the corridor to throw it into the trash?

Finally, there are a lot of brilliant ideas but what is important it the end is the ability to deliver. And not only once, but repeatedly, task after task, project followed by another project, yearly results, five year plan, etc. That is the environment I am used to working in. And this how my team works.

Michał, what did you learn for yourself during this period of enormous changes?

One accumulates technical skills with great effort, and then it turns out that you simply have to apply the simple rules of life when working with people - smile, kindness, respect, optimism -  support in stressful situations. If I regret something, it's how late I started coaching sessions with you. Today I appreciate the importance of developing such subtle soft skills. It is not enough to be just a subject-matter expert, then you work as an individual. When you are super capable, then you work for two, but if you want to achieve something great, you work through an army of people: the entire managerial team, and their subordinates and the subordinates of the subordinates. All of us with the same approach and common goals.

Do you know what I consider my success today? It is the success of my people I have the privilege to work with.

Does a shorter working week equal being more productive and happier? 

Many talk about it, some countries have tested it, some governments have encouraged it and more and more companies are starting to experiment with it around the world.

We are talking about the 'short' work week, reduced to 4 working days, from Monday to Thursday, with a long weekend of 3 days - and of course, without a reduction in pay.

In the post-pandemic era, several economists and sociologists highlight how important it is for companies to consider not just offering interesting salaries and benefits but, and above all guaranteeing  a work-life balance that allows a clear improvement in quality of life.

Among the voices that support the validity of the 4-day work week, is that of Juliet Schor, Economist and Sociologist at Boston College, committed to studying the experiments in progress of the short week around the world. Her research focuses on the intersection of work, society, consumption and climate change. From tests conducted in Great Britain, the United States, Ireland and New Zealand, in the public and private sectors, the results are very clear and all in favour of the short week: workers are less stressed, have a better social life, appreciate more their work and, while it might seem absurd, they are absolutely more productive. In fact, while spending less time at work, people are not working less, because in exchange for a free day to devote to family, hobbies or personal needs, they make better use of their working time by increasing their productivity, without penalizing the quality of results.

Companies that embrace the short week must be convinced that spending less time at work helps workers to find the physical and mental energy needed to be more lucid and focused.. In addition, they can support their employees with a reorganization of work, for example by eliminating or limiting, as much as possible, the less productive and non-essential activities.

Juliet Schor's research then highlights the impact that the reduction of the working week has on the climate crisis. With the four-day week, commuting is obviously reduced, creating a dynamic of long-term decarbonisation. Because when people are stressed by time, they aim to choose faster and more polluting modes of travel and daily activities, while when they have more time they tend to have a lower carbon footprint.

But the biggest reason has to do with the size of the economy. By choosing to work less, countries are choosing not to expand production to the maximum, thus avoiding additional emissions. As evidenced by the carbon-related success stories of Germany and Denmark which have low annual hours. France and the Netherlands also have low carbon emissions and working times.

And in Italy? Taking into account that our country is the second in Europe for the amount of hours worked per week (on average 7 more than those of Germany), the pandemic has led to greater work flexibility - an important development of smart-working and also to the phenomenon of the great resignations.

So in Italy some companies have also started experimenting with the short week. The first were medium-sized companies operating mostly in the digital, marketing and communication sector, but it is news these days that the largest Italian banking group, Intesa San Paolo, is proposing to its employees they reduce the week to four working days, spreading the 36 hours over 4 days, with unchanged salaries.

Negotiations with the trade unions are underway, but it is certain that the work of the 21st century goes in this direction and, as Juliet Schor also points out in her TED speech, it is necessary that governments understand the importance of reducing the working week and take charge of encouraging it, as happens in Spain and Belgium, to go beyond the enlightened companies that already see the virtues of this new work organization.

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