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Ambassadors without diplomatic passport - Radka Dohnalová

Interview first published in Leaders Magazine 3/2014 (e-Magazine)

  1. The first traditional question how do you perceive today´s world?

What a question to start with!  I really feel that we are at the turning point in a way how we operate as humanity if you wish. Right now we live in a time of accelerating changes – both positive and negative. New holistic ideas, values and technologies are developing that have the potential to change our global system into a more sustainable one. Transformation is possible once we make a paradigm shift in our view of reality and our relationships to nature and each other. Because the obstacles to human progress are cultural, not technical, we can accelerate this process through new kind of leadership.

2. You have been abroad several times for a longer period of time and you have always planned to return.  How do you perceive the Czech Republic?

Since I was very little, I always wanted to make a difference.  When I was working for the UN, it was great to make a difference to people in Africa and other developing countries, but I have always considered the Czech Republic my home and I care about this country.  During that time it became clear to me that it is at home where I want to make the difference.  The second reason is that I say my home is where my family is.  I wanted my children to experience our roots and be close to their relatives.  I am embracing my country with all its positives and negatives and I view the negative aspects as opportunities for change.  I not only love the country but also the people.  It is great for me to see the potential of the country when working either with leaders or young talents. 

3. Now let me ask you about your studies at Harvard.  This is a dream coming true not only for many students but also for many senior experienced professionals.  What do you consider your most valuable learning experience?

For me this was a defining moment in my life. Before I went to Harvard, I was always trying to prove to my parents that I am good enough and I was hoping that having a diploma from Harvard would finally make me happy and fulfilled, so I had very high expectations.  When I got there and I met with many so intelligent and driven people I felt neither fulfilled nor confident.  This truly forced me to spent the two years looking at my life from a different perspective and ask myself some tough questions: what is that I want, what would make me fulfilled and where I could really make a difference as a leader. This experience was the most valuable when compared to any tips or tricks.

4. Can you give any advice to potential students?

Go for it, it is worth it!  I spent whole one year only just preparing my application, I did not apply to any other MBA schools compared to my American colleagues who applied to ten schools.  I knew this is the school I am going to.  For me it was one of the most precious experiences, perhaps because I got something totally different from what I expected. 

5. Now, let us turn to diversity.  Given your economic background, you support your arguments for greater diversity in companies by two facts:  the first being the unused potential of employed women:  „only 56% employed women in the Czech Republic compared to 70% in Scandinavia,  the other argument is ageing population and danger of  500 000 jobs not being filled by 2040“.  Despite these hard data available, it seems to me that the discussion on diversity is very much polarizing in the Czech Republic.  Certain companies understood the trend and embrace it, while others pretend like it does not exist. 

I do not consider the polarizing debate being specific for the Czech Republic.  I have seen similar responses across Europe and this trend was proved when we were doing the study Women Matter with McKinsey.  Debate on diversity depends very much on the context.  If you need to convince someone, it feels „pushy“.  When you push someone, they push back.  I talk about diversity in much broader context than quotas and number of women participating.   I talk about the leadership needed for 21st century, the leadership that generation Y is seeking and leadership that will make companies successful and people will feel fulfilled at the same time.  If you look at the qualities of leadership that is when diversity is important, as there is a female and male way of leading, so the qualities are not specific to particular men and women but rather female and male energies or qualities of leadership.

To me, diversity is an amazing opportunity for companies to transform their leadership, the entire corporate environment and unlock potentials of people.

6. You work within the business- corporate environment, namely with CEOs and then with women on positions preparing for Board positions.  How do you perceive involvement of the public sector, especially government? 

I think the role of the government is important but I would not overestimate it.  Government policies make things either easier or more difficult but they do not cause change per se.  We need to take responsibility for changes we want to see – whether it is in a household, in a company or in society.  If there is a law on flexible working hours but at the same time my husband is reluctant to share household responsibilities, then I will not be able to make it anyway.   My husband and I constantly “recalibrate” our work and family life so that we can both engage in our jobs as well as to raise our three children together.

7. Much has been said about women lacking solidarity and very often those women who make it to the top are often criticized for not helping other women.   Is there such a thing as women solidarity

I think it is not about women solidarity per se, but what lies at the core is really the topic of collaboration. The question is, why don´t we collaborate? And the reason is that either consciously or unconsciously we feel threatened.  When we work with women leaders, we work with both authenticity and fears because the element of not helping others goes down to our own insecurities.  Is it that we want to be seen as the ones who made it and then to be sure there is no one to follow us and threaten us?  Getting women to Board level is one thing but then comes the next question what is the quality of women you want to have on Board?  Our aim is to empower women leaders to bring truly diverse qualities of leadership to companies to make a change and contribution.

8. Work-life balance is slowly becoming a cliché.  But still, how do you manage to run own business, family with three children, to have time for yourself.

I also do not like the concept of work life balance.  I do not want to balance work and life.  For me, work is an expression of life.   My life is who I am, why I am here and what do I stand for, so it evolves around my purpose transforming society through a new model of leadership.  If my work is about expressing my purpose, there is no reason to balance it.  Also, for me it is not a matter of hours but energy.  Last, but not least, it is important to have an “A team” in life.  My husband is on my A team, also my nanny, my parents, my mentors and as well as my work team, all of these people support me to do things I want, to make a difference and to contribute.  I have help and I do not claim to be a superstar.

9. What is your final advice for Prague Leaders readers regarding diversity and leadership? 

Everyone has a unique value through which he can contribute to his family, team, organization as well as society. So go and find your place or purpose or unique value. When you find your place – your authentic self – you know where you can contribute the best to benefit yourself as well as the whole without feeling threatened by others. And this way we can make the world a better place.

Radka Dohnalová

Successful Czech leaders who gained their education and professional experience abroad and then they returned because they want to make a difference to their homeland from within represent another category that fits into the ambassadors without a diplomatic passport framework. As was the case with personalities in preceding series, I chose Radka Dohnalová for several reasons. Not only that Radka is a Harvard University MBA alumni, but she managed to get her degree having one small son at the beginning of her studies and the second one born before she finished.  And on top of that she has managed to have success and fulfillment in both corporate and entrepreneur world. Last year, Radka gave birth to her third child, a baby girl.

Radka studied in the US and in UK.  She started her career having various positions in business in these countries as well as in Italy when working with the United Nations World Food Program.  After eight years she returned to the Czech Republic and started to work for McKinsey.  While working for McKinsey and giving birth to two children, she managed to get MBA diploma at Harvard University where co-authored "The Authentic and Integrated Female Leadership Model" as a part of her MBA program.

After her studies, she led McKinsey's work on diversity and its impact on culture and performance and spearheaded McKinsey's pro bono study "Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in Czech Business”.  In 2013, she founded ATAIRU, an organization empowering leaders through new model of authentic leadership working with individual leaders as well the whole organizations.  Radka is also an author of women’s leadership programs and she has worked with over 300 female leaders in Central and Eastern Europe in the last years.

Being a member of her ATAIRU team is a  great experience for me.  Radka truly cares about others and it always amazes me how this fairy looking woman can attract people´s attention with her energy and always offers a new perspective.

Out now: Leaders Magazine 3/2014 (e-Magazine)

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