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Interview with Renata Mrázová, Global Head of HR NN Group at NN Group

Regular readers of Czech Leaders know that Renata Mrázová was nominated as the most important woman in Czech business in the position of the CEO of ING/ NN in 2014, and starting August 1, 2015 she now holds the position of Global Head of HR of NN. Renata is dynamic, energetic, full of visions, very friendly, easy going and empathetic. She is known not only for all her achievements in terms of business functions, successfully running NN and Direct Insurance company, but also a family business. She is a role model for many working Czech mothers, always mentioning her need for time dedicated to raising two daughters, as well as helping other women to reach top management positions thanks to mentoring programs.  She was the one who was approached by Sheryl Sandberg to write a foreword to the book Lean In that represented a watershed for many women in the West with regards to their career aspirations and active approach.

And to support her words with deeds, Renata being closely associated with the Minerva21 movement, she has made sure that mentoring schemes, which have until recently been reserved for a few selected female participants from top Czech companies, are now more open to women who need it, and she managed to get more than 50 people involved, including personalities such as Eliška Hašková-Coolidge, Jan Mühlfeit, Marian Jelínek and Radvan Bahbouh.

We are glad Renata agreed to an interview for Czech Leaders, despite the fact that she has just assumed a new position, and has not even had time to unpack the boxes to settle down in her new home in the Netherlands.

The first question – how do you perceive today´s world?

This is a very challenging question, as it can be perceived from different angles. Being a very optimistic person, I perceive the world as an amazing place. I wake up every day feeling great just being happy living in this period. Our world is very multifaceted, colorful and diverse. It is an unbelievably uplifting feeling for me to be able to learn and to get to know so many new things everyday. For me, all is connected by the value of freedom, freedom of movement, freedom of information, freedom of speech…

On the other hand, I am worried about many problems and these I tend to think about over and over. We live in a world that moves incredibly fast. Everything is constantly developing and changing and this puts pressure on people in terms of being flexible and having the ability to adapt.

Due to the extreme amount of information available, our brains are clogged and we do not know how to take a rest, or how to live in the present. I am also concerned about the pursuit of material possessions, societal crises and individual crises, the devaluation of basic life values and the loss of faith. All of these factors are the reason why not only Europe, but the world as such, is facing a modern crisis. And I ask myself how we can get out of it, and where is it all taking us.    

And how do you perceive the position of the Czech Republic?

I am a proud to be a Czech, and I love the Czech Republic. We are an amazing country full of great people. What really concerns me is the atmosphere in the Czech Republic, and also the attitude of Czech citizens. I particularly miss the attitude of optimism in the Czech Republic. I can compare it to the USA, or the Netherlands, which are countries that I have lived in and live in now. It is truly refreshing to see how people in the Netherlands are easy-going, they enjoy life, they do not make big drama out of anything, they do not rush anywhere, they smile and when they desire a change, they know that they themselves are responsible for making it happen. I wish for a change regarding the mood and atmosphere in the Czech Republic, because I consider it an incredible place for life, with a great history and big opportunities.  

I mentioned that you are a role model for many Czech women.  In the past, you often talked about the role of your former boss Alexis and her role as a mentor in preparing you for the CEO role in the Czech Republic. Now, can you reflect upon how you prepared for the international position, and what is your advice to women who seem to have reached the “ceiling” in the Czech Republic, and think about going somewhere else?

I do not like the word “prepare” as you say it. I am not that type. What suits me best is having an open mind, and not tying myself to concrete targets and plans.

Regarding my new position in the Netherlands, in the headquarters of NN Group, it is my dream job. Everyone who knows me, knows that I am focused on management, working with people, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, giving them a chance to use their talents and experiences in the best possible ways, and helping them to develop and so to enjoy life. I enjoy building and influencing the whole atmosphere, setting the tone and tempo of the company’s culture, which generates the company’s results. Over the past year I have been thinking a lot about where I should go. I already served four years in the position of CEO, and I felt that I was reaching the point of giving all that I could to the company.  I have a lot of dreams, but when the offer to manage the HR of the entire NN group came, I did not hesitate. During the last year I have discussed the possibility of trying to live and work in another country with my husband. We have two daughters, who are the ideal age for this kind of a change.

I am happy that my children have the opportunity to live in another country, experience a different culture, and a chance to understand a different mentality, because those are things that I consider great experiences, and even a gift in someone´s life.

After a few weeks, I have to say that I am excited that we made the decision, it is a huge change, we are experiencing our ups and downs with a lot of adrenalin, but it is an incredible experience.

Are you still in touch with Sheryl Sandberg?

I am not in close touch with Sheryl, only rarely. She is a woman that I greatly admire. Her movement “Lean In” changed and keeps changing today’s world. Sheryl is a very dedicated and structured lady, she knows what she wants and will do the maximum to achieve it. I am very proud that we know each other, and that she chose me for the foreword in her book. It is incredible that she not only concentrates on women in her Lean In program, but also on men, partners, fathers and young people who can change things. It is remarkable that she continues to work intensively on her activities even after she unexpectedly lost her beloved husband.

I know you have been active in mentoring for nearly a decade.  I also mentioned your involvement in the Minerva21 movement and the fact that you have managed to get involved with some very prominent personalities.  Do you see some change in Czech society with regards to the low number of women CEOs and board members in general?

If we look at the numbers, it is not a very positive trend. The numbers of women in top positions have not significantly increased during the past years. On the other hand, I have to say that the atmosphere, perception and prejudice in society have changed greatly when compared to the situation 12 years ago, when my first daughter was born.  Just to mention the infrastructure that has been built, women with children can adapt very well to the working process, because of private nurseries and kindergartens. I think that in today’s world, we must also concentrate on men, so they may start to understand that women are different, that they behave differently, that they speak differently, that they decide differently, and so they may understand that real diversity brings diversity of thoughts, which then brings innovations, and new ways of thinking leading to success.  

So I am happy that we established Minerva21, which concentrates on our entire society, not just the big corporations, and wants to help to build self-confidence in young students, mothers on parental leave, senior citizens, businesswomen, managers and leaders throughout society. And I am glad that Minerva21 gets more support from men. Because that is how our movement will get more influence and thus make a larger impact.

Can women support each other?  If we are not even unanimous on the issue of quotas, which should reverse the trend of a mere 4% of women currently in the positions of CEOs and board members, how can we cooperate? And can women cooperate and compete at the same time?

I believe that support and cooperation are the necessary grassroots for change, and can I see it happening. I have personally had so much support and help from exceptional women in my life, that I chose it as my life journey, at least in a certain part of my life.  I wanted to focus and pay back at least part of what I received. So yes, I believe in it, but of course it does not always work. It is said that women prefer to compete instead of helping each other. We in Minerva21 strongly believe in cooperation, it is the basis of all our activities, and we think that support is the most important thing that we can give to each other. It is a great feeling to know that I did something good for another woman (or man of course ☺). Sometimes a smile is enough, a supporting sentence, praise, or just listening…  

We also believe in not harming each other, and not talking behind each other’s backs. Our founder Rostya Gordon-Smith says “Even if you may think she is a bitch, please support her.” So yes, there will not be results without strong cooperation.

I know that you are very visionary, but at the same time fast and dynamic.  Besides challenges that await you in your new position of Global HR at NN, what are your other dreams to achieve?

I currently feel like I am living one of my dreams. With my family, we are experiencing a totally new phase in our lives, we are writing a new chapter to our life book, which is incredible. My dream is to live a calm and relaxed life and to have time for my kids and family, and just enjoy everyday, working on things that make sense and bring value. in cooperation with Czech Leaders Magazine  

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