On the face of it, Katalin Riedl is a straightforward numbers woman: identified as having a talent for math as a child, got a degree from the College of Finance and Accountancy at Budapest Business School, and is now a vice president of finance and controlling. She is a typical accountant, right? The truth, as general happens, is a little more nuanced and interesting than that.
“Actually, I have never worked in accounting; it has always been business planning, controlling and the like,” she tells the Budapest Business Journal in an exclusive interview.
“I was always very good with math. When I was 12, this talent was noticed by my class tutor, and she helped get me into a specialized math and physics class.” It was also an early indicator that the genders are not always balanced in life. “There were nine girls and 24 boys,” Riedl recalls.
From being the top of her class in math, she suddenly found herself surrounded by children at least as good as she. “I realized then I was not going to be Hungary’s next Nobel prize winning scientist, but I still wanted to do something with this math talent.”
At university, it was noted that her analytical skills are very high, and so she began to be drawn away from straight numbers and more towards human elements and strategic planning.
Her career started with Philip Morris, where she spent ten years, before moving to Greenergy Hungary Holding, a U.S. alternative energy investment. She joined ITSH in 2012, and took her current position (one of the top three roles in the company) in October 2016.
“I was 26 when I had my first manager’s position, and I was 41 when I was selected for this role; I don’t want to count them, but I had a couple of years behind me as a manager by then.”
She had also given birth twice in that period, meaning she had to learn how to balance building a career with being a mom.
“If you are a mother, you have to accept there will be periods where your career does not always lead upwards. For ten years my career was about horizontal shifts to keep the balance at home. When your kids are young, it does not allow you to devote more time to developing your career, but as they get older, that changes. My children are now 14 and 11.”
And, of course, it requires a helpful home environment. “I have a very supportive partner. When I met my husband, 18 years ago, we were both in the career building stage of our lives. He knew me, knew I had targets, goals for my career, and he did not just accept that, he supported it. As I am supporting him,” she says. Grandparents, too, form an essential part of the network. “They are often there, which means I can devote more time to my work.”
But she adds that it is essential to draw lines in the sand. “You cannot be 150% the best mom in the world and 150% the best manager. You have to work out where the priorities are. I am absolutely not going to miss my daughter’s school Christmas performance. That is more important than work, there can be no compromise. But, by the same token, when we are preparing the business forecasts, there is a lot of planning work to be done, and home cannot interfere with that. You have to fix those times when there will be no compromises. For all others, you must just be as flexible as possible.”
By her own admission, Riedl is no feminist. She believes there are some roles better suited to women, and some better suited to men. But she says the best teams are always made up of a mix. “I think we do see things differently, think differently. Not better or worse, but different.”
One thing does irk her though. “You see a lot of interviews where female managers are asked about work life balance, but why are men never asked that? After all, raising a child is a shared responsibility. OK, for the first couple of years the baby needs the mother more, but after that, there is nothing a mother does that a father cannot also do.”
I tentatively suggest that has as much to do with socially accepted norms as anything else – Hungary is a deeply patriarchal society –, and wonder when that might change.
“It is a very long and slow process,” Riedl sighs. “The business environment can support change, but the impact is limited. A few multinationals are not going to change the world overnight. And the key word here is multinational companies, not Hungarian.”
For its part, ITSH is a pretty balanced workplace. Zsuzsanna Sümegi, the company’s head of communications, says approximately 40% of the workforce is female. The company also works hard to be inclusive, keeping mothers on maternity leave in touch with what is going on at the company, and is open to part time and atypical options such as home office work.
“But IT in any case is not a male dominated world,” Riedl points out. “The ICT industry has a wide range of services; it is not just geek programmers. It has a lot of nice opportunities for women.”
What of Riedl’s future? Does she want to step further up the ladder?
“I have been in this position for a year only, and I worked hard for this. It was a target ten years ago; I was not impatient with it. Now I am here I would like to exploit the opportunity as much as I can. I’d like to be good here – perfect here – first. I guess you could say the mid-term target is to become an overall leader. Partly I am doing that now: I am one of three MDs, with the CEO and the VP of HR. I am involved in very strategic decisions as part of this trio. My whole career has been around finance, but it would be interesting to take on a whole business, perhaps a startup.”