If women in general are from Venus and men are from Mars, then male and female bosses are certainly also from two different planets. However, in a company, they need to take the same role and make things run smoothly – usually in wildly different management styles. How does Ildikó Szüts, head of communications at OTP Bank and winner of AmCham’s Excellence in Leadership award make it work for her, asks Melinda Tünde Dóra, editor-in chief of the BBJ, hoping to learn some tricks of the trade.
Your prize as the winner of AmCham’s Excellence in Leadership award is a pair of shoes designed personally for you by young Hungarian design label rekavago. What sort of shoe will you get?
To be honest, I haven’t decided yet. Personally, I would like a comfortable shoe, but my job requires me to wear elegant high heels in dark colors. I do like to stand out a little, though. My favorite color is purple, which they say is the mark of a harmonious personality, as it is made up of so many colors.
Standing out is probably useful in corporate communications, too. Is that difficult when forming the public image of a company such as OTP Bank?
You know, I am always surprised by the consequences of the long history OTP Bank has. People say “I am going to OTP” even when their account is at another bank, it has become synonymous with “bank”. Such a long history has its advantages, but its challenges, too.
I always strive to position the bank as an innovative and caring entity, through for example helping young people understand the financial system. I feel passionately about teaching them how to take care of themselves in the world. In OTP’s alma mater program, managers go back to their old high schools and talk to the kids there. Once you become a leader in such a large company, I think you have to consider your responsibility towards society.
These days, innovative and responsible are contradictory terms in banking, don’t you think?
I think a big innovation is trying to get people to really understand the financial products and the exact risks they entail. The authority [financial watchdog PSzÁF] is of course always pushing banks to do everything in their power to bring customers up to speed, but this is actually my favorite part of my job. I am very interested in how business processes can be helped by corporate communication. For example, we have a Q&A for each product on our homepage for customers who do not want to read through pages of fine print, but want to be able to understand what they are buying.
Let’s talk about your leadership style. Do you personally read the Q&As your team puts together?
[Laughs] I even rewrite or add bits sometimes. I am interested in details, I like to know what’s really going on, and details are key to that. Of course how many and what sort of details you can keep tabs on depends on your position. I sometimes get up at 5 in the morning to read something or work over the weekend. Being meticulous allows me to sleep easy.
It is said that being detail-oriented is typical of female leaders, who fuss about stuff that men wouldn’t bother about. Have you run into this?
Once I asked a male colleague why he had not personally read a particular part of a document. He looked at me, shrugged, and said: “Why should I have? It was put together by a woman, and you are going to read it in the end anyway.”
So yes, I think this sort of detail-orientation really is characteristic of many female leaders. Still, one cannot look at every little thing.
So how do you choose when to check things personally?
I do delegate. Obviously, time is an issue. And delegating is also important because responsibility is a challenge and a stretch assignment an opportunity for my team members.
Also, if there is an existing method of doing something that works, then I won’t interrupt the workflow. If, however, an issue at hand is a new one, or very important, or just sensitive, then I will dive into the details. I think it is important for bosses to see how exactly a task is handled by their team.
What happens when it is not done the way you want it to be?
I am very demanding, I have to admit. But I balance that with empathy and patience. If there is a conflict, I try to bring it out into the open as soon as possible, and resolve it. I aim to convince people that my way is the way to go. If we cannot come to an agreement, I try to set the problem aside for a while, and bring it up later. This takes a lot of effort on my part, but it is worth it in the long-run.
As a leader, I think it is very important to understand the other side’s version of the story, and my experience is that people open up to this interest. You have to be open to new options if you want people to tell you what they really think. And also, being a good boss requires some humbleness: you have to want to understand the organization, learn how the company works and why.
Whom do you share your doubts with?
Other managers, usually, or if it is not a professional issue, then with my husband. Every decision maker has his or doubts, and it is important to get these out. And then there are the big questions of life, too. I have two very good friends with whom we share a long history and a set of values. They are very important to me.
How do you accommodate your values as a private person with your values as a businesswoman?
I think the most important values are the same: you have to be decent, trustworthy and scrupulous in every sense of the word. I expect the same from my child, who is always telling me: “Mom, nothing is good enough for you.” But as a grown-up, it is so obvious, that it is not the test that is important, but the knowledge gained. So setting personal goals is very important, indeed.
What were important career decisions in your life that were very hard to make?
One was when my son was born. Until then, I worked in my own firm as a financial consultant with many multinational and Hungarian clients. I was traveling all the time. And after nine hard years of yearning, my son was finally born. This, however, also meant that a life on the road was no longer an option. It was, in a way, painful: I had to let go of my business baby. It had to be done.
Another difficult choice set before me was when I was asked to take over Magyar Posta Zrt. I had worked there as a top manager for some time, but this was a completely new assignment. I was frightened that I would be very, very lonely, that I would need to rely only on myself, and chew my way through decisions alone, with tens of thousands of people’s livelihoods, jobs and lives depending upon me.
What would you like to change about yourself?
Maybe I should learn to let go a little more. For my 50th birthday, I received a video made by my friends, who sang a Hofi song, “Próbálj meg lazítani” [Try to relax]. I think I should probably try to be more relaxed about things and not take everything so seriously.
That must be difficult for a meticulous person like you. How do you relax?
I enjoy meeting up with family and friends for a name day or birthday celebration. This weekend I will be at an Erzsébet-day party. These events are not just important because they are fun, but also because you can see the bonds you have with people.
Also, I like cooking, this past weekend I cooked goose leg for a family dinner [a Hungarian tradition on St. Martin’s day]. They liked it.
It is said that men mix business with pleasure in a way that allows them to establish informal relationships, say soccer-friendships, with other businessmen. Businesswomen, on the other hand, tend to go home to be with their family after work, costing them connections. Do you network in your free time?
I think women build informal relationships, too, just not in the same way. I personally spend a lot of time and attention on maintaining relationships by having lunch together or organizing family visits. Our informal relationships are I think almost friendships. I know many women leaders with whom I have a connection that goes beyond a business meeting. We share the everyday details of our lives, and open up to each other as people. I can call them for help or even learn about problems before they get out of hand.
What advice would you give an ambitious young woman at the start of her career?
Decide what you want to be successful in, and do everything you can to learn about it. And don’t be afraid to have a career AND a family. I think that to be really successful, you need a family background to support you, and life is only complete when you have children. Children bring something to life that is difficult to talk about. It is not easy, you might need to go to the hairdresser’s at 6 in the morning and put yourself last in many things, but it is worth having a fulfilling life. MTD