Renata Mrazova: Empathetic Leadership is the force behind creating loyal employees.

The first guest of the newly launched GenWork Interview Series starts with the incredible Renata Mrazova, Chief People Officer at Home Credit International.

The first guest of the newly launched GenWork Interview Series starts with the incredible Renata Mrazova, Chief People Officer at Home Credit International. Renata is among Forbes` most influential women in the Czech Republic and is a respected professional with many years of experience in human resources and building diverse corporate culture. Her views on leadership and evolving hiring practices are why we invited her to be a guest for the first of our Interview series. We wanted to highlight the new era of corporate culture where diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity are the drivers for change.

From the beginning, I was immediately impressed by her pleasant nature. As a young start-up founder diving into the world of human resources, I must admit that I was a little nervous before the interview. However, I quickly appreciated her calm disposition, sophisticated air of authority, and openness to talk to you and learn who you are.

One of the first things Renata says is that curiosity motivates her to understand different generations and find ways to connect with people. "I have a curious mind which helps me keep up with the generational changes our profession goes through. It helps me connect with people, platforms, and companies that represent the new young spirit. In my line of work, the practices that worked with GenX and millennials will no longer apply to GenZ and definitely not to Generation Alpha". The last two generations are the ones who encourage the birth of what she calls Empathetic Leadership. It represents a shift in company culture because it emphasizes the importance of the connection between employer and employee. Empathetic leaders are the ones who create loyal employees. They are the ones who have a genuine interest in an employee's personal life, the challenges they face, and their overall feelings. These changes lead to a more evolved recruitment policy implemented by hiring managers. "Diversity and inclusion are trendy topics for HR departments right now. We have to make sure that we can offer flexible recruitment solutions and be fair in our selection process. The easy choice might not always be the correct choice". These changes are significant for corporate culture because they are the drivers behind providing new opportunities for career growth. Europe is currently facing a gender gap in regards to women in leadership and decision-making positions. We often wonder if there are any barriers that women face in the corporate world? "My experience has shown me that it is often internal factors that contribute to these discrepancies. For starters, women often question the outcome of their decisions and always calculate the risk factor. While a man would bet on himself, is ready to take the risk, and is fully convinced of the positive outcome of his actions, a woman will question her decisions and doubt the results. Women need to learn to be more assertive and confident. These are all important if you would be occupying a decision-making position. The second factor is that women believe their work speaks for them. They trust a company will see their progress and offer them a promotion, because they deserve it. A man will ask for a promotion because he wants it. A woman will wait for it, because it is fair to do so. She will not ask for a higher salary or more responsibilities because she is afraid to be denied. If the company has not offered it yet, that must mean she is not doing enough. It is a misconception that I wish would be corrected. Women should feel confident to pursue and demand what they are due".

Renata, can you tell us how do you expect the workplace to change over the next five years to encourage more women into work?

That is a good question because it is one of the significant changes we are seeing. There is no planning anymore because everything is changing so rapidly thanks to technology. In addition to that, the pandemic made sure that the workforce will not be the same anymore. Recently I read an article from an HR expert in which he was commenting how the pandemic brought the most significant change in leadership for the past 200 years. We saw the emerging of a new human and more empathetic leadership style. It helped companies manage the environment the pandemic created and helped us survive it. With it emerged a new set of skills that highlight good leadership. I often say let us not talk about hard and soft skills but rather about human skills. These are showing interest in people, empathy, the ability to bond with someone. These skills are very much needed and very much appreciated. These are also the skills women are better at, naturally. They tend to be more balanced as leaders and combine much better left and right brain capabilities. It is why diversity is more and more appreciated. The traditional leadership style adopted by many companies does not work anymore. It definitely does not work when working remotely.

Many leaders often say they do not know how to connect with people or manage them because they cannot understand them. Giving orders does not work anymore. So I think that in the upcoming years, we will see the topic of diversity, inclusion, and equality grow. These practices will become naturally embedded in the company culture and will stop being an issue. That will be possible because the younger generation demands it - from millennials to Generation alpha. They have different motivations, different ways of working. Focusing on inclusivity comes naturally to them. And we are not only talking about gender diversity but inclusivity in general. I am very much looking forward to seeing what comes in the next five years.

Do you believe there is an economic impact of limited re-entry mechanisms into the workplace for women after maternity leave? Can women have a career after such a prolonged absence?

That is an important topic. The regulatory maternity leave in the Czech Republic is one of the longest in Europe – up to four years. However, if you compare it to countries where maternity is much shorter, it is still an issue from an inclusivity point of view. The pandemic and the working environment it created brought two aspects in this area. Let me give you an example. I had my first daughter in 2003. Then I was one of the few female leaders in top positions in the Czech Republic. So, when my daughter was born, most of my environment expected me to be home for three years. However, at the time, I was working for a Dutch company where it was common for the woman to return to work after three, six, or nine months. I had a very frank conversation with my boss, and he showed great flexibility where I was allowed to work from home. That meant that I was evaluated based on my results, not the hours I put. Working 12 hours a day and taking care of a baby was not a realistic scenario. That was 18 years ago, and unfortunately, there are not that many companies today that would be so forward-thinking and modern in their approach. I think the pandemic helped tremendously to change this perception where many companies realized that women get to work from home and deliver their work. The pandemic showed us that employers should consider individual cases and support their female employees when needed. They need to have empathy, care and be open to discussing it. A woman might not be available to work 100%, but maybe she can do 60% or 30%, depending on her situation. I believe offering flexibility can make maternity leave a lot easier.

There is, of course, the other aspect which is the elephant in the room. Many companies, when they interview a woman with young children, are biased. Children are often an issue because there is the assumption that the mother would be taking time off due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances. In many cases, if a company can choose, they will always prefer someone with no kids or with older kids. What sometimes employers fail to consider is that these mothers will deliver much more than other people. I often challenge my colleagues who believe that if you are not working full time in the office, you are not working enough. That is false because women often put 120% effort into a shorter working day to prove that they can be valuable employees and meet expectations. Women in these circumstances undergo a lot of judgment from almost everyone – colleagues, peers, family.

What advice would you give to anyone, particularly women, starting their careers right now and wanting to chase a career progression?

The first thing I would say is related to social pressure and the famous 'fear of missing out.' What you should do is focus on understanding your motivation and situation. Feel confident with yourself and do not allow any external pressure to influence you. If a woman wants to have a child first, stay home and chase a career later, that is fantastic. If she wants to go back to work after short maternity leave, that is fine too. Because what she is doing is putting herself first in front of everyone else. That is a long-term sustainable strategy for every woman. Unfortunately, it is easy to say and difficult to do because the female nature is often about the desire to please others. Many of the things women often do are not according to their own motivation but because of the expectations of others. My advice would be not to be driven by this fear of missing out or by not reaching the expectations of others. Be yourself because your journey is unique, and it does not need to fit any boxes.

My second piece of advice is to create a good network. Surround yourself with people you can trust. Your family and friends will always support you and be there to share with you their honest feedback and opinion. These are the people you can ask for help from in the difficult moments that lie ahead of you. It is much easier to overcome bad times if you have the proper support system.