12 questions to:
Iweta Opolska, PhD, CFA
Strength is a woman and today you will feel this strength from my wonderful speaker. A woman in a high managerial position, with an international education, a tireless negotiator and author of scientific publications. With Iweta Opolska, PhD, CFA I talk about breaking glass ceilings, female and non-female professions, team management and inspiring women with her own actions.
Iweta, thank you very much for the possibility to speak to you!
Milena, it is my pleasure. I am honored to be a part of your inspiring project!
You have an impressive education – both Warsaw School of Economics, Aarhus Universitet and scholarship at Freie Universitaet Berlin. Can such an international adventure help in development?
Thank you! In my student years, I spent two years abroad and it was an amazing time in personal, cultural, linguistic, scientific, professional and even spiritual terms. It is impossible to summarize in a few words the enormity of experience I have been drawing on even today.
During such an international adventure you learn to be open to other people because you are among representatives of cultures from different parts of the world. You also learn to appreciate your national identity because the concept of „home / homeland” takes on a nostalgic dimension. My student stay abroad was also a lesson of hard work. To earn my living – like many students from Central and Eastern Europe – I worked part time. However, thanks to this, I gained confidence that little was going to stop me and the sky was my limit.
The possibility of studying at other universities also gives a great perspective on how many definitions the term „student” there are and how student status differs across various cultures. For example, in Denmark, I learned that a student is not a subordinate person to the lecturer, but a partner who shows respect by diligent preparation for classes but requires the lecturer to do the same. This is a good representation of what the supervisor-subordinate relationship should look like. Professional loyalty and respect is a two-way relationship.
After your internship in Berlin and Munich, you started working at PwC – in the Corporate Finance department. What did you like about working in an international consulting company? Is this where your interest in the energy market, especially gas, in Poland was born?
My initial steps in the corporate world were a coincidence. After studying in Denmark, I knew that I wanted to work in corporate finance, but it was the energy industry that chose me, not the other way around. I applied for a financial advisory internship at PwC where I met fantastic people practicing corporate finance for oil and gas companies. They introduced me to the broadly understood energy industry. While I became interested in the energy industry by accident, specialization in the natural gas sector was my deliberate choice. I find the natural gas industry fascinating. From the economist’s point of view, the natural gas sector presents a whole range of issues: we have a homogeneous product, a natural monopoly, oligopolies, the problem of liberalization, but also a number of interdisciplinary puzzles: geopolitics, EU and national regulations, chemical, technical, and even climatic or psychological problems. This industry does not let anyone to be bored and I have been continuously – despite years of experience – on an upsloping learning curve.
After almost five years of work in the Big Four, the next door to your career has opened and you started working for PKN Orlen, the largest player on the fuel market in Central and Eastern Europe. What urged you forward to make this change? Did you have any stereotypes in the back of your head that the energy industry is rather not a women’s industry or were you following your passion?
I did appreciate my work at PwC and I still believe that a consultancy job gives a unique access to knowledge and a great opportunity to get to know industries, companies and management boards. However, after a few years, I began to experience the „consultant syndrome”. This is my term for the need to create something tangible after a long period of creating reports, spreadsheets, and presentations. I felt the need to dive deep and specialize rather than just getting my feet wet in many fields. I remember watching with other consultants an office building being constructed and joking that those workers at least see the real effect of their work contrary to us. This is one, but not the only, reason for my decision to change and move to the other side to „business”, i.e. PKN ORLEN. I did not immediately notice that the energy industry is so masculine, as my first stop at PKN ORLEN was at the Strategic Project Management Office, where there were … only women.
During the decade of your work at PKN Orlen, you were very quickly promoted, from project manager to director of the Gas Trade Office, which you co-established. Share with us tips on how to find your place in large corporations, how to create your own departments and combine passion with work?
I was lucky. Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation. This is not my quote (attributed to Seneca), but it illustrates the history of my promotion quite well. I think not only mine, but of most promotions. An opportunity is a series of favorable events in which we have only a small influence. Preparation, however, depends entirely on ourselves, on our acquired knowledge and our skills.
In my case, the opportunity was the situation in the natural gas market at that time (the beginning of liberalization, the construction of new gas interconnectors, the entry of new players), PKN’s strategy to build the first large gas-fired CHP plants in Włocławek and Płock, and the fact that previously there was no specialized organizational unit at PKN, which would comprehensively deal with natural gas. The preparation was my consulting background and knowledge that I gained during my studies and at PwC. An important element of the preparation was also my determination and passion to pursue the gas project.
You have a very responsible job – you provide gas fuel to a key company for our country. You are accountable for negotiations worth many billions of zlotys. Can you tell us how to negotiate effectively? What elements are key in achieving the so-called win-win outcome?
The answer to this question deserves a full schedule training program . From my perspective, three elements are important: factual knowledge, clear-cut guidelines (what we can / cannot let go) and … innovation. Factual knowledge is needed to effectively present your reasoning, defend your claims in talks with your partner and to properly react to the other party’s arguments. The clear-cut guidelines require prioritization of goals, as negotiations are a form of working out a compromise and require concessions from both parties. Innovation in negotiations is the ability to find new solutions that will allow you to get out of a negotiation deadlock, and will also allow you to satisfy the interests of both parties, with no detriment to the value. The whole psychological background, as a whole, in the negotiations is also important as it is the sum of expectations of both parties, characters of leading negotiators and their experiences.
In your work as a manager it is important to prioritize, set and achieve goals. I think these words are not easy to apply in practice. Unveil us a bit of the backstage of your workshop?
You’re right – prioritization is … a priority in team management. The basic task of a manager is to lead, to give directions to co-workers, to emphasize what is important and what would be a waste of energy, what is to be delivered asap, and what can wait without compromising the goal. Without prioritization, there is no management – there is chaos. A prioritizer is essentially the definition of a manager.
The ability to synthesize is a more sophisticated quality of a manager but also important in my opinion. Not every perfect analyst will be a good manager if, in addition to the ability to break down problems into prime factors, they will not be able to form a clear picture from a mosaic of small elements.
And finally, delegating responsibilities, preferably with a feeling that allows you to match a person’s competencies to the nature of the tasks they are being delegated. Delegation should be learned not only for yourself (to have more time on other topics), but also for the development of your employees. Sometimes there is no better form of educating an employee and providing him/her with satisfaction than delegation to an interesting project.
As a Director, you are also responsible for recruiting to your team. If you can, tell us what kind of people and competences are you looking for and how you ensure diversity on your team?
I am not the only one responsible for recruiting to my office – recruitment is also a task that I delegate, and that should be delegated, so that managers can choose their own teams. But I do like participating in the recruitment processes because I enjoy meeting new people. Generally, my managers and I are always looking for energetic people – which does not have to mean the specialists from the industry but people with internal drive, and willingness to act, spiritus movens.
We keep our recruitment process for the Gas Trading Office systematized. The interviews are not only story-telling about one’s CV, but we also check competences in the same way for all candidates. We ask candidates the same set of questions. This approach allows us to objectively compare the candidates, regardless of gender, age, nationality or religion.
In addition to a career in a corporation, you also prosper in the scientific world. You not only have an internationally recognized CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) title, but also a PhD in economics from the University of Warsaw. What motivated you to continue your development? Who would you recommend the CFA certificate to and to whom an academic career?
I treat my scientific activities as a hobby. After returning from Germany in earlier in my career, I noticed in Poland, that the economic science and business worlds were operating as if they were in separate galaxies, rarely communicating with each other. For example: in Germany you can write a master’s or doctoral dissertation in economics by a company’s research order. The company identifies a business problem that requires in-depth analysis and instructs students to review the scientific literature and do quantitative research as part of their diploma theses. I have not heard of such a possibility in Poland. It’s a pity. Science, especially in economics, should primarily address business problems and issues. When I decided to pursue my doctoral degree, I wanted to conduct scientific research on a business problem that bothered me at that time. When I started writing my PhD thesis, the discussion about the Polish natural gas market focused on a gas market model and a liberalization process that would implement European gas directives. My doctoral thesis was an attempt to quantify various gas market liberalization tools based on their efficacy in introducing competition to European gas markets.
I am a strong advocate of better communication between business and academic worlds and of mixing the scientific and business functions. Without continuous communication with business, economic science has a tendency to serve an artificial and theoretical business world. Without continuous communication with science, business will often use heuristics slowing down the pace of its evolution.
You are an author of many publications on the natural gas markets, published in national and international scientific journals. I am extremely grateful to you that with your knowledge and work you supported the publication of the Diversity Committee of CFA Society Poland „Women on boards and company performance”. What did working on this report give you and what surprised you?
I was equally surprised as anyone would be who looks at the results of our research. Where are all these talented girls ?! When I studied at the Warsaw School of Economics, girls made up about 51% of the students. Why are they not at C-level managerial positions 15-20 years later? After all, they were ambitious, capable and determined to enter the business world professionally, which is why they had applied to the best economic university in Poland. I do not believe that they were not qualified to be leaders, that they did not want to be leaders, or that somehow becoming a mother weakened their ambition (I myself have children).
The research on gender diversity within Polish boards has made me aware of the problem and has made me want to change something in this respect. It has also given me a circle of new friends and an access to amazing female energy.
You mentioned female strength and solidarity. When I met you, when I heard your story, I felt that strength and in my opinion this word describes you perfectly. Tell us where to source it from and how to care for it?
Hmm, a difficult and important question. At the beginning of my career, I had an image of a „good girl” that I tried hard to fight with. I felt that my gentle and girlish appearance combined with kindness allowed others to patronize me. The business world is for thick-skinned men, isn’t it? With time, motherhood, and experience – my inner rebellion and that behavior towards me has simply disappeared. Now it’s hard for me to judge how much it was others’ attitudes and how much it was my inner oversensitivity. But I do know now that while we cannot change others, we do have the ability to work on ourselves. By eliminating our inner self-limitation, self-imposition of perfectionism, constant self-criticism and comparison to others – we start to illuminate that which others can then perceive as strength.
Promotion of the Report, which we co-created with Anna Golec, PhD, CFA and Aleksandra Włodarczyk, CFA, required many public appearances. You did great in the press, radio and videoconferencing, both at home and abroad. There are still few women in public debates – what would you say to those who hesitate or hold back from speaking out like this?
It is clear to me that the results of our report explains the phenomenon of low representation of women in public debates. Since there are so few women on management boards, and because board members are the most frequently invited guests at industry conferences, there cannot be many women in debates.
Women are also more often perfectionists and this may be an additional obstacle in speaking out to a wider audience. It triggers a vicious circle – I do not make a public appearance because I get jitters, and I do get jitters because I have too little experience in public speaking. You have to break this gridlock by taking it easy on yourself: okay, now I will go out and speak, I know it may not be perfect, but the second time I will do better.
Your career has inspired many women. It is thus important for me to emphasize that you are a fulfilled mother of two children – a boy and a girl. Tell us what motherhood gives you and how these experiences affect your work.
Motherhood accelerated my maturation to the role of a manager because it sharpened three important qualities that I think any manager should have: the ability to prioritize, to delegate and to synthesize.
Before my first maternity leave, I had maintained a perfectly organized mailbox that served as a time and task management tool. After returning to work, I realized that I was never going to have such comfort and such perfectly managed mail again because I am not able to review the correspondences from almost a whole year of absence! A quick lesson of prioritization combined with a difficult farewell to my perfectionism was a must.
Motherhood taught me to delegate tasks and to break up with my little miss independent. When I went on my first maternity leave, I left a young, newly recruited team and I had less than a year to prepare myself and them for my long-term absence. I knew that I would have to delegate all of my responsibilities to others.
And finally, the ability to synthesize – it was a by-product of these two first traits. Thanks to a longer absence from work, I had the so-called helicopter view. This allowed me to connect the dots more easily as I had a better idea of the bigger picture.
Additionally, during my first maternity leave, I completed my PhD thesis. For this reason, I feel that I am an example that contradicts the common belief that motherhood weakens competency and is an obstacle in a women’s career.
Iweta, thank you very much for a great dose of inspiration and female energy, as well as for honesty and personal experience!